While much debate surrounds the usage of certain types of footwear while an exerciser is performing a set of deadlifts, certain exercisers have taken minimalist footwear for deadlifting to its furthest point by performing the exercise entirely barefoot.
This particular approach to the deadlift presents its own set of advantages and disadvantages, but is nonetheless a perfectly valid choice for individuals that find the usage of footwear while deadlifting uncomfortable or unsafe.
Deadlifting without shoes is primarily done by minimalist exercisers that wish to maximize comfort and aid in the performance of the exercise by a variety of different exercise mechanisms.
Apart from a few specific circumstances, whether to perform the deadlift barefoot or with the use of shoes is entirely up to the exerciser and the needs of their training program - with the difference between the two being admittedly small in terms of end results.
Exercisers with an unusual foot shape that make deadlifting in shoes uncomfortable, those that find doing so unstable or dangerous, and lifters wishing to maximize their advantages during the deadlift can all stand to benefit from performing the exercise without the use of footwear.
However, there are also advantages to performing the deadlift with the use of certain types of shoes, such as the specially purposed deadlift shoe meant to be used in this very situation - and as such, the exerciser must weigh the benefits of both barefoot and shod deadlifting in order to decide on what approach to take.
An exerciser may choose to deadlift without the use of shoes for many reasons; but usually will do so for the purposes of improving their adherence to correct deadlift form as well as to take advantage of certain benefits provided by being barefoot, of which will not only result in more comfortable repetitions but also greater training stimulus in certain respects.
While it is likely that deadlifting barefoot is against the rules of many public gyms, it is nonetheless relatively popular among modern weightlifters both due to personal preference and the fact that it may conform well with the exerciser’s own unique bodily proportions and kinetic patterns.
Whether or not deadlifting barefoot is easier will depend on what particular aspect of the deadlift the exerciser considers to be difficult - with a shorter range of motion translating to time under tension, stabilizer muscle group recruitment and relative muscle group activation intensity all being significantly easier when the exercise is performed barefoot.
However, in terms of gross force output, relative rate of perceived exertion or even simple muscular fatigue accumulation, deadlifting barefoot does not make the exercise any easier unless it is the exerciser’s footwear that is directly making the movement more difficult than it should be.
Choosing to perform the deadlift without shoes can provide a great many benefits that are otherwise difficult to replicate without the use of specifically engineered shoes meant to be used in a similar manner. For exercisers searching for these very benefits in order to improve their deadlift performance, going barefoot may just be the best possible choice for achieving such advantages.
As an elevation of the heel (like one would find with certain types of shoes) will force the exerciser to pull the barbell from the floor for a greater distance, it may be surmised that deadlifting without such an elevation by way of being barefoot will also decrease the range of motion involved in the exercise.
This presents several advantages, such as allowing the exerciser to move more weight for a similar level of exertion, as well as reducing the risk of overextension and shear force injuries in the connective and skeletal muscle tissues of the body.
Many characteristics of deadlifting shod can lead to the exerciser having difficulty balancing properly while performing the exercise, or otherwise activating their stabilizer muscle groups to a greater capacity than is necessary, prematurely fatiguing them before other muscle groups have been fully exerted.
As such, the exerciser may instead achieve greater stability and reduced stabilizer muscle group exertion by simply removing the source of such instability; their footwear, which likely is causing such issues due to a narrow sole , elevated heel or overly cushioned bottom shifting as the exerciser applies force to it.
Less a benefit related to being barefoot and more a lack of a certain drawback of using shoes while deadlifting, performing the deadlift without shoes allows the force and pressure of the exercise to be distributed more evenly throughout the various joints involved, primarily that of the hips and knees.
As an elevated heel forces the exerciser to bend further forward during the deadlift, more pressure is placed on the knee joint and its surrounding tissues - thereby increasing the risk of injury in the area. Deadlifting barefoot or with shoes that do not have an elevated heel should remedy this particular issue.
Just as performing the deadlift barefoot can improve certain aspects of the exerciser’s training, so too can it present several drawbacks that (for the most part) do not directly affect the training stimulus accrued, though an increase in the risk of certain types of injuries is indeed a factor to consider.
As the foot is left entirely unprotected when deadlifting without shoes, the risk of the exerciser accidentally dropping or lowering the barbell and its attached weight plates onto their feet is considerably more injurious.
While this can be avoided simply by ensuring that the exerciser moves their feet out of the way before ending their set, one cannot account for the barbell slipping out of their grip and landing on their feet - presenting a significant drawback to deadlifting barefoot.
Largely dependent on where in particular the exerciser is performing the deadlift, having no layer of separation between the exerciser’s bare skin and the ground leaves them susceptible to certain fungal and bacterial hazards, especially in such places like public gyms or outdoor gyms where sanitation may be less than optimal.
Depending on the particular shape and health of the exerciser’s feet, deadlifting barefoot may in fact be less comfortable than doing so with the correct type of shoe.
This is due to exercisers with particularly high arches or weakened ankles finding the pressure of deadlifting to be uncomfortable and strenuous without the aid of padding, physical support and inserts that are normally present when the exerciser is wearing shoes.
Individuals with special foot-related orthopedic requirements may find that performing the deadlift with their preferred shoes is in fact superior to doing so barefoot in terms of comfort and safety - even if the range of motion and load distribution is disadvantageous.
1. 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.
2. Hammer, Mark & Meir, Rudi & Whitting, John & Crowley-McHattan, Zachary. (2018). Shod versus barefoot effects on force and power development during a conventional deadlift. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 32. 1525-1530. 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002246.