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Should You Deadlift Barefoot? Here’s What the Experts Say


On its face, there is so much that’s plainly wrong about the idea of deadlifting barefoot. There is an inherent (and logical) presumption that your shoes are designed specifically to protect your feet. 

Therefore, the notion of shedding all layers of foot protection and leaving nothing but open air and opportunity between your toes and hundreds of pounds of loose weight might seem like an act of pure recklessness. 

Credit: Bee Bonnet / Shutterstock

Then again, if all of the muscles doing the heavy lifting during a deadlift are situated north of your ankles, how much damage could shoeless or sockless deadlifting really do? And, more importantly, what do you stand to gain?

What the Experts Say

Here to help you answer these questions are two fitness experts whose very livelihoods depend on their ability to teach athletes to deadlift effectively. Ted Rath is the current vice president of player performance for the Philadelphia Eagles. He has spent the last decade and a half as a strength-and-conditioning coach in the NFL, working for the Detroit Lions, Miami Dolphins, and Los Angeles Rams before ultimately landing in Philly. 

Jesse Ackerman is the owner of Ackerman Performance and Consulting, whose most recent professional football employment was as the head performance coach for the XFL franchises in St. Louis and Washington. Prior to that, Ackerman spent years in a strength-and-conditioning coaching capacity working for John Carroll University, Iowa State University, the University of Texas, the University of Florida, and the Atlanta Falcons. 

The Importance of Deadlifting

If you ever wondered about the essential dependence upon the deadlift when it comes to developing athletic strength and power, both of these specialists ranked it highly amongst the most beneficial resistance training exercises out there.

“For us, it’s a foundational movement,” explained Rath. “It’s something that we program and progress through. Every single one of our athletes is going to do some variation of a deadlift. It could be with a trap bar or a straight bar. There are also variations that we’ll do based on the anatomy and the injury history of our athletes. It’s simply one of the most important foundational movements you can learn.”

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Ackerman agrees with Rath, and he also added details about how frequent deadlifting can aid strength athletes as they’re advancing to more technical and dynamic lifts:

“I used to ask athletes all the time, if you had only one lift to do, what would it be?” said Ackerman. “Someone would say their one lift was the power clean. A power clean is a speed-strength movement, but deadlifting helps you to develop it even further. So if I could only do one lift, it would either be a squat or a deadlift. It’s at the top of the list.”

Benefits of Deadlifting Barefoot

Now that the efficacy of the deadlift has been established, how does barefoot deadlifting stack up in comparison to pulling with your shoes on? 

The Value of Rooting

According to Ackerman, training in your bare feet is far from an inconsequential adjustment to your deadlift approach. In his eyes, a barefooted deadlifting method might actually provide you with a significant advantage.

“It comes down to the concept of rooting,” said Ackerman. “It’s about establishing a firm connection with the floor. Being barefoot … and learning how to use your feet to distribute weight and ‘push while you pull’ is helpful.” 

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Put simply, going shoeless gets you physically closer to the floor. It removes a very small amount of the range of motion of the exercise and helps you stabilize your feet better. Most shoes have padded cushioning in the sole, which can feel a bit like standing on a Bosu ball while trying to pull a heavy weight. 

The Insufficiency of Footwear

In Rath’s opinion, much of modern footwear is rife with shortcomings. This means the depersonalized nature of your shoes can be a limiting factor when exercises require you to establish a stable base with your feet.

“Shoes, in general, are not great [for performance],” explained Rath. “Most aren’t custom fit for everyone’s feet. I’ve had athletes who’ve had a difference of a size and a half between their right and left feet. Even just from the asymmetrical standpoint, everyone’s feet are created very unique and different.”

Your off-the-rack trainers might be comfortable for a walk around the block, but probably aren’t streamlined to your specific feet or, more importantly, designed for deadlifting in the first place. 

Drawbacks of Deadlifting Barefoot

Neither Ackerman nor Rath identified any perils to barefoot deadlifting that would apply to all trainees. However, both strength coaches identified some mitigating factors that might make your decision to deadlift with nude feet unwise, at least under some circumstances.

Don’t Be Overzealous

Rath’s concerns were primarily isolated to scenarios in which the decision to transition to deadlifting barefoot is spontaneous. It’s his belief that more thought and care should go into such weighty choices, and especially when you are planning to elevate hundreds of pounds off the floor.

“If you are trained and have been deadlifting barefoot, then that’s great, but if you’re only doing it because you noticed the guy next to you doing it, and now you want to load up and do heavy triples, you shouldn’t try it in that setting,” warned Rath. 

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“As with anything, there’s a progression. You have to progress movement mechanics, you have to progress load, and you have to progress everything related to the lift, especially in training. If you’re not used to strength training barefoot, don’t just go in there and start doing heavy deadlifts on your bare feet.” 

Instead, you could try doing bare-footed pulls during your first few warm-up sets to acclimate to the feeling with a light load. Over time, leave the lifting shoes off longer and longer. 

Watch Your Step

Ackerman focused the bulk of his critique on hazards located within the training environment, and how they might make the space unsafe for bare feet.

“I would say there are no drawbacks unless you have medical issues with your foot, or if the space you’re training in is cluttered or dirty,” noted Ackerman. “That means there is more potential for drops or stepping on something. When people lift barefoot, I always recommend a minimalist shoe or putting shoes back on immediately after pulling in the controlled space. Moisture can be an issue in any environment, so you need to be aware.”

Sweaty feet are slippery feet. Pulling without shoes (or socks) could be potentially dangerous depending on the type of floor you’re working on. This is especially true for the sumo deadlift, wherein the wide and angled foot position may predispose you to a slip.

How to Deadlift, Barefoot

The technique involved with a barefoot deadlift is no different from that of a deadlift conducted in typical gym shoes, flat-soled shoes, or even socks.

In this case that means following the prescribed movement pattern:

Stand with your shins nearly against the barbell, and with your feet approximately shoulder width apart.
Lower yourself toward the bar by pushing your hips back keeping your back straight and your head up. Bend your knees slightly to get your hands down to the bar.
Grasp the bar with a pronated or mixed grip, with your hands positioned slightly wider than your knees.
Lift the bar off the ground by pushing into the floor, keeping your back straight and your head upright. 
Come to a standing position by thrusting your hips forward after the bar passes your knees.

Tips and Tricks

Rath cautions that going barefoot for your next set of pulls doesn’t mean you should simply slip your shoes off and continue training like it’s business as usual. 

“You have to start very basic,” said Rath. “I would do a dynamic movement prep, and build over time. This could be over the course of months until you get to the point where you’re finally pulling heavy barefoot if you have not been used to it and have not progressed that.”

Rath also advises you to slowly modify your selection of footwear over time to ease your transition to barefoot deadlifting, making it a gradual modification to your deadlifting format as opposed to an abrupt change.

Credit: Bee Bonnet / Shutterstock

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“Don’t just go from wearing shoes every day of your life to being totally barefoot,” suggested Rath. “Going from regular shoes to flat-soled shoes, and then to barefoot-type shoes would be a natural progression. You’ll get a little bit more of a flat surface to start, and then maybe dabble in some of the minimalist shoe technologies that are available.” 

You can also pick up a pair of yoga socks that come with textured padding in the sole. Yogis wear them in the studio to help their feet grip smooth flooring, and the same idea applies just fine to the deadlift platform. 

So, Should You Deadlift Barefoot?

If you’re still wondering whether or not you should deadlift barefoot, and you don’t find yourself limited by a specific foot injury, our experts would just as soon leave it up to you to determine whether or not barefoot deadlifting is a sound workout strategy.

“Deadlifting barefoot is a personal preference, for sure,” insisted Ackerman. “It can help you emphasize rooting, so you may get more overall benefits out of the lift in that respect, but some people simply will not like it.”

While also chalking your final decision up to personal preference, Rath believes you should allow your preference to be dictated primarily by the comfort of your feet. If your feet have an uncomfortable response to a specific variety of deadlift, they’re probably trying to tell you something.

“One of the reasons why your foot might be more comfortable with one type of deadlift over another can come down to the anatomy of your individual feet,” stated Rath. “Every foot is unique based on arch height, toe spacing, and asymmetry. Not only is this true from person to person, but it can apply to each foot of the same person.”

Letting the dogs out might confer a small performance advantage by getting you physically closer to the floor and helping you generate more power. However, it can just as easily compromise your balance or stability. Ultimately, comfort is king. 

Featured Image: Bee Bonnet / Shutterstock

The post Should You Deadlift Barefoot? Here’s What the Experts Say appeared first on BarBend.

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