Q & A with the Coaches: Barefoot Training

By Corey Beasley

Barefoot training is a hot topic these days, but should athletes be incorporating this type of training?  If so, what should they do? How often? And how should they progress to systematically develop the foot and ankle?  These are all questions that people should be asking when thinking about any new exercise, but especially with the foot.

So, we decided to ask a few top strength coaches about how they incorporate barefoot training with their athletes.

Check out what they said below...


If you haven’t been barefoot training you need to realize that the muscles of your feet need to be trained progressively just like any other muscle. The mistake that many people commit is they go from never or rarely being Barefoot Training Athletes to trying to be Barefoot Training Athletes and minimalist all the time. This severe stress causes people often to experience way more pain because they didn’t expose their body in a progressive manner.

If you haven’t been barefoot much, you start slow. Maybe doing a warm-up session barefoot. Performing yoga like poses or the like barefoot will teach your body to start “grabbing” the ground. Being barefoot for a handful of exercises that start with a stable base (i.e. deadlifts) is also a good idea. You can do short 10-15 minute walks in a park on grass (not concrete) to expose your feet to the stress of being barefoot. The key to remember is just like any other stress it needs to be introduced slowly back to the body.

Josh Henkin - DVRT - Ultimate Sandbag Training

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I think it is an excellent idea if you take the proper steps to get your lower legs and feet in condition to tolerate the loads and demands placed upon it.  As a combat athlete, most of your tactical training is already done barefoot.  This familiarity to your actual sport will only enhance your strength and conditioning.  But first you must prepare your foot for the stressors of the extra demands.  The number one technique I teach first is arch control.  Your foot has 3 arches that form a triangle under your foot.  Heel to base of big toe, base of big toe to base of pinky toe and heel to base of pinky toe. Keeping those arches intact and the pivot points in contact with the ground will start to teach your foot to be strong in its strong position.  Another key cue I use is “screw your foot into the ground.”  This is done by driving your knee out by using your hips/glutes and will ensure proper arch position.  As you lift and add load to your body, being aware of these key foot postural positions will help you have more foot control.

Lawrence Herrera - Performance Ranch

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Start conservatively.  Most athletes are accustomed to having strong foot/ankle support from shoes/taping/bracing.  An immediate change to barefoot or even minimalist's is almost certain to cause problems.
Find a running shoe store that evaluates foot structure and gait to fit you with the right shoes.  In Colorado Springs we utilize Runner's Roost for our Operators and Fighters.  In my experience having the right footwear alleviates many problems and improves long-term performance.  If you really want to get to barefoot, consult an expert on how to transition.

We do many drills for intrinsic foot strength, such as Toe Waves and Smears as well as Single Leg Balance.  All of these are done barefoot.  Athlete's are encouraged to be barefoot at home (inside and outside) as much as possible.

Rob Schwartz - Olympic Boxing Strength and Conditioning

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We have to be very careful when analyzing this issue, in my opinion, I have no problem in performing SOME exercises with barefoot, if they do not offer any risk or not interfere in the performance, but we must be very careful with this in general practice. We can think about the better possibility to increase the proprioception levels, in this case, I prefer to follow a traditional line and wait for more scientific evidence. My question is, it will help you to reach your goal? I never asked anybody to train with barefoot but I have no problem to change my mind if I decide to do that in my training programs. I believe when we talk about performance we need to have the science behind us and we can't say that have only one better method or exercise, it's all about how we can adapt everything for that specific moment/phase. That’s why I try to be connected with what we have of new stuff but never forgetting the basic of sports training.

Everton Bittar Oliveira - American Top Team

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I personally think there are some great benefits to training barefoot, such as strengthening the many muscles of the foot and ankle, and training proprioception of those structures to build stability and prevent injuries.

This is particularly important for team sport athletes who spend the majority of their training in shoes or cleats. However, I think this is a lot less important for fighters, since they do all of their training barefoot, and they tend to prefer sandals or barefoot walking around as well. This doesn’t mean they should never train barefoot, but there are certainly times when I prefer my fighters to wear shoes.

If I am going to train barefoot with my fighters, it will typically be at the beginning of the workout during the warm up, and through some low level plyometrics or movement drills. I also prefer my athletes to be barefoot during any specific foot or ankle mobility or stability drills, and our loaded carry variations, so we eliminate the extra stability provided by the shoes and train the intrinsic musculature of the foot and ankle.

The main reason that I do not allow my athletes to train barefoot, is during high level plyometrics, speed and agility work, or in the weight room. Being barefoot can be a limiting factor during these movements, and athletes tend to slow down, can’t cut quickly, and don’t jump as hard, when they don’t have the support of the shoe, therefore it becomes counterproductive to the drill. I don’t allow athletes in the weight room barefoot because the potential risk of having an athlete injure his foot by dropping a weight or smashing into something, far outweighs any potential benefit he could get from training barefoot.

If you are going to start, I recommend starting slowly and gradually building up volume over time. Just like anything, if your feet are not prepared for it, you can’t just jump into a two hour sprinting and jumping session barefoot on the hard gym floor, or you won’t be able to walk for a week and are setting yourself up for injury. Start slow like a ½ mile run on the sand, or some low level jumping or ladder drills, and continuously build up volume and intensity like you would for any other exercise.

Coach PJ Nestler - http://coachpjnestler.com/

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Training barefoot is a fantastic idea in theory but application is where things can get complicated. If athletes are performing strength exercises like deadlifts, squats etc, training barefoot is a fantastic way to provide proprioceptive feedback and optimize sensory input via nerve receptors in the feet. One consideration you need to think about is athletes with flat feet. Flat feet can cause foot pronation which may lead to a valgus knee position. This may also alter hip mechanics. They key is to start slow and progress in a smart fashion. When it comes to conditioning barefoot, we need to consider great toe mobility, stress on the plantar fascia, and the athletes ability to absorb force efficiently. If the athlete lacks extension of the great toe, some sort of compensation will occur and could lead to foolish, avoidable injuries. We also need to condition the fascia and foot musculature safely. If you perform too much too soon, this may lead to plantar fasciitis, shin splints etc. The key is to start slow with a small stimulus and add volume over time.

Mike Perry - Skill of Strength

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As far as training barefoot for fighters/grapplers et... I believe it is very important to incorporate into your training at least in the warmup. If your sport requires you to be functional and move with a barefoot then you should train certain movements that way. I will incorporate barefoot movement drills with a ladder for our warmup. if a fighter needs to strengthen there foot and ankle I have them do prehab work such as toe curls on a towel this will strengthen all of the intrinsic muscles of the foot and ankle. Stability drills such as one legged tennis ball catches this can aid in ankle support and strengthening the Tibialis muscles.

Phil Daru - http://www.Darustrong.com

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I believe its important to solidify your feet and ankles to stay healthy and maximize performance...no matter what sport you play.

If you guys were anything like me growing up, you probably spent all of your time outside, playing sports and being active.  As an active kid, I must have rolled my ankles 100 times growing up.  A little ice, a brace or two and we expected it to heal up and be ok.

Truth is, after we injure an area on our body, it does not heal up the way we hope.  Its our job to solidify and regain function, so future injuries do not occur.

Just like any other part of the body, I will follow the following steps to make sure someone's feet and ankles are tip top:

  1. Do we have good range of motion and control within those ranges?
    1. Toes, Dorsiflexion, plantar-flexion?
  2. Is the foot and ankle stable?
    1. Can you stand on one foot?
    2. Can you stand on one foot, with your heal elevated slightly?
    3. Can you stand on one foot while swinging the other leg or your arms?
  3. Is it strong?
    1. How does the foot and ankle look when we walk? Run?
    2. How does it look when you drag or push a heavy sled?
    3. How does it handle changes of direction and work in various planes of motion?
  4. Once we've gone thru these steps, we can start to add speed...
    1. Jump progressions?
    2. Sprinting?
    3. Quick changes of direction?

Following this thought process will help build a foundation of strength and avoid unnecessary injury or pain.  You slowly improve over time and add complexity/intensity, so the athlete can adapt change and improve without doing too much, too quickly.

Corey Beasley - Fight Camp Conditioning