Barefoot lifting is a somewhat controversial trend you might have spotted on social media or at the squat rack in your local gym.
Some swear that freeing their feet is the secret to hitting PBs and staying injury-free. Others feel that casting aside their trainers might be a step too far, preferring to stick with conventional kicks or weightlifting shoes for their strength sessions.
You might be wondering whether training au naturel is all it's made out to be. The ultimate low-cost performance hack, or an accident waiting to happen? Freeing and natural, or simply unhygienic?
The truth is that research into barefoot weightlifting isn't as extensive as we'd hope, so claims on either side are often overstated.
Nonetheless, using the available science and a splash of anecdotal evidence, we'll walk you through the potential benefits of lifting barefoot and the possible pitfalls.
We've delved into the performance implications, safety concerns, minimalistic footwear, lifting shoes vs. barefoot, and beyond.
We'll also share some simple steps you can take to transition to barefoot lifting safely if you decide to dip your toes in, with the aim of helping you put your best foot forward (bare or not).
And I promise to kick the foot-based puns from this point on...
WHAT IS BAREFOOT WEIGHTLIFTING?
We could think of barefoot lifting as an umbrella term that includes a few different training setups, most notably:
Fully Barefoot: Hitting the gym with your toes on show, bare soles connecting with the floor.
Socks, No Shoes: A middle ground, still allowing a greater sense of connection while offering a tad more comfort.
Minimalistic Footwear: Increasingly popular, minimalistic footwear aims to mimic the sensation of being barefoot, offering flexibility and a closer-to-the-ground feel.
So, why the buzz around barefoot training?
Advocates champion it as a return to basics and a more natural way to train. The rationale is that our ancestors were barefoot for millennia, and their feet were likely healthier for it . Indeed, studies suggest that modern footwear may be at least partly responsible for many foot-related ailments, such as bunions and fallen arches .
Barefoot training also has a historical basis, from ancient Olympic athletes who competed sans footwear (and bare-bodied, for that matter), to young Spartan trainees who toughened up their feet by training shoeless .
In more recent history, Arnold Schwarzenegger and other Golden Era bodybuilders were occasionally pictured training fully barefoot, adding to the idea that 'barefoot is better'.
But is that the case?
3 POTENTIAL BENEFITS OF LIFTING BAREFOOT
1. BAREFOOT LIFTING CAN STRENGTHEN YOUR FEET
The foot is an intricate structure made up of 26 bones, 30+ joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments, all working together to provide stability, balance, and mobility .
A popular pro-barefoot theory is that removing the support of conventional training shows forces the foot to do more work, resulting in strength gains.
It's not just your glutes, quads, and hamstrings firing during those dreaded split squats - the muscles in and around the foot may end up getting a tougher workout as they fight to stabilize your body from the ground up.
Studios do, in fact, suggest that simply transitioning to minimalistic, barefoot-style shoes for daily activities can lead to up to a 57% increase in foot strength and a 10.6% increase in foot size, which may aid healthy balance and gait .
It's not beyond the realm of possibility that weightlifting barefoot could lead to even greater foot gains, although more research is needed.
2. LIFTING BAREFOOT MAY IMPROVE PROPRIOCEPTION
Proprioception is our ability to detect and adjust our body position in space. It's not as captivating as other components of fitness, like strength and endurance. Still, we need proprioception to correctly execute skills and minimize injuries - whether that's in a weekend game of five-a-side or navigating a tricky mountain trail.
Our feet play a key role in proprioception, with thousands of receptors on the soles helping us maintain balance and posture.
Without the padding and structure of conventional shoes, many barefooters report feeling more grounded and in control when training unshod or in barefoot-style footwear. There's a sense of freedom when the toes are able to spread, and you can detect more subtle changes in the surface beneath you - particularly during compound movements like the deadlift or squat.
3. LIFTING BAREFOOT CAN CHANGE MUSCLE ACTIVATION
While there's currently no strong evidence supporting the idea that barefoot lifting increases performance in the gym, there are measurable differences in the movement patterns and muscles used when compared to training in shoes.
A 2018 study showed that muscle activation during barefoot drop jumps was significantly higher in the tibialis anterior and biceps femoris (hamstring) and lower in the rectus femoris (hip flexor) compared to those performed in shoes .
A 2021 study suggested that wearing shoes increased the workload required to complete a deadlift when compared to lifting barefoot (but no changes in performance were observed .
Another study observing the effects of shoe choice on power development in the deadlift showed a slight increase in the rate of forced development (the ability to apply force at a faster rate) when barefoot, but again, no significant impacts on performance were observed .
All in all, we can't make any strong conclusions as to whether barefoot is better or worse when it comes to lifting weights. All we know right now is that it's slightly different.
The caveat here is that the studies above did not look at people who habitually trained barefoot. They simply asked participants to perform the lifts with and without shoes. If we were to examine people who have adapted to training barefoot over a longer period, we may see different results.
THE POTENTIAL CONS OF BAREFOOT LIFTING
We know that lifting barefoot can potentially increase foot strength and proprioception and change our muscle recruitment patterns. But what about the potential drawbacks?
1. SAFETY HYGIENE CONCERNS
Many commercial gyms restrict barefoot lifting due to safety concerns. These include:
Reduced Grip: Training barefoot means less grip on slippery surfaces, which may increase your risk of taking an unexpected fall (particularly if you're already wobbling from a heavy leg day). This is also the case with any plyometric work like box or broad jumps.
Lack of Protection: Shoes may not offer much protection from dropping a heavy plate on your toes, but they can help defend against loose debris and sharp objects knocking about on the gym floor.
Hygiene: Commercial gyms are not necessarily the most hygienic places on the planet. Going completely barefoot may increase the risk of developing fungal and bacterial infections. Socks or barefoot-style shoes can remedy this.
2. MOBILITY RESTRICTIONS AND ALTERED FORM
Most conventional trainers and casual shoes have somewhat of an elevated heel. Over time, this can lead to changes in ankle mobility, with a reduction in dorsiflexion when compared to wearing flat, flexible shoes .
Because of this, if you make the switch to barefoot training, you may initially find it more difficult to get into a stable upright position during certain movement patterns that require decent ankle dorsiflexion, such as the squat family.
Compromised form is never ideal, so it's more important to be mindful of this and work on building your technique and improving ankle mobility exercises.
3. TOO MUCH TOO SOON
While some people instantly prefer the feeling of lifting barefoot, it's possible to overdo it. Jumping in with your usual tonnage may overload those small muscles in the foot and can be a recipe for injury.
This is sometimes seen in the running world when people transition from conventional running shoes into barefoot or minimalistic styles.
Your best bet is to take your time, ease in, and give your feet time to adapt to barefoot training.
This might mean going barefoot during your warmup or with single-leg exercises for a few weeks before testing the waters with your heavier lifts. Gradually build the volume at a sensible pace, backing off if you run into discomfort.
FOOT STRENGTHENING TIPS FOR BAREFOOT LIFTING
We know that simply walking and training barefoot can lead to changes in foot strength over time, but there are a few things you can do to support the transition. Aim to spend a minute on each exercise per foot, 3-5 times a week:
Placing the ball of your foot on an elevated surface and leaning forward will stretch out the gastrocnemius and help improve ankle dorsiflexion - often a limiting factor in squat depth.
TOP OF FOOT STRETCH
Rest the top of the toes on the ground and push the ankle forward to stretch out the top of the foot and the front of the ankle.
With a small mobility ball on the ground, press the sole of your foot into the ball and massage across the forefront, midfoot, and heel area. This can help release built-up tension and restore some sensitivity in the feet.
Practice standing on one leg on top of a folded-up towel, adding more folds, or closing your eyes for an extra challenge. This will help strengthen the feet and can be done throughout the day alongside mundane tasks like brushing your teeth or doing the dishes.
ARE BAREFOOT SHOES GOOD FOR LIFTING?
Barefoot or minimalistic shoes have become increasingly popular in recent years, aiming to mimic the feeling of training barefoot. They share a few similar characteristics:
A neutral heel, so there's zero drop between your heel and forefoot.
A wide toebox to allow your toes to flex, extend, and spread naturally.
A sole that's thin and flexible to increase ground feel.
A general makeup that's lightweight and less supportive.
Minimalist shoes may be a good middle ground where you gain some of the potential benefits of going fully barefoot (such as improved ground feel, foot strength, and natural foot movement) but with added protection and grip.
That being said, barefoot-style shoes may still not be suitable right away for people who struggle with a lack of ankle stability or range of motion. Again, easing in is important here. There are various intermediate shoes that offer a slightly reduced heel-to-toe drop, which you could experiment with before going to a fully flat shoe.
LIFTING SHOES VS. BAREFOOT TRAINING
Weightlifting shoes are used for a few main reasons:
One is to create a strong, stable platform that may be necessary for dealing with heavier loads and demands placed on the body when Olympic lifting. However, the research is not extensive here, with one study reporting no change in force production or muscle activation in the barbell back squat when comparing weightlifting shoes to barefoot lifting .
The other is to elevate the heel, artificially increasing the ankle's range of motion with the aim of helping you to squat deeper with a more comfortable, upright posture. Again, the research in this area is mixed, with some studies reporting improvements in vertical trunk positioning  but others noting little to no difference when compared to barefoot lifting .
Overall, there's not enough conclusive evidence to state one or the other is better. Again, it comes down to personal preference, and it doesn't have to be an either-or scenario. You may enjoy predominately training barefoot but feel the need to throw on some weightlifting shoes for heavier squats or Olympic lifts, there's no right or wrong answer.
That being said, if your goal is to compete at a high level in a sport like Olympic lifting, it may make sense to look at what other athletes in that field are doing (most, if not all, wear weightlifting shoes).
As with many things in the world of sports and athletic performance, advances in training practices typically come before the research, as opposed to vice versa. It may be that the benefits of weightlifting shoes are there but haven't been thoroughly researched yet.
THE VERDICT: IS BAREFOOT LIFTING SAFE OR EFFECTIVE?
The age old answer: it depends.
The available literature doesn't show a huge list of big benefits or glaring drawbacks when it comes to barefoot lifting and performance or injury risk, so it comes down to personal preference and common sense.
As a general rule of thumb, training barefoot or in socks may be best reversed for a home gym setting where you can control the environment and safety parameters.
When working out in a commercial gym or performing anything that's extremely explosive, minimalistic shoes, conventional trainers, or weightlifting shoes may be more suitable.
Ultimately, as with many things relating to your health and fitness, the important thing is to do what feels right for you. If you decide barefoot lifting is something you'd like to experiment with, take your time and listen to your body.