Is deadlifting barefoot a good idea? Most people will perform a deadlift with shoes and other equipment like wrist wraps and a 10mmm or 13mm lifting belt. However, it’s not uncommon to see someone take their shoes off before attempting a PR.
In short, deadlifting barefoot can be a good idea but only if you’re doing it for the right reasons. Barefoot deadlifts come with their own set of advantages and disadvantages so to help you figure out if this deadlift variation, we’ve decided to cover everything you need to know about deadlifting without shoes. Let’s get started!
Do You Need Shoes to Deadlift?
The age-old question: “Should you deadlift without shoes?” While specific circumstances might dictate your choice, the benefits of barefoot deadlifting are worth considering.
Comfort is a major factor that drives many lifters to opt for barefoot deadlifting. In gyms, cushioned running shoes are common, offering support for cardio and machine exercises. However, the uneven surface can compromise stability during heavy lifts like squats and deadlifts which can lead to poor form and reduced efficiency. To address this, many lifters remove their shoes solely for these lifts. This approach not only simplifies your gym gear but also keeps your form and lifting mechanics in check.
While barefoot deadlifting offers advantages, hygiene, and potential hazards should be considered. Gym floors can harbor germs and sharp objects, increasing the risk that you cut your foot on something during your workout. We will look into all of the advantages and disadvantages that come with the deadlift barefoot, but first, let’s look at what exactly the exercise entails.
What is the Barefoot Deadlift?
Per the name, the barefoot deadlift involves performing the deadlift exercise without wearing any footwear, relying solely on the connection between your feet and the ground. All of the mechanics are the same with the movement, but the only difference is that now you’re doing your lifts from a platform that is 0.5 to 1 inch lower.
Traditionally, weightlifting shoes have been favored in the past but deadlifting barefoot was popularized by Strongmen, Powerlifters, and Bodybuilders who wanted to challenge their strength on a weekly basis.
Why Deadlift Barefoot?
By performing the deadlift barefoot, you eliminate the cushioning and height that shoes provide, resulting in a shorter range of motion. This abbreviated movement can allow you to lift heavier weights on a more consistent basis, similar to how deadlifting straps let you pull more loads by enhancing grip strength. Furthermore, the direct contact between your feet and the ground fosters a heightened sense of proprioception – your body's awareness of its position in space. This heightened awareness keeps your form and balance in check throughout the lift, reducing the risk of improper movement patterns.
Deadlifting barefoot also promotes better engagement of your lower body muscles. The absence of shoes allows your feet to establish a more natural and stable connection with the ground. This helps you transfer the ideal amount of force from the floor to the barbell. Additionally, your hips and glutes are also engaged since your feet work side-by-side with your leg muscles.
Is Deadlifting Barefoot Easier?
Is deadlifting barefoot easier? Sometimes, but this all depends on what aspect of the deadlift you find challenging. The ease of this technique varies depending on various factors, including your range of motion, muscle recruitment, and activation intensity.
Performing the deadlift barefoot can potentially make certain components of the exercise easier since your range of motion is shortened. This reduced range translates to decreased time under tension, which can be advantageous for individuals seeking to lift heavier weights more efficiently. Deadlifting without shoes also makes your stabilizer muscles and muscle activation intensity more manageable.
However, it's important to note that other factors such as gross force output, perceived exertion, and overall muscular fatigue accumulation might not necessarily be influenced by the barefoot approach. The inherent difficulty of the deadlift, in terms of exertion and fatigue, remains relatively consistent regardless of footwear. In cases where footwear is directly causing movement issues, adopting a barefoot approach might alleviate such difficulties.
4 Reasons to Deadlift Barefoot
There are plenty of reasons to deadlift barefoot. Below, we cover the four main benefits that come with deadlifting with your shoes off. These benefits also apply to other similar exercises like rack pulls, RDLs, and hang cleans.
1. Shortened Range of Motion
The reduced range of motion in barefoot deadlifting plays a pivotal role in making the lift easier and more effective. Traditional shoes elevate your stance by 0.5 to 1 inch, increasing the distance the barbell needs to travel. Going barefoot eliminates this extra height, resulting in a shorter path for the barbell. This reduction in range of motion translates to decreased time under tension for your muscles, enabling smoother lifts and you will eventually be able to handle heavier lifts later on in your fitness journey.
By shortening the range of motion, barefoot deadlifting also puts more emphasis on your form., making maintaining proper alignment easier. While other factors like balance and muscle activation are critical, deadlifting barefoot is a great way to level up your strength training by handling heavier loads.
2. Better Balance
Deadlifting barefoot establishes a direct connection between your feet and the floor. This enhanced connection significantly improves your balance during the lift which, in turn, improves your lifting movement. When performing a deadlift, optimal balance over the mid-part of your foot is crucial. This balance distributes force efficiently and evenly, reducing any potential rocking motion – a factor that can affect the quality of your lift.
With barefoot deadlifting, you gain an unparalleled awareness of micro-movements between your feet and the ground. Unlike the subtle curvature of a shoe's sole, going barefoot eliminates potential instability so that you can fine-tune your stance and find what works for you. While it might be easy to find your balance without load, deadlifting under weight challenges your stability since you have to manage the barbell as well as your own body. The barefoot approach empowers you to focus on your mid-foot balance, which is essential for a strong and effective lift.
Furthermore, barefoot deadlifting enables effective self-cueing for optimal lifting technique. By removing the barrier of shoes, you can cue yourself to find your mid-foot position before lifting the weight. This precise cueing aids in generating the vertical force and explosiveness you need to complete the deadlift. Powerlifters, in particular, can harness this technique to "push the floor away" during the initial phase of the lift, enhancing their force production.
3. Improved Transfer of Force from Floor
While many training shoes boast gel or air-based soles engineered to cushion impacts, their design might not help with transferring force from the floor to your body.
Traditional training shoes, including popular options like running shoes and cross-trainers, are meticulously crafted to absorb and disperse the impact forces encountered during various activities. However, this design principle clashes with the specific requirements of heavy deadlifting.
The essence of successful deadlifting lies in optimizing force transfer between your body and the ground. Herein lies the advantage of deadlifting barefoot – it eliminates the potential for force loss through the sole of a shoe. Going barefoot fosters a direct connection with the floor, enabling the efficient transfer of force and maximizing your lifting capability.
4. Better Hip Engagement
When you opt to deadlift without shoes, it doesn't automatically mean increased engagement with your hip extensors. Rather, it means that you might not have to overwork your hips compared to the scenario where shoes are worn during deadlifts.
The concern arises when footwear interferes with balance, particularly tilting it toward the front part of your foot. This shift leads to knee bending and their advancement beyond the barbell. Consequently, this redistributes the load from your hip extensors to your knee extensors, intensifying the engagement of your quadriceps.
Involving the quadriceps in deadlifts is integral, especially during the lower range of motion. However, you need to achieve an optimal balance between engaging your hips and knees. Striving for this balance prevents your knee extensors from taking on the entire load, which can comprise your lift.
Luckily, not all shoes induce this forward balance shift. This phenomenon is largely observed in shoes with slightly raised heels, a common feature in many gym footwear choices. These elevated heels can inadvertently alter your lifting mechanics, underscoring the significance of selecting appropriate footwear based on your training objectives.
What are the Disadvantages of Deadlifting Barefoot?
While deadlifting without shoes offers various advantages, it's important to acknowledge the potential downsides. Here are the three main disadvantages of deadlifting barefoot.
Opting to deadlift completely barefoot or in socks exposes you to potential bacterial and fungal hazards from the gym floor. Even with socks, the friction against the ground can wear them out quickly.
To address these concerns, consider minimalist deadlifting shoes or flat-soled options. These provide a protective barrier while maintaining a direct connection to the floor. If deadlifting barefoot is non-negotiable, then use something to act as a barrier from the gym floor, whether it’s a towel or some type of lining.
2. Higher Risk of Freak Accidents
Deadlifting without shoes presents a unique risk factor – the vulnerability of the foot. In this approach, the absence of footwear leaves the foot exposed, increasing the potential for injury should the barbell and attached weight plates accidentally fall or descend onto the foot.
Although the straightforward solution is for you to move your feet out of harm's way at the end of each set, there is still a possibility that the barbell slips from your grip and lands on your unprotected feet. There’s a low chance that this actually happens, but wouldn’t you be safe rather than sorry?
3. Lack of Ankle Support
Arguably the biggest disadvantage to deadlifting without shoes is the lack of ankle support. Deadlifting shoes use padding to restrict the ankles and keep their range of motion limited to what’s needed for the lift. People with high arches or weak ankles may find barefoot deadlifting uncomfortable due to the lack of support. The pressure from deadlifting heavy weights could lead to pain in these areas, similar to how lifting without wrist wraps can lead to wrist pain.
If you’re someone who suffers from foot-related injuries, we recommend performing deadlifts in your preferred shoes. Being able to lift some extra weight without shoes is not worth the nagging pain that comes along afterward.
Alternatives to Deadlifting Barefoot
The only alternative to deadlifting barefoot is deadlifting with shoes on. In some gyms, deadlifting without shoes is not allowed and if you want to compete in powerlifting, then you are required to wear some type of footwear.
In fact, the International Powerlifting Federation has the following word-for-word rules for powerlifters and their shoes:
- Shoes shall be taken to include only indoor sports shoes/sports boots; Weightlifting/Powerlifting boots or Deadlift slippers. The above is referring to indoor sports e.g. wrestling/basketball. Hiking boots do not fall into this category
- No part of the underside shall be higher than 5 cm
- The underside must be flat i.e. no projections, irregularities, or a doctoring from the standard design
- Loose inner soles that are not part of the manufactured shoe shall be limited to one-centimeter thickness.
- Socks with a rubber outside sole lining are not allowed in disciplines - Squat/Bench Press/Deadlift.
To minimize the unknown, almost all competitive powerlifters train with the shoes that they plan on wearing when competing. This is why we recommend considering your options first before committing to the barefoot deadlift.
If you’re looking for a good pair of lifting shoes, unfortunately, we do not sell any at the moment. However, Converse and Asics are both great brands to buy from for powerlifting footwear. Once you’ve bought your shoes, you can complement them with our ankle straps for maximum lower-body support on the pull.
Is it Better to Deadlift With Shoes or Barefoot?
Deadlifting barefoot allows you to handle heavier loads due to a shortened range of motion. You’ll also have less vertical movement and time under stress. However, you should also know that deadlifting without shoes comes with its disadvantages.
Most notably, barefoot deadlifts are unsanitary and have a much higher risk of freak accidents due to no protection from the shoe and a lack of ankle support. Before making your decision, figure out why exactly you want to deadlift barefoot.
Once you’ve found your reason(s), look at the advantages and disadvantages and you’ll know whether or not deadlifting without shoes is necessary. Most importantly, sty safe, use proper form, and stay Tuff!
- Valenzuela KA, Walters KA, Avila EL, Camacho AS, Alvarado F, Bennett HJ. Footwear Affects Conventional and Sumo Deadlift Performance. Sports (Basel). 2021 Feb 11;9(2):27. doi: 10.3390/sports9020027. PMID: 33670253; PMCID: PMC7918349.