Working out sans sneakers might be the key to better performance and bigger strength gains.

By By Mallory Creveling
Updated: April 02, 2019
Photo: South_agency/Getty Images

Scrolling through IG, it's likely you'll spot some of your favorite trainers lifting weights with no shoes on. While they might make it look effortlessly badass, the question is: Should you try this at home? According to trainers and even podiatrists, yes, you should add barefoot training into your workouts-and not just for yoga-inspired sequences.

Here's why working out without shoes is a smart idea, plus what to know before you embrace the bare floor.

Why Should You Consider Training Barefoot?

Feet have thousands of nerve endings that help you not only feel the floor but also send signals up the body to help you understand your movements better, says Emily Splichal, D.P.M., a functional podiatrist and founder of Naboso Technology, a company that makes products to promote barefoot movement. "When you stimulate the nerves of the foot, you get a better understanding of what you're standing on and how you're stepping, and it starts to shape your overall movement," says Splichal. Cushioned shoes block this floor-to-foot connection (especially those with extra support and stability like those you'd lace up for a run).

Biomechanically, working out with your bare feet on the ground also means you can better activate through your glutes and core. "Someone working out might not feel their glutes in a squat, and that's not necessarily because of weakness, but because they haven't established their foundation," says Splichal.

Try this drill from Steve Holiner (aka Coach Fury), a master instructor for the Russian Kettlebell Certification and owner of Fury Industries, a training facility in Brooklyn. Holiner does it with many of his clients to demonstrate the vital role your big toe alone plays in training: Without shoes on, stand with feet about hip-width apart. Lift your right arm out to the side and have a friend add pressure to it as you resist their push and keep your arm up and stable. Then, do the same exercise, but this time lift your left big toe. With just that little tweak, you'll realize it's extra hard to keep your arm up. It's a solid example for showing the importance of pressing down through the feet and toes for full-body stability and strength. (Also try testing your balance with these drills.)

"The big toe promotes proper forward propulsion," says Fury. "Whether running or lifting weights, the feet's connection to the ground provides feedback for better performance."

The Benefits of Barefoot Training

If you need a few compelling arguments for foregoing sneaks during your next sweat, you'll likely gain these benefits:

1. A better sense of your body in space

Going barefoot can help increase proprioception, the awareness of how your body moves in space. Imagine lifting weights or doing everyday tasks like writing or typing while wearing thick, padded gloves, says Fury. Hitting the right keys on your computer or being able to really grip a weight would probably prove tough, right? You can't quite feel what you're doing. While this is a little different than the way your feet function, there are similarities: "The sensory input your brain gets [from feeling your feet on the ground] provides proprioceptive feedback," he says. "Your brain will make a better connection to that movement," whether you're standing and lifting or stepping around.

An easy way to notice this increased proprioception comes with a cue you'll often hear in classes when you're doing a squat. Lots of fitness pros will tell you to "push through your feet" as you stand up from the bottom of the movement. Well, if you're barefoot and can actually feel the ground, this cue will be a little easier to execute, says Lacee Lazoff, a trainer at Performix House in New York City.

2. Stronger and more flexible feet

With barefoot training, you work the muscles in your feet as they fight to keep you upright and balanced, says Lazoff. "And strong feet mean a strong foundation in the body," she adds.

To build more foot strength try this drill from Lazoff: Standing barefoot, lift all your toes up off the floor. Then slowly place them back down, one at a time. Do this drill a few times per side as part of your regular workout.

This can be particularly helpful for runners. "The more mobile your feet, the better your stride," says Fury. If your feet aren't moving in a proper or full range of motion, it could throw off your stride and lead to a slew of other problems, from tight hips to knee issues. Start working from the ground up and you might see some improvements in your gait patterns. (Related: How to Determine Your Running Gait and Why It Matters)

3. More awareness of imbalances

Lazoff says one of the biggest things she's noticed since incorporating barefoot training into her routine is that she can better self-assess form and even recognize some weaker points in the body.

"For instance, in a squat, with shoes on, it might look and feel good-but without shoes, it might feel completely different. This allows you to assess what's going on with your hips, knees, or ankles," she says. You might notice, say, that you have stability or mobility issues in your ankles, and need to start incorporating more of those drills into your workouts. (See: How Weak Ankles and Poor Ankle Mobility Affect Your Workouts)

4. Increased stability overall

The more information you can get from your feet, the more stable your base and, often, the better your balance and posture overall, says Splichal. "Some people feel stronger because they can engage smaller muscles on the bottom of their feet," she says, reiterating that the stronger the feet, the stronger the core, glutes, and hips.

"Your brain registers strength and stability through the feet, as a point of safety and optimal connection to the world around you, so when you remove that connection, the brain thinks it lacks stability," explains Fury.

Is Barefoot Training Right for You and Your Workouts?

With all these benefits, there must be some drawbacks, right? According to all the experts, not really.

You can unlace for almost any workout, from kettlebells and barbells to bodyweight strength training and even some plyometric moves. "Just try to maintain a neutral foot position during any barefoot lift," says Splichal. "If you're doing anything dynamic or jumping, have that same awareness-be very mindful of landing technique because there's no shoe to protect you. That doesn't mean barefoot landing is dangerous, you just have to pay more attention to landing in that neutral position and not too hard."

If you're lifting super heavy-we're talking powerlifting, Olympic-style lifts, or an extra heavy set of CrossFit moves-then you'll likely want some shoes under your feet, says Splichal. When choosing the best strength training shoes, you'll want a stiff pair of kicks that offers a stable base is best (skip thick, bouncy running shoes). And you can always warm up with barefoot bodyweight moves or mobility drills to bring in that mind-mat connection before you start picking up heavy loads.

Of course, you probably don't want to go barefoot when you hit the road running. Lazoff suggests mixing up your shoes, though, so you can let your feet run free. Try a lighter, more minimalist pair for speed days and save supportive kicks for long runs.

No matter when you choose to skip shoes during a workout, it's always a good idea to spend five to 10 minutes post-workout rolling out your feet with a tennis ball or golf ball, suggests Splichal. You can even do this after a long day to give your feet some release and get them ready for the next barefoot workout.

What If You Can't Go Barefoot?

We get it: Some gyms and studios require sneakers and you just might want a layer under your foot for added hygiene in other spaces. (Ahem. Like these Icky Skin Infections You Can Catch at the Gym.) Obviously, you'll still gain strength and overall fitness benefits when you sweat wearing sneakers. (Hello, at-home workouts!)

Socks are also an option if you want a layer between your feet and the floor-you won't gain the same sensory benefits, says Splichal, but you can still feel the floor better than in big sneaks. (Fury suggests wearing a pair of Pedestal socks that offer a little extra grip.) And if you definitely need a sneaker for your lifting sessions, opt for a more minimal pair, aiming to avoid those with a heavy heel-to-toe drop, says Splichal.

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