Lift Better, Lift Barefoot
This is a guest post from Shaun Daws (aka Barefoot Dawsy) from BeginningBarefoot.com. Shaun is an experienced barefoot runner and general exercise enthusiast. I first became aware of Shaun when I saw one of his articles on another site, and I asked him to do a featured article here at Diesel 1. Over the last couple of years, I have turned to training in bare feet during the warm months, and during the cold months, I go with socks and house slippers (just check out my videos). Check out what Shaun has to say about barefoot training and running.
When was the last time you included foot training in your exercise routine? If you’re like most people, then the thought has probably never even occurred to you! But did you know that just a few simple additions to your workouts can improve your lifting and reduce your chances of injury?
Before we get into exercising your feet, you may want to spend a few minutes thinking about what you put on them. If you take a close look at most traditional running shoes, you’ll notice one thing almost immediately. Padding.
There is padding the length of the sole, and more likely than not, you will see a built-up heel of some description. This extra padding is designed primarily for runners, to reduce the impact forces caused by repeatedly slamming your foot into pavement a couple thousand times per session.
Disadvantages of Conventional Shoes
All that padding may seem like a good idea for runners, but for people who lift weights, it just gets in the way. There are several reasons for this:
The main reason to avoid padding in your shoes is that it introduces instability to your lifts. Typically, padded shoes will not compress evenly, so you may find your feet being forced into slightly off-kilter angles. The amount that they shift is dependent on the type and amount of material used in the shoe. In some cases, this instability can have a significant impact into the amount of weight that can be lifted.
Having a nice, strong base will allow you to correctly place your feet before you lift and know that they will not move. Once you have a strong base established, you can hang good form on it, and lift at your best.
2. Altered Form
A little bit of padding below your entire foot is detrimental, but a built up heel can cause serious changes in your form that will only become worse the more you lift. Imagine that instead of standing in shoes, you’re standing on a ramp. Now, if you wanted to do a squat, for example, you would need to compensate for the angle of your feet by bending your back a bit more.
The higher your heel is above your toes, the more your back will need to curve, which will in turn reduce the amount of pressure it can withstand. This results in less weight lifted, possibly more pain, and even a higher chance of injury on some lifts.
By keeping your feet flat on the ground, it is much easier to keep your back aligned and lift with good form.
3. Increased Lifting Distance
With some lifts, such as the deadlift, height plays a significant role. If you have shorter legs, the distance that you need to lift the bar off the ground is less, which means that it will take less effort. Conversely, if your legs are longer (or if you wear thick, padded shoes), you’re effectively increasing the distance that the bar needs to travel. Sure, the difference may seem small, but over the long run, and especially when many reps are involved, this small distance is amplified.
You can’t make your legs shorter, but you can stop them from being higher off the ground than they need to be.
Less Is More – Common Types of Minimalist Shoes
Right now is a great time to start looking for new footwear. The recent surge in production of minimalist shoes means that now, more than ever, you have your pick from dozens, if not hundreds, of different styles. This blessing can seem like a curse sometimes, however, as it can boggle the mind trying to figure out which shoes are best.
To get you started, here are a few popular choices that you’ll probably start seeing around the gym more and more:
Converse Chuck Taylors All Stars
These are the quintessential old-school fitness shoe. They’re flat, comfortable, and have that retro feel. People have been lifting in them for the better part of a century and they’re a good all-around shoe. Some folks find that the base is still a little high, and the canvas outers can be a bit scratchy, especially if you don’t like wearing socks.
Vibram Five Fingers
Sporting toe pockets and a foot-hugging design, these are the shoes that most people think of these days when they think ‘minimal’. There are a range of models to choose from, with special features designed for different environments. For lifting, it’s best to go simple, with the KSO or Classic designs. They are extremely lightweight, have the thinnest of soles, and are very comfortable. You may get a few looks wearing them around, but they’re worth it.
New Balance Minimus Trail
Here’s a minimal shoe that was designed for trail running, but that has proven to be an excellent all-around shoe. It’s got a large toe pocket to let your toes wiggle a bit, and the thin, flat soles make ground contact feel natural and solid. They tend to be a little pricey, but they’re definitely worth it, especially if you’re looking to do some cross-training.
The original minimal shoe, aqua socks can be found all over, from supermarkets to sporting goods stores. They tend to cost less than $10 a pair, are super-light and have no padding whatsoever. It’s hard to go past these in terms of value and performance.
Of course, you could spurn the whole shoe idea altogether and go barefoot. This is not a new idea, and lifters have been doing it for centuries. You can’t get better contact with the ground than by having nothing between it and your feet. Lifting barefoot gives you the added benefit of being able to grip with your toes, which adds an extra dimension to your stability. The only downsides to barefooting it are that it’s frowned upon in some gyms (booo!) and that you have to be that extra little bit more careful not to drop anything on your feet.
There are literally hundreds of options out there to choose from, so the key is to keep trying until you find something you like. A few mode ideas are: wrestling shoes, sandals, socks, and of course, specialty weight-lifting shoes.
Getting Started With Foot Training
Now before you go out and trade in your Keds for Vibrams or bare feet, you’re going to want to start adjusting your body to the difference. It may not seem like much, but having a wedge of padding beneath your feet can actually cause muscle weaknesses and imbalances that won’t be apparent until you get rid of them.
It doesn’t take long to strengthen your feet and legs to adjust for this weakness, but it’s important that you address them to reduce the risk of injury. Here are a few simple exercises to do before lifting that will help in this department:
Stand with your forefeet and toes on a stair and your heels hanging off. Slowly lower your heels down as low as you can, while keeping an upright posture. Lift back up slowly until you’re standing on your tip-toes. Repeat this 10-20 times before lifting, especially in the first few months of wearing minimal shoes.
Body Weight Squats
Before lifting the heavy stuff, it’s a good idea to limber up with a few sets of body weight squats. These will stretch out the muscles and tendons in your legs and get the blood pumping.
Lunges, like squats, work the lower legs and help to strengthen your ankles. A few sets of these each time you work out will go a long way to helping you build a stable base.
Like the guy said in Die Hard, one of the great exercises for stretching out and strengthening your feet is making fists with your toes. Stand in bare feet and fold your toes under your feet, applying light pressure so that you feel a bit of a stretch. Repeat 5-10 times for each foot. For extra credit, you can also try picking objects, such as marbles, which will do much the same thing.
Don’t Neglect Your Feet
Lifting of all sorts tends to focus on the arms, torso and legs. Very often hands and feet get neglected, but they’re as important as the rest of your body. Having strong feet in particular will allow you to lift more, and with better form, which will reduce injuries and increase your enjoyment. Treat your feet with respect, and you’ll they’ll give you back more than you ever thought possible.
What do you think about barefoot running and training? Ever try it? What are your experiences? Leave a comment below…