A few years ago, a client of mine wanted to know what shoes I thought were best for strength training. My answer then was a sturdy leather sneaker for cross training or an Olympic lifting shoe.
As technology and design has improved for barefoot shoes, so has my opinion of them. I am now of the mind that, provided you have the stability in the foot and ankle area, a barefoot shoe is the best all-purpose shoe for weight training in the gym and training outdoors, whether on the track or in mixed discipline training, like strongman.
Barefoot shoes purport to have two distinct features that differentiate them from traditional cross trainers and running shoes. The first difference is greater freedom of movement of the toes. In the case of the brand with five fingers, this is accomplished by creating a shoe that has individual toes. In the other brands, a wider toe box is built into the shoe.
Barefoot shoes also have what is referred to as a zero-drop foot bed. A zero-drop foot bed is one in which the change in angle between the heel and the forefoot is minimal, ideally 0°. Traditional cross trainers and running shoes have variable amounts of difference between the heel and the forefoot.
Training barefoot, or, more safely and conveniently, with barefoot shoes, is an excellent way to re-train the muscles of the ankles and the feet to work properly again. Whether you are an athlete or a member of the general population, you can benefit from some time in a shoe that makes you do all of the work.
Athletes who compete in sports involving a fixed-foot boot, such as skiers and hockey players greatly benefit from training barefoot, because the muscles of the ankles and feet become de-conditioned from being locked into the shoes for hours on end. If you are a member of the general population, especially if you wear heels, a barefoot shoe allows your Achilles tendon some time to return to its normal length.
At the end of the day, the best brand of barefoot shoe is largely an issue of personal preference, but I’ll give you my opinion, which has changed as barefoot shoes improved in design.
I see no benefit conferred by having each toe relegated to its own special environment, as this actually makes it harder to move the toes around. So I am not a fan of shoes with toes built in to them. I tried a pair of these when they first came out. They were a hassle to put on and take off, and yet, given enough force during a prowler push, I could run right out of the shoe.
I do like a wide toe box, which allows the toes to be free to move independently. My two current favorite barefoot trainers are the Minimus by New Balance, and the Road Glove, by Merrell.
My original reaction to this issue was that, since you do not want a weight plate accidentally coming down on your foot, a good cross trainer or weightlifting shoe provides at least some protection. In fact, during the 25 years or so that I have been weight training, I have had occasion to drop a few plates or dumbbells on my toes. It hurt like hell every time. Pay more attention to what you are doing so you don’t make careless mistakes, and wear a barefoot shoe.
Regardless of the benefits of barefoot training, there are some times when it makes sense to go with a shoe that has more support. When the shoe cannot stand up to the pressure that the trainee can put on it; when the trainee wants the benefits that a more stable or more specialized shoe confers, or when the trainee is compromised in some way, a different shoe is in order.
If you are an advanced Olympic lifter, for example, wearing a barefoot shoe in competition is both shortsighted and dangerous. I suppose that there will be an exception to the rule at some point, ie., an young athlete will begin training in Olympic lifting and only ever wear barefoot shoes. As such, they will gain the adaptations in the lower leg and feet to compete at a very high level. The point is, the differential between heel and forefoot in that shoe is helpful to the lift, as is the cross strap, and the inherent rigidity of the shoe. To use something less puts the competitor at a disadvantage.
The other case for not wearing a barefoot shoe is lack of stability of the trainee. Weight, foot surgeries, age, and injury may contribute to the need for a shoe with a wider base and more support. In the end, though training barefoot can be of great benefit, the desire for physical improvement should never exceed good common sense.
NYC Personal Trainer / Strength Coach
Mark Diaz is the head strength coach and owner of Physiqology, a personal training business based in New York City. He offers New Yorkers a sustainable system of personal fitness training that seamlessly integrates exercise, flexibility training, diet and supplementation.