Your feet are not just for pedicures and cool shoes; barefoot workouts trigger an awareness of how you connect with your floor surface during exercise. Whether you realize it or not, you likely support your body weight unevenly in three ways.
The most basic deviation is that one leg is stronger than the other so you therefore exert more pressure on one leg over the other. Everyone does this to some degree — the human body is less symmetrical than you might think.
To prevent this passive tendency from developing into a chronic injury requires strengthening movements that move the legs independently of one another. Theoretically you could perform these exercises in shoes but when your feet are bare, you are more apt to exert effort more evenly between your feet.
The second weight distribution imbalance involves the inside and outside of your feet. People with weak arches and flatter feet tend to place more weight on the insides of their feet, to the detriment of the big toe, or first metatarsal. Many people experience this condition.
Less common but still possible is that people with high arches tend to distribute their weight more on the outside of the foot. Your doctor should be consulted if you have severe foot pain and/or orthopedic-related issues.
Exercising in your bare feet can help strengthen the muscles in the foot, which in turn, help keep your arches strong and stable. By shucking your shoes, you can also draw attention to the way that you exert pressure on the sides of each foot. If this focus works, you begin to realize how it feels to connect with the floor on all four corners of each foot. This even weight distribution helps you control the movement of your legs, making workouts more efficient and effective.
The last of the foot deviations is how you distribute your body weight between the front and back of your body. Do you tend to exert more pressure on your heel? Or do you press your toes down and keep your heels off of your floor? Shoes make understanding this factor extremely difficult because most shoes, even sneakers, lift the heel up higher than the front of the foot. You really have to shed all footwear to take notice of any tendency you have to plant your foot unevenly between the toes/ball and the heel of the foot.
Exercises that force you to press down into the floor with your heel tend to help you generate power at the hip and core. Squats are a great example. From the squatted position, you contract your glutes, and press into the floor with your heels to rise. If you do not press into the floor with your heel and drive the body up using your glutes and hips, your quads and back do all of the work (not good).
Moves that emphasize movement with weight bearing down on the toes and ball of the foot help recruit the back of the leg and the glutes, particularly the inner muscles of the glute that get so little action. This is why we trainers like hip bridges so much, and it's why we always remind you to press your toes into the floor.
Give your feet a chance this week and exercise without sneakers. Enjoy!
Kim Watkins is CEO, Head Trainer and Podcaster of inSHAPE Fitness.