For weeks on end, the coronavirus pandemic has pushed gym junkies and weekend warriors alike to break a sweat inside their living rooms.
Exercising at home has a different vibe than the gym for plenty of reasons, but it can feel especially weird to throw on sneakers for your workouts, especially if your space is carpeted.
Does that mean you should swap your sneaks for bare feet? Not necessarily. Here’s what the pros want you to know about doing home workouts barefoot.
How Shoes Affect Your Workouts
First of all, your running shoes or cross-trainers are much more than a fashion statement. In fact, the shoes you work out in play a critical role in supporting your entire body as you move.
“Think about the Empire State Building,” says Holly Perkins, C.S.C.S., author of Lift to Get Lean. “When they built it, they put an enormous amount of time into getting the foundation right so the building would be secure.”
“Shoes have the exact same relationship to your body,” she says. They help to create a level surface for your feet and support the heels, balls, and arches of your feet.
That said, this extra support comes with a distinct set of pros and cons.
The Pros Of Working Out Barefoot
Strange as it may feel at first, sweating sans shoes can offer some legit fitness benefits.
1. Improved Proprioception
“Barefoot time improves proprioception, or the sense that tells you where you are in space,” says physical therapist Morgan Fielder, D.P.T. “With shoes on all of the time, our feet cannot feel the ground and we experience a diminished sense of grounding, body awareness, and overall balance that may be a risk factor for falls, chronic pain, uncoordinated movement, and reduced sports performance.”
“If you have well-developed proprioception, though, your lightning-fast instincts might be able to prevent a fall, shift your weight for a great sports maneuver, or avoid a major sprain or strain by feeling when a weight you are lifting is just a little too much,” she says.
2. Greater Muscle Activation
“For moves like squats, deadlifts, RDLs, and other leg-strengthening exercises, [going barefoot] really helps to improve the activation of various muscles all the way up your body,” says Perkins. And the more muscles you activate during a movement, the more benefits you reap.
3. Improved Foot Strength
“Barefoot workouts give the little muscles under the arch of your foot the opportunity to adapt and get stronger,” says Fielder. “Shoes, meanwhile, prevent these foot muscles from being challenged throughout the day.”
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In fact, by building strength in these muscles through barefoot exercise, you can ward off plantar fasciitis, ankle instability, and potentially even back pain, Fielder suggests. Suddenly having strong feet sounds pretty appealing, doesn’t it?
The Cons Of Working Out Barefoot
That said, working out sans shoes isn’t always the best idea. “Without the cushion, heel-rise, and comfort of shoes, we alter our movement patterns,” says Fielder—and that can be a problem.
1. Increased Injury Risk
“Like any muscular group, the muscles of the feet need to be progressively overloaded,” says Dr. William Kelley, D.P.T., A.T.C., C.S.C.S., owner of Aries Physical Therapy. “Lose the protection of footwear and you can easily over-exert your feet in a way that can lead to overuse injuries.” Basically, if you don’t have sufficient foot strength, control, and mobility, you may not perform exercises as well as you would with shoes on.
Not only can this affect your feet, but it can also contribute to overuse injuries in the joints and muscles around the knees, hips, and lower back, Fielder adds.
2. Lack Of Cushion
“It’s harder to achieve a soft landing when performing high-impact exercises like plyometrics without shoes because it’s physically painful to the balls of our feet and heels,” says Fielder.
“However, soft landings are important because they allow you to distribute force throughout your entire lower body and spine,” she says. Hard landings, meanwhile, often overstress one or two joints, causing pain and injury.
3. Less Traction
In addition to cushion, “shoes provide traction and grip,” says Kelley. If you slip and slide while training barefoot, you can alter your entire movement pattern and cause injury.
4. Lack Of Protection
Obvious but important to remember: “Shoes help us avoid cuts, abrasions, and other injuries to our feet,” says Fielder.
Since most of us don’t have protective calluses on our feet, “we must inspect the area we are going to use for home workouts and ensure there aren’t any hazards,” she says.
Which Workouts To Do Barefoot
Ultimately, certain workouts are better suited for going barefoot than others—especially if you’re new to ditching shoes.
“Workouts that require balance, control, and single-leg function are best performed without shoes so you can perform the task even better with shoes on,” says Kelley. Think yoga, pilates, and slower-paced strength or resistance training.
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“Even heavy slow resistance training, including movements like squats, deadlifts, and lunges, should be fine barefoot for most,” says Fielder. “You might just want to decrease weight somewhat to let your ankle and posterior chain muscles adapt to the different position.”
Which Workouts To Do In Shoes
Other workouts benefit from keeping your feet secure and protected in your sneakers.
“Higher-impact exercises, such as plyometrics, shouldn’t be performed without shoes,” says Kelley. “This impact is very harsh on the feet and can easily lead to an injury or pain.”
Workouts with a lot of quick transitions are also risky, since you’re more likely to slip and drop a weight, according to Kelley. Basically, anything involving running, jumping, or bouncing around is best done in shoes.
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