The Dangers of Barefoot Weightlifting: Are You Sabotaging Your Gains?
Updated: Oct 2
With over 5 million TikTok views on the hashtag #barefoottraining, the reported benefits of this craze are extensive. But let's be straight here: the buzz around barefoot lifting is mostly "broscience." Providing a stable base for all those heavy lifts, your feet are the literal foundation of your weightlifting activities. Despite this, if you walk into any gym, you will see gym goers squatting, lunging and deadlifting barefoot, in socks or in other minimalist shoes such as Converse without any support.
When asked why, many will tell you it is to improve performance, increase strength or get a better feel for the ground when they’re lifting. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support these claims. Now I’m not suggesting that you should lift in a pair of running shoes, the cushioned midsole of these shoes creates an equally unstable base, not to mention the dissipation of force as you compress the shoe. What I am advocating for is a lifting shoe with a firm midsole and a custom foot orthotic, providing a sturdy platform to lift from, controlling movement through the heel and midfoot and allowing activation of the correct muscles throughout the lift.
So why do many weightlifters reject the notion of a stable foot in favour of the instability of barefoot lifting? Why is this concept so popular? And more importantly, are they jeopardising their gains and risking injury by lifting without support? Let's dig into this.
Myths About Barefoot Weightlifting Debunked
While it's often claimed that lifting without shoes or arch support enhances foot-to-ground connection and proprioception, or that barefoot weightlifting will increase muscle activation, scientific studies suggest otherwise. Take, for example, the Murley et al paper "Do foot orthoses change lower limb muscle activity in flat-arched feet towards a pattern observed in normal-arched feet?" This research showed that custom orthotics actually promoted muscle activation patterns in those with flatter feet to patterns more similar to those of an individual with a "normal arch." Now you might be saying, “I don’t have a flat foot, why does this matter?” In many individuals, as the load on the foot is increased (such as when barefoot weightlifting), the arch will flatten, impacting the ability of muscles in the feet to function appropriately.
Another common claim by those in the barefoot lifting camp is that lifting barefoot works to strengthen the muscles of the foot and that wearing orthotics leads to weakness. The 2013 undergraduate honours theses by Sarah Brown, “Electromyographical Analysis of Barefoot Squat: A Clinical Perspective” seems to disprove this. The study showed the main muscle to achieve any level of muscle activation that was significantly different in barefoot squatting compared to squatting in a shoe was the tibialis anterior, a muscle used to dorsiflex and stabilise the ankle. The tibialis anterior is typically not a muscle focused on for its power lifting contribution or developed for lower leg aesthetics.
In short, barefoot lifting is not providing an increase in muscle activation through any mechanism other than decreasing stability in the foot, effectively giving a shaky foundation to try and build your heavier lifts from.
The Importance of a Stable Base – Does Barefoot Weightlifting Compromise This?
Before delving into the specifics, let's consider why a stable base is crucial. With each lift, from the squat to the deadlift, your feet act as the primary contact point with the ground. A stable base entails an arch through the middle of the foot, a heel bone (rearfoot) that is aligned with the lower leg and appropriate space for the front of your foot to splay as needed. This provides better force transfer, enabling more power and efficiency in your lifts. This is where custom foot orthotics become important. We’re not talking about a simple cushioned insole, a custom foot orthotic is designed to hold it’s form and provide stability to your foot, withstanding the forces applied during weightlifting. It will be made to fit the unique structure of your foot and to control movement at the rearfoot and midfoot, ensuring the ankle is straight and the medial arch of the foot is preserved.
While some individuals with strict form may be able to stabilise their arch and midfoot during regular training, it is often when someone is pushing for a PB that their form will deteriorate. This technique deterioration often presents as a collapse of the arch of the foot, loss of stability at the ankle and subsequent knee valgus (knock knee position). Custom foot orthotics can help correct this, ensuring more effective lower leg, upper leg, and glute activation to aid in driving through from the floor.
There are a number of reasons why maintaining a stable ankle and arch in the foot is beneficial when weightlifting. These include:
Improved Force Transfer: A stable base allows for more efficient force transfer from the legs through the feet and into the ground, which is vital for maximum power output during lifts. An arch provides a much more rigid and stable base than a foot that is mobile and flattening.
Better Muscle Activation: The arch of the foot helps maintain better alignment with the ankles, knees, and hips. This allows the correct muscles to be recruited during your lift. Specifically, improved ability to activate the glutes, stabilise the femur and reduce valgus knee movement.
Reduced Injury Risk: A stable arch and ankle reduces strain on other joints, like the knees and hips, and lowers the risk of acute and overuse injuries. This is achieved by improving the alignment of the lower limb, allowing the correct muscles to activate at the correct time. This reduces the likelihood of a valgus knee position and the subsequent strain this position places on the structures surrounding the knee and hip.
Reduced Energy Wastage: Lifting on an unsupported arch is like trying to run through sand; inefficient and significantly more energy intensive. When the arch collapses, the foot becomes a far less stable structure, more similar to a foundation of sand. Even when a lifter is actively trying to stabilise the foot and leg without an orthotic, this is consuming energy that could otherwise be directed into the lift itself.
Increased Longevity in Lifting: Maintaining good foot and ankle health can contribute to a longer, more sustainable weightlifting career by minimising wear and tear on the joints and soft tissues.
The Health Risks of Poor Foot Position in Barefoot Weightlifting
Time and time again, patients have limped into our clinic, complaining of injuries they developed while weightlifting, often as a result of inadequate support. Poor foot stability during exercises like squats and deadlifts increases the likelihood of a valgus knee position. This occurs when the foot and ankle roll in, making it much harder to keep the knees pushed out. It is a biomechanically poor position to drive weight through and one which increases your susceptibility to injury when repeatedly performed. This can result in a range of injuries, including but not limited to:
Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome: Patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFPS) often occurs due to the misalignment and improper tracking of the patella (kneecap) over the femur (thigh bone). In a valgus knee position, the femur rotates inward relative to the tibia, disrupting the normal tracking of the patella during knee flexion and extension. This altered patella tracking increases the stress and friction on the cartilage under the kneecap, which can cause pain, inflammation, and eventually degenerative changes if left unaddressed.
Additionally, the imbalance created by the valgus knee often affects the muscular support around the knee, reducing activation and development of the vastus medialis oblique (VMO), a part of the quadriceps muscle that is essential for proper patella tracking (also the muscle responsible for that tear drop appearance on the inside of your knee, definitely one you want to develop).
Iliotibial Band (ITB) Issues: Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS) or ITB pain is another common injury associated with a valgus knee position during weightlifting or running. The iliotibial band is a thick, fibrous tissue that runs along the outside of the thigh, helping to stabilise the knee.
When the knee falls into a valgus position, it puts excessive stress on the ITB. The inward rotation of the femur leads to greater tension and friction of the ITB across the outer aspect of the knee joint. Over time, this increased tension and friction can lead to inflammation and pain at the point where the ITB crosses the knee and attaches to the tibia.
Achilles Tendinopathy: When the foot pronates, there is an increase in rotation forces on the Achilles tendon itself and and increase in shear force at the tendon attachment to the calcaneus (heel bone). Repeated excessive loading through the Achilles’ tendon increases the likelihood of developing tendinopathy – degenerative changes within the tendon which can lead to pain, stiffness and even rupture.
What Shoes Do We Recommend for Weightlifting?
We’ve discussed at length the reasons why lifting barefoot or with inadequate support can be detrimental to your strength and muscle development, as well as increasing your risk of injury. But what should you lift in?
The main features we look for in a shoe for lifting is a firm midsole that will not compress significantly during weightlifting and the ability to accommodate an orthotic.
Some examples of shoes we like:
Nike Metcon: With a removable insole, firm midsole and a 4mm heel drop, the Nike Metcon can be a great choice for lifting. The main drawback to the Metcon is that the forefoot can sit a little narrow and may apply pressure to the side of the forefoot.
Reebok Nano: The Reebok Nano X3 feature a removable insole, relatively firm midsole and a wide forefoot, though now have a 7mm heel drop. This increased heel drop can be beneficial for some individuals with less ankle range though for others may change the feel of your lifting.
Altra Solstice: The Altra Solstice features a 0mm heel drop and a wide toe box with their anatomical foot shaping. It does have a thin midsole layer of cushioning which may compress slightly during lifting however this is minimal. Combined with a firm custom foot orthotic, this shoe can work well for regular lifting activities, provided there is sufficient ankle range of motion.
TYR L1 Lifter: A wide “anatomically shaped” forefoot allows for splay of the foot while the 21mm heel raise can help with heavy lifts for those with some ankle joint restriction. The sole is solid and designed for moving some more serious weight, coupled with an orthotic to stabilise the foot this shoe can be fantastic.
Please note: We DO NOT recommend lifting in trainers or running shoes. The cushioning of these shoes is great for running but will dissipate some of the force you produce while lifting as you compress the midsole of the shoe.
Follow The Science, Not The Broscience Around Barefoot Weightlifting
Proper foot support doesn't magically "weaken" your feet; if anything, the research suggests it makes them stronger. In so many other aspects of training we will implement science to lift smarter and stronger, yet footwear is often left to the realm of broscience. So, if you're looking to increase your ability to lift heavy, get yourself some proper shoes and custom foot orthotics to train in. It might just be the missing piece in your weightlifting puzzle.
If you are looking for a podiatrist who understands the orthotic requirements of a weightlifter, give the team at My Family Podiatry a call on 07 3088 6116 or book an appointment through the link below.