Lifting shoes may have been all the rage, but foregoing footwear in favor of socks might be better suited for your performance.
When it comes to working out, it’s not all about what equipment you need for an effective workout—what you wear also matters. For most people, running shoes are the first option, while for some others lifting shoes are non-negotiable. But what about socks?
Most gym-goers avoid lifting in socks for fear that it could increase the risk of injury, but with the right socks, it can actually offer serious benefits for your performance and comfort.
If you haven’t thought about lifting in socks, you’ll want to keep reading! We’re breaking down the benefits of lifting in socks and why you should kick off your shoes and let your feet breathe!
You may see people hitting a heavy deadlift without shoes or throwing around kettlebells barefoot—why do they do it?
Lifting barefoot or in socks is nothing new. Photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger doing deadlifts while barefoot have been circulating the internet for years, and there’s a method behind his madness. Lifting in socks or barefoot can help to increase balance, reduce the range of motion (especially if you’re going for a 1RM), further engage muscles of the posterior chain, and support more efficient force transfer between you and the ground. All of that translates to moving more weight.
So, should you forego the shoes in favor of socks or bare feet like Arnold? Doing so can benefit your performance in several ways—let’s see how.
Shoes have a huge impact onlocomotor stability, and if you want to improve balance and stability, shoes aren’t the way to go. Balance is essential when lifting to avoid injury, but if you’re wearing chunky shoes with heel lifts and a narrow toe box, you severely limit ground feel and the ability of your toes to connect to the ground to establish balance. There will also be some degree of natural curvature to the shoe's sole, which creates instability as you try to find balance over the mid-part of the foot. Although balancing without a load in shoes might be easy, it becomes increasingly difficult when the movement is loaded.
But when you lift in socks, you must become aware of your balance, as no support from shoes keeps you stable. As such, going barefoot or lifting in socks can help develop and enhance balance, which will also translate to other sports besides lifting.
If you want to lift heavy, grip strength is essential. And while you may not think lifting in socks or barefoot can strengthen your grip, it can. How? When you’re wearing any type of shoe, the soles of the shoes act as a barrier between your feet and the floor, making it more difficult for you to effectively grip the weight. There is no barrier when you’re in socks or barefoot, which means you get a better grip on the weight. As a result, you could increase the weight moved and see an overall improvement in your performance.
On top of that, you’re also increasing the grip your feet have on the floor when your toes can be in direct contact with the ground. Plus, if you throw on yourtoe spacers, you’ll also enhance stability, as your toes will be aligned in a position that supports greater stability.
Most lifters think about strengthening body parts like the shoulders, biceps, triceps, chest, and legs, but the feet and ankles are largely neglected. The muscles of the lower limbs are important for strength, speed, and power output, but without astrong foundation that includes the feet and ankles, you can do a lot of damage to your performance and increase the risk of injury.
One of the big issues with wearing shoes while lifting is that it reduces the ability of your feet to work as they’re meant to by reducing the impact they take. However, when you ditch the shoes and lift in socks or bare feet, your feet and ankles must bear the full force of the weight, which increases their strength and resiliency over time.
When doing lower body movements like a deadlift barefoot or in socks, you can shift the muscles to which the loading demand is placed. When you perform deadlifts with shoes on, one of the big concerns is that the weight is shifted toward the front part of the foot and the toes. When your balance shifts forward, the knees bend and move forward also. Shifting the load demand from the hip to the knee extensors engages your quads a lot more.
While your quads work to some degree in a deadlift, they shouldn’t be the primary muscle activated—you want the posterior chain muscles to engage more. Instead, there should be a natural balance between engaging the hip and knee extensors instead of shifting all the load demands to the knee extensors.
Keep in mind that not all shoes will shift the weight forward. Minimal shoes distribute weight much like wearing bare feet or socks, so if you want to wear shoes, opt for barefoot or minimal footwear.
Force transfer is important when doing any sort of lower body movement—and that transfer is severely limited with shoes. Most training shoes are designed with gel or air-based soles, and while they’re great for certain activities, they’re not the best for maximum strength training. The average training shoe is designed to absorb and dissipate the forces that occur when making contact with the ground. Think about it this way. Squatting wearing shoes with a squishy sole is like trying to squat on a Bosu ball or a marshmallow.
If you’re training for maximum lifts, you want to have the greatest force transfer between you and the ground, so lifting in socks or barefoot reduces the loss of any force transfer through the soles of your shoes.
Another big benefit to lifting in socks or bare feet is improved range of motion. Shoes can be restrictive, especially those with a narrow toe box, and can interfere with movements requiring a lot of foot and ankle movement. But when you lift in socks, your feet can move as they please without restriction, allowing for a greater range of motion in the joints. This is beneficial for targeting and engaging muscles more effectively for greater activation and better results.
Safety is always a priority for anyone when lifting, and while wearing shoes protects your feet to some degree, is lifting in socks safe? Although it may seem a bit risky, when done correctly, it’s quite safe.
How can that be?
Shoes help you balance better and give you more stability, and you’d think lifting in socks would do the opposute. However, lifting in bare feet or socks enhances grounding and offers more balance, meaning you can lift heavier and reduce your risk of injury. This results from sensory feedback sent to your brain from the floor via your foot (you can read more about being barefoot and your brainhere).
That said, be mindful of the surface you’re lifting on. If you’re outside, wearing barefoot shoes might be better suited to avoid injury due to things like plant burrs, splinters, or sharp objects. But if you’re indoors on lifting mats, chances are you’re probably okay to lose the shoes.
In short, lifting in socks or bare feet is safe for most people, but be smart and listen to your body. If something feels off, stop. Also, start slowly when transitioning from shoes to bare feet, as your lifts may feel a bit imbalanced as you adjust.
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If you’ve never lifted in socks before and you’re ready to give it a try, here are some tips to guide you:
That said, lifting in socks or bare feet is one of the easiest ways to enhance your performance. Whether it be better grip, improved range of motion, or stronger feet, there are plenty of benefits to losing the shoes—just be sure to take it slow and always practice safety first!
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