Before the complex tools, before the projectile weapons and the wheels and the civilization, hominids stood upright and walked—and it made all the difference. Bipedalism freed up their hands to carry objects and manipulate the world around them and see for miles and miles across the horizon. They did all this atop bare feet that closely resembled our own; millions-year old hominid footprints from East Africa look almost identical to ones you’d see today at the beach. Not much has changed down there.
That’s the entire basis for the barefoot running movement. We were born barefoot, we spent the vast majority of our prehistory barefoot and history wearing the scantest of minimalist footwear. It’s only in the last hundred years or so that we began entombing our feet in restrictive leather and rubber carapaces that deform our foot structure and alter our gait and tissue loading. Running in bare feet or in shoes that mimic the barefoot experience can help us move and land the way nature intended, thereby increasing running efficiency and reducing injury risk. The science is sound.
I’ve spoken at length of the terrible effect all that sitting we do has on our body. By taking gravity out of the equation, chairs weaken glutes, slacken hamstrings, tighten calves, and deactivate our overall lower body. That’s not even mentioning the poor posture, reduced cognitive function, and impaired fat-burning capacity. Shoes are even worse. They’re like chairs for our feet, only we wear them all day.
That’s why I’ve always advocated breaking free of the shoe monopoly to go barefoot as much as possible.
Barefoot walking. Barefoot hiking. Barefoot running. Barefoot sprints. Barefoot gardening, trash-taking-outing, dancing, cleaning. All good, all beneficial.
And now I want you to try barefoot lifting. But first, I’m going to tell you why.
Are there benefits to barefoot lifting? Absolutely.
Are there things to watch out for? Yes.
First, let’s explore the potential benefits of lifting weights barefoot.
Better Connection to the Ground
The sole of a shoe is a barrier between you and the ground. A middleman, an interface. This isn’t a deal-breaker. Obviously, people lift in shoes all the time. Most people lift in shoes, so it’s definitely doable and effective enough. But if you’re in bare feet, you are directly connected to the ground, giving you a solid base from which to defy gravity. The soles of your feet have better “cling” than the soles of your shoes.
This effect becomes more apparent on natural, uneven surfaces to which the bare foot can “mold” itself much better than a shoe. Ultimately, the barefoot lifter is closer to the ground with a more stable base than the shod lifter.
And the more solid the foundation, the stronger the house. The same is true for a barefooted person lifting heavy things—once you’re acclimated, you’ll be more powerful and grounded than ever before. Preliminary research suggests this to be the case:1
10 experienced lifters deadlifted for 4 sets of 4 reps in both shod and unshod conditions. Although being barefoot made no difference when it came to some of the performance measures, barefoot lifting did improve the rate of force development. The difference wasn’t massive, but it was there. Barefoot lifters were able to develop more force more quickly than when they were wearing shoes, suggesting that there is a “disconnect” between the shod foot and the ground that must be surmounted before force can develop. Barefoot lifters didn’t have that disconnect; they were connected from the get-go.
Proprioception is bodily awareness in space and movement. It’s knowing where your limbs are in relation to the rest of the environment. Good proprioception means you have an intuitive sense of what your body is doing and where it is as you move through the world—where your feet are, where your arms are, where your head is in relation to that tree branch coming right at you. It allows you to respond more effectively to the environment.
Good proprioception is a prerequisite for being a good dancer, a good dodgeball player, a good fighter or boxer.
To create proprioception, your nervous system utilizes all the sensory organs. What you see, hear, smell, and feel—and think. Shoes cut off your proprioceptive interface with the ground. Going barefoot re-establishes that interface, giving your nervous system access to all the data streaming in through the hundreds of nerves located on the soles of your feet.
A shod foot is a single piece, just a big blunt slab of meat atop which you totter. You balance on the soles of your shoes. One linear surface.
A bare foot is a composite of separate muscles and nerves and bones and fascia. You can situate your weight over different sections of your foot much more easily. You can “choose” to focus on balancing on, say, the forefoot, the midfoot, the heels, the sides, the toes, or the whole foot. Balance when barefoot lifting becomes a symphony of constituents all working together—and apart if you so choose.
Barefoot lifting provides a much richer stimulus to your vestibular system.
Better Foot Health
The foot contains dozens of muscles, most of which lie dormant inside a shoe. They go slack, they get weak, they aren’t engaged. Lifting in a shoe is fine but you’re leaving a lot of potential on the table. Now, this isn’t about hypertrophy of the foot muscles. Don’t expect “gains” down there. But you can expect a stronger, more resilient foot that can handle long walks or even runs with regular barefoot lifting. You can also expect fewer foot problems, like plantar fasciitis, provided you ease into your barefoot lifting.
As you can see, barefoot lifting isn’t really about hitting new PRs or extracting more raw power and performance from your body—although there’s a good case to be made that better balance and a more stable base can improve your numbers. It’s more about the entire feel of the lifting experience. It becomes more organic. More real. More Primal. When you’re in bare feet lifting heavy things, you feel like a civilized savage human doing real work.
Convinced? Good. Let’s make sure we do it safely.
First, read this post on how to prepare for the barefoot transition. It has a bunch of drills and exercises you can do to get your feet ready to go unshod. Next, read the following section.
Barefoot Lifting Tips to Keep in Mind
Keep these in mind to stay safe and avoid overuse injuries, especially if you’re new to barefoot training.
The body is a piece. Every component matters. No muscle or joint is an island. Take the arches. If they collapse, is that all there is to it? Your arches collapse and everything else continues to work great?
Of course not.
Your arches collapse and your knee loses crucial support, caving inward. You get knee valgus, which throws off your hips and applies a ton of stress on your knee joint (at the wrong spots, no less). As you travel upstream of that collapsed arch, every joint is compromised. Every joint has to adjust for that initial deficit.
Ideally, your foot musculature forms the arch, is the arch. Most people, their shoes or their shoe inserts provide the arch support. If you’re inexperienced with barefoot movement and training, your arches might not be strong enough on their own to withstand heavy weights, and you shouldn’t take that support away and then expect to succeed with weights. If you are experienced, your arches can probably handle it. Mileage varies, then, depending on the state of your bare feet. Proceed with caution and avoid collapsed arches, especially under load.
Olympic weightlifters wear lifting shoes with pronounced, sturdy heels. This raises the heel, reducing the amount of true ankle flexibility you need to get proper depth when squatting. It makes deep squats easier and arguably safer for elite athletes.
Someone like Kelly Starrett with optimal ankle mobility can hit those depths while barefoot, but not everyone has his mobility. If you’re accustomed to lifting in lifting shoes, particularly during squats, the transition to squatting in bare feet will be jarring. Maybe even dangerous, if you use the same weight and attempt to hit the same depth with the same knee angle.
Drop the Weight
With running, big bulky running shoes can mask the damage being done and artificially inflate the number of miles you log past your “natural” capacity. You can go farther, but at what cost?
Strength training isn’t as dynamic as running. It’s also lower impact, so it’s not as risky an endeavor. But you may have to bite the bullet, swallow your ego, and lower the weight a bit when you’re first starting out lifting in bare feet.
Don’t expect to push the weight you were handling in shoes, not right away at least.
Don’t Drop the Weight on Your Feet
This isn’t unique to bare feet: a pair of gym shoes isn’t going to protect your feet from an 80 pound dumbbell in rapid descent. But the advice does grow more urgent when you aren’t wearing any shoes at all.
I don’t think I need to say this, but you never know. Don’t drop weights on your bare feet.
Barefoot lifting can pay big dividends and be incredibly satisfying, as long as you do it safely and intelligently. Hopefully after today, you know how to get started.
Do you lift barefoot? What’s your favorite part about barefoot lifting? What do you get out of it?
Let me know down below and thanks for reading!
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