Why and When You Should Try Squatting Barefoot
One of the more effective corrective variations I have found for the squat is going barefoot. The issue with shoes, especially as the heel gets higher and higher, is that it is hard to find the connection between your foot and the floor. When improper foot displacement occurs, the shoe masks the potential issue due to the larger surface area. So instead of receiving negative feedback from improper rooting and weight distribution of the foot, shoes many times hide the apparent issue. And the fact is, many issues with the squat lead directly back to the foot. Things such as knee valgus, chest fall patterns, anterior vs posterior weight distribution bias, improper knee vs hip flexion rates, and more. I am not saying these issues are always caused by the foot, but with the foot being the only part of your body actually being connected to the floor, it often times is the culprit. It is the first item in the chain of force production, making it many times the first item to address.
Adam is a great example of this (Click here to see videos). He has long suffered from fairly extreme leg shakes, and as can be seen in the 2nd video, he also suffers from a case of the twinkle toes. Adam had an issue with heavily biasing the weight towards his heels, not only on his squat but also his deadlift, which can be seen in the 3rd video. This forced a more posterior dominant squat and deadlift, but when the weight got heavy and his quads needed to be more involved, his legs started to shake back and forth to try to find that happy medium of quad vs. hamstring tension that he was missing. It was almost hard to tell at times though because the shoes masked the issue. When you rock back onto your heels with an elevated heel squat shoe, the surface area and stability of the shoes helps to prevent the negative feedback that this heel bias should produce. But once you take the shoes off, you’ll notice that it is immediately uncomfortable to displace all that weight on your heel. Even just standing without a barbell on your back, rock back barefoot onto your heel and notice how uncomfortable and unstable it is. So for Adam, taking the shoes off and requiring proper rooting and weight distribution of the foot almost immediately changed his squat. Without even adding in any extra cues, he started to more evenly distribute the weight of the barbell over his mid-foot, as naturally that was the most comfortable thing to do.
So should everyone squat barefoot? No, but I do think in certain situations it is one of the more effective variations you can do to improve your foot’s weight distribution. Below are some examples of times I’d recommend giving this variation a try:
1.) If you notice that you tend to either bias towards your heel or your toes, going barefoot to relearn proper rooting and mid-foot weight distribution can be highly beneficial. For those who bias towards their toes, other issues could be at play, specifically ankle mobility. But surprisingly at times, I have athletes who had heavy pronation of the foot and what I thought was apparent ankle mobility restrictions, then squat barefoot and be able to keep their foot perfectly planted. As for those who bias towards the heel, this is my go to exercise to get a lifter to redistribute that weight over their mid-foot. It works almost immediately and with little to no cueing, as biasing towards your heel barefoot is very uncomfortable and that immediate negative feedback corrects your positioning quickly.
2.) When looking at side and and rear views of the squat, one of the main things I look for is what the ankle is doing. If someone is consistently pronating at the ankle at the bottom of the squat, this could be a sign of either ankle mobility or foot rooting issues. Going barefoot can help decided which of these is the case, as if it is ankle mobility it usually will be come even more prominent once someone goes barefoot. If it stays the same or actually improves though, they very well likely have an issue with rooting and weight distribution of the foot, and squatting barefoot may be a great variation for them.
3.) In general when teaching someone how to properly root their foot, have a nice stable arch, and 3 points of contact, doing this barefoot will be a great teaching tool. Once they can master the positioning barefoot, then it’s time to add the shoe and use the same cues and connected feel to keep the foot stable and planted.
4.) Going back to point 1, some people do more of a rocking pattern, where they start by biasing towards the heel then shift towards the toes at the bottom, then back to the heels. This pattern would like up exactly with the notorious hip shoot and chest fall issue, so trying a barefoot squat variation will help to provide better feedback through this back and forth loop the lifter is going through.
5.) If you go back the blog “Why A Hip Circle Won’t Fix Your Knee Cave” I made a week or so back, I talked about the downfalls of excessively driving the knees out. If someone is in a bad habit of this, a barefoot squat can help to force them into a more natural position of the knees tracking between the external vs. internal rotators.
There are other scenarios as well, but these 5 sum of the majority of the circumstances of when I may program a barefoot squat variation. Trying a barefoot squat is very much like going back to the basics. It’s building a foundation of stability and support at the foot, which therefor creates improved stability and support up the chain of the prime movers within the squat. Its also hard to say exactly when a variation like this should be used, but in my experience there is very little drawback to implementing this, especially far out from a meet, as it will inevitably improve your foot support and weight distribution, or at a minimum reinforce the good patterns you already have achieved.