Barefoot Weightlifting: Method for Massive Gains or Path to Permanent Injury?

Barefoot Weightlifting: Method for Massive Gains or Path to Permanent Injury?

Like any other industry, the fitness industry tends to latch onto trendy ideas like Presidential assassins latch on to Jodie Foster.  From Sweating to the Oldies to the Total Thigh Trainer to the *cringe* Ab Doer, it is clear that the fitness industry varies in opinions, techniques, and scruples. 

This lack of scruples being the case, I am heartily skeptical of any “new” piece of fitness advice that hits the headlines (daily enemas used to be the height of health advice, and who doesn’t love a daily enema?).  A piece of advice that tip-toed its way into the industry over the past few years is the idea that weightlifting barefoot benefits the body.

Now if you’re like me, you said to yourself: “Weightlifting barefoot… I suppose toe curls could strengthen my toeceps, but what else could this technique do for me?”  So I did a tiny bit of preliminary research and saw plenty of talking points:

  • The cavemen didn’t have shoes!
  • Scared of dropping a plate on your foot? Man up, buttercup.
  • It’s, like… more natural, you know?

Most of those are exact quotes.  I swear.  Despite the flawless use of logic above, I still was not convinced that lifting barefoot would offer me any advantage over lifting in shoes.  10+ years of lifting in shoes trumped by a sudden switch to no shoes?  Not likely.

But I’m a curious sort, so I ran my own test, and for the past year or so, I have lifted exclusively barefoot (the benefits of lifting at home, I say!).  And right off the bat you should know that because I’ve been doing this for a year now, I have fallen in love with the technique.  From a purely anecdotal perspective, here are the benefits that I have seen in a year’s work:

Benefits of Lifting Barefoot

  1. Wider, stronger feet:  I no longer experience pain in my arches if I am on my feet all day.  It seems to me that just by shedding the false support of a shoe, my feet adapted.
  2. Improved balance:  Shoes provide an unnatural surface on which to balance, so your muscles while lifting adapt to the unnatural surface.  Once the shoes are gone, your balance goes as well.
  3. Reduction of Knee Pain:  Squatting, cleaning, and really any lift that engages your legs will put some stress on your knees.  Shoes not designed specifically for weightlifting (such as Olympic Lifting Shoes) tend to force the stress of the weight onto various parts of your legs.  For me, my old shoes added undue stress to my knees.  Going barefoot removed that stress and pressure entirely.

Now yes, any idiot (me) can claim that barefoot lifting produces miracles.  And hell, it might.  And it might not.  For me, I saw improvement and thus will continue to lift without shoes (I still put on a pair of Converse when doing Clean and Jerks and Snatches for added grip on the floor).  For you, it might not work.

How to Start Barefoot Weight Lifting

  1. Start walking around barefoot as much as possible (around the house, around the park) so that your joints and body can acclimate to the new condition.
  2. Acquire a joint-support supplement to keep your joints strong throughout the transition.  Personally, I used Glucosamine.
  3. Gradually work barefoot lifts into your routine.  I started by removing my shoes for my last few sets in an attempt to not stress my body too much too quickly.  I worked up to not having to wear them at all.

Always pay attention to your body in order to minimize the risk of injury.  I grew to love working out barefoot (although my feet did grow from a size 8 to a size 9.5… so I ended up having to replace all of my shoes).  The improvement in balance alone is enough to motivate me to continue, but the reduction of knee pain solidified it for me.