No shirt, no shoes, no problem. This isn’t the beach (or a 16-year-old Kenny Chesney song), though. This is Performix House, a high-end New York City gym populated by a slew of next-to-naked trainers who do everything - from kettlebell sequencing to rope climbs to deadlifts - shoeless. Such a caveman-friendly approach isn’t limited to this particular iron-laden home of the insta-famous, either. Working out barefoot is all the rage among certain sectors of the gymgoing population, and not just because they’re too lazy to throw on a pair of sneakers first.
“Think about shoes as giant protective pads around the feet,” says Lacee Lazoff, kettlebell specialist and trainer at Performix, attempting to explain the method to the madness. “They eliminate feeling, and can mask the numerous receptors we have in the feet that send signals to muscles moving up the kinetic chain of our bodies.”
Getting rid of the padding and allowing your feet to make direct contact with the floor, Lazoff says, makes it easier to feel muscles working, which means you get to enjoy every single twitch, tingle, and ugh, this is rough feeling that comes with moving that weight through space. Before you go ahead and get rid of your shoe rack altogether, though, let’s take a look at whether this approach is right for you - and how to implement it without hurting yourself or anyone else.
Wait. What’s the point of this, again?
There are essentially three main reasons why people go barefoot at the gym, according to Cameron Yuen, DPT, of Bespoke Treatments in New York City. These are increased proprioception, or one’s sense of self as you move; increased ability to produce force; and increased muscle recruitment.
“Proprioception is important for qualities like balance and agility,” says Yuen. “Your feet are covered in nerve endings, and when they are directly exposed to the ground, your brain not only gets more information, but also gets this information faster.”
Assuming you are on a sturdy gym floor, ditching the kicks will also help you generate more force into the ground during your lifts. (Read: hello, gains.) When you lift in a cushioned shoe, you are essentially trying to lift a weight on an unstable surface. This is good in the context of, say, balance training using a BOSU ball. This is less good when you’re striving for a new one-rep max. “If you want to lift more weight, you need a solid base, and going barefoot can help with this,” says Yuen. Suddenly, all the bros wearing Chuck Taylors around the squat rack are starting to make a little more sense.
Lastly, going barefoot can keep your legs and overall posture in tip-top shape by strengthening the muscles in the lower leg. “Start from the bottom to move better overall,” says Lazoff. “These smaller muscles rarely get trained, but are super-important when it comes to preventing ankle sprains and developing good arch support.”
Is this... remotely safe?
The short answer is that in most cases, yes, as long as you’re coordinated enough not to drop a dumbbell on your naked foot (which, one could argue, is pretty detrimental even in a pair of beat-up trainers). Barefoot running has been huge for years, as purchasers of Vibram Spiderman-looking shoes can attest. As a point of reference University of Central Florida study couldn’t find significant evidence that running barefoot or in minimalist shoes was inherently dangerous in a way that might caution curious people against giving it a try.
However: “If there have been previous injuries to the toes or ankles, it could be challenging at first,” says Yuen. If your intramural basketball misadventures of old mean that you fall in this category, a good place to start is by reaching for a low-support, low-heeled shoe, like the Reebok Nano, Nike Metcon, Under Armour TriBase Reign, or Altra HIIT XT, to get that close-to-ground feel. “The less of a heel, the better,” says Yuen.
Lazoff adds another important word of caution: As with any new fitness regimen, start slow and light. Before you go throwing around your usual weights, make sure your newly-unshod body has all the movement patterns down. Slowly increase the amount of weight over time as you get comfortable with the feeling of bare ground on bare soles. If you do barefoot training right, you are going to be very, very sore the next day - but we’re confident you’ll fall head over heels for the results.