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Monday, October 24, 2011

Why you should lift weights barefoot

Go Barefoot to Get Stronger

Come with me if you want to lift!  Arnold Schwarzenegger is arguably the greatest bodybuilder of all time.  He trained barefoot.  And so should you.

Citizens, before I was a barefoot runner, I was actually a barefoot weight lifter.  And the funny thing is, it never seemed strange to me to take off my shoes.  Of course, when I went to the gym to lift weights I always wore shoes because they were required.  But in 2006, I shucked my membership to Lifetime for a basic Olympic weight set in my basement.  After that I always lifted weights barefoot.  Because who wears shoes in your own house?

The case for barefoot lifting: sound familiar?

Even though I never took off my shoes thinking it would benefit my lifts, doing so actually made sense to my weightlifter brain.  The concept of "less is more" isn't as foreign to weightlifting as it is to running.  Weightlifters have tons of products that can be used to increase your lifts.  There are knee wraps for squats.  Back straps and wrist wraps for deadlifting.  Just to name a few.

And anyone who knows anything about weight training will caution you not to use any of those tools too much.  They are a temporary solution, usually used when you're lifting your 1 rep maximum or in competition.  Using them doesn't allow the same kind of muscle recruitment as you would have if you didn't.  So if you rely on them too long you create gaps in your strength that could hurt you later, both in terms of injury and lack of future gains. 

Weightlifters know that when doing a particular lift, you're only as strong as your weakest body part.  You can't deadlift a 500lb weight if you can only grip a 300lb weight.  But in the case of the shod weightlifter, for many lifts their weakest link is actually their feet. 

The feet are the only point of contact with the ground for all the important lifts.  I'm talking all the Olympic lifts (clean and jerk, snatch), and all the big compound movements (bench press, squat, and deadlift).  In most of those lifts, they are also the first muscles recruited to complete the movement.  If they are atrophied and weak from being cooped up in shoes, they aren't doing anything to help you move the weight you're lifting.

I'm not saying you can't lift big in shoes.  I am saying that you can lift bigger barefoot.  Not just because you'll get bigger foot muscles.  In weightlifting a lot of your lifting success depends on proprioception, your body's awareness of where it is in space.  Just as is the case with running form, your feet have a large responsibility in telling your body the kind of form you are lifting with.  If you muffle that information with shoes, your body won't have as much information about where the weight you are lifting is in space.  As a result, it won't be as good at telling your body which muscles to recruit and when in order to complete the lift.  Again, your performance suffers.

Making the transition

So how do you start training barefoot?  Well...the method is going to sound pretty familiar.  That's because the concepts are the same as in barefoot running. 

First, you need to start lifting barefoot (or in minimal shoes if your gym doesn't allow barefoot).  Just as in the running context, there are going to be articles suggesting that you make the transition gradually by buying less and less supportive shoes.  They also suggest that you switch back and forth between shoes and barefoot.  In either case, there's no reason to do so.  You're only delaying your transition by continuing to artificially support your feet and muffle sensory feedback.  The best way to learn to lift barefoot is to lift barefoot.

And just as you need to start slow in the running context, you need to start lifting barefoot slowly.  Your feet muscles won't be used to being recruited for these lifts.  So you need to suck up your pride, and take weight some weight off your barbell. 

How much?  It depends on the exercise.  I would suggest cutting your weights at least in half for any exercise where your feet are doing any significant load bearing.  This includes any kind of squat, standing press, or deadlift.  Your feet won't be used to bearing that much weight without support, and you could easily strain a muscle or collapse your arch.  I'd suggest cutting even more weight off of any Olympic lifts.  Those lifts are even more dynamic, and involve your feet and ankles a lot for stability.  Too much weight and you'll end up with tendonitis or ankle sprains.

You also need to cut back your training and let your foot muscles heal between sessions.  Anyone who has done any amount of strength training knows that a hard workout or a new exercise can cause delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).  Now that the dogs are out of their cage, you can expect significant DOMS down there after a workout.  You need to respect that just as you would DOMS from any other body part. 

Shoes as tools?

I'm not anti-shoes in the running context.  Nor am I anti-shoes for weightlifting.  In either case, it just has to be the right shoe.  For running, it is the shoe that allows your foot to work naturally but provide protection from debris.  For weightlifting, usually your shoe choice should be the same.  Occasionally you're going to want foot protection, especially during more explosive exercises like box jumps. 

However, occasionally shoes can actually aid your weight lifting progress.  Behold the Oly Shoe! 

An Oly shoe generally has a wide, flat, wooden bottom which aids your stability.  It does not compress like traditional trainers, so that you're not lifting on top of a big marshmellow.  They also have a bit of a heel raise, which is intended to make it easier to get your knees in front of your toes to start your lift. 

Most of the features of an Oly Shoe won't help the barefoot weightlifter all that much.  We don't have to worry about heel compression.  But since they are wider and flatter than your foot they'll provide a bit more stability during your lifts.  I think they are a good tool in the same vein as a wrist or knee wrap.  You should use them occasionally as you want to push your limits.  But you shouldn't rely on them.

Final thoughts

One of the reasons I think I embraced barefoot running so readily was because I was a barefoot weightlifter first.  If you look around the internet for information on barefoot weight lifting, you'd be hard pressed to find an expert that doesn't support it.  It just makes sense.  Recruiting more muscles equals bigger lifts.  Stronger muscles equals bigger lifts.  Lifting on an unstable surface (i.e. cushioned trainers) is harder, and your gains suffer.

I just wonder if the sales pitch could be made for barefoot running with the same success.  Maybe barefoot running could learn a thing or two from the bodybuilding community!
Take off your shoes and go lift some weights citizens!  Cheers to getting ripped!


  1. Whenever I've lifted over the past 30 years or so, it's pretty much always been barefoot, so it's hard for me to see how any kind of shoe would be beneficial, especially for the Olympian kinds of lifts where balance and form are so crucial. But then again, I've never used wraps either. I think all those prosthetic devices can disguise bad form and thus led to injuries. Anyway, that's my two cents. Thanks for another great article. It leads one to wonder if there's any athletic activity that isn't best done barefoot.

  2. I've been working out barefoot for a year or so. I could go on and on, but here are few notes.

    Cons: top of foot pain, calf tenderness in the beginning (simply slow down). Those in my gym leer at me at times (I love it). Also box jumps can be tricky depending on what you jump on.

    Pros: Ability to lift more weights, yes, but it is more than that. Your balance is greatly increased for movements such as a 1 Leg Romanian Deadlift. Also your lower back works less to for good posture/form for Squats without a heel raise (better & safer for you).

  3. I lifted HEAVY back when I was in school. I was not a barefooter then by any means. Cross training shoes with orthotics, wrist straps (all the time), knee wraps (max squat days). What changed? Those wrist straps allowed me to lift heavier than my body was really ready for. One mistake in form on one fateful morning and BOOM, lighting and fire in my upper back and neck. I stopped lifting so heavy after that. Great post, fearless leader! I've been doing my lifting (which admittedly is limited) barefoot now too.

  4. I'm not at all interested in weight lifting, but this was a very interesting article.

  5. Those silly gym membership rules that say "shoes required". what about the pool, sauna, locker room, etc.? I use the gym to run high intensity intervals on the eliptical machine. When I am finished, I often walk out of the gym barefoot and get the evil glare from the "personal fitness coaches" (sales people.

    One time I should up with my blue jeans and no gym bag. The guy at the front desk did not want to let me in because 24 Hour Fitness does not allow people to work out in blue jeans because it may ruin the equipment!!! I assured him that I was prepared and did not give him a chance to argue or detain me. My Master lock was hidden in my pocket and I donned runner shorts under my jeans.

    I am going to push these guys a little more and do my sprints in barefeet.

  6. Excellent post. You talk about nice shoes. this shoes is best with this situation. But you must know about plantar fasciitis. Some footwear protect us from plantar fasciitis. so be careful about it. Thanks with this post.

  7. This is the first time I am reading this - thanks for sharing! I tried lightweight running shoes or those that "mimics" the feeling of being barefoot, will it do me any good?

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