There’s a lot to be said for lifting without shoes, or lifting barefoot. Many argue that going barefoot, in general, is the best option for overall foot health and we should strive for this as much as possible. By going barefoot, it re-trains us to rely on our foot musculature to support us rather than a shoe, which over time, may cause our feet to weaken due to under-use.
Of course, there is the rather large problem that in a lot of areas in our day to day lives (work for example) it’s socially unacceptable to go barefoot, and most people who prefer to free their feet are restricted to only doing so in their homes.
It is for these reasons that Vibram Five Fingers have become increasingly popular. They are about as close to going barefoot as one could get without actually doing it.
Many years ago I had the pleasure of chatting to a Gentleman who swore by Vibrams and he described them as “life-changing” in regards to his overall health. He claimed that within a couple of weeks of wearing them, they fixed decade long back issues, and overall he had never felt fitter.
Its a pretty bold statement but it does make sense, the more of our own musculature that we use, the stronger and more well equipped our bodies become to handling external stressors, which leads me nicely onto lifting without shoes!
The concept of lifting without shoes is nothing new, many people swear by it, mostly for the reasons mentioned above, and it’s not uncommon to walk into a gym and see people training whilst their shoes sit quietly in a corner.
Of course, in some gyms, there are rules preventing barefoot training, and its understandable given the hygiene concerns it brings.
I see many people get around this by training in their socks, and for me, this is the worst thing a Powerlifter can do, grip is nonexistent and the potential to slip is massive, which is a huge safety concern and the last thing we want is to get injured, so if you take anything from this article its; DON’T LIFT IN SOCKS!
General Pros & Cons of Barefoot Lifting
So what are the pros and cons of lifting without shoes? The main pros are of course that you’re relying solely (pun very much intended) on your own body to complete the lift, your feet are going to get stronger as a result and healthier overall.
Is this going to make a massive difference? It’s hard to say, but anything we can do to improve ourselves is always a good thing, no matter how big or small.
Another obvious pro is that we don’t need to spend money on Powerlifting or Weightlifting Shoes! If you’re familiar with the content on this website, you will know that I generally recommend a different shoe for each main lift, and this can be a costly investment so having an alternative that requires no financial outlay is always a good thing.
I would recommend everyone who pulls Conventional to give barefoot a go at least once, there’s very few negatives to speak of.
Cons are first and foremost, hygiene. Not so much a problem if you’re lucky enough to train in your own gym but for the majority who don’t have this luxury, barefoot training is simply not possible for this reason.
Another con is related to contact with the ground. The average foot is going to have three main points of contact; the heel, the balls of your foot, and the toes.
This means that, particularly with the Squat and Deadlift, all your weight plus the weight on the bar is going through these points.
For the Engineers out there, you will be familiar with the equation; Force divided by Area equals Stress. If we consider Force to be our own weight plus the weight on the bar and Area to be how much contact we have with the ground then we can see that a larger area equates to less stress overall.
This is one of the basic principles why a good Weightlifting Shoe usually has a wide, flat base. The more contact with the ground, the less stress we transfer to our bodies.
Of course, get the Stress right and this is what drives our feet to get stronger, but too much Stress and we open ourselves up to the increased risk of injury, its a fine balance.
So how does lifting without shoes affect each individual lift?
Squatting Without Shoes
The Squat is a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to lifting without shoes, there are things I like about it and things I don’t in pretty equal measure.
The first benefit is that we are in direct contact with the floor. Although a good Weightlifting Shoe will always have a pretty stiff sole, there will always be some flex or give, even if it’s tiny. The more we can do to reduce the number of layers we have to transfer our power through, the more gets reserved for the bar so power transfer is increased by going barefoot, there’s no potential for lost energy like through socks or shoes.
Grip is also a big pro. I can spread my toes out wide and screw them into the floor a lot better than I ever could in a shoe.
The one big downside for me with barefoot Squatting is simply that I miss the raised heel of a Weightlifting Shoe. My right ankle mobility just isn’t there due to an injury when I was younger, I’ve spent years working on improving it but no matter what I do, it just won’t catch up to my left ankle.
Because of this, I use a lot more of my back when squatting so a raised heel helps me transfer more to my quads, where I want it. If you have good ankle mobility though, or ordinarily Squat in flats, this may not be so much of an issue for you.
Incidentally, if you are unsure of the pros and cons of Squatting in flats and heels, feel free to check out my article on the subject.
Similarly, I don’t feel as stable when Squatting barefoot. This goes back to the point I made earlier about contact with the ground, there’s a lot less of it when barefoot and I just feel more susceptible to ankle roll or balance issues in general because of this.
I’ve certainly never lost my balance or anything like that so this could be more a mental thing, but sometimes the mental aspect can be the difference between a good lift and a bad lift.
Deadlifting Without Shoes
The Deadlift is probably where I feel lifting without shoes best lends itself to.
The first plus is that our range of motion is the smallest it is ever going to be. Sure, a good Deadlift Shoe is going to have an incredibly thin sole, but in Powerlifting, tiny differences can make all the difference.
Like the Squat, grip is very good. As a Sumo Deadlifter, barefoot works well, although I do find the direct contact with the ground here pretty uncomfortable as the lateral force pulls at my skin quite a bit.
Again, ankle roll and balance issues feel more likely, especially pulling Sumo where there’s a bit more reliance on that side to side or lateral stability.
In the Conventional Deadlift though, these issues are pretty much nonexistent. In fact, I would recommend everyone who pulls Conventional to give barefoot Deadlifting a go at least once, there are very few negatives to speak of.
If you’re not sure of the differences between both stances, I have written a Conventional vs Sumo Beginner’s Guide that may help.
Bench Press Without Shoes
I do prefer a Weightlifting Shoe here, mostly because I like to have the raised heel. If you are someone who Benches with your heel off the ground then this won’t be so much of an issue.
Incidentally, I tried Benching with my heels lifted both in shoes and barefoot and I did prefer the barefoot option. I feel I was able to create a wider base to push from as I could spread my toes out wide with none of the restrictions that a shoe typically brings.
Grip again wasn’t an issue.
So if you lift with your heel down, I would stick with a Weightlifting Shoe. If you lift with your heel up, it may be beneficial for you to try out the barefoot option.
Final Thoughts on Barefoot Lifting
Overall, lifting without shoes is a solid option, which has a lot of clear benefits over lifting with a shoe. I particularly like having that direct contact with the floor and the potential to improve my foot strength and health can’t be discounted, however, I do feel there is a safety aspect as stability isn’t quite the same as with an appropriately chosen Powerlifting Shoe for each lift.
My recommendation would be to warm up barefoot and once you reach your working sets, switch to your shoe of choice. This way, you will get the best of both worlds. You will encourage your feet to rely on their own musculature with minimal risk of injury and once you put your shoes on, they should be suitably primed and firing on all cylinders, whilst also benefiting from the stability and additional support a Powerlifting Shoe will bring.
Try it out and see how you get on!
And for those who lift in a commercial gym and can’t train barefoot, there’s always Vibrams!
If you want to try out barefoot lifting and have never tried it before, I would also recommend reading my article on Foot Strengthening Exercises, which will give you some great exercises that will help condition your feet for lifting without shoes.
If you’re still not convinced that lifting without shoes is right for you, I also have many articles on the most appropriate shoe choices for lifting, such as the Top 5 shoes for deadlifting.