Ditching your sneakers—or investing in the right ones—for a workout comes with a slew of benefits.
Working out at home comes with some obvious benefits such as improving your physical strength and boosting your mental health, but it also allows for not-so-obvious conveniences like exercising barefoot. Forgoing shoes seems a little odd—you probably wouldn’t dare do it in a public gym setting—but is it a good idea for your at-home training? The short answer is yes.
“I’ve heard people call shoes coffins for your feet,” says Robert Conenello, D.P.M., a doctor of podiatry and the founder of Orangetown Podiatry in Orangeburg, New York. That may sound a little dramatic, but “when you wear shoes all day, your foot becomes very passive, and the muscles just don’t work as well.”
The problem with that: Your feet are the foundation for your entire body. In fact, there are 26 bones, 30 joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments in each foot. If those are weakened or not working, that weakness can travel up your body and potentially increase your risk of injury.
Training barefoot can strengthen your whole body from the ground up. For starters, it improves proprioception, or “our body’s ability to sense its own movement and position in space,” explains Kasey Phillips, a NASM-Certified personal trainer and MoveMEANT coach in Rocklin, CA. When your bare toes grip a mat or the floor, it really grounds you and helps you be more aware of your body from the bottom up.
“Improving proprioception helps with motor control—controlling joints and muscles during movement—and is key in learning new movement patterns,” adds Phillips. “With improved proprioception, you can perform exercises with more control, strength, and power and decrease your chance of injury.”
Plus, rooting yourself into the ground (without a layer of shoe in the way) helps to strengthen the muscles and connective tissues in your feet, which increases your balance and stability. That’s because “the muscles in your feet are constantly working without relying on any artificial support,” says Phillips. With that improved biofeedback from the floor, she adds, you’re also more likely to better activate your glutes and core, helping you to get more out of every move.
Not only will you increase your foot strength, but you’ll also get total-body benefits, too. People who trained barefoot demonstrated higher rates of force development and peak force while doing isometric hex bar deadlifts in research done at the University of Plymouth in 2019. Barefoot deadlifts also led to improved rates of force development compared to lifts performed while wearing shoes, a 2018 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found. The more force you can generate, the better your performance—not just in the moment, but when jumping, running, cycling, etc., says Phillips.
Of course, training barefoot isn’t always an option. You have to be careful with heavy weights and bare feet; dropping a dumbbell or weight plate on a bare foot will hurt like hell and cause a serious injury. (Fortunately, that’s not a problem with Tonal’s extendable arms and digital weight.) And anyone with preexisting foot injuries or issues may simply prefer to wear shoes while training.
Shoes will obviously protect your feet from rogue weights, but a minimalist shoe can also protect your foot’s rigid structure by giving you just enough cushioning to absorb some of that excess weight when you’re lifting heavy, says Conenello. And, if you’re dealing with injuries or have any imbalances, wearing shoes might be a better bet (for example, the University of Plymouth study mentioned above found that shoes can be helpful to those with flat feet who are unable to achieve three-point contact with the ground); you’d want to talk to an expert to figure out what’s right for your body.
You’ll still get foot strength-building benefits from minimalist shoes. Just walking in minimalist shoes can help you gain foot strength, no foot exercises necessary, according to a 2019 study published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. Wearing minimalist footwear—Vivobarefoot Stealth II, to be exact—for six months actually increased foot strength by 60 percent, 2019 research published in Footwear Science confirmed. (That model has since been discontinued, but you can find similar options here).
Picking the right shoe is crucial, though. A good strength training shoe should actually make you feel like you’re barefoot, says Conenello. Besides the fact that the footbed will be significantly firmer than a cardio shoe to provide adequate stability, there are two key features to look for: “Number one: a wide toe box. You want to be able to splay your toes out as far as possible, so you can really tap into those intrinsic muscles,” he says. “Number two: zero drop. You don’t want any difference in height between the heel and forefoot, so you’re not leaning forward and putting more pressure on your forefoot, which limits the amount of force you can generate.” (High-level lifters might opt for a shoe with a raised heel to increase their range of motion in a squat.)
If you’re in the market, the Nike Metcon ($130, nike.com) is a classic option with a wider toe box and flat sole. Reebok’s Nano shoes are a CrossFit staple; the X1 ($130, reebok.com) has a durable upper and reinforced heel clip for stability. If you’re into the classic Chuck Taylor look, opt for NoBull high-top trainers ($149, nobull.com), which have ankle support, minimal cushion, and a wider toe box than the Converse. And the Vivobarefoot Stealth II, referenced in the study above, has since been discontinued, but the Primus Light III is a similar option ($145, vivobarefoot.com).
If you do decide to opt for that barefoot training life, start small. Feet that have been encased in shoes for hours and hours every day can lose mobility, which may lead to injury if you all of a sudden unsheathe them and expose them to stress.
Before grabbing any weights, assess your range of motion. “If you put your foot 10 centimeters from the wall and lean forward, can your knee touch the wall? If not, you don’t have enough ankle mobility,” says Conenello. “Can you keep your big toe on the ground while lifting up all four of your other toes without rolling your foot? If not, you need to do some soft tissue release on your underfoot.”
Once you’ve got the go-ahead on mobility, ditch your shoes for one set during a strength training session. As you gradually get used to being barefoot, you can up slowly increase the amount of time you go sans shoes. Just like during your workouts, it’s always better to ease into new things—that’s what’s going to keep you strong for the long game.