Barefoot training is a common suggestion for potentially preventing injury and improving strength and force production. However, many of these suggestions are based on logic rather than because of evidence.
While some studies suggest barefoot training can provide beneficial changes, other considerations must be made before tossing out your shoes.
In this article, we’ll dive into what some research says about training barefoot and how you can utilize this technique to your advantage.
Why Consider Barefoot Training?
Before jumping to what the science says about barefoot training, we first need to think about why barefoot training might be beneficial.
One consideration is that shoes inhibit our ability to accurately sense how our feet are interacting with the ground, which can increase the risk of injury. Many suggest that by training barefoot, you'll gain improved proprioception, or the awareness of your body in the space around you and also strengthen the muscles in the feet and ankle region, leading to enhanced stability and injury prevention.
Another primary argument in favor of barefoot exercise, particularly with resistance training, is that lifting without shoes will allow for better ground reaction force, or the ability to generate force against the ground more rapidly. It's thought that wearing shoes with soft soles alter how we transmit force and, thus, inhibit performance and progression in the gym.
However, while many of these suggestions are rooted in logic, it's essential to look at research studying these proposed benefits and determine if these suggestions hold credence or should be reconsidered.
Barefoot Training & Risk Of Injury
Even though many claim that barefoot running and exercise inherently prevent injury, there isn't a large body of evidence to suggest that’s the case. Fortunately, though, there are a few studies that have tested how exercising barefoot changes movement patterns, which might indicate a reduced risk of injury.
Comparing Pressure Between Running With Shoes Versus Barefoot
In one very short and small study, researchers analyzed two runners using 2D analysis while they ran on a treadmill. These participants ran twice for thirty seconds with the first run in shoes, and the second run barefoot.
During these runs, the researchers analyzed how pressure diffused through their feet and how running barefoot changed the amount of force experienced around joints such as the knee. Based on these measurements, the researchers extrapolated the potential for injury to occur as a result.
Schulte et al., 2019
They found that when the subjects were wearing shoes, the average pressure on their feet dispersed more evenly across the foot. Interestingly, when they were barefoot, the pressure was more localized towards the mid of the forefoot, traditionally known as the "ball" of the foot, and the heel (1).
Based on previous research, having more localized pressure in these areas of the foot has been related to an increased risk of stress injuries, suggesting that immediately switching to barefoot training could potentially increase the risk of developing pain or injury in the future (1, 2).
It must, however, be strongly noted that this study only tested two individuals for a very short amount of time. It's entirely possible that incorporating barefoot training sequentially over time would help avoid these injuries. Still, at the very least, this information shows us that barefoot exercise is not inherently a better choice the moment you start.
Barefoot Running May Prevent Some Injuries, But Not Others
A different study followed over 200 runners for one year with half being barefoot runners and half being runners wearing shoes. At the end of this period, the researchers observed the incidence of injury.
Interestingly, these researchers did find that when runners were barefoot, they experienced injuries more often in calf muscles than their shoed counterparts. However, it was noted that these barefoot runners displayed fewer injuries of the knee and hips (3)
This point is fascinating because in the previous study conducted by Shulte et al., their analysis reported an increase in forces around the knee and femur when wearing shoes, which could increase the risk of experiencing Patellofemoral (knee) Pain (1, 3).
These seemingly connected findings do suggest that running barefoot could reduce the potential of experiencing injury around the knee, which is indeed a significant consideration for many.
It is difficult to know if barefoot exercise and running must be used all of the time to limit this risk of injury or if occasionally incorporating it into a training routine could help shift running form towards reducing these injuries. Future, longer-term studies are needed to confirm, but at the very least, these findings are meaningful.
Barefoot Training Improves Ankle Stability
While some evidence does suggest that barefoot training might change how our feet and joints experience pressure, some studies have looked at how barefoot training can influence ankle stability, which can play a role in preventing injury, especially for sports that rely on footwork and agility (1, 2, 3).
Researchers out of Stellenbosch University in South Africa exposed experienced netball players to eight weeks of barefoot training and observed how it influenced their agility and overall ankle stability.
Netball is a sport performed on a court, which has many similarities to basketball, requiring fast directional changes, which indeed can increase the risk of ankle-specific injuries.
For eight weeks, half of the athletes completed training specific to netball while barefoot, while the other half completed the same drills wearing their regular training shoes.
After the eight-week testing period, the subjects were retested on measures like 10 and 20-meter sprint performance, agility testing, and single-leg balance ability. These measures were then compared against their pre-test scores as well as the control group.
According to the findings, the athletes that trained barefoot showed significant improvements in directional agility and also showed improvements in balance and stability compared to the control group (4).
Based on these findings, it does appear that regularly incorporating barefoot training that matches the needs of the intended sport would be beneficial, mainly if the sport relies heavily on ankle stability and the need to change directions rapidly (4).
Summary: Based on some studies, it seems that regularly incorporating barefoot running and training into one’s routine can potentially reduce the risk of developing knee injuries while improving ankle stability. However, there isn’t an abundance of long-term data on this topic, requiring additional research (1-4).
Barefoot Resistance Training & Its Effect On Force
Fortunately, there are a few studies explicitly observing the effect of lifting barefoot on the ability to generate force, particularly in exercises like the deadlift.
For example, in one study, ten male, resistance-trained participants took part in a protocol to observe the difference in the rate of force development during an isometric deadlift on a force plate when wearing shoes and when barefoot.
At first glance, it seems a bit strange that researchers would use an isometric deadlift, where the participant pulls against a load so heavy, they can't lift the weight. However, by doing so, researchers can observe a valid maximal rate of force development, without other variables like a lack of experience with the deadlift.
According to the results, when the subjects performed the deadlift barefoot, they displayed greater peak force and also had more rapid force development, suggesting that being barefoot provided an advantage (5).
One of the main issues to consider, however, is the shoe condition.
As noted in the study, the shoes worn during the shoe condition were soft-soled shoes, such as a typical running shoe. As far as shoes go, these would arguably be one of the worst choices for deadlifting, since the sole needs to be compressed, but can also shift during this compression (5).
Both scenarios could lead to a reduction in force development and how quickly that force is generated. These results don't necessarily show us if barefoot deadlifting would be superior to wearing more traditional, hard-soled, or thinner lifting shoes, which is an issue with the study design.
In a second study, other researchers tested trained males under similar conditions but tested them using different percentages of their one-repetition maximum. These participants completed reps at both 60% and 80% of the one-rep max while wearing shoes and while barefoot.
Similarly to the previous study, the findings suggest that deadlifting barefoot did lead to an improved rate of force development when compared to wearing shoes. However, the study did not show improvements in variables like peak power or peak force (6).
This study also had a design flaw in that they required all lifters to use an unassisted pronated grip, even though a majority of the subjects preferred an alternate grip. At 80% of their one-rep max, an inability to properly grip the bar could undoubtedly hurt their ability to complete the lift forcefully.
Regardless, the evidence here does suggest that training barefoot can potentially improve the ability to generate force rapidly (5, 6).
Summary: According to these studies, barefoot lifting might lead to an improvement in the rate of force development compared to wearing soft-soled shoes. However, we don't know if these differences would be maintained when comparing against more traditional lifting footwear.
Implications & Considerations For The Athlete
Based on the current evidence, it seems that training, running, and weightlifting barefoot can have its advantages and disadvantages when it comes to injury prevention and performance (1, 4, 5, 6).
In some studies, we see improvements in ankle stability, and in others, we see increases in the rate of force development. Additionally, some evidence does suggest that training barefoot can change how our joints experience pressure, which seems to prevent some injuries, but not others (1).
Ultimately, the limited evidence does suggest that training barefoot could have its place in your training, regardless of the sport or intention. However, this barefoot training should likely be implemented over time. Additionally, if you're an athlete, the type of exercise you do barefoot should match the needs of your sport.
What About Hard-Soled Lifting Shoes?
An issue with many of these studies is that the researchers compared barefoot training to wearing soft-soled shoes. We must consider if these differences would be meaningful had they compared being barefoot to more traditional training or weightlifting shoes that have thinner and more rigid soles.
It stands to reason that wearing very soft-cushioned shoes would be the wrong choice for generating maximum force since that cushion needs to be compressed and can shift how the foot interacts with the ground during that process (5).
Unfortunately, however, an experienced weightlifter would likely understand this concept and opt for a more appropriate training shoe that has a flatter and more rigid sole. The current research on this topic simply doesn't test the difference between more appropriate weightlifting shoes and training barefoot, which is a problem for assuming that training barefoot will always be better.
Will Any Improvement Translate To Events When Shoes Are Required?
Another consideration here is whether or not any of the proposed benefits of training barefoot will translate to improved performance during athletic events where shoes are required.
Just as with training techniques being specific to the demands of the sport the athlete participates in, it’s difficult to know if training barefoot will provide specific improvements when shoes are reintroduced.
Some evidence does suggest that training barefoot can lead to improved ankle movement and many people to report a better ability to react to changes in terrain, which could improve injury prevention and even agility (4).
However, these findings aren’t always consistent. Other studies that do show some benefit only manifest in a small percentage of participants. This information suggests that not everyone will respond positively to incorporating barefoot exercise, but some will (7).
It does, however, make sense that by training barefoot regularly, you'll activate specific muscles in the feet, ankle region, and lower leg regions differently than you would when wearing shoes. By doing so, you could potentially improve overall strength and possibly strengthen these muscles enough to prevent injury (4, 5).
How To Use Barefoot Training
Since some evidence does suggest that barefoot training can be beneficial, you might want to begin implementing the practice into your routine. However, you shouldn't just start maxing out the moment you take your shoes off.
Add Barefoot Training Over Time
If you’re looking to begin barefoot running or training, don’t just jump all in. Rather, try to incorporate barefoot exercise sequentially over time.
For example, if you run three times per week, start by doing one barefoot run per week while continuing to wear shoes for the other two. Then, add an additional barefoot run the following week.
Adding barefoot training over time will allow you to acclimate to the changes you’ll experience, reducing your risk of injury.
Start With Balance and Low-Load Exercises
Before you jump into squatting your one-rep max without shoes, I recommend that you start by spending a significant amount of time walking and balancing on your feet with no shoes. Doing so will help you create a better mind-muscle connection with the muscles and joints of your feet and how they act differently than when wearing shoes.
Once you get comfortable, begin incorporating some low-load resistance exercises, including those that involve balance, like a kettlebell single leg deadlift.
By using low-load exercises and those that require balance, you’ll begin to understand how your feet differently interact with the ground when you’re not wearing shoes. Additionally, since these exercises aren’t under heavy load, you can exit the lift with ease and a low risk of injury, should you lose balance.
Incorporate Compound Lifts With Low-Loads And Then Progress
In the same sense that you wouldn’t max out on the squat or the deadlift the first time you try the lift, you shouldn’t start your first barefoot squat or deadlift session with any significant amount of weight.
Even with shoes, the squat and deadlift are some of the more dangerous exercises that you can use. If you jump directly into lifting as much as possible under unfamiliar conditions like being barefoot, you could be asking for trouble.
Instead, familiarize yourself with how it feels to perform the movement without shoes, using light loads. Feel out how your movement patterns change, how your feet interact with the ground, and also be aware of the risks that are involved.
Once you feel confident that you have an understanding of how training barefoot differs from training with shoes, sequentially increase your training load to normal levels.
Be Cautious Of The Surface You Train On
One of the most critical factors in training safely while barefoot is being aware of the surface you train on. For example, if you squat or deadlift on a wooden platform, it's probably a bad idea to perform those lifts wearing only socks.
In addition to increased slip risk, having reduced friction could very well reduce your ability to generate efficient force. At that point, it doesn’t matter what science suggests about training without shoes.
When you begin barefoot training and do so with heavy compound lifts, ensure that you're on a surface that will allow you to remain safe and stable. Otherwise, your performance will decline, and your risk of injury will drastically increase.
Be Cautious Of Dropping Weights
It seems obvious to suggest that you should be careful when training in the gym with no shoes, but I strongly advise that you extra special attention to what you and others are doing around you.
Accidentally dropping a significant amount of weight on your feet without any protection could lead to a severe injury, and this risk should be considered.
Overall, it seems plausible that barefoot training is a useful technique, especially for athletes that require strong feet and high ankle stability. Additionally, it's likely that if barefoot training is added over time, it will help athletes avoid injuries around the ankle and knee (1, 2, 3, 4).
For weightlifting, it does appear that being barefoot can improve force development, which is beneficial. However, this conclusion is in comparison to soft-soled shoes. It’s not known if the same would be true when comparing lifting barefoot to more traditional weightlifting shoes (5, 6).
Ultimately, it's likely that barefoot training is simply another tool in the athlete's tool belt and can be used to improve ankle stability potentially, prevent some injuries and perhaps, lead to better strength and force development.
Schulte, N., Belen, S., Connor, S., & King, M. (2019). Comparing barefoot and shod running: 2D analysis, pressure treadmill analysis, and relation to risk of injury.
Hunt K, Wilcox-Fogel N, Trikha R, Tenforde A. Mechanical Risk Factors for Stress Fracture in Elite Runners. Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine. 2016;4(7).
Altman, A. R., & Davis, I. S. (2016). Prospective comparison of running injuries between shod and barefoot runners. Br J Sports Med, 50(8), 476-480.
de Villiers, J. E., & Venter, R. E. (2014). Barefoot training improved ankle stability and agility in netball players. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching, 9(3), 485-495.
Price, Todd & Davis, Ian & Rhodes, Jonathan. (2019). Comparison of shod vs. Barefoot effects on output and development of force during an isometric hex bar deadlift. 10.13140/RG.2.2.26079.41124.
Hammer, M. E., Meir, R. A., Whitting, J. W., & Crowley-McHattan, Z. J. (2018). Shod vs. Barefoot Effects on Force and Power Development During a Conventional Deadlift. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 32(6), 1525-1530.
Tam, N., Tucker, R., & Astephen Wilson, J. L. (2016). Individual responses to a barefoot running program: insight into risk of injury. The American journal of sports medicine, 44(3), 777-784.