Why do we train barefoot?

Why train barefoot?

Quick summary:

  • Training without shoes helps our instructors to better see everything that your body is doing so that we can provide more effective coaching feedback while you train.
  • Barefoot training helps to improve joint-by-joint movement quality for safer training and a stronger, more resilient body.

Yes, at Barefoot we really do train without shoes. Obviously, a lack of footwear is only one small piece of the overall picture, but our gyms are outfitted with dense MMA mats, and the majority of the workouts we do take place barefoot on those mats.

You might be wondering – “Why train barefoot?”


Our training philosophy centers on a handful of principles.

Quality comes before quantity. Before you do an exercise a lot, it’s critical that you do it well. We master a movement pattern first, and then we apply stress to it. Once we apply stress, we do it with well-practiced exercises that keep the risk of injury low while allowing you to truly push the limits of your strength and work capacity.

In most gyms, you’re limited by trauma risk. If you go any harder, you’ll blow a shoulder, tear a ligament or pull a muscle.

At Barefoot, because we control quality and follow a stress inoculation process, you’re limited only by how hard you can push yourself metabolically. You slow down because you’re too tired to keep going, not because you’re about to snap an ACL.

This means that as much as you’re changing your physiology, you’re also changing how you think about your abilities. The adaptations are mental as well as physical. An average female client in one of our gyms can do multiple slow, controlled, bodyweight pull-ups, because here, it’s normal. The way we think about strength is different.

We prefer skill over ornamentation.

Progression over novelty.

Resilience over randomness.

You can see this demonstrated at this year’s Tactical Strength Challenge.

The competition is a max-effort deadlift, as many kettlebell snatches as possible in 5 minutes, and a max-rep set of pull-ups.

Abby, at a bodyweight of 123 pounds, pulled a 295-pound deadlift, did 14 straight pull-ups (no, we don’t do kipping) and 142 snatches with a 12kg bell in five minutes.

Luke, at 187 pounds, pulled a 485 deadlift and knocked out 25 pull-ups and 133 snatches with a 24kg bell.

Elliot, weighing 184 pounds, pulled a 425 deadlift, 27 straight pull-ups and 122 snatches with 24 kilos.

If you scroll through the rankings, you’ll see another dozen or so Barefoot members with similarly impressive showings.

Another of the principles underlying our philosophy is that humans are more important than hardware.

This emphasis on movement quality and training as skill development would be impossible without a knowledgeable instructor guiding every workout.

Without an instructor, the gym is just a room full of pull-up bars and kettlebells. The equipment matters far less than what the instructor helps you do with it.

The rapid feedback loops provided by this coach make it possible to develop physical skill rapidly, safely and reliably.

This means that a good instructor is constantly observing your movement, providing feedback and helping you apply the right amount of stress to a high-quality pattern.

One of the things that we watch while doing this is your feet.

By training barefoot, we have a quick, reliable indicator of how weight and force is being distributed in your body. Subtle shifts in the position of your arches and ankles or the way weight is being balanced through your heels and forefoot give us a lot of critical information that helps us to constantly reinforce quality.

Beyond improving coaching feedback, there are a number of biomechanical advantages to training without shoes.

(A quick caveat: Not everyone should train without shoes. If you’ve got certain foot issues, you may be better off training in a supportive shoe, preferably with an insole custom-made by an expert in biomechanics. This happens occasionally, and we let people train with shoes as long as they keep them clean when they’re on the mats)

A lot of athletic footwear has heavy cushioning, a lot of heel elevation, and is overly restrictive in a way that prevents your toes from spreading and gripping the ground as they’re meant to. Research has actually found the more expensive your shoes are (which means that they probably have all kind of extra features cushioning), the more likely you are to be injured while wearing them.

An elevated heel can be especially problematic by altering the way joints such as your ankles, knees, hips and spine function.

This pattern tends to increase lower back and knee tension and makes it more difficult to keep your pelvis and lumbar spine in a neutral position. You trade hip extension for lower back extension.

The loss of ankle mobility will alter your gait mechanics and limit your ability to squat well without lifted heels. You may find yourself turning your toes outward in a squat in order to compensate for a lack of ankle movement. When you can’t squat with your heels solidly rooted to the ground, you lose hip strength and increase stress on your lower back and knees.

Interestingly, padded shoes do not reduce impact force on your body. In fact, they can increase it. Your body is incredibly complex and built to work with countless feedback loops. One of those feedback loops comes from sensation delivered via the 200,000 sensory nerves in your feet. When that feedback is blunted, you can lose some of your ability to properly absorb impact.

Your own bodyweight is multiplied by as much as 12 times simply by the forces applied by running. While a layer of rubber under your feet is great for protection from pointy rocks, it’s not doing to do much to absorb the impact of your entire body multiplied many times over. That’s what your joints, muscles and connective tissue are for.

In a 1997 study, researchers Steven Robbins and Edward Waked at McGill University in Montreal found that the more padding a running shoe has, the more force the runner hits the ground with: In effect, we instinctively plant our feet harder to cancel out the shock absorption of the padding. (The study found the same thing holds true when gymnasts land on soft mats—they actually land harder.) We do this because we need to feel the ground in order to feel balanced. And barefoot, we can feel the ground—and we can naturally absorb the impact of each step with our bodies. “Whereas humans wearing shoes underestimate plantar loads,” the study concluded, “when barefoot they sense it precisely.”

This loss of sensory feedback alongside altered joint mechanics can also directly influence your gait pattern, or the way your body moves when you walk and run.

With padded shoes and an elevated heel, you tend to take longer strides and strike your heel first. Without shoes, you’ll take shorter strides designed to absorb impact force and land with a more balanced, mid-foot strike.

Now, this does not mean that if you’ve been running around in squishy high-heeled shoes for your entire life that you should take off for a 5-mile run on pavement in minimalist shoes. It takes a long time to alter your whole-body joint mechanics and gait pattern, and it takes a long time to change it back.

If you were to jump into barefoot or minimalist running right away you’d likely be at an increased risk for injury because you’d still have the movement patterns that you developed for padded shoes, but without the protective footwear that makes it possible.

In the gym, however, we have far more control over things. We can change your movement patterns from rep to rep, and we aren’t subject to the same repetitive impact forces as while running. This makes the gym a perfect place to reintroduce your body to unassisted, barefoot movement.

If you were to wear a cast on your arm for a few weeks, you’d expect to see significant atrophy in the muscles of that arm. The same thing happens when you live in restrictive shoes. The muscles in your feet and ankles have much less to do and grow weaker. By training in the controlled, safe environment of the gym without shoes, you’re able to restore joint function throughout your body as well as directly strengthen the musculature in your feet.

In short, training barefoot in the gym ties into two important pieces of how we do things:

  1. It helps to build movement quality and strengthen the body as an interconnected, resilient, complex system, and
  2. It improves the feedback that our instructors provide while monitoring your technique.
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