In case you have somehow missed the recent epidemic that’s been sweeping the world, whereby otherwise normal people have been casting off their Nike trainers to go running in minimalist shoes; or the more main stay advice to squat in Converse all-stars: good news, you are about to get schooled.
For those of you who think this is old news, I lay down this challenge: Do you know why people are doing this? I mean, really know: Could you explain it to your mother? By the end of this article, you’ll be capable of waxing lyrical on the exciting topic of training footwear with the best of ‘em.
So, without further ado, here are my thoughts on why barefoot or flat-soled shoes are a good idea when lifting weights:
Reason #1: Stability
Foot position and stability have a huge impact on your ability to shift weights in closed kinetic chain leg movements (anything where your feet are on the ground.)
A stable base increases ground reaction force (GRF), or how effectively you can “push down” into the floor and generate an equal and opposite reactionary force (pro tip: this is why good weightlifting coaches provide the mental cue to “push down with your feet through the floor” rather than try to raise the barbell). Think how much harder it is to jump when standing on one leg, or on a bouncy castle – running shoes aren’t quite as bad as the latter, but all the cushioning means you’re not stood on a solid surface. This can also mess with proprioception (body awareness) and put your ankles at serious risk. Two more excellent reasons squatting on a Bosu sucks.
A chiropractor’s nightmare.
Reason #2: The Central Nervous System
This one might take a bit longer. In a future article, provisionally titled “Grip strength, the nervous system and the somatosensory cortex” (really engaging title there Chris, good job), I’ll discuss the importance dominance of the nervous system when handling heavy loads, and how this can be manipulated to provide instant strength increases. Any readers familiar with Power to the People! or The Naked Warrior will be familiar with the trick of clenching your fists or squeezing a barbell when exercising for pre-loading tension & increasing motor recruitment.
Pavel Tsatsouline demonstrates this technique in The Naked Warrior by asking the reader to make a fist; then clench it harder, and harder still, and note how the upper arms, shoulder, lats and abs are recruited to support the fist.
What this means? High muscular tension in a specific area has a carryover effect to the surrounding muscles as a built-in safety feature (remember my previous post on progressive overload? the nervous system’s main concern is keeping you safe!)
The same principle can be applied to your feet: squeeze the floor! Imagine trying to curl your toes under the ball of the foot – this is much like gripping the floor with your fingers when doing push-ups (another pro tip).
Try the same exercise above, but with your foot (or both feet): Stand in a stable position (barefoot), and squeeze your toes as described above; now do it harder, and harder still, until the entire leg shivering with tension to support the tension in the foot.
If you’re still not convinced, try the exercise backwards: get in that stable position, and tense your upper legs; now harder, and harder still. If you haven’t clued-in yet and are not pushing your foot into the ground (see reason #1, something Pavel describes as a “static stomp”) and gripping with your toes, do so now. Notice how your upper leg contracts even harder.
Reason #3: Proprioception, or body awareness
In short, proprioception is the ability to sense the position, location, orientation and movement of the body and its parts. I shaln’t go into too much detail here, but recommend you click here and here to get yourself clued up.
In short, by being barefoot, you will receive better tactile feedback from the floor – and so it’s easier to balance or adjust. With increased sturdiness, you may even find that you’re able to increase the resistance.
Reason #4: Eliminate heel-drop
Going barefoot will also eliminate any heel elevation you may get from footwear. Although this is most commonly associated with barefoot running and the long-term issues for the joints (particularly the knees) of ‘heel striking’, from a strength perspective, eliminating heel-drop will force you to push with your heels, resulting in:
- The enforcement proper technique – as discussed in a previous post, conditioning motor patterns is key to effective exercise. To take the example of a squat, eliminating heel drop forces you to sit-back more into the movement (unless you have freak ankle flexibility), which reduces stress on the lumbar spine and reduces risk of knee valgus (wobbly-knee syndrome).
- Increased ankle strength and mobility – stronger ankles means more stable ankles. Refer to reason #1 for the why stability makes you squat more.
So which footwear is best?
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll be unsurprised that if possible, I believe the best footwear is none at all. However, as most gyms won’t let you walk around barefoot for Health & Safety reasons (as if your trainers are going to help if you drop a plate on your foot or something), here are some alternatives:
- Barefoot or Minimalist shoes – I’ll be the first to say, I do 95% of my training in Vibrams. These are as close as you get to going naked, and have the benefit of providing a grippy-sole to help keep you put (especially pertinent for wide-stance squatting). Be warned, they’re a bit of a pain to size correctly; for UK buyers, I recommend checking out this link.
- Converse all-stars – while still a solid choice, I would only pick these over Vibrams if I were a real cheapskate: they do eliminate the heel-drop, and provide good stability, but you don’t receive many of the proprioceptive benefits you get with Vibrams.
- Socks – Bad idea. These things can slip, and that is not a pretty picture when it happens. Take it from someone who’s had a near-miss or two before.
So for me, it’s Vibrams all the way. But do be sure to bring a pair of boots or trainers for the small pool of exercises they aren’t suitable for: heavy farmer’s walks, which are a staple round-off to my workouts, hurt your feet like hell if you don’t have some cushion!
As always, the information in this article is non-exhaustive, and I still very much consider myself a student rather than a teacher; and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this or any other topic!
Thanks for reading,