Is It Really Safe to Lift Barefoot?


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Years ago, the idea that you could run barefoot, instead of in running shoes, shook the running community. (The ultimate result: The market exploded with expensive shoes meant to mimic barefoot running, met by a backlash of expensive shoes with as much cushioning and structure as possible.) A similar debate is now simmering in the strength training community with arguments that barefoot lifting is natural and good and better for us, and on the other hand, that recklessly barefoot lifters are courting injury and disease. Neither is entirely true, of course, so let’s dig into the pros and cons.

Will you gross people out by training barefoot?

Before we get into biomechanics, let’s talk etiquette. When and where is it acceptable to train barefoot around other people?

If you’re at a gym, you have to play by the gym’s rules. Many gyms don’t allow barefoot training. Do not try to argue the point; you won’t get anywhere. This TikTok shows a lifter arguing with gym staff that he doesn’t want to lift in his running shoes because it’s like “deadlifting on two cushions.” If that’s the situation at your gym, get a pair of shoes with a thin sole and a wide enough toe box that your feet can spread out comfortably. (There are tons of shoes out there meant to mimic the feeling of being barefoot.)

That said, socks by themselves are very traditional lifting footwear, and are allowed at most gyms. A great many world record deadlifts have been pulled in socks (like this one from Rhianon Lovelace) or in deadlift slippers, which are basically the same thing.

Are shoes more or less safe than training barefoot?

Both sides of this debate will bring up injury risk, and to be honest, neither has any scientific backing. There is no study establishing that barefoot lifting is safer, nor are there studies finding that it elevates injury rates. Most literature on barefoot training focuses on running, which doesn’t apply here.

Studies that look at multiple sports, like this one, also don’t apply neatly to lifting. For example, that review found that beach volleyball, which is played barefoot in sand, has fewer ankle sprains than volleyball played indoors with shoes. But most of the ankle sprains in volleyball occur when one player lands on another’s foot—not a typical issue in the weight room.

There is one place where pro-barefoot and pro-shoe lifters make the same argument: Both say that it’s safer to have your foot on a stable surface (either the ground, or a firm shoe, respectively) rather than on a cushy and unstable running shoe. While, again, we don’t have any significant amount of data on injuries caused by lifting in running shoes, it’s reasonable enough as a judgment call to avoid squishy shoes when training. This agrees with our previous advice to use weightlifting shoes, flat shoes, or socks when lifting—not sneakers.

What are the benefits of barefoot training?

Let’s look at why people prefer training barefoot. You’ll see this a lot in the “functional” fitness space, with some groups of kettlebell lifters, for example, advocating that going without shoes allows for more effective training.

One common observation is that going barefoot requires you to work to create a stable platform with your feet, rather than relying on the structure of your shoe to keep your feet stable. This takes practice and training to benefit: You need to develop a sense of where your weight is on the different parts of your feet, and you may need to build the small muscles in your feet and lower legs to be able to properly control the movement and position of your feet.

Now, why does it matter that you’re training your feet to provide this stability? Some trainers believe that it’s a good thing in itself; you have muscles, you might as well work them. Others argue that the result is that you can apply more force through the ground and potentially lift more weight.

That idea hasn’t held up very well to scientific testing, though: Here’s one study, for example, that found the force applied through the ground was the same with and without shoes. (I was disappointed to see they did the study with running shoes rather than any of the types of shoes recommended for lifting—but that would have further tilted the verdict in favor of barefoot lifting if the advantage were real.)

What does it feel like to lift barefoot?

So what is barefoot training like, in practice? I asked Emilio Joubert, a coach in New York City who holds an RKC II certification (the RKC being one of the organizations that promotes barefoot training). He says of barefoot training, “You can feel where you’re supposed to be in space. I notice when I’m wearing shoes I tend to skip the setup a bit and accept good enough. With barefoot lifting, I have to wiggle a lot to feel comfortable.”

In practice, he doesn’t steer clients toward barefoot lifting or to any particular type of shoe unless they have a problem that a shoe or that a barefoot approach might solve. The benefits, he says, are mainly subjective. “My general strength is pretty much exactly the same with shoes or without,” he says. “I just feel better going barefoot with moves like low bar squats, zerchers, and deadlifts.”

Why you might want to wear shoes when lifting

There are specific scenarios where shoes can help you to lift better. As we’ve discussed before, weightlifting shoes with a hard, raised heel—the kind worn by Olympic weightlifters—can help you to squat deeper or to maintain a more upright body position during squats, cleans, and snatches. That said, you can achieve a similar heel elevation during squats by standing on a slanted board. These boards are commonly available in gyms where people train barefoot—it’s just another way of solving the same problem. (I would not recommend attempting a dynamic movement like a snatch or clean on a slant board, since those moves require sudden, quick movements of the feet.)

Shoes can also make you feel safer when it comes to avoiding minor injuries like scrapes and toe-stubbing. A layer of canvas (or whatever high-tech material shoes are made of these days) isn’t going to prevent you from breaking a toe if you drop a weight plate on it, but it might make you feel better about the possibility. Personally, I would feel pretty iffy about doing Olympic lifts or heavy farmer’s carries barefoot, lest I drag a toe on the ground when taking one of those small, shuffling steps.

The most compelling reason to wear shoes, though, is just that the benefits of barefoot training are pretty minor, if they exist, so you don’t need to train barefoot. If you’re more comfortable in shoes, then so be it.

The bottom line

Ultimately, whether barefoot training makes sense depends on what kind of shoe you are comparing it to. If you’re deadlifting, you have to raise the bar an inch higher if you’re wearing heeled lifting shoes than if you’re barefoot. That would seem to be a win for the barefoot crowd, but you could also solve the problem by wearing a very thin, flat shoe instead (I deadlift in Chucks for this reason).

Similarly, if you’re squatting, a cushioned shoe may make it harder to keep your balance as you descend—but choosing a heeled lifting shoe or a thin-soled shoe would solve this problem. And, as we discussed, a heeled lifting shoe can help you to keep better positioning in squats if ankle mobility is an issue, but you can also solve that by squatting on a slant board.

Ultimately, most of the advantages of lifting in shoes and the advantages of going barefoot can be obtained either way. Neither is proven to make you more prone to injury or to be able to lift more. That brings it down to a personal, subjective decision. If you work with a coach, talk to them about the best footwear for you. And if you’re on your own, there’s no reason not to try out barefoot lifting if you’re curious about it.

“It’s worth trying,” Joubert says. “Not because of a magic effect, but you may just enjoy how it feels and feel more stable. If you do try it, you may find that your foot position is more comfortable in a different way than it is with shoes.”

Joubert also notes that he’s had clients lift successfully even in the dreaded running shoes—including one who pulled his first-ever 500 pound deadlift that way. “We grossly overestimate how important the shoes we wear are sometimes.”

   





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