CNA/THE NEW YORK TIMES – About two years ago, Physical Therapist based in San Diego Claire Haeuptle was interested in strengthening the muscles and ligaments of her feet.
Dr Haeuptle, who played four years of collegiate basketball, has a history of knee injuries, including five surgeries.
“I’ve always rehabbed my knees but have tended to neglect my feet,” she said.
Dr Haeuptle decided to take up barefoot weight lifting, a strength training practice that involves lifting weights without shoes, or with very little support for one’s feet.
Scrolling through social media platforms like TikTok, where the hashtag #barefoottraining has been viewed around 1.8 million times, people show off barefoot deadlifts, curls and squats, while making a number of claims about the benefits.
The practice, according to its proponents, can strengthen your feet, improve your balance and help you lift more weight.
But, as with so many other fitness claims, the benefits come with a number of risks, including injury, if done incorrectly.
BAREFOOT WEIGHT LIFTING MAY HAVE REAL BENEFITS
Going barefoot – whether running, strength training or simply walking around – requires the muscles of the feet to work harder.
Some experts argue that this is especially true for smaller muscles that aren’t used as much when wearing shoes, such as the abductor hallucis, which spans the arch of your foot and controls the big toe, or the posterior tibialis, which supports the arch. “When you go without a shoe, these muscles start working more, which ultimately give you a stronger and more adaptable foot,” saidOrthopaedic surgeon at Baylor College of Medicine Dr Bruce Moseley.
Spending more time barefoot may also increase the ability to sense where your feet are in space, as well as how they move.
This greater body awareness, known as proprioception, can contribute to better balance by improving the feedback between the brain and the nerves in your ankles and feet.
Research focussed on barefoot weight training is limited, but it is possible that proprioception can help you maintain stability while lifting, Dr Moseley said.
IT WON’T NECESSARILY HELP YOU LIFT MORE
Barefoot weight training may encourage increased foot strength, balance and stability, but there’s no clear evidence it can drastically enhance your performance or help you lift more.
“It’s all anecdotal,” said Assistant Professor of Biomechanics at California State University Long Beach Kevin Valenzuela, who was an author of a recent study exploring the effect of footwear on deadlifting performance.
In the study, published in the journal Sports, Dr Valenzuela and his colleagues looked at the deadlifting performance among barefoot lifters and those wearing shoes.
They found no significant difference in performance between the two, although deadlifting with shoes required a little bit more work.
“When you wear any sort of a shoe, you are about an inch higher than you would be if you were barefoot,” said USA Weightlifting coach Anna Swisher.
“You’ve got an inch more to move the bar.” This extra inch may not make much of a difference for a single lift but can add up over the course of a training cycle.
HEAVY LIFTS REQUIRE DEDICATED LIFTING SHOES
Lifting a percentage of your body weight won’t place too much of a strain on your foot, but when lifting significantly more than you weigh, proper shoes become essential, as this puts a greater load on the foot than it is capable of handling, said Podiatrist and author of the book Barefoot Strong: Unlock the Secrets to Movement Longevity Dr Emily Splichal.
As Dr Splichal notes, many lifters will do warm-ups and lighter lifts barefoot, and then, as they push higher, put on weight lifting shoes.
Most dedicated weight lifting shoes have hard, dense, incompressible soles. “It’s easier to balance and it’s much more stable,” said weight lifting coach and author of the book Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training Mark Rippetoe.
Lifting shoes also feature wedged heels that tilt the foot forward, and, in Dr Swisher’s experience, the stability they provide can you help maintain good form, which is especially critical during weighted squats.
“Having that extra lift in the heel helps keep your torso more upright, which helps keep the centre of mass of the barbell more in line with your centre of mass,” Dr Swisher said. This reduces the amount of pressure placed on your lower back, which can help prevent injury.
Some shoes, however, are really not appropriate for weight lifting. Rippetoe often sees people lifting in running shoes, rather than dedicated lifting shoes. “Doing squats in running shoes is like doing squats on a mattress,” said Rippetoe. “Every rep will be different.” This makes it hard to maintain good form, which can also lead to injury.
EVEN DURING LIGHTER LIFTS, THERE ARE RISKS
Although barefoot weight lifting can offer benefits, all of the experts, including Dr Haeuptle, warned there are a number of risks, including the potential for injury, if not done properly.
One major problem with barefoot weight lifting is that “some people don’t have the ankle stability to do it well”, Dr Valenzuela said. If a person with weak ankles starts weight lifting barefoot, this can lead to the ankles wobbling.
This ankle wobbling can cause the arches of the feet to collapse inward, which gradually leads to the knees and hips collapsing inward as well. “That inward rolling motion is usually not a great thing for the joints and the tissues within the joints,” Dr Valenzuela said.
Over time, this can lead to ankle, knee or hip injuries. “What happens at the ankle affects what happens at the knee, which affects the hip,” Dr Valenzuela said.
If you are thinking about taking up barefoot weight lifting, be extra mindful about the stability of your ankles, which might mean doing ankle strengthening exercises before you begin. Until then, it’s best to wear lifting shoes, as they will provide additional ankle support.
Barefoot lifting also comes with a few additional warnings. The first concern is that going barefoot in a gym can spread infectious diseases, such as athlete’s foot or warts. “Athlete’s foot, once it gets in a locker room or training environment, can run rampant,” Dr Moseley said. If you’re concerned, there are barefoot-style training shoes you can wear.
The other risk is foot injuries. Although shoes won’t do much if you drop a 45-pound weight, they may offer some protection against a lighter weight or a stubbed toe.
TO AVOID OVERUSE INJURIES, START GRADUALLY
Lifting too much too soon can lead to overuse injuries, such as stress fractures or heel pain. But starting with a reduced weight and a limited number of barefoot repetitions will “gradually apply the stress to these tissues”, Dr Moseley said, which lets the tissues of your feet adapt.
If a person starts developing foot pain, or their form suffers, that’s a sign they are lifting too much, too quickly, and should stop.
Dr Haeuptle started gradually, taking a full year to progress from a few barefoot reps during a workout to doing the majority of her lifts without shoes. Barefoot weight lifting “gives me a better sense of the ground”, she said.