Why Do People Deadlift and Squat Without Shoes On?

Barbell fetched, weights attached, clips on, shoes off?
It’s a very common sequence of events for many when it comes to both deadlifting and squatting. So why do so many people do it? Is it just because they’ve seen others do it or is there an actual scientific principle behind it?

There are a few arguments individuals may make for going barefoot when deadlifting and squatting.

1) Improved muscle activation
The first argument many present would be the squatting and deadlifting without shoes on will help activate the posterior chain more effectively than when performing with shoes. The posterior chain refers to the group of muscles found on the posterior of the body – in this instance, specifically the glutes and hamstrings.

2) Enhanced sensory feedback
Another argument would be that performing barefoot would help to improve the feedback the body receives from the floor. Wearing shoes can potentially interfere with how our feet feel on the floor.

3) Improved form / posture
This final argument is linked to the previous two points. Improving muscle activation and sensory feedback will potentially positively impact the individual’s form and posture during the exercise. It may help the individual to drive up through the heels and as a result facilitate better grip and balance. Additionally, many gym shoes have a raised and cushioned heel which will bring the individual further away from the bar than being barefooted would – this could potentially impact the arch of the lumbar spine and pelvic anterior tilt which could push the body too far forward and increase the risk of injury.

What does Science say?

I aim to briefly look at a couple of scientific studies to begin to understand whether these ideas regarding barefoot exercise are well-founded.

As discussed in the above section, one argument for being barefoot is that having an elevated heel can impact form. A recent study (Sunny, 2015) investigated the relationship between elevated heels and it’s impact on the deadlift. It was found that the alternating heel height did not have a significant impact on the deadlift movement.

So, what about the squat? A study by Sinclair et al., 2014, looked at the squat and similarly found that squatting barefoot in comparison to a running shoe did not significantly alter or interfere with the movement. On the other hand, a second study performed by Brown (2013) did find that barefoot squatting did increase muscular activation during the eccentric phase of the movement.

One final study to mention (Hammer et al., 2016) compared the deadlift movement using both shod and barefoot conditions and again the study did not find any significant differences between the two conditions and the movement performed.

Although it is undoubtedly true that being barefoot will help improve sensory feedback from the floor, the argument that it will facilitate with deadlift and squat form does not carry a great deal of weight (based on a number of reviewed studies).
With that being said, I can personally see the benefits of barefoot deadlifting and squatting specifically for individuals who are new deadlifting or squatting as having improved sensory feedback will help them to drive upwards through the heels as they learn these exercise.

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