Do you wear shoes Bro?
Look around any gym floor these days and you will notice a group of people training in bare feet. So is this just a bodybuilding fad inspired by Arnold Schwarzenegger or is there some sound science to back up this trend?
The trend in barefoot lifting has made its way onto the average gym floor via anecdotal evidence and advice from strength and conditioning coaches that lifting barefoot produces better results. The basis of this notion comes from two directions, one being that shoes with a soft sole will reduce the amount and rate of force production through the feet ultimately reducing force available for the lift or a similar but slightly different view that lifting barefoot produces superior force production than wearing shoes.
So, what does the research say (if anything) on whether there is an advantage to being barefoot or shoed in the gym? Researchers have examined metrics such as the rate of force development, maximum force development and even where the centre of pressure was during the lifting. Ultimately, from a research perspective there is no convincing evidence either way.
With no concrete evidence, the ultimate decision on whether or not to wear shoes when lifting is up to you. To help you decide, here are some thoughts from me in response to some of the common reasons that people have given me to justify barefoot lifting:
1. I can lift more
As noted above, there is some, but very limited evidence that lifting barefoot saw a slight increase in the rate of force development during a deadlift. If this is true, then perhaps you might be able to feel that there is slightly more power available at the start of your lift. My caveat on this however, is that power does not necessarily equal strength, and if we are talking about amount lifted then it is strength that matters, not power (if you want to know more on this, hit me up). I have also had people tell me that they prefer barefoot lifting as in shoes their heels are slightly raised (how much depends on the shoe) meaning that they have to pull the bar further to get it moving. I don’t argue with this logic but my response would simply be, “Get stronger”. If you are noticing 8-10mm (max) of heel lift then just keep training to get stronger and you will find the weight easier to move from the ground in no time.
2. It is better for my feet and ankles (aka, proprioception)
Proprioception is massively important and something that us physios spend a lot of time developing in our patients. But during a maximal static strength-based lift is not the time to be working on proprioception. If you want to work on balance and proprioception then spend time doing these drills properly (if you need help with this then hit me up).
3. I just feel better lifting in barefoot than in my shoes
This is where the type of shoe that you lift in matters. If you are trying to do squats and deadlifts in your heavily cushioned running shoes then it will not feel that great. My advice is to get a pair of flat soled shoes designed for lifting. There are a lot of options these days, check out shoes such as the Reebok Nano or Nike Metcon which are shoes that are a bit of an allrounder and can handle a bit of everything. If you are really serious, then you could look at a specific pair of weightlifting shoes (with a really firm sole) but keep in mind that these are no good for any running or movement-based workouts.
4. 1. Arnold Schwarzenegger did it so it must work
Arnie also used steroids!
My physio advice regarding barefoot lifting is that it is not necessary and probably not giving you the gains that you think. If you are a serious powerlifter, then train in the shoes you compete in. If you are just an average joe, invest in a good pair of flat soled shoes to wear on your heavier lifting days and use them. I have seen too many foot injuries from gym accidents where wearing shoes would have prevented it. Keep training and working in your strength rep scheme (approx. 5 or fewer reps) and you will get stronger regardless of whether you have shoes on or not.
As always, I am more than happy to help so if you need some honest advice and guidance with your training, then please reach out to me.