Should You Be Working Out Barefoot?

by Christopher Ehlers

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday October 13, 2022

The trend of barefoot weight training has, like so many other buzzy fads, recently gained steam on TikTok, where the hashtag #barefoottraining has been viewed more than 2.1 million times. A good number of the hashtags feature people demonstrating their barefoot workout routines, and, along with them, claims about how good it is for you. Working out barefoot can, it seems, help with feet strengthening and improve balance. But is it really all it's cracked up to be?

In a recent New York Times article, Rachel Fairbank dug into this trend to find out if the benefits outweigh the risks. "When you go without a shoe, these muscles start working more, which ultimately give you a stronger and more adaptable foot," said Dr. Bruce Moseley, an orthopedic surgeon at Baylor College of Medicine.

The Times also reported that spending more time barefoot, in general, may increase our ability to sense where our feet are in space, as well as how they move, which can contribute to better balance by improving the feedback between the brain and the nerves in our ankles and feet. While research is still limited, barefoot weight training can help maintain stability while lifting, Dr. Moseley said.

However, contrary to many TikToks, there is no evidence that working out barefoot can enhance performance or help you lift more. "It's all anecdotal," said Kevin Valenzuela, an assistant professor of biomechanics at California State University Long Beach, who recently authored a study about the deadlifting performance of barefoot lifters versus those wearing shoes. The verdict? There was no significant difference between the show, although working out with shoes required a bit more work.

"When you wear any sort of a shoe, you are about an inch higher than you would be if you were barefoot," said Anna Swisher, a USA Weightlifting coach. "You've got an inch to move the bar." This extra inch may not make much of a difference for a single lift, but can add up over the course of a training cycle.

It's also worth noting that, if heavy lifting is your thing, proper shoes are essential, which often feature dense soles and wedged heels that encourage good form and reduce pressure on the lower back.

There are also some risks that experts say aren't so worth it, particularly since it can cause injury given that most people do not have the ankle strength with which to work out safely. Not only does it cause ankle wobbling, but it also causes the arches of the feet to collapse inward, which gradually leads to the knees and hips collapsing inward as well, which can eventually cause ankle, knee, or hip injuries. In addition, working out barefoot in a gym can spread infections such as athlete's foot or warts, and there is a much greater risk of stubbing your toes or dropping weights on your feet, which would be very, very bad.

So while there don't seem to be enough benefits to outweigh the risks, experts advise starting slow if it's something you want to experiment with regardless. Start with a reduced weight and a limited number of barefoot repetitions, which will allow the tissues in your feet to adapt. Any foot pain, however, is a sign of too much, too soon. But given the lack of real benefits, why bother?