Being an at-home personal trainer, my clients often ask me if it’s okay to lift weights without shoes. Your preference might depend on your goals or risk tolerance. Since I mostly use weights to train people to be functionally strong, meaning we try to build strength that improves everyday movement and quality of life, I’ll give my answer with the goal of functional strength in mind.
Usually my answer is to lift without shoes. Wearing shoes is like using an aid. It makes our feet muscles work less because shoes usually have some amount of built in arch support. With bare feet, we have to use the muscles in our feet to create the arches to provide stability when we are standing… especially on one leg. Neglecting to use our feet muscles causes them to atrophy (get smaller/weaker). When our feet muscles atrophy, we lose the ability to create and maintain arches in our feet on our own… so we become reliant on our shoes!
If you’re thinking that this isn’t a big issue because you plan on wearing shoes all the time forever anyways, think again. Our bodies are connected in so many ways that losing the strength in our feet leads to muscle imbalances and changes in our movement patterns, which often lead to pain or injury. This thinking may lead to a vicious cycle of needing more and more support in our shoes, which gradually causes the muscles in our feet to atrophy more and more until we’ve dug ourselves into a very deep hole.
On top of the arch support, lots of shoes have a heel lift as well! Heel lifts alter our movement patterns and cause muscle imbalances too. It’s basically the same point I made about arch support.
Lifting in bare feet will make it tougher to perform certain exercises with good technique, but that shouldn’t scare us away from doing it! Sure we may need to decrease the weight on some exercises, but we’ll be pushing ourselves in a different way… working to perfect our technique and improve our functional strength. In the long run, we’ll be less injury prone and functionally stronger.
Here’s another thought: The benefit we get from exercise is directly related to the work we put in. When we’re lifting, we’re intentionally working to get that benefit… Why would we be looking for a way to make that work easier?
All this being said, there are certain risks to lifting with bare feet:
First, it hurts a lot more if we drop a weight on bare feet. Some people prefer shoes for this reason alone.
Second, if we have already lost the strength in our feet, training in bare feet may amplify poor movement patterns. It would be like taking a cane away from someone and telling them to walk without it because it works more leg muscle… It’s true, but it also increases the risk of injury. Most people though, if they are properly informed and mindful of their technique, would be fine by ditching the shoes.
This, by the way, is not a guide on how to transition to training without shoes, so you should consult your trainer, physical therapist, physician, etc. if you are hesitant about the switch or at all unsure of optimal lifting technique.