The Truth About Barefoot Training
Article originally appeared on t-nation.com on 4/2/15
Here's what you need to know...
Faulty foot and ankle mechanics impact muscle function, mechanics, and joint health throughout the entire body.
Most shoes act as a crutch, thus contributing to foot and ankle dysfunction.
Barefoot and minimalist training is the ideal way to train and move, but your body must be properly prepared first.
If you're unable to perform a majority of your activities in barefoot or minimalist conditions, then you have foot and ankle deficiencies.
Improving foot and ankle function will do wonders for movement mechanics, particularly in the hips and lower torso.
The feet and ankles are best trained with a variety of exercises that focus on stabilization and balance.
The Barefoot Trend
A decade ago, the fitness industry initiated a trend in barefoot training that ultimately led to mass production of barefoot or minimalist-style shoes.
Perpetuated by various research studies and writings (most of which supported the potential benefits), this step in a right direction was quickly met with disaster. Athletes, runners, and everyday gym-goers began developing minor to severe injuries. Read more about mastering barefoot training here.
Enter the Maximalist Trend
Instead of simply returning to normal shoes, these same companies who previously advocated minimalist footwear began creating and marketing "maximalist shoes" with several inches of cushion.
Rather than promoting natural foot activation, these maximalist shoes (along with most other forms of footwear) provide enough foot support to allow a majority of foot and ankle muscles to shut down and go into a state of semi-dormancy and inactivity.
The Real Issue
In reality, the problem had nothing to do with the footwear or barefoot ideology but instead had everything to do with improper application and physical preparedness of the people wearing these shoes.
The minimalist or barefoot shoe trend is one of the few things the fitness industry has done right in the past decade.
If you're unable to perform a majority of your activities, including strength training, walking, jogging, sprinting, agility drills, and even plyometrics in either barefoot or the most minimalist shoes, your feet and ankles just aren't functioning the way they were meant to.
The feet, ankles, and toes need to be trained like any other body part. In fact, you could argue they require even greater emphasis considering most individuals wear shoes that limit, constrict, and bind their feet into unnatural positions, ultimately promoting dysfunction of the lower extremity.
The Best Shock Absorbers Money Can't Buy
Skeletal muscles not only produce force, they also act as a means for absorbing force, essentially acting as shock absorbers. When skeletal muscles aren't activating properly, much of this stress is transferred to tendons, ligaments, joints, and surrounding connective tissue.
The feet are no different. With over 100 various muscles, the feet and ankles encompass 15-20% of all the muscles in the body.
In reality, the feet and ankles are meant to withstand incredibly high forces and should provide more in terms of shock absorption than perhaps any other body part.
Unfortunately, humans begin to gradually lose this ability once we start wearing shoes. Over time, the feet, ankles, and toes become inhibited. Gradually, the force-absorbing responsibilities of the feet are re-assigned to the latest in trendy footwear technology.
Besides minimizing the ability to withstand intense ground reactive forces, the body gradually begins sending fewer and fewer signals to the feet, leading to distortions in proprioception and loss of innervation all the way up the kinetic chain.
Ultimately, this produces foot and ankle dysfunction that leads to dysfunctional movement patterns throughout the entire body, head to toe, or in this case, toe to head.
The Big Picture
If you think foot and ankle dysfunction is an isolated issue only affecting your body from the shins down, think again. For example, squatting with weak ankles and feet often contributes to faulty hip and knee mechanics, which indirectly affects the position of the spine.
Poor spinal alignment is often associated with low back pain, neck impingement, shoulder injuries, and inhibition/weakness of the upper extremities.
Besides placing yourself at greater risk for injuries, you've also minimized the amount of force and power your body can produce from head to toe. Furthermore, you've created a scenario where most other movement patterns become flawed to varying degrees, only further compromising your training efforts and results.
Feet Affect Everything
For most movement, neural signaling begins at the feet. The better the feet and ankles are functioning, the better the innervation all they way up the kinetic chain. Unfortunately, a majority of athletes, lifters, and general populations display foot and ankle dysfunction to varying degrees.
No matter how strong, powerful, mobile, agile, fast, or explosive an athlete is, correcting these foot and ankle deficiencies will only improve upon their pre-existing biomotor capabilities as well as reduce their risk for injuries.
Addressing foot and ankle deficiencies will do wonders not only for strength and power but will also do more for technique, muscle function, joint health, and movement mechanics than most forms of corrective exercise.
Barefoot and Minimalist Training
Performing activity in minimalist footwear or barefoot conditions (once the athlete has been appropriately prepared) builds strength, proper firing patterns, and optimal foot mechanics.
Traditional footwear, including weightlifting shoes, are great for demonstrating your abilities but they do nothing for foot and ankle function other than impeding neural innervation.
Competitive athletes should spend a significant portion (at least 50%) of their training, practice, and skill work in barefoot or minimalist shoes. Athletes should treat traditional shoes like powerlifters treat lifting suits and training gear.
These suits and gear enable powerlifters to lift 5-30% more weight than raw conditions. However, the use of such gear is confined predominantly to contest preparation as it does little for building strength, but much in terms of demonstrating it.
Similarly, minimalist shoes build foot and ankle strength while normal shoes typically allow better demonstration of one's performance capabilities.
Don't go too extreme with barefoot training too soon or you'll set yourself up for injuries. Gradually progress into it. Eventually you should be able to perform most of your physical activity in minimalist or barefoot conditions.
The Right "Barefoot" Shoe
A proper barefoot shoe will include five important characteristics:
Wide toe box to allow the toes to move/splay
Very flexible sole allowing the foot to bend naturally
Zero drop (heel is same height as the forefoot)
Minimal to no cushion, forcing the feet to provide most shock absorption
Little to no ankle support in the heel or upper of the shoe
It's okay to wear socks, but make sure they're not tight around the toe box or you'll restrict toe movement, ultimately impeding foot and ankle innervation.
Similar to shoes, wearing orthotics only reinforces faulty foot mechanics by acting as a substitute for what your muscles are supposed to be doing.
This only caters to your inability to properly active the feet and ankles. Remember, the goal is to treat the cause, not the symptoms. With proper training and neuromuscular re-education, orthotics become obsolete.
Additional Foot Notes
While stability tools such as the BOSU device aren't the best for directly targeting prime movers and larger muscles of the body, they're exceptional for providing an intense stimulus to the ankles, toes, and feet, particularly under conditions of minimal or no footwear.
If your toes have a tendency to overlap and have little spacing, invest in a pair of yoga toes or toe spacers.
When walking around the house, go barefoot as much as possible.
Blisters, corns, ingrown toenails, bunions, skin irritations of the feet, and even many calluses can be traced back to either poor footwear, improper foot and ankle mechanics, or a combination of both.
Most of these are a result of placing uneven pressure on various locations of the feet, a common result of faulty foot mechanics.
Ladies, do yourselves a favor and forego the heels and fancy shoes when possible. They may look good when you're wearing them, but the long-term effects are unpleasant to say the least.
Standard calf training commonly performed by bodybuilders is great for increasing size in the gastrocnemius and soleus, but it does little for addressing proper foot and ankle mechanics.
Common Deficiencies in the Ankles and Feet
1. Ankle and Foot Pronation
A majority of individuals display a valgus foot collapse (inward collapse of the foot) or ankle pronation.
This is often accompanied by one or more of the following, including prominent medial malleoli (protrusion of the inside ankle bone); over-pronation of the feet, flat feet, fallen arches; overlapping toes; prominent scaphoid or navicular bone (protruding inner arch) bunions; and hallux valgus (inward collapse of the big toe).
Significant flaring in either direction (external or internal rotation) is also commonly associated with the above issues.
Besides impairing various aspects of performance and health, these tendencies can lead to a host of other related problems including ACL tears, low back injuries, knee pain, osteoarthritis, and various injuries to the lower extremity.
2. Ankle and Foot Supination
On the opposite, less-common end of the spectrum lies the supinated foot, a syndrome more commonly seen in bow-legged individuals. These people tend to place greater stress on the outer or lateral portion of the foot.
Ankle supination tends to be associated with inflammation throughout the outer ankles, shins, and hips including the IT band. Although the problems are typically less severe than those seen in ankle pronators, these individuals can be susceptible to ankle sprains and chronic foot discomfort.
Fortunately, the cure for these various issues is the same: Strengthen the ankles by forcing them to assume proper alignment. Most of the exercises described below do just that.
Proper Foot Mechanics
The "three point of contact rule" is a good place to start here. That just means the foot should ideally contact the floor in the following places:
Heel or calcaneus.
The lateral upper portion of the foot or outer ball of the foot in line with the 5th metatarsal, baby toe area.
Near the proximal phalange, or more commonly, the big toe.
What Results Can You Expect?
Even the most severe foot and ankle issues can be resolved with proper foot and ankle training. It took me over a year to fix my own feet and ankles with issues ranging from flat feet, fallen arches, pronation, toe crowding, valgus ankle collapse, and external rotation.
I experimented with a variety of exercises and techniques and if I'd known then what I know now, it would have taken just a fraction of the time. The following exercises will allow you to maximize the efficiency of your foot and ankle training.
For those of you wondering if training your feet will actually produce significant improvements in mechanics, check out these before and after pictures of one of my athletes. In the photos to the left, the pronation and valgus-ankle collapse is pretty extreme, particularly in the right ankle.
You can also see the pronounced navicular joint on the inside of his collapsed right arch. With the photo to the right, these issues are no longer visible.
Some of you may not believe this, but this was the result of only one session. The photos were taken on the same day, before and after our neuromuscular re-education training of the feet and ankles.
Now, some of this was due to him cognitively focusing on correct mechanics, which is in fact part of the neural re-education process. However, with consistent training, this gradually becomes the body's go-to strategy for foot alignment with conscientious effort becoming less and less necessary.
Here are the exercises that can make this happen
Toe and Foot Mobility/Mechanics
STANDING FOOT MECHANICS DRILL
This first exercise – although the most simple – is one of the most critical. The goal is to manipulate your toes, feet, and ankles into proper alignment. For many individuals this can be frustrating and very uncomfortable.
There are several things you'll want to focus on once you set your posture. First make sure both feet are completely straight with no internal or external rotation whatsoever. For most people this will feel slightly pigeon toed as a majority of the population favors slight external rotation as a common compensation pattern.
Next, make sure your ankles are pushed out (slightly supinated). As you push your ankles out by placing more weight to the outside of your feet, focus on pressing the base of your big toes into the floor.
This will ensure you're not over-supinating and will also help engage the muscles of the toes. As you perform this you should gradually feel your arches rise.
Finally, focus on spreading all of your toes apart as much as possible, creating slight space in between each toe, particularly the big toe and the second/index toe (in line with the 2nd metatarsal).
If you need to, you can manually manipulate your toes into position by using your fingers. Perform 2-3 sets of 30-60 seconds, 1-5 times per day.
Toe curls are great for teaching toe mobility, an often-overlooked aspect of foot and ankle function. While keeping most of your weight on the outer portion of the ankles and heels, curl your toes up as high as possible while keeping them spread apart.
Then reverse the position by curling your toes into the floor. Hold each position 2-3 seconds and perform for 45-60 seconds.
The following exercises can be regressed or progressed with a total of six different progressions. For example, each exercise can be performed on three different surface types including hard floor, semi-soft surface (exercise mat or soft carpet), and unstable surface (Airex foam pad, pillow, BOSU ball, etc.)
You can also perform each condition with eyes open or eyes closed. Closing the eyes greatly increases the difficulty by further challenging the proprioceptors and stabilizers.
The key is to start basic and gradually progress to more challenging conditions while making sure foot alignment is proper.
This is the most foundational exercise for lower body stability. With tall posture, lift one leg 10-12 inches in front of the other, making sure both toes are perfectly straight while maintaining balance on a single leg for 30-60 seconds.
Eyes closed on an unstable device (the most progressed variation) will give even the most advanced trainee a run for their money.
This is one of my favorite drills for simultaneously targeting rotary stability of the core and ankle stabilization. The exercise is simple yet surprisingly difficult.
Balance on one leg and swap either a kettlebell, weight plate, or dumbbell back and forth slowly between each hand, holding 3-5 seconds in each position. Perform a minimum of 8 total swaps per leg before switching sides.
SINGLE-LEG OVERHEAD PRESS
Few upper body exercises are more difficult to perform on a single leg than a standing overhead press. Whether you choose a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells, don't be surprised if you have to drop the weight considerably.
If it still doesn't provide enough of a challenge, you can always go bottoms up. This is the epitome of full body stabilization.
SINGLE-LEG RDL AND ROW COMBO
This is one of the greatest exercises not only for challenging the stabilizers of the feet and ankles, but also for targeting your entire back, glutes, and hamstrings. Perform 2-3 rows per RDL while accumulating a total of 3-5 RDL's per side before switching legs.
ECCENTRIC ISOMETRIC LUNGE WITH KETTLEBELL SWAP
Lunges are incredibly beneficial for foot and ankle stability, especially when performed in barefoot conditions. Add in a significant destabilizing element such as kettlebell swaps and you've greatly increased the demand of the muscles around the feet.
With a kettlebell in one hand, slowly lower yourself into a lunge and pause while smoothly swapping the kettlebell back and forth (between your legs) from arm to arm.
SINGLE-LEG POWER HOLD
When it comes to pure unadulterated overload of the muscles surrounding the ankles and feet, the single-leg power hold is tough to beat. Set up a barbell with a moderately heavy load, un-rack it, and perform a single leg stand with perfect alignment. Hold for 10-20 seconds, then repeat on the opposite leg.
Stabilizing a joint is incredibly important for performance and overall joint integrity. However, many exercises such as those previously demonstrated produce instability in a fairly predictable fashion.
By adding in sporadic perturbations, it exposes the muscles to unpredictable oscillations, forcing them to continually adjust to the irregular stimulus. I refer to this as reactive stabilization and consider it to be integral for any athlete or lifter seeking to maximize performance.
The following exercises were designed specifically to address this:
SINGLE-LEG STAND WITH PARTNER PERTURBATION
Recent research has demonstrated the effectiveness of perturbation training for working the core, proprioceptors, and stabilizers of the body. This technique can be applied to any muscle group. However, it lends itself exceptionally well to stabilization training of the ankles and feet
While standing on one leg, have your training partner gently push you from various directions, angles, and positions. To increase the kinesthetic demand of this drill, perform it while holding a stability ball.
EYES-CLOSED ECCENTRIC ISOMETRIC SQUAT ON BOSU
Stand on the round side of a BOSU ball (or any unstable surface) and slowly squat down into position, pausing for 3-5 seconds for several reps without collapsing. If possible, perform this with eyes closed. Make sure you force your feet to contour to the shape of the ball by pushing your ankles out.
The combination of the eyes-closed eccentric isometrics in conjunction with the unpredictable oscillations from the instability device will greatly enhance proprioceptive feedback.
ECCENTRIC ISOMETRIC LUNGE WITH PARTNER PERTURBATION
Performing lunges with unpredictable taps from your partner is fantastic for activating the stabilizers in the feet and ankles, not to mention the entire lower body and core. Start off with gentle taps and progress to more aggressive perturbations as stability improves.
Rate of Stabilization Development (RSD)
The exercises listed above are great for recruiting a high number of muscle fibers surrounding the feet. However, there's one element missing from these movements: rate of stabilization development (RSD).
Similar to explosive exercises that require a significant rate of force development (RFD), the following exercises will not only require a high number of muscles around the feet and ankles to fire, but it will also force them to turn on quickly and rapidly in order to avoid sudden instability.
SINGLE-LEG HOP AND HOLD
While on one leg, jump with maximal height, catch, and then stabilize until you're completely still. Then repeat. Sounds simple, but wait until you try it eyes closed.
RAPID SINGLE-LEG SWAP
This exercise is nearly identical to the traditional single-leg swap. The main difference is the rapid hand off/swap forces the muscles around the feet to turn on and stabilize quickly. This is an excellent drill for addressing RSD.
SINGLE-LEG MED BALL CHEST PASS
Although this can be performed using a wall, it works better with a partner. Stand with perfect alignment on one leg and powerfully perform a medicine ball chest pass.
The deceleration or catch phase of this can be difficult as it forces the athlete to rapidly turn on every stabilizer in the foot and ankle in order to maintain proper balance. Perform 10-12 reps per leg before switching sides.
SINGLE-LEG BOX JUMP-OVERS WITH STABILIZATION
Although this may not necessarily be the most challenging movement, it's by far the most advanced due to the high degree of impact.
When performed on a hard surface with minimal or no footwear, it represents the epitome of shock absorption, reactive stabilization, and RSD. Essentially this exercises forces all the muscles around your feet and ankles to turn on rapidly and in synchrony.
Standing upper body isolation exercises such as biceps curls, lateral raises, shrugs, and cable exercises can also be modified as a single-leg movement or performed on unstable surfaces creating an excellent training stimulus for the ankles and feet.
This is a great way to end an upper body workout with a unique finisher that simultaneously taxes the lower body stabilizers.
Any lower body movements including squats, hinges, and lunges, particularly when performed under eyes closed-eccentric isometric conditions, can be beneficial for the ankles and feet provided the lifter can position their feet properly during execution.
This can be difficult for many lifters, which is why further training of the ankles and feet using the exercises shown above is often necessary.
There are numerous ways to program based on the above exercises. I often have my athletes perform foot and ankle drills in between sets of compound movements.
Because the goal is re-education of the nervous system, the key will be frequency. Perform a minimum of 2 different drills per day, aiming for 2-3 sets of each drill per session.