Long ago, we humans roamed the earth to hunt and gather, wearing nothing but our bare feet or minimalist footwear.
As we evolved and began wearing shoes to protect us from the rugged terrain, the muscles in our feet and ankles slowly weakened and our toes became more immobile. This article is about practical ways to exercise barefoot to develop strong and healthy muscles in your feet and ankles.
Why exercise barefoot?
Imagine wearing mittens on your hands every time you leave the house. If you squeeze your fingers into those mittens every day, the muscles in your fingers will weaken, and your ability to splay your fingers will deteriorate.
We do the same thing with our feet by wearing shoes and socks every day. Since we don't go barefoot as often as our early ancestors did, our toes and the internal muscles of our feet have lost strength and flexibility.
As athletes, the foot is our foundation for the body, so we must not forget to train the foot to have a round, strong and stable body. Athletes with weak feet usually have collapsed arches, flat feet and limited mobility of the toes and ankles.
Treating and correcting weaknesses in the foot and ankle can have a positive effect on the kinetic chain for the knee and hip. It can also improve the athlete's ability to generate ground reaction forces (GRF). Every time an athlete sprints, jumps, or changes direction, the foot and ankle must adequately absorb the force and generate a contractive response to the movement.
Benefits of barefoot training include increased intrinsic muscle strength, improved balance and proprioception, and greater force development.
How to train barefoot
Our connection to the ground is critical to proper movement and stability in lower body strength training.
In any squat, hip hinge or other movement where we stand, it is important to remember that we must have three points of contact on the foot. This is called the foot tripod. On the bottom of the foot, pressure should be evenly distributed across the base of the big toe, the little toe, and the heel.
This distributes the weight evenly over the entire foot and creates movement patterns that promote proper function of the intrinsic foot muscles.
As with any new variation of an exercise program, athletes should begin barefoot training with appropriate intensity and volume to avoid overtraining.
Exercises for barefoot training
Single-leg squats such as Split Squats, Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squats and Pistol Squats are excellent for developing single-leg strength and stability of the foot and ankle.
Variations of the Single Legged Cross Lift are equally beneficial for developing strength and stability in the foot and ankle. In single-leg Romanian deadlifts, the athlete must maintain balance and control of the foot while rising.
Exercises that isolate the foot and ankle are also critical to creating a stable base for any athlete. Exercises such as calf raises and ankle training target specific weaknesses in the big toe, arch and ankle.
Barefoot training has many benefits for the foot and ankle. However, wearing shoes in the weight room puts you at risk of injury. Those exercising barefoot should be very careful when dropping and moving weights.
Athletes should not work out barefoot in a crowded weight room where other athletes are dropping weights. Do not train barefoot when doing plyometric exercises or Olympic weightlifting.
Your foot may not be strong enough to absorb the force it exerts on the floor and may cause injury. Consult your doctor before you begin barefoot training, and follow a well-planned exercise program created by a certified strength coach or trainer.