People do bodybuilding barefoot. Is there a benefit?

SAN DIEGO — About two years ago, Ms. Claire Haeuptle, a physical therapist based in San Diego, became interested in strengthening the muscles and ligaments in her feet. Ms. Haeuptle, who played four years of college basketball, has a history of knee injuries, including five surgeries.

“I’ve always retrained my knees, but I’ve tended to neglect my feet,” she said.

Ms Haeuptle decided to take up barefoot weightlifting, a bodybuilding practice that involves lifting weights without shoes or with very little support for the feet.

Scrolling through social media platforms such as TikTok, where the hashtag #barefoottraining has been viewed an estimated 1.8 million times, people show off barefoot deadlifts, curls and squats, while doing a number of statements about benefits.

The practice, according to its proponents, can strengthen your feet, improve your balance and help you lift more weight. But, as with so many other fitness claims, the benefits come with a number of risks, including injury, if done incorrectly.

Barefoot weightlifting can have real benefits.

Walking barefoot – whether for running, weight training, or just taking a walk – requires the muscles in the feet to work harder. Some experts say this is especially true for smaller muscles that aren’t used as much when wearing shoes, such as the hallux abductor, which spans the arch of the foot and controls the big toe, or the hallux abductor. posterior tibialis, which supports the arch of the foot. .

“When you go shoeless, those muscles start to work harder, which ultimately gives you a stronger, more adaptable foot,” said Dr. Bruce Moseley, an orthopedic surgeon at Baylor College of Medicine.

Spending more time barefoot can also increase the ability to sense where your feet are in space, as well as how they move. This increased body awareness, known as proprioception, can contribute to better balance by improving feedback between the brain and the nerves in your ankles and feet.

Research focused on barefoot strength training is limited, but it’s possible that proprioception can help you maintain stability while lifting, Dr. Moseley said.

It won’t necessarily help you lift more.

Barefoot strength training may promote increased foot strength, balance, and stability, but there’s no clear evidence that it can dramatically improve your performance or help you lift more. “It’s all anecdotal,” said Dr. Kevin Valenzuela, assistant professor of biomechanics at California State University Long Beach, who was the author of a recent study exploring the effect of shoes on deadlift performance.

In the study, published in the journal Sports, Dr. Valenzuela and colleagues looked at deadlift performance in barefoot athletes and those wearing shoes. They found no significant difference in performance between the two, although lifting the dead with shoes required a bit more work.

“When you’re wearing some kind of shoe, you’re about an inch taller than you would be if you were barefoot,” said Ms. Anna Swisher, a weightlifting trainer from the United States. “You have an extra inch to move the bar.” That extra inch may not make much difference for a single lift, but can add up over a training cycle.

Heavy loads require dedicated lifting shoes.

Lifting a percentage of your body weight won’t put too much pressure on your foot, but when you’re lifting much more than your weight, proper footwear becomes essential, as it puts a greater load on the foot than it is. able to endure, said Dr. Emily Splichal, podiatrist and author of the book “Barefoot Strong: Unlock the Secrets to Movement Longevity.”

As Dr. Splichal notes, many lifters will do warm-ups and lighter lifts barefoot, then, as they push higher, put on weightlifting shoes.

Most dedicated weightlifting shoes have hard, dense, incompressible soles. “It’s easier to balance and it’s much more stable,” said Mr. Mark Rippetoe, weightlifting trainer and author of the book “Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training.”

Lifting shoes also feature wedge heels that tilt the foot forward, and in Ms. Swisher’s experience, the stability they provide can help you maintain good form, which is especially essential when weighted squats.

“Having that extra lift in the heel helps keep your torso more upright, which helps keep the bar’s center of mass more aligned with your center of mass,” Ms. Swisher said. This reduces pressure on the lower back, which can help prevent injury.

Some shoes, however, are really not suitable for weightlifting. Dr. Rippetoe often sees people wearing running shoes rather than dedicated lifting shoes. “Doing squats in running shoes is like doing squats on a mattress,” says Dr. Rippetoe. “Every representative will be different.” This makes it difficult to maintain good form, which can also lead to injury.

Even on gentle ascents, there are risks.

Although barefoot weightlifting can offer benefits, all experts, including Ms Haeuptle, have warned that there are a number of risks, including the risk of injury, if not done correctly.

A major problem with barefoot weightlifting is that “some people don’t have the ankle stability to do it well,” Dr. Valenzuela said. If a person with weak ankles starts weightlifting barefoot, it can cause the ankles to wobble.

This ankle wobble can cause the arch of the foot to collapse inward, which gradually causes the knees and hips to collapse inward as well.

“This inward rolling motion is generally not good for the joints and the tissues inside the joints,” Dr. Valenzuela said. Over time, this can lead to ankle, knee, or hip injuries. “What happens at the ankle affects what happens at the knee, which affects the hip,” Dr. Valenzuela said.

If you plan to do barefoot weightlifting, pay close attention to your ankle stability, which may mean doing some ankle strengthening exercises before you start. Until then, it’s best to wear lifting shoes, as they will provide extra ankle support.

Barefoot lifting also comes with a few additional caveats. The first concern is that walking barefoot in a gym can spread infectious diseases, such as athlete’s foot or warts. “Athlete’s foot, once it enters a locker room or a training environment, can be rampant,” Dr. Moseley said. If you’re worried, there are barefoot training shoes you can wear.

The other risk is foot injuries. While the shoes won’t do much if you drop a 45-pound weight, they can offer some protection against lighter weight or a bumped toe.

To avoid overuse injuries, start gradually.

Lifting too much too soon can lead to overuse injuries, such as stress fractures or heel pain. But starting with a reduced weight and a limited number of barefoot reps will “gradually apply stress to those tissues,” Dr. Moseley said, allowing the tissues in your feet to adapt.

If a person’s foot starts to hurt or their form suffers, it’s a sign that they’re lifting too much too quickly and need to stop.

Ms. Haeuptle started off gradual, taking a full year to go from a few barefoot reps during a workout to the majority of her lifts without shoes. Barefoot weightlifting “gives me a better feel for the ground,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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