Maximize weightlifting sessions by leaving your gym shoes at the door
Heading into your gym’s weight room barefoot might be a tad unusual. Some would say it’s unhygienic, but ditching your shoes altogether may be exactly what you need to boost your weightlifting sessions. Barefoot strength training isn’t exactly new, but it’s making a lot of fans among weightlifters, and for many good reasons.
For starters, weightlifting without shoes helps build strength and allows you to find your optimal firing position. Another reason lifters opt to go barefoot training is it gives them a more solid connection with the ground. Without shoes, there’s nothing that impedes their ability to feel how their feet grips the ground.
Having direct contact with the floor / ground means that every tiny nerve at the bottom of the feet is utilized, which is important for stability and control. Also, pushing through a solid surface with the heel instead of a cushioned sole increases force production when doing squat lifts or dead lifting a few hundred pounds off the floor.
Before we go further into the intricacies of weightlifting sans gym shoes, what exactly is barefoot training in general?
Barefoot Training? What’s the deal?
Overall, barefoot training has many benefits for balance, stability and coordination. It makes your central nervous system more active, activates your core and glutes which increases bodily awareness and balance. Most importantly, it strengthens your foot muscles and this in turn improves your back, hips, knees and ankles strength.
Simply put, barefoot training gives back your sensory component that helps your body know where it is, and how it should function on an optimal level. For athletes that constantly need to step up their game, barefoot training provide many benefits:
- Power boost - When deadlifting a few hundred pounds, power cleaning dumbbells or swinging kettlebells, you are lifting weight off the ground. You use your legs, core and back muscles to fight gravity and lift the weights. As you pull that load up, your feet push force onto the ground and act as your anchor.
While there’s nothing wrong with wearing gym shoes, the fact is that cushioned soles absorb some of the force you use to lift weights. By training barefoot, that force is fully used in the lift and provides more muscle support and power.
- Improves proprioception - Proprioception is an athlete’s ability to know where their body is, how it’s moving and how much power is used in every movement. By going barefoot, your feet and leg muscles can send signals to your brain faster which improves the ability to perform movements. This can help prevent workout-related injuries.
- Strengthens base - Moving around without shoes strengthens the connective tissue and muscles in your feet. This leads to improved stability and balance.
- Lift heavier weights - Going shoeless when doing hinge movements like a kettlebell swing or deadlift improves the way the feet grips the floor. This activates larger muscles in the legs and hips, allowing athletes to do heavier lifts.
So, what lifts can you do barefoot?
Generally, you can do dead lifts and squats barefoot. In fact, any movement that will make more use of your intrinsic foot muscles when lifting, is a good time to go shoe-less. However, there are exercises that require arch support and protection. Plyometric exercises like broad jumps and box jumps are best done with a pair of cross trainers because these movements put strain on your foot tendons and ligaments.
Apart from deadlifts, here are three other types of lifts you can do barefoot. We’ve added tips on how you can do them properly to minimize muscle soreness after workout.
Why do it barefoot: The improved grip gives more power from the swing as you drive both feet into the ground harder. Works pretty much the same way when you’re doing a squat or a dead lift.
How to do it right:
- Stand with your feet a little wider than your shoulder width.
- Hold the kettlebell (just one kettlebell, by the way) with both your hands.
- Relax your arms, let them hang naturally.
- Squeeze your glutes and core.
- Swing the kettlebell forward for momentum, then, maintaining a flat back, swing the kettlebell between your legs, making sure your torso follows suit.
- Keep your knees slightly to allow for this movement. Once the kettlebell passes your butt, forcefully hinge your hips and stand up so the kettlebell swings forward
- Remember to squeeze your glutes as you do this move.
- All that is 1 rep. Repeat for 40 seconds on and 20 seconds off, for 3 minutes.
Single Leg Dead Lifts
Why do it barefoot: This type of exercise is generally recommended to strengthen your legs. Doing it without shoes allows for optimal training of your foot muscles. In other words, you train your legs and feet to grip the ground more firmly thus improving balance and control.
How to do it right:
- Stand with your legs shoulder width apart, holding a kettlebell or dumbbell at your sides.
- Lift your foot one inch off the ground, keeping your core tight as you go.
- Keeping your back straight, hinge your hips and bend your torso forward, going lower until your chest is almost parallel to the floor.
- As you do this move, try to kick your left leg back. Pause, then slowly stand up, and that's 1 rep.
- Do 3 sets of these moves, 10 reps for each side.
Staggered Stance Overhead Press
Why do it barefoot: Improves metatarsals mobility. These are the long bones in your feet that connect to your toes. Stronger feet means better balance and mobility. It’s also a great workout to strengthen your core muscles.
How to do it right:
- Stand straight while holding a kettlebell in your right hand, chest level.
- Move your right foot backwards, leg length, so you end up standing on the ball of your right foot.
- Slightly bend your left knee, squeezing your glutes and core muscles.
- Push the kettlebell overhead slowly and lower it back to shoulder level, completing 1 rep.
- Repeat the same steps on your left side. You need to do 3 sets of 10 reps for every side.
Keep in mind that there’s nothing wrong with not wanting to lift weights barefoot, or even just wearing socks. To be honest, there is not much research done on the benefits of barefoot strength training. However, barefoot weightlifting when used in the right exercises and done correctly, does have benefits.
When is barefoot weightlifting a good idea? What are the risks?
First of all, let’s go over the reasons why podiatrists and athletes (lifters and runners especially) are singing praises about going shoeless.
Wearing shoes all the time can cause your feet to get weak - The main function of shoes is to provide support. This means your feet and leg muscles don’t have to work hard to keep the rest of your body stabilized. So your shoes do all the hard work.
Now, what’s wrong about that? Your feet are the foundation of your body. If you don’t use them for that function every day, the muscles become weak over time. Wearing shoes over long periods of time can contribute to muscle weakness. And if you’re lifting heavy weights in the gym, this can cause injuries and extreme muscle soreness.
Many lifters aren’t that concerned about strengthening their feet. They go barefoot to maximise weightlifting sessions. - A popular theory about barefoot weightlifting among athletes and trainers is that the feet are the foundation of the entire body. And because the feet have millions (if not billions) of nerves that connect to the nerves of the legs and the rest of the body, allowing the feet to do the work could - in theory - activate the extra muscle fibers in the body. This in turn allows the athlete to gain more muscle-building, calorie-burning benefits.
It’s just more comfortable - If you’ve ever shopped around for weightlifting shoes or even tried some on, the most expensive ones are designed quite similarly to your bare feet. Compared to cross trainers and running shoes, lifting shoes have a more rigid structure. This means that if you’re deadlifting, the sole of the shoes don’t absorb the force that you’re driving into the ground. What lifting shoes do is to keep you stable and grip the floor better.
So, whether you’re weightlifting barefoot or wearing a pair of $200 shoes, you’ll get the same benefits: stronger, better lifts. And for many athletes, going shoe less is just a lot more comfortable.
The next question is, how risky is it to do barefoot weightlifting? The answer is not very much, and we can explain why.
Avoiding injuries while weight lifting
Whether you decide to do it barefoot or not, there are many ways that you can injure yourself while lifting weights. You could experience a sudden pop in your shoulder or suddenly feel like someone just slapped you real hard across your legs. For some, it’s muscle overuse that causes the injury. Luckily, there are things you can do to reduce the risk of getting hurt during your lifting sessions.
- Use proper form always. Using proper lifting form is important if you want to avoid weight lifting injuries. Have a professional trainer or even a gym buddy check your lift every time.
Gym mirrors are there for a reason. Face the mirrors to make sure your knees are not bending beyond your ankles when you do squat lifts. If you are training with a friend, have them take photos or videos of you so you can catch any flaws in your technique and movements.
- Warm up. We don’t mean just doing a few seconds of stretching. We mean warm up properly. You need to raise your core temperature with some cardio for about ten minutes. Incorporate dynamic, low resistance exercises so you can prep your body for the stress you’re about to put it through.
- Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Lift the right amount of weights according to your strength level. Even olympic weightlifters built their strength slowly and steadily. Don’t be the guy who lifts twice as much weight as he should, and ends up on the sidelines with a serious injury.
- Stretch, stretch, stretch. You really need to stretch. Stretch before you start your lifting session, after your warm up. Stretch between lifts, to keep blood flow going into your muscles. Stretch after your session, to help loosen muscle tightness and prevent injuries.
- Don’t pack all your workout in one day. Don’t just do all your intense workout on the weekends or limit sessions once a week. Even if you have a busy weekday schedule, make time to go to the gym and lift weights for at least an hour, every other day. Make strength training a daily investment to your health if you can, not just a weekend thing.
Besides, if you spend 9 to 10 hours a day sitting at a desk all week long, your body won’ t perform as well in the gym as you think it should come the weekend. You’re most likely to pull your hamstring or pop your achilles because you just can’t build as much strength in a weekend, as you would with daily sessions.
- Take care of your body. Successful athletes understand that building strength should be done outside the gym, too. Get as much sleep and rest as you can. Stay hydrated and eat well. Nothing wrong with indulging on cheat days - think of that as a reward for your every milestone in the gym. Needless to say, looking after your health makes you less prone to sickness and injuries while lifting weights.
So does barefoot weightlifting make you stronger?
Lifting weights barefoot certainly helps build strength in your foot and leg muscles. With proper training and supervision, barefoot weightlifting can result in increased balance, control and bodily awareness, three things that are crucial in any competitive sport, not just weightlifting.
It’s clear that going shoeless helps increase bodily awareness, allowing you to get the most out of your weightlifting sessions. Barefoot weightlifting may not be for everyone but if you if you’re a fan, it won’t be long before you start to feel and see a stronger version of yourself.
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