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Barefoot Training: Risk vs Reward
Each of your feet is made up of 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 120 muscles, tendons, ligaments and nerves. All of these tissues will take on hundreds of tons of weight each and every day. Your heel hits the ground at 1.1-1.4g’s with every step you take! Jogging increases impact forces even higher at 4.4g’s and when you run (7.0mph or faster), the foot hits the ground at 7.7g’s. If you’re just a little over weight, even standing creates stress due to the surface area of your foot being so small in relationship to your total mass. The average person stands about 4 hours/day and walks about 5,000 steps/day. This stress adds up.
When you consider most people wear shoes that are either too small, with little or improper support, slippery soles or the Mother of all foot problems…narrow-high-heeled shoes designed to make a lady’s leg look gorgeous… are you surprised to learn that 87% of the population will experience a serious foot problem at some point?
The typical foot problems are: arch pain (fallen arches-flat feet), Achilles Tendonitis, Bunions, Calluses/Corns, foot problems caused by diabetes or deformities, hammer-toes, heel pain, heel spurs, Morton’s neuroma (benign nerve growth between 3rd and 4th toes), Tarsal Tunnel Syndrome (a pinched nerve disorder), toe-nail problems such as ingrown toenails, plantar fasciitis, and more.
Beyond improper foot wear, one basic theory of the increased foot problems seems to do with the over reliance on foot wear. Using the example of someone wearing a Hip-to-Toe-leg cast due to a broken leg, you have probably seen the amazing atrophy the leg coming out of the cast has gone through compared to the healthy leg. If you wear overly supporting shoes all day long, the tissues in the foot go through some degree of the same atrophy (wasting away of a body part or tissue).
Due to this theory, Barefoot Training or its commercial modification, “Minimalist Foot Wear Training” has evolved. The theory is based on evidence that if you stuff your feet in shoes all-day-long, often too small and too narrow, this will cause all the tissues previously mentioned to weaken, shrink and lose mobility, strength and flexibility.
Since the Squat is the “King of all Exercises” is it easy to understand why “Barefoot Squatting” would become popular. I still remember seeing many photos of Arnold, Franco and many other Bodybuilding greats squatting and performing other exercises bare-footed. The theory is you get a more natural, stable, full-range squat, that can increase strength and muscle hypertrophy gains. Contemplate these key benefits considered by many Bare Foot Training Advocates:
- Better balance, flexibility, form and posture due to greater stability.
- Increase strength due to greater “Heel Drive” into the floor as your nervous system senses greater stability.
- More muscle activation since there is no deactivation due to foot-wear restrictions.
- Increase strength due to lack of “squishy-feeling” in the heel.
Some of the biggest criticisms of Barefoot Training are:
- Lack of Foot Protection. Murphy’s Laws are almost always in effect including Law #1. “If anything can go wrong, it will, at the worst possible moment.” One form of Barefoot Training involves working out in the gym bare foot. A friend of mine did something she has never done before or since. After Squatting, she was talking to another lifter, not focusing as she pulled a 45-pound plate off the Squat Bar. It slipped and landed directly on her foot, breaking several bones. While shoes would not have prevented a lot of the pain, they may have prevented 4 broken toes.
- Either in a weight room, running track, beach, field, or anywhere, footwear protects you from stepping on sharp objects. If you are doing a 400-pound Squat, driving your heels into ground and suddenly find a sharp sliver of glass under your heel…it’s going to leave a mark…not to mention what you do with the Barbell on your back when you feel that sliver being driven into your heel!!!Minimalist Footwear can prevent an event like this.
- And then we have the risk of fungal infections. Working out at home or minimalist footwear can prevent this (think MRSA or Athlete’s Foot).
- Some experts argue that the foot, heel and ankle should be supported by footwear.
I think there is a compromise that can be made here. If you are an experienced lifter and push a lot of Iron, consider the Gradual Progressive Overload Principle (GPO) you studied in your IFPA Personal Fitness Trainer Certification Course. You may have a personal training client that can Squat over 600 pounds, but are you adhering to GPO if you have them start Barefoot Training with the same Frequency, Intensity, Time & Type as their current training? No!
Treat Barefoot Training as a completely new exercise modality. Start as a beginner and build slowly. GPO applies to all workouts: Strength/CV etc.
One good way to begin is to do your Warm-Up in Bare Feet (Minimalist Footwear) and do some lighter exercises Bare Foot: Push-Ups, Jumping Rope, Jumping Jacks, Squat-thrusts, etc.
Another word of warning: Please review your Key Teaching Points (KTPs) on the Squat and other exercises you decide to do Bare Foot, in your IFPA Personal Trainer Manual. The KTP for the Squat: Don’t put anything under your heels! This KTP is vital, because so many weight lifters with tight Achilles Tendons do not have the necessary range of motion (ROM) to perform a Squat correctly. You will be tasked to increase your Personal Training client’s Achilles Tendon ROM to do Bare Foot Squats correctly. You may also want to extend the normal beginner timing of two seconds on the Concentric Contraction, four seconds on the Eccentric Concentration for safety’s sake. Four seconds on the Concentric and six seconds on the Eccentric may make it harder, but it will increase both safety and adaptation. Keep in mind you are looking for a lot of adaptation in the feet, such as nervous system, proprioproceptors, fascia, ligaments, tendons, etc., slower and longer repetitions can aid your goal of adaptation.
Barefoot Squats along with any Barefoot Training can be both safe and effective if you use common sense, problem solving and all the techniques, rules and protocols you learned in your IFPA Personal Training Certification Course.
Dr. Jim Bell