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Being Barefoot: Helpful or Harmful?

Most of us have seen people training barefoot in the gym, or even in physical therapy at Made 2 Move, and wondered what the reason behind their barefootedness was. Did they forget their shoes? Are they trying to strengthen their feet? Some of us may have thought it was gross or silly. But our barefooted friends may be on to something.

Your feet have over 100 bones, tendons, and ligaments. You have 26 different bones, 20 different muscles, and 33 joints in your feet alone! (Cabral 2017). The feet are the starting point that allows the rest of our body to move optimally. If our feet provide a strong base, this strength translates up to the rest of the body. Dr. Dicharry, D.P.T. and director of the SPEED Performance Clinic and Motion Analysis Lab at University of Virginia, said it best, "Your feet are the first thing that hits the ground, and if they work, then things simply work well up the chain." We train every other part of our bodies but how often do you focus on training your feet, the starting point of almost every other movement?

Benefits of Being Barefoot

One of the greatest things barefoot training can help with is finding correct foot pressure in movements like the squat, lunge, and deadlift. The foot pressure should be in a tripod with the heel, ball of big toe, and ball of pinky toe exerting equal pressure during a squat. Yet, how many of us have been told to “drive the weight through the heels” when we squat? Here at Made 2 Move, we recognize that everyone’s squat is different and driving through the heels isn’t always the best cue.

If you find you’re having issues with finding the proper foot pressure during lifts, training barefoot may be advantageous as it will naturally cue your body into proper positioning.

  1. Balance and Foot Strength

Training barefoot or just walking around without highly cushioned shoes can help strengthen the 20 muscles and 33 different joints throughout the feet. You will naturally strengthen foot stabilizer muscles which helps with balance, an important biomotor ability that tends to decline as we age. Being barefoot also improves your proprioception, or awareness of your body’s positioning and movement. Improved proprioception can help you better understand your movement patterns and thus, improve your overall movement and lifts when you do have shoes on.

  1. Increases flexibility and mobility.

Doing exercises like pushups and lunges barefoot allows for full flexion of your toes that isn’t possible in shoes. It will also stretch the plantar tendon, providing relief for many of our Made 2 Move athletes that have stiff arches or plantars fasciitis.

  1. Mind-body connection.

Being barefoot forces you to be more focused, diligent, and mindful as you move. You have to think about the exercise more since you may be uncomfortable without shoes. Not to mention, you also have to be more focused, so that you don’t drop a weight on your toes.

  1. Increases confidence.

We are big believers in the power of movement confidence here at Made 2 Move! This is a quality we aim to build through movement in each of our patients, as having confidence helps a considerable amount through the injury recovery process. Through barefoot training, you will realize you don’t need fancy shoes to move well. You hold the ability to move well naturally, and it’s not a shoe’s job to be this for you. It’s just a matter of training the movement patterns!

So does this mean I should try my next workout barefoot?

With all the benefits of being barefoot and training barefoot, this does not mean that you should take off on your next workout without shoes as you normally would with shoes. Just as your feet need time to adjust to a new pair of shoes, your feet also need time to adjust to being barefoot, as they are used to the traditional support they’ve received in the form of shoes. You’ve likely trained in shoes for years, so it will take time for your body to adapt to being barefoot. You wouldn’t expect a high school football player to be able to throw the ball as far as a professional football player, just as you shouldn’t expect your feet to be able to support you lifting the same amount of weight or moving in the same exact way that you typically do with shoes on.

Take your shoes off and start with just doing your warm up barefoot. Start with body weight, and build to light weight as your feet get stronger. You could also do tempo reps barefoot. For example, tempo squats would look like 3-5 seconds on the way down and then come back up at normal speed. Training barefoot is all about proprioception and developing foot strength; it is not necessarily about hitting PR’s.

What if I can’t or don’t want to train barefoot?

If training barefoot isn’t feasible, or just is not something you wish to do, there are other options for strengthening your feet and gaining the advantages of being barefoot.

  • Take your shoes off whenever you are walking around at home. This is a great way to get barefoot steps in, without having to think about it too much. Plus, think about everywhere you step in your shoes and then think about how you’re tracking whatever is on the bottom of your shoes around your house. Yuck!

  • Choose a day in your week where you do a bodyweight, barefoot workout. Just go outside to a park and do some pushups, some lunges, some squats. Just move around barefoot. It will not only strengthen your feet but also help to break up the monotony of your typical workout routine.

  • Walk around barefoot, especially outside. Let’s be honest, how good does walking in the grass feel? Walking around barefoot is natural toe yoga. It will strengthen your feet and can help clear your mind as you are forced to focus on navigating uneven surfaces and avoiding sharp rocks.

Are you experiencing foot pain or trying to come back from another type of injury? Our Made 2 Move therapists recognize there is more to rehab than simply giving you a list of exercises and sending you on your way. We are constantly researching creative ways to strengthen the body, with barefootedness being one of our favorite means. Interested in learning more about barefoot training? Looking to rehab from an injury? Reach out to today to see a physical therapist at any of our 5 locations!


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