Is it better to work out in bare feet?

With all the awesome sneakers and shoes available, you’re probably wondering why I would even consider the subject of working out in bare feet. But here I am doing it.

As someone who spent most of my time in the group fitness studio before becoming a personal trainer, I never dreamed of breaking a sweat without shoes on, unless it was hot yoga or barre.

Fast forward to today, and much of the time, you’ll find my sneakers sitting next to my water bottle on some days, as I move around the weight-room floor in socks.

Benefits of bare feet

Why work out in bare feet?

It’s very simple. Our feet are supposed to be as useful as our hands. They should be able to grab and reach and grip things. However, years of wearing constricting shoes have weakened our feet, and we’re now all mostly dependent on the arch support of cushy sneakers. But it doesn’t have to be that way. You can train your feet to be stronger, which could lead to big gains in your overall fitness.

Think about starting life as a baby walking around with no shoes, allowing your feet to grow and feel the ground. That’s how our bodies are designed. While you need shoes to brave the streets of the city, (and it’s unacceptable to go barefoot in public), you could probably go without shoes for a lot more than you think.

DISCLAIMER: It’s not smart to rip your shoes off and try barefoot training immediately. You really have to work up to it, and begin to strengthen your feet. Not to mention, it may not be right for you.

It’s something I wanted to discuss, because working out in bare feet is becoming more and more accepted and promoted in the fitness world, both by doctors and trainers. I did quite a bit of reading on the subject, and because I’m not an expert, will pull out a few facts for you from others.

According to an article on The Post Game:

Your foot has 28 bones, 38 muscles, 35 joints and 56 ligaments. Each one of these needs to be strengthened and stretched naturally. Wearing sneakers takes away from the natural strengthening and stabilizing ability of the foot.

And according to an article on T-Nation (a well-known weight-lifting resource):

Because your feet are the only point of contact between your body and the floor on most lifts, your lifting success depends, in part, on their proprioception — the sense of where they are in space. The more precisely they work to grip the floor, the better they’ll help you activate the muscles farther up the movement chain.

Once I began reading more, it all started making sense. Many injuries and alignment issues stem from the bottom up, starting with our feet. If we spend more time working on our feet as they’re designed to be used, some of those issues can be corrected. We could actually stand taller, have greater range of movement and gain better balance without shoes.

But you can’t just head out on a run in bare feet. Like anything else, you have to condition yourself to be able to do it. Starting too soon could cause injuries, as our feet are completely accustomed to the form of padded sneakers.

How do you start barefoot training?

Baby steps.

  1. Walk around your house completely barefoot a lot. Do calf raises on your toes and massage the bottom of your feet by putting weight on a golf ball. This will start bringing in some of the proprioception (ability to sense surroundings) of new feelings in the feet.
  2. Try working out in Chucks or Converse sneakers, which are one size too big. That gives your feet a flat surface and room to breathe.
  3. Try working out in Vibram Five Finger shoes. While I think those shoes are totally hideous, I now understand the benefits of their mechanics.

It is allowed at the gym?

A lot of gyms require that you wear the proper sneakers when using the facilities, so you want to check with your gym. Luckily, Equinox does allow members (and employees like me) to work out in bare feet, so I’m in the clear there.

But if you really want to try, just start doing some light bodyweight movements, stretches and warm-ups in bare feet at home, or in the group fitness or yoga studio of your gym before hitting the weight-room floor in shoes.

What’s it really like to work out in bare feet?

I’ve only been doing stationary weight-lifting in my bare feet as I work up my strength, but I may consider doing some cardio intervals in the near future without shoes as well. So far I’ve really enjoyed the sensations on my feet while training and have felt new muscles in my legs and ankles developing. It’s strange to feel your whole foot on the ground, and it can be a little weird at first. I’ve been worried about dropping weights on my feet, but I guess that would hurt whether I had shoes on or not.

I’m definitely not going to be running around the city or group fitness room in bare feet anytime soon. I think high-quality sneakers are a must for activities like that in public, but it’s definitely an interesting experiment to begin working out here and there in bare feet, when the situation is appropriate.

But let’s be real: I’m a shoe lover at heart, so I’ll never give up my bright sneakers, no matter how cute my socks may be.

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Questions of the day

Have you ever tried working out in bare feet?

Does your gym allow people to go without shoes?

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23 Comments

  1. I have never been to a gym that lets people workout bare foot! I have heard so many good things about running bare foot, but it is something I have never tried.

    1. Yes, I think you’d really have to train yourself before you could run in bare feet. But I’ve seen the barefoot thing really catching on. You may notice it more now that you’re on the lookout for it. Thanks for stopping by, Megan!

    1. Hi Cris! Thanks for reading. Work up to it with baby steps of course. It’s definitely a new sensation on your feet and legs. Let me know how it goes! 🙂

  2. This is so interesting! I’ve never even thought about working out barefoot but now that you explain the mechanics behind it, it makes perfect sense.
    The first time I ran a 10k, one of my feet hurt for a week or two after and it’s probably because the muscles etc. weren’t properly conditioned. I thought I just needed to get a better pair of shoes next time but it seems like Vibrams might be a better option. I agree, they are so weird looking though!

    1. Hi Sarah! I know, it does start to make sense. You definitely need to work up to being totally bare foot though. Let me know if you try anything. Baby steps, no running just yet!

  3. I work out barefoot allllll the time–but if I’m being honest, it’s mostly out of laziness, haha (and because most of my workouts happen at home, on carpeting). Totally agree that we’ve become way too dependent on supportive shoes as a society! I think part of the problem is that we have a lot more hard surfaces than a “primal” culture would have, and our feet need support to deal with those. But as long as you’re working on a semi-soft surface, I think barefoot is the way to go! Thanks for this post!! 🙂

    1. Hi Kim! Thanks for reading. You’re welcome, I’m glad you enjoyed. On the carpet at home is a great place to start building foot strength. It’s definitely easier on the foot than wood or a hard gym floor.

  4. I a huge fan of bare feet, but I hate not wearing shoes. I’m trying out some “minimalist” shoes when I lift in the gym, but I haven’t tried running in them yet. Totally understand the importance of baby steps!

  5. Great article, Ashley. I’ve been a barefoot/minimalist runner for years and, while it may not be for everyone, I can’t imagine going back to regular running shoes anymore. A couple of years ago, I was doing a fitness bootcamp, and always worked out in my Vibrams, as did a few other campers. One day, in honor of Tom’s One Day Without Shoes, they held a barefoot workout day (spring day, on a grassy soccer field). Everyone did sprints, kettle bells, jump rope, etc in their bare feet and most folks LOVED it.

    At the very least, I encourage folks to try their home workout in bare feet. And, yes, as for barefoot running, it’s baby steps, being very mindful of form and surfaces, and listening to your body.

    1. Hi Tommy! Thanks for stopping by to share. I LOVE that you’re a fan and have done some barefoot or minimalist-shoe working out. I haven’t done it for running and likely won’t, but for weight-training and bodyweight work, it’s great to be in socks. I ALWAYS stay barefoot for my home workouts too, just because I can. I’d love to attend that grass bootcamp on Tom’s holiday! 🙂 Have a good one!

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