When you go for a run, to the gym, or your favorite boutique fitness studio, a great pair of fitness footwear is essential. However, if you are exercising in the comfort of your own home, do you actually need to wear shoes? We asked a few trainers for the lowdown on shoeless workouts, and got all of the details about when you can skip sneakers and the other times you should be lacing up. Ahead, discover exactly what kinds of at-home workouts you should wear shoes for, plus when it's safe to skip them, according to certified trainers Andrew Slane and Ashley Joi.
Meet the Expert
Do You Need to Wear Shoes For At-Home Workouts?
Whether or not you need to wear shoes while exercising depends entirely on the workout. “Wearing shoes while training is not necessary, and going barefoot can actually be beneficial to your overall form and foot strength, depending on the workout you are doing at-home,” explains Slane. Lower impact workouts, including strength training, Pilates, barre, and yoga, don’t require shoes. However, running and other higher impact workouts definitely do—“unless you have already practiced barefoot training, with some sort of impact, to deal with the demands of those protocols,” he says.
Another factor that determines whether or not you need footwear has to do with the floor of your workout area. “Shock-absorbing floors, like a ‘sprung’ dance floor, grass, sand, and the like, are all safer options to go barefoot on, rather than a surface like concrete,” he says.
Joi points out that another factor can come into play: whether you need ankle or arch support. If you have a history of ankle injury or suffer from foot conditions, wearing sneakers with ample support should be a priority. You can consult with a physical therapist, podiatrist, or running shoe specialist to help you find the most appropriate footwear.
When It's Safe to Skip Shoes
There are several workouts where shoes are not required. In general, you can skip shoes for low-impact exercises, or exercises where going barefoot can improve your stability and form. It varies from person to person, but in general, you can skip shoes for the following workouts:
Pilates, Barre and Yoga
Because these three modalities are normally done on a shock-absorbing surface (a yoga mat) are all low-impact, and their protocols already call for barefoot participants, shoes are not required, per Slane. “All three allow, and even sometimes require, you to articulate through your foot, something that a shoe prevents you from doing. When you articulate, it strengthens the muscles in your foot and the structure of your foot, like your arches, your ankles and your toes,” he points out. “Articulating helps the ligaments and tendons in your foot remain active on all planes of motion on a regular basis and, in a sense, trains and strengthens them for your use in other exercises and your daily life.”
In contrast, a shoe puts the structure of your foot in a fixed-state, and limits the range of motion of your ligaments and tendons. Over time, this can lead to injury, especially with repetitive movements like running or cycling, if you aren’t also working the foot’s full potential. He suggests conceptualizing it like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. “If you think of him before he’s been oiled up–working in one plane of motion creates rigidity, and rigid things break.” In addition, these modalities require a lot of balance, and shoes would take the brunt of the “balancing” job if you were to use them.
“Although you might be shaky at first, going barefoot, your body learns to fight for stability and balance quicker, firing your neurons and making micro adjustments to improve your overall balance and stability. This will also lead to a stronger foundation, preventing injuries, such as sprained ankles, and later, can help cure misalignments and imbalances in the body,” he concludes.
The type of strength-training should determine your footwear. “I would say, ditch the shoes when doing lower-body strength exercises every once in a while,” he suggests. “Overall, this will strengthen all of the structures of your foot, allow you to have a better awareness of your exercise form and technique, and create a solid foundation that will not only prevent injuries in your foot structure, but it will prevent injuries further up the body that all may have started from the feet.”
He points out that going barefoot allows you to have better proprioception, so your feet can feel the floor better, allowing them to make better decisions on how to adjust form. “The reason for this is because your nerve endings are firing at a greater rate, which studies have shown, make your body work harder, leading to a higher calorie burn and better strength building. These specific studies have theorized that this happens more on all of the eccentric or lowering motions of exercises, so think, the 'lowering' of the squat, deadlift, or lunge during your favorite Stacked! or Tabata class you might take with me on Equinox+.”
Going shoeless will offer better proprioception (your ability to feel the ground with your foot), allowing you to have a stable base, and a solid foundation, which will help you increase the load you’re swinging, “so you’ll be able to lift a heavier weight,” Slane says.
During deadlifts, being barefoot can help improve stability, “because you are able to feel the floor more (proprioception) and since your heels are not elevated as they would be in a tennis shoe, it takes stress off of your knees from hinging forward because you are able to ground yourself more sucessfully,” Slane explains.
Squats are also a great shoeless workout, for a variety of reasons including improved stability, injury prevention, and improved squatting form, “due to the ability to dig your heels into the ground,” he points out. “Tennis shoes allow you to somewhat cheat the squat by elevating your heels and helping you deepen your range of motion/get lower. Squatting barefoot shows you what your true range of motion is in a squat, rather than relying on the performance design of the sneaker to help you.”
Lunging is also a great shoe-free move due to improved flexibility in the arches of the feet, improved calf muscles and achilles flexibility, and even will help you balance better “balance because of your ability to grip the ground with your toes like a monkey.”
Push-ups are another move you should consider ditching your shoes to execute, as it will help improve overall pushup form and performance by forcing the bare feet to grip the floor more effectively than with a shoe, “thereby helping you improve your high plank form by aligning your hips with the rest of your posterior chain, and allowing you to focus more on your upper body push,” Slne points out.
When You Should Definitely Wear Sneakers
In general, both of our experts agree that you should lace up with a supportive sneaker for higher impact workouts, which include (but aren't limited to) the following:
Don’t attempt to run without supportive footwear, as they not only protect your feet from various surfaces, but absorb shock, and can even improve your overall performance. “Tennis shoes were created to absorb impact and improve performance of takeoff, speed and lateral movements. While many may argue that the feet were created to help you travel long distances, at various speeds, and really grip the earth as you move forward, in our modern world, common running surfaces like concrete and gravel can seriously injure the structure of the foot and the rest of the body related to such injuries,” Slane explains.
If you do opt to run barefoot, he suggests starting off in a grassy field, or other shock absorbent surfaces, such as rubber, and start with light jogs to build your bone density and foot strength. However, because we are focusing on in-home workouts, if you are running it is likely on a treadmill—shoes definitely required
Jumping Exercises and Intense Lateral Movements
Slane explains that both jumping and lateral movements can be done in a studio with proper flooring without shoes. “After all, when you think of a professional dancer, these movements are very similar high impact movements that they would be going through barefoot,” he says. However, without proper foot strength already built, the “cons” of doing these movements barefoot do not outweigh the “pros,” because the probability of injury increases without proper shoes.
Spinning, Rowing, & Other Exercise Machines With Stirrups
Shoes need to be worn on a spin bike to protect your feet from the pedals, as well as to actually snap in to the pedals. While sneakers are acceptable, you might want to consider purchasing a pair of cycling shoes to improve performance. Shoes also need to be worn on a rowing machine, as they help keep feet secured in the stirrups.
There are a number of workouts where no shoes are required, including yoga, Pilates, and strength training type workouts. In fact, going shoeless may even help improve your performance. However, there are other at-home workouts where shoes are not optional, and neglecting to wear them could undermine your workout or even result in injury. If you aren’t sure whether you need footwear for a specific workout, it is best to consult a fitness professional.
Franklin S, Grey MJ, Heneghan N, Bowen L, Li FX. Barefoot Vs Common Footwear: A Systematic Review of the Kinematic, Kinetic and Muscle Activity Differences During Walking. Gait Posture. 2015;42(3):230-239. doi:10.1016/j.gaitpost.2015.05.019