Lately, it seems like shoes have become optional for getting in a good workout. While we all remember the barefoot running craze from a few years back, a more recent spike in barefoot lifting has forced more and more gyms and weight rooms to develop “you at least have to wear socks” policies. On the flip side, most yoga, Pilates, and barre studios won’t even let you step foot into their classrooms unless you take off your shoes first.
So what’s barefoot training all about? And when is it a good idea to ditch your sneakers—and when is it just asking for an injury? We talked to sports medicine doctor, a kinesiologist (an expert in the science of body movement), and a podiatrist to find out. Here’s what they said about lifting, running, and taking classes barefoot.
Turns out, wearing shoes all day every day lets our feet slack off—and over time, they become weak.
There’s a reason podiatrists call shoes “foot coffins.” “When you’re wearing shoes, the muscles and connective tissues don’t have to work very hard to stabilize your body,” Gennady Kolodenker, D.P.M., a podiatrist with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in California, tells SELF. The shoes do much of the work for your feet, which more or less just chill out in your shoes.
What’s so bad about that? Well, your feet are designed to function as the foundation for your entire body. When you don’t use them in that way every day, they aren’t as good at doing this job and will need to be “retrained,” Alberta-based kinesiologist and medical exercise specialist Dean Somerset, C.S.C.S., tells SELF. He explains that it’s a lot like wearing a cast on your arm. Remove it after a few weeks of wear, and you’re bound to notice a drop in your bicep curls, triceps extensions, and even your ability to type and write. Now envision wearing that cast on your foot for a good 12 hours per day, 365 days per year. Exactly.
Somerset explains that, over time, shoe wear can contribute to weakness in structures including the arches, toes, and ankles, potentially increasing your risk for ankle injuries, shin splits, and even knee issues. After all, it’s all connected.
“I’m a huge believer in barefoot training just for the foot-strengthening and injury-prevention benefits alone,” NYC sports medicine physician Jordan Metzl, M.D., author of The Exercise Cure, tells SELF. “You can reduce your risk of so many exercise-related injuries simply by integrating some barefoot work into your exercise routine and training the muscles not just in your arms, legs, and core, but also in your feet.”
Most of the shoe-less people that you see squatting or deadlifting in the gym aren’t concerned with strengthening their feet, but rather with getting more total-body benefits out of every lift.
One theory about barefoot lifting relates to the nerves that run throughout your body and signal your muscles to fire. The hypothesis goes like this: Your feet are the foundation for your body and, since they are rich with nerve endings that connect to other nerves up your legs and throughout your entire body, putting your feet to work could theoretically “turn on” extra muscle fibers throughout your body to help you move more weight and reap better calorie-torching, muscle-building benefits.
However, so far, the evidence is limited. For instance, one study out of East Tennessee State University found that when squatting barefoot, lifters activate some leg muscles to a greater degree than when they squat with shoes; however, this was only during the exercise’s lowering phase. They didn’t activate any extra muscle fibers when rising up…