Part 4 in the barefoot vs. shoe series!
In the lifting community, Converses have been used for years due to their minimal support and minimal heel drop. It has recently become popular to lift barefoot as well. The arguments in favor of lifting barefoot include:
- Increased neurofeedback (feedback to your brain) which leads to improved stability and recruitment of the hip extensors.1, 3 In other words, it allows for a “better connection with the ground” to “activate muscles farther up the movement chain.”2,4
- Improved proprioception (body awareness) and foot muscle activation.2
- Improved strength (specifically of small muscles of the feet), balance, and ankle joint mobility which allow improved movement patterns including during squatting/deadlifting.2,3
- Reduced injury risk.2
…but the thing is that many of these are anecdotal and not supported by evidence, or at least not yet. The current research isn’t very high quality and is inconsistent in the findings. Some of the limitations include small sample sizes, using only men in some studies, and using mainly experienced lifters who are used to wearing shoes. All of these factors may impact the findings amongst the shoe wearing and barefoot conditions.
When looking at studies that compared barefoot and shoed deadlifting, I found:
- Shoes negatively impacted the rate of force development and peak force developed during an isometric hex bar deadlift (moderate effect size).2
- No increased peak force when barefoot vs. when wearing shoes in a conventional or sumo deadlift.1
- Increase in displacement of the bar when wearing shoes (think shoe height), which then resulted in increased work and time to perform the deadlifts (conventional and sumo).1
Overall, there is not enough research to make a definitive conclusion regarding if it is better deadlifting wearing shoes or barefoot.
When looking at studies that compared barefoot and shoed squatting, I found:
- Increased trunk flexion (chest angle) while barefoot vs. while wearing shoes.3
- Increased peak thigh angle (farther from parallel) and shank angle (more vertical shin) while barefoot vs while wearing shoes. This may be due to lack of dorsiflexion (ankle motion) in participants or due to the fact that barefoot squatting was an unfamiliar pattern.3
- Increased knee flexion (knee bend) angle while barefoot vs. while wearing shoes.3
- No difference in hip and ankle peak angles.3
- Greater resting activity and max voluntary contraction of pelvic floor muscles in a neutral ankle position and in ankle dorsiflexion.4 This would lead to improved activity of the muscles of the pelvic floor at the beginning of a squat when wearing shoes with no heel drop (difference between height of heel and height of toe) or while barefoot.4
For squatting, additional research is also needed for definitive conclusions.
Again, the overall quality and number of studies is limited at this time. The Sato et al study is from 2013 and referenced articles that were not up to date with squatting mechanics (ex. saying that knees over toes was incorrect). Additionally, they used lifters in their study that were not familiar with barefoot squatting. The Kannan et al, 2018 study was a meta analysis (higher quality study) that included women and although there was a 2021 meta analysis performed on the topic, it wasn’t included in this article due to access to the research. Although it is common, it is not normal, for women to have any kind of stress urinary incontinence (leaking) with exercises such as squatting, running, and jumping. A larger heel drop, such as one found in conventional shoes, may impact stress incontinence (leaking) during exercise. By using a barefoot or minimalistic style shoe, one reduces the range of the squat that one may be in ankle plantarflexion, thus improving pelvic floor muscle function, and possibly reducing the incidence of stress incontinence with squatting.
Based on the current evidence, one cannot make an overall recommendation at this time. Footwear conditions affect individuals differently, which may be dependent on foot/ankle mechanics and strength in addition to other factors.2 There is mixed research, so do what is most comfortable for you and what you feel best lifting in. Feel free to try barefoot (or minimalist style shoes if your gym requires shoes), running shoes, and/or lifting shoes. See what feels best based on the exercise you’re doing…don’t be afraid to be your own test subject!
If you’re looking for a good minimalist style shoe to wear in the gym, check out Vivobarefoot’s Primus Lite. It’s a classic style that has a wide toe box to allow for natural stability, as well as a thin and flexible sole which allows you to feel the ground. It also won the 2021 Men’s Health Sneaker Award in the weightlifting category. Code LAURAK will give you 10% off.
As you probably know, I personally prefer lifting barefoot. I truly believe it is because it’s what I’m used to after growing up as a gymnast. I feel more sturdy and am able to better react to the ground when lifting barefoot and hiking in minimalist style shoes vs. a traditional lifting or running shoe.
Let me know if you have any questions about the information that was shared in a comment below or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Citation of Sources:
1. Valenzuela et al. (2021). Footwear affects Conventional and Sumo Deadlift Performance. Sports (Basel, Switzerland), 9(2), 27. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports9020027.
2. Price et al. (2019). Comparison of Shod vs. Barefoot Effects on Output and Development of Force During an Isometric Hex Bar Deadlift. BSc Sports Rehabilitation with Strength and Conditioning. http://dx.doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.26079.41124
3. Sato et al. (2013). Comparison of Back Squat Kinematics between Barefoot and Shoe Conditions. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 8(3), 571–578. https://doi.org/10.1260/1747-95188.8.131.521
4. Kannan et al. (2018). Ankle positions potentially facilitating greater maximal contraction of pelvic floor muscles: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Disability and rehabilitation, 41(21), 2483–2491. https://doi.org/10.1080/09638288.2018.1468934
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Remember: this post is for informational purposes only and may not be the best fit for you and your personal situation. It shall not be construed as medical advice. The information and education provided here is not intended or implied to supplement or replace professional medical treatment, advice, and/or diagnosis. Always check with your own physician or medical professional before trying or implementing any information read here.