Ask the Doc: Going Barefoot for Strength Training

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by DR. SETH OBERST, DPT, CSCS

Ask the Doc: Going Barefoot for Strength Training

Ever wonder why martial artists, dancers, and yogis go barefoot all the time to enhance sensory awareness, yet we strap on thick socks and shoes to do squats?
Whether or not you’ve read my prior piece on the short foot position, this bears repeating: the target organ/system of training is the nervous system. The nervous system coordinates the sensory inputs from the body and determines outputs through expression of movement. Whether these outputs are good or bad is determined, in part, by the type and quality of the sensory input. Barefoot training is another method where we can really access the nervous system and demand positive adaptation by challenging the many joints of the foot.

The foot is loaded with afferent nerves sending sensory information on joint position, surface changes and feel, muscle tension, etc. The high density of nerve endings in the foot, as well as their developmental importance, demands a big representation in the brain (read my post on grip training).

By constraining the foot with shoes (especially those with a big drop) and socks, we deprive the foot (and brain) of valuable sensory input. When the foot is unable to feel the ground, the body doesn’t know where it is in space and often demonstrates maladaptive co-contraction, or too many muscles on at the wrong time.
We see this in those with neuropathy but less nefariously in people with osteoarthritis and after ankle or knee injury/surgery. It’s like walking on ice all the time — fixating joints with muscular contraction when you can’t feel the ground.

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