We have a number of our clients deadlift barefoot. And usually they ask us why? Below is my answer.
In the last few years the pendulum has swing towards minimalist running shoes. From the Nike Frees to the Vibram 5 Fingers and everything in between there is definitely more awareness as to the benefits of barefoot running.
And while it may not be necessarily in correlation to the barefoot running movement there are more people who workout barefoot on the gym floor. Or maybe they would like to train barefoot but their gym doesn’t allow it. Some gyms, specifically ones in New Zealand, encourage barefoot training for their average to elite level members. For the novices and anyone with special needs regular footwear is required.
When we’re talking about gym workouts there is one exercise in particular that justifies barefoot training. And while many things in a gym may be done to look different but not actually serve a purpose this is something that will allow you to train more safely and effectively when you deadlift. Below are 4 Reasons to Deadlift Barefoot.
Reason #1 – Better sensory input
When you deadlift you feet are what connect you with the ground. And this lift is definitely an example of press your heels through the floor to pull the bar off the floor and finish by extending the hips.
If we are off balance we are not going to recruit the right muscles, at the right time and in the right plane. Any of my grade 10 science students will recall this is called neuromuscular efficiency. And our ability to be neuromuscularly efficient is enhanced when the sensory input from the ground through our feet is maximal.
Think about it this way. We are taking in sensory input through our feet. How well are you going to feel the ground and recruit the appropriate musculature if you were wearing a ski boot, a running shoe or barefoot? It’s obvious to sense the barefoot condition removes the interference that comes along the sole of our footwear that impairing the sensory input.
Reason #2 – It strengthens our calves and ankles
I remember back in high school there was a time when everyone was wearing these ankle supports called active ankles. During free throws the majority of the players lined up on either side were wearing them. And the purpose was to provide stabilize the ankle joint and prevent sprains.
Well the premise may have been good but the problem is that the ankle joint is meant to move. And by restricting its movement we lose the ability to learn how to stabilize this joint naturally. Further if the ankle is immobilized instead of being allowed to move the energy from ground contacts is transferred up through the kinetic chain to be dissipated at another joint.
What is the next joint going up the body? The knee which is supposed to be stable but instead tries to pick up the slack of an immobilized ankle. Anyone ever hear of a basketball player with a knee injury?
The point here is that if we remove the restriction around the ankle we allow the ankle to develop the mobility is was designed to have. And by performing deadlifts under load this joint progressively becomes stronger.
Reason #3 – Less anterior tilt
Does anterior tilt sound Greek? Let’s assume it does and take a moment so we’re all on the same page.
Imagine putting on a belt with a large belt buckle. Ideally the belt line should be parallel to the floor. However with some of us the belt line angles down to the front. In other words the belt buckle would be pointing at the floor instead of straight ahead. This is what is referred to as anterior tilt.
Now when we wear shoes with big heels are bodies are pushed forward. In order to stay upright and not fall on our faces we need to adjust our position at the hips and pelvis. One way to do this is tilt the belt buckle towards the ground and increase our anterior tilt. This is not a good thing.
Stay tuned for a future blog on anterior tilt but for right now know that increased anterior tilt, or arch in the lumbar spine, inhibits your ability to contract your core maximally and increases the chance of injury when deadlifting.
Being barefoot removes the lift under the heel and brings the foot down to a level position. This encourages more neutral hip and pelvic alignment and negates the need to anterior tilt.
Reason #4 – Facilitates a packed neck
Fitness professionals are always trying to encourage posture and a stable spine. For a while we would hear cues such as ‘draw in’ or ‘neutral spine’ or ‘stand tall’ or ‘tighten up your abs’ or a number of things to get us to optimal spinal position and stability.
None of these every really did the job we were hoping for. I mean what is neutral? I can look a three different people and see huge differences in their ‘neutral’ lumbar spine position. And standing tall always makes me think of grade 1 kids lining up for a class picture and standing on their tippy toes to be as tall as possible with their heads craned back. Obviously this isn’t what we’re after.
Instead maybe what we should be going for is a long spine. The longest length from tailbone to the base of the skull at the back. Any type of pelvic tilt will shorten this as will any tilting of the head up or down.
Since we already learned how bare feet facilitates a neutral pelvic position we can see how this extend to a longer spine. Here’s a quick example to see how.
Place your hands on your low back and look up. You will feel the muscles of the low back relax. And when you look down you feel these same muscles contract. So there is a connection between head position and spinal position.
What we want to encourage is a packed neck. Some people have a double chin when they do this. Others look like they just got a sniff of something awful and are pulling their heads back in disgust. Either way a barefoot stance sets the mood for a packed neck and a safer, stronger deadlift.
Reason #5 – Encourages weight on the heels
One way to think about deadlifting is like two kids at the playground on the teeter totter. But this example one of the kids is very petite and the other one is huge. How can these two kids play on the teeter totter?
Well the smaller child needs to sit all the way to the end of the teeter totter and the larger child needs to sit more forward.
In the same way with deadlifting we need to find a way to give ourselves any advantage we can to safely pull the most weight we can.
Here’s another visual for you.
Imagine you see a treasure chest in small pond just at the edge but in the water. You want to go pick up the chest and know that if you have too much weight on the balls of your feet you will fall into the pond as well. The only way to pluck this chest from the water is to ensure that your heels are firmly planted into the ground as you begin to pull.
When you deadlift you want to create a situation where you have as much weight as possible on your heels. We need this leverage in order to pull the bar up with the lower body.
If we are leaning forward at all we lose the benefit of using our larger muscles through the lower body and end up relying on our upper body to complete the lift. Not only is this disadvantageous from a mechanical perspective limiting the loads we can pull but also increases the potential for injury.
The last point to mention is not a reason or benefit to deadlift barefoot as clarification regarding barefoot or socks. If you lift on a platform go barefoot. In fact barefoot is superior as socks will move but bare feet won’t. If are going to wear socks step off the platform and do your lifts on a non-slip surface.