There is special footwear for nearly every type of athletic activity.
There are running shoes for running, ski boots for skiing, hiking boots for hiking, cycling shoes for biking, cross-training shoes for mixed fitness workouts, and water shoes for water sports.
However, despite the fact that there are indeed weightlifting shoes for strength training—and many recreational athletes alternatively opt to wear cross-training shoes or general athletic sneakers—you may also see people lifting barefoot.
But, is barefoot weightlifting safe? Are there benefits you can derive if you lift weights barefoot?
In this article, we will discuss why some people lift weights barefoot, whether there are benefits of barefoot weightlifting, and what sorts of athletes should not try lifting weights without shoes.
More specifically, we will cover the following:
- Benefits of Barefoot Weightlifting
- Downsides of Barefoot Weightlifting
- Should You Lift Weights Barefoot?
Let’s dive in!
Benefits of Barefoot Weightlifting
Much like the debate of running barefoot versus shod, there are pros and cons to barefoot weightlifting as opposed to wearing training shoes or footwear.
Here are some of the benefits of barefoot weightlifting:
#1: Lifting Weights Barefoot Can Improve Proprioception
One of the primary benefits of barefoot weight lifting is the fact that it can increase your proprioception.
Proprioception refers to your awareness of where your body is in space without the need for visual feedback.The better your proprioception, the better you can balance, coordinate your movements, and execute proper form and technique with strength training exercises.
If you are strength training at home or somewhere where there aren’t mirrors on every single wall, it can be especially beneficial to have enhanced proprioception because you won’t be able to readily see your body as you exercise.
This can make it harder to know if you are using proper form and may compromise your balance and coordination.
The reason that barefoot weightlifting improves proprioception is that the feet receive much more tactile and sensory feedback when the skin is in direct contact with the floor rather than covered in a sock that is stuffed into a shoe with a thick sole.
All of that material between your sensory receptors and the ground or training surface reduces the tactile responses and sensory cues that are relayed to the brain when you lift weights barefoot.
This type of feedback to the brain helps guide your body‘s awareness of your feet—which often root you to the ground during weightlifting exercises—and thus the entire kinetic chain up your body.
When you perform strength training exercises like squats, split squats, lunges, and deadlifts without shoes, you may find that your balance and stability are much better and that you feel more grounded to the floor.
#2: Lifting Weights Barefoot Can Increase Foot Strength
One of the downsides of constantly wearing footwear, particularly sneakers or shoes with a thick sole, is that the strength of the smaller intrinsic foot muscles, as well as the calves and extrinsic foot muscles that extend from the lower leg decreases over time.
When you lift weights barefoot, you are loading your foot with not only your body weight but also whatever additional weight you are lifting.
The muscles in your feet need to maintain the integrity of your arch and support your toes gripping the floor.
In shoes, much of this workload is reduced because the sole of the shoe offers a much wider, stable base of support.
The stack height of a shoe and the heel-to-toe drop also decrease the stretch on the calves and Achilles, which can lead to poorer ankle mobility over time.
This, in turn, can impact your squat depth because your heels will pop up when you try to squat deeper.
#3: Lifting Weights Barefoot Can Increase Your Leverage for Heavier Lifts
When you step foot into a gym to lift weights, you are likely focusing on your workout at hand rather than thinking back to physics class and recalling concepts of levers, leverage, and mechanical advantage.
However, whether or not you are consciously aware of simple machines and mechanical advantages while you are busting through your strength training workout, the reality is that lifting heavy weight is ultimately a matter of optimizing your leverage.
One of the benefits of barefoot weight lifting is that you can improve your mechanical advantage by maximizing your leverage when lifting weights without shoes.
The deadlift is one of the exercises most affected by the mechanical differences of weight lifting barefoot vs. shod.
It can be advantageous to perform deadlifts barefoot because a sneaker can provide a cushioned surface that is somewhat uneven, which can compromise balance, stability, and proprioception, and even more importantly, if you are training in shoes with a thick sole, there is a greater distance that the bar has to travel during each rep.
This means that lifting the load will require more work, and there is no muscle/strength contributed by the added distance with your shoes, meaning that it’s “dead distance” that doesn’t help you lift the load.
When you are trying to lift as heavy as possible, you want to produce maximal force. This is optimized by being as close as possible to the ground and having a nice firm surface rather than a thick, unevenly cushioned shoe.
Downsides of Barefoot Weightlifting
It should come as no surprise that there are also some downsides to lifting weights barefoot, including the following:
#1: Lifting Weights Barefoot Can Increase Your Risk of Injuries
The most significant risk of barefoot weight lifting is that you can potentially drop a weight on your foot and incur a severe injury.
Although shoes won’t necessarily save your feet from being injured from dropping a heavy weight, shoes do provide some amount of protection to the top of your foot if lighter weights fall.
Shoes also protect your feet if you ram into a weight bench or if there are errant items around the gym floor that you might step on, such as debris, pebbles from other people’s street shoes, random hardware that has come loose and fallen off cardio equipment, etc.
Stepping on any of these items if you are weight lifting in the gym without shoes can potentially puncture your foot and cause an infection.
Moreover, strength training without shoes, especially if you do repetitive or high-impact exercises like plyometrics barefoot, can increase your risk of stress fractures because there is no cushioning to attenuate the forces of impact.
#2: Lifting Weights Barefoot Can Increase Your Risk of Infections
As mentioned, if you step on something when you are weightlifting barefoot in the gym, you open your skin to the potential invasion of harmful bacteria.
Additionally, if lots of people walk around your gym barefoot, there’s a heightened risk of contracting athlete’s foot and toenail fungus because sweaty feet transmit fungal infections.
Athlete’s foot can even spread to other parts of the body, like the groin, which can be extremely itchy, uncomfortable, and difficult to get rid of.
#3: Lifting Weights Barefoot Can Increase Your Risk of Slipping
Especially if your feet get sweaty, barefoot weight lifting increases your risk of slipping or sliding because a wet foot does not provide enough grip on a smooth surface.
Training in shoes improves your grip.
For this reason, particularly if you are going to do dynamic exercises such as plyometrics or lunges, or exercises that put a lateral force on your foot, like sumo squats or lateral lunges, you should consider weight lifting with shoes.
Should You Lift Weights Barefoot?
Whether or not you choose to do barefoot weightlifting is ultimately a matter of personal preference.
However, if you are training in a public gym that is not particularly clean, you may be better suited lifting with shoes.
You can wear “barefoot” or minimalist shoes as a good compromise to complete barefoot weight lifting. These shoes have a very thin sole and provide many of the benefits of lifting weights barefoot while providing a bit more protection, grip, and hygiene benefits.
Additionally, Olympic weightlifters are generally best served by wearing Olympic weightlifting shoes, which are specialized and designed for the Olympic lifting platforms.
Strongman training is also best done in shoes, given the intensity of the exercises and the use of weight machines.
Bodybuilders and strength athletes can make their decision whether to lift weights barefoot or in shoes based on the above pros and cons, the rules of your gym, the environment in which you train, and your own biomechanics.
If you are going to do barefoot weightlifting, build up slowly by starting with just a few exercises or one set of each exercise without shoes. Make sure to carefully wash your feet when you are done.
To learn more about the benefits of running barefoot, check out our article here.