With all the money powerlifters spend on special shoes, it might seem weird to see many powerlifters still squatting and deadlift without shoes. But this is for good reason, as going barefoot can have many benefits in improving a lifter’s strength and technique.
So why do powerlifters not wear shoes? Lifting without shoes can help provide lifters with a better connection between their foot and the floor, give immediate feedback on technique issues, diagnose movement limitations, and strengthen the foot.
Before immediately taking off your shoes and squatting and deadlifting barefoot though, let’s first discuss the role the foot plays within these movements and why it is so important. We’ll then take a look at the four reasons why powerlifters sometimes don’t wear shoes while lifting.
The Role of The Foot In The Squat And Deadlift
The foot is our only direct connection with the element we are transmitting force through, which is the floor.
The squat and deadlift are outcomes of Newton’s 3rd law, which states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Within the squat and deadlift, this equal and opposite reaction is the foot driving down into the floor and the floor then transmitting force back into the foot. So based on this, the foot becomes very important within these movements. The better stability and connection our foot has with the floor, the better it is at transmitting the force that the rest of our body is creating through the squat and deadlift.
The goal of our feet within the squat and deadlift is to achieve equal pressure between our heel, the ball of the foot of the big toe, and the ball of the foot of the pinky toe.
This creates the “tripod foot“, and assures we have optimal stability and contact between the foot and the floor. When this is achieved, we are able to produce force in the most efficient manner.
Leaning Too Far Forward or Too Far Back On The Foot
When we lean too far forward on our toes, we lose stability and now are having to transfer more force through the ankle joint.
And the opposite, if we lean too far back on our heels we can also lose stability, but at least we still are producing force for the most part directly up the tibia versus having to go through the ankle. This is typically why you hear the common cue of driving through the heels, as even though it is incorrect, it has much less of a fault than being forward on your toes.
Optimally though, we want to achieve pressure over our midfoot, which will be directly in front of the heel and directly below the tibia. If you look at the actual anatomy of the foot, you will see the heel is displaced just behind the tibia, with the tibia stacked directly over where we would describe as the beginning of our arch, aka the midfoot.
Should We All Squat And Deadlift Barefoot?
Not so fast.
First and foremost in the sport of powerlifting, it is not legal to go barefoot within the competition.
Second, there is a benefit to different types of footwear within the squat and deadlift, whether that be due to limitations in ankle mobility (which is covered in-depth in our article on Heels Vs. Flat Shoes) or grip issues with the floor on deadlift.
But within our training in the gym, there are benefits to lifting barefoot at times.
Here are four reasons why you might want to consider lifting without shoes.
1. The Ability To Feel A Better Connection With The Floor
The further disconnect we have between our feet and the floor, the less of a sensory perception we have with what our foot is actually doing. You may have noticed this yourself on squats in particular, in that the higher the heel you have on your shoe the less you can really tell what your feet are doing.
When we squat and deadlift barefoot, we receive direct sensory feedback on the connection between our feet and the floor.
In particular, on the squat, heeled shoes like Nike Romaleos have such a hard and solid sole that the shoe itself provides stability for us. But, when we are trying to balance on the balls of our feet, our foot has to increase its involvement to stabilize the movement. If we lose connection with one of the three main contact points, it becomes more evident and we are able to better notice when this happens.
We also have an easier time noticing when we have achieved mid-foot pressure when you are barefoot.
The soles of our shoes are flat and have many contact points with the floor, whereas our foot does not. When we are barefoot and the foot moves out of position we can immediately feel it, as we only have three main points of contact that our sensory system has to be aware of. This is much easier to process within the split second it takes to perform a squat or a deadlift.
Not only are we able to better notice what our foot is doing, but we can truly feel the floor better.
You can think of the analogy of touching braille with your fingers. With our bare hands we can easily feel the bumps, but add a pair of gloves and that becomes harder. Add a second pair of gloves and now its really hard, and add a third pair and you probably can’t feel a thing. The same thing is happening as we add layers between the feet and the floor. It becomes harder and harder to feel that connection and find context between how the feet and the floor are relating.
2. A Feedback Tool To Help Self-Correct Form
Since we are able to notice minor deviations from the mid-foot position better when we are barefoot, we also are better able to self-correct these issues involuntarily.
Within powerlifting, you may choose squatting and deadlifting variations that punish you for having incorrect form.
For example, on pin squats you’ll know immediately if your hips shoot up. With pause deadlifts, you can feel if your initial starting position was off. These variations give immediate feedback and can involuntarily force you to correct movement faults because if you perform them wrong, you can feel the immediate negative feedback.
The same goes for squatting and deadlifting barefoot. It gives immediate negative feedback when we do something wrong.
You can see this by simply standing up right now barefoot and rocking back and forth from your heels to your toes. It is not comfortable when you are fully rocked back onto your heels, as that round bone isn’t exactly easy or comfortable to balance on.
And if you rocked forward towards your toes you immediately feel your calf muscles having to engage to help stabilize the ankle joint from wanting to collapse. When you do this, you don’t even have to think about it, it’s just naturally uncomfortable and your body reacts to find a more optimal position.
Now do the same thing with shoes on. You might get some similar feedback, but it’s significantly less and you probably have to think about making these corrections more versus involuntarily fixing them.
This is why squatting and deadlift barefoot can be of such benefit.
As a coach, if I find that an athlete is having issues finding the correct foot pressure, instead of trying to give them endless cues I can just have them take their shoes off and they will naturally self-correct.
If they don’t self-correct, they are immediately punished during the movement from the instability and discomfort they feel with their feet. So involuntarily they will start finding the foot pressure that naturally feels best to them, as is the typical human response.
3. A Way To Diagnose Movement Limitations
Another issue shoes present is they can mask what our foot is actually doing.
The slightest pronation of the ankle or change of foot pressure towards the toes or heel might be unnoticeable while reviewing a video of a lifter that is wearing shoes. But, have the lifter take their shoes off and any technical errors occurring at the foot will be more apparent.
Too often I see coaches and lifters looking at the hips and knees, for example, during the squat and trying to diagnose why their knees are caving. But really, they should be looking at the feet.
One of the first things I’ll do if I see some type of movement fault in the lower half of the body is have an athlete squat or deadlift barefoot to see what the feet are doing. Most of the time this will tell us exactly what is going on.
As already mentioned, the foot is our only direct connection with the element we are transmitting force through, so it should also be the first thing we look at when we see form breakdown.
If the foot loses position, everything else up the chain has to compensate.
4. Strengthen The Arch Of The Foot
Most shoes provide some type of arch support which will help mask the issue of a weak foot.
If you squat and deadlift barefoot and immediately when you apply force into the floor the arch collapses, it’s a telling sign that the shoes have been a band-aid. We wrote an article on maintaining the arch of your foot while squatting HERE.
At the same time though band-aids are not always bad. We use knee sleeves, belts, and wrist wraps to mask issues at times, but it never hurts to have a stronger core, wrist, and knees as well. The same goes for the feet. While there are elite level lifters who probably have weak arches and never train barefoot, it is one of those things that’s simple to implement and can only have a positive net effect.
How To Implement Barefoot Training
So, you understand now why powerlifters train barefoot at times, but how do we implement this?
For deadlifts it is fairly easy, just go barefoot. There is not much hindering someone from taking their shoes off while deadlifting and many powerlifters do this year-round. Even powerlifters who don’t train barefoot are typically using a minimalist shoe, especially with the rise in popularity and availability of “deadlift slippers“.
For squat, this is a little bit harder though, especially for athletes who typically squat in heels.
My recommendation is to start squatting with doing a tempo variation. For example, squatting down with a count of 4-5 seconds. Adding in a tempo allows even more time for self-processing during each rep to really learn how to maintain midfoot pressure and stability.
For those who typically train with a heel, I suggest taking a thin 2.5lb or 5lb plate to place under your heels. It can be a bit awkward at first, especially learning how to walkout onto these plates, but that is also why it is best to do these while doing a light tempo squat so that the weight on the bar is not a major factor. The heel is placed on the plate for contact point number 1, and the balls of the feet are on the floor for contact points 2 and 3, with the midfoot being just barely off the plate.
A big question I get in this scenario is that if your midfoot isn’t even touching the floor, how do you find it? The midfoot is less about contact pressure and more about weight distribution. We have 3 points of contact within the tripod foot position, and the midfoot is not one of them. More so, the midfoot is where the weight distribution centers itself if we have the correct points of contact.
As for programming sets and reps, I will usually program barefoot squats within the 2-4 rep range at relatively low loads, as the goal is not volume or intensity, but rather sensory learning. We want good quality reps that focus on foot pressure and control, not super heavy or high volume reps that are exhausting.
If you have the option of squatting barefoot vs squatting in running shoes, always go barefoot. I cover this in my article on Squatting In Running Shoes: Should You Do It?
Next time you see a powerlifter training barefoot, hopefully you have a better understanding of why and an appreciation for what this technique can help teach you about foot stability and control.
If you are someone who struggles with being able to maintain proper foot pressure, barefoot training can be a great tool to utilize to self-correct movement errors and to find better context with how your feet relate to the floor.
Powerlifting technique is all about optimizing force production and being as efficient as possible within our movement, and within the squat and deadlift that starts at the foot.
de Villiers, J., Benter, R. 2014. Barefoot Training Improved Ankle Stability and Agility in Netball Players. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching. 9(3).
Sato, K., Fortenbaugh, D., Hydock, D. 2013. Comparison of Back Squat Kinematics Between Barefoot and Shoe Conditions. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching. 8 (3).