Portrait of a happy African American guy doing stretches isolated against white background

It was only a few years ago the ‘barefoot’ running craze took the nation by storm. Shoe companies readily jumped on the bandwagon that was pulled by the Vibram® company and started producing ‘minimalist’ shoes. Purported ‘studies’ came out validating the benefits of barefoot training (in particular, barefoot running). Like most crazes the barefoot method was taken to extremes and misinterpreted. All of a sudden, trainers were recommending their clients wear minimalist shoes or nothing at all while performing Olympic lifts, boot camp workouts, and more. Avid runners seeking an edge in their training tossed out the sneakers and opted for finger shoes. Some with success, many with failure. Is barefoot training good or bad for you? Depends on whom you ask. I’m here to tell you when you should and should not go barefoot in your workout routines.

Olympic Lifting: (short answer) Wear Olympic lifting shoes. (long answer) Never go barefoot with Oly lifts. I repeat, NEVER go barefoot for Oly lifts! Olympic lifters require incredible strength, speed, and power. The amount of force they place on their bodies while lifting heavy weight at amazing speeds needs proper support. That support starts with proper shoes. Oly lifting shoes typicially have a 2+ in. heel lift. This is necessary for increased ankle mobility so the lifter can ‘catch’ the weight with ease. In addition, Oly shoes typically have wooden soles for a solid impact on landing. Oly lifters don’t want cushion in their heels. They need durable soles to take the impact and stop the rate of force production immediately. Finally, Oly shoes tend to have a metallic strap that comes across the top arch of the food. This keeps the foot from shifting inside the shoe during the lift. All movement inside the shoes must be kept to a minimum.

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Powerlifting: (short answer) Deadlifts? No shoes or minimalist shoes. Squats? Shoes. Bench? Doesn’t matter. (long answer) When deadlifting you’re goal is to stand all the way up while holding onto a barbell with a lot of weight. By adding a heel lift we’re making the deadlift more difficult because, now, we have a further distance to travel. As for squats it can vary but let’s assume you’re doing a powerlifter style squat (very wide stance, little ankle flexion, bar low on your traps). This type of squatter wants a slight heel lift (about .5 inches). This will allow just enough ankle flexion to get into a parallel squat but not too much that it turns into an Olympic style squat. Also, the squatter will want a high top shoe that wraps around the ankles to create more stability. When it comes to benching it’s more important on how your seated and positioned rather than what’s on your feet.

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Kettlebell Training: (short answer) Barefoot training is perfectly allowed. (long answer) Go barefoot all day long with kettlebell training. In fact, kettlebell practitioners strongly encourage barefoot training to teach the importance of body awareness and having a strong base of support. Nearly all kettlebell training is based on strength from the ground up. When you don’t wear shoes all the sensors throughout your feet can give you precise feedback on your stability and balance. The more you can feel the stronger you become. Finger shoes are permitted in place of going completely barefoot.

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Running: (short answer) Barefoot, minimalist shoes, or sneakers. In other words, whatever works for YOU. (long answer) Several factors must be considered for the type of shoe, if any, that goes on your feet when running. How far are you running? What are your running mechanics (heel striker or forefoot striker)? Do you have any injuries or chronic pain? If you’ve been an avid runner and have no debilitating injuries then stay with what you have. If not, then you might want to look into a workshop on running mechanics before making adjustments to your shoes. I’ve run marathons where some of the fastest runners wore regular sneakers with padding or nothing at all (seriously, one guy was completely barefoot!).

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If you find yourself participating in circuit workouts, boot camps, or crossfit then I would invest in a solid pair of minimalist shoes with minimal padding on the heel.  Vibram, Reebok, Merrell, among others, have some solid shoes on the market. A good rule to follow when picking out your next pair of shoes is the 15 sec. rule. If after 15 sec. of putting those shoes on you are not sure then you need a different pair.

About Josh Jarmin

Originally from Washington, D.C. (NOVA) Josh moved to Atlanta to be a Middle School history teacher after graduating from James Madison University. He joined the Marine Corps infantry as a reservist and served in Iraq honorably. Josh then turned his attention to personal training after his tour in order to help others reach their health/fitness goals. At one point he was 275lbs and 28% body fat. Now he's 195lbs and 13.5% body fat. Josh worked for several fitness facilities in Atlanta and developed a loyal following of trainees. He's created a training program of his own personal design and has established himself as one of the top kettlebell and body movement experts in the Atlanta area. Josh is currently the Co-Owner and Director of Fitness at Blueprint Fitness.

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