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By Jill Fanslau
Walk into any chemist and you’ll find an aisle dedicated to foot problems: inserts, insoles, foam, orthotics, toe spacers, heel liners, arch relief, arthritis relief, blister protection.
They’re supposed to relieve and prevent pain so you can comfortably wear your shoes. But we wouldn’t need the majority of these remedies if it weren’t for shoes in the first place, according to Martin Rooney, P.T., C.S.C.S., chief operating officer of the Parisi Speed School and founder of Training for Warriors.
“If you look at the problems of the foot—hammer toes, achilles tendonitis, pronation, bunions—they’re all because of shoes,” he says. “When you stub your foot in a shoe all day, it makes your foot muscles, tendons, and ligaments weak. You lose mobility in your foot because it’s not moving over the ground like it’s supposed to.”
So Rooney’s advice: Go barefoot—especially at the gym.
Lose the Shoes, Increase Your Gains
Ditching the sneakers will not only strengthen your feet, but it’ll ultimately help you run faster, jump higher, and lift more weight, too, he says.
Your feet are covered with proprioceptors—sensors that provide feedback about body position and alignment. Rooney believes that when they can engage freely with the floor, you’ll see greater muscle activation and bigger gains in your performance.
After all, your feet are the only body part that come in contact with the floor during most exercises, he explains. Whenever you perform a movement, it starts with a connection to the ground and works its way up the chain. Throwing a baseball, jumping, weight lifting—your power comes from the bottom up. Cover your feet with shoes, and suddenly that power is decreased.
“Your foot has almost an identical architecture to your hand,” he says. “Imagine if you stuffed your hands in thick gloves all day? You’d decrease your awareness and sensation in those limbs.”
Plus, your toes are crammed and can’t splay right when you wear sneakers. This can mess up the mechanics of your ankles and knees during many exercises, hindering your form and increasing your risk of injury, he says.
So should you always go barefoot? No, says Rooney. Most people don’t have the ankle mobility during squats to probably perform them without shoes. Without proper range of motion, too much of the weight can be transferred to the lower spine. Tennis, soccer, basketball, and baseball also require specialized sneakers or cleats to help you with the demands of the sports.
Below are some of Rooney’s favourite exercises to do barefoot.
Pushups: Your toes—especially your big toes—flex when you’re in a pushup position. Doing all your reps without sneakers helps bring back the mobility in your feet and increase the range of motion in your toes. This will help you lunge, run, and climb better, since your back foot has to go on your toes whenever you step forward.
Deadlifts: Without shoes, you’re lower to the floor. That means you gain a mechanical advantage since you don’t have to move the bar as far.
Lunges: To properly perform any variation of a lunge (front, reverse, walking, or lateral), you need balance. Performing them barefoot allows you to grip the floor with your entire foot—your toes, the balls of your feet, and your heels—for maximum stability. A sneaker would impede that ability.
This is a more advanced barefoot movement since balance is involved, so it may take some practice. Use no weight or a light weight to begin.
Sprints: If you’re inside, find a mat or turf. If you’re outside, find a grassy field with no obstacles like holes or broken glass.
Each step applies a massive amount of force through the body, so work your way up to sprinting by walking and performing some light running drills first. Your feet will be sore the first few times you try it.
How to Get Started
Rooney recommends starting off slowly when making the transition to barefoot training. “It should be a gradual approach,” he says. “Your feet will be tender for awhile, so don’t do a whole workout right away.”
Instead, give your feet time to adjust. Begin with a barefoot warmup for a couple of weeks. Slowly increase the number of exercises or drills you do sans sneakers. If your gym doesn’t condone barefoot training, try minimalist footwear.
Take your shoes off when you’re in your house or sitting at your desk, too. You can also roll a lacrosse ball under your arch, and flex and point your toes to strengthen all the muscles in your feet.