The Science & Application of Barefoot Strength Training

By Dr. Mario Novo

Stronger, Leaner, Healtier, FOREVER

Introducing Functional Strength Training: 
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Stronger, Leaner, Healtier, FOREVER

Introducing Functional Strength Training: 
The Monthly Membership Training Solution For People Who Want To Look, Feel And Function Their Very Best, Forever.

Join FST NOw

Here’s What You Need To Know…

1. Improved proprioception and kinesthetic awareness are big words for what we take for granted about movement in general. Learning how to tap into our lower extremities evolutionary feedback mechanism can altogether prevent injuries and increase in muscle strength but it starts by getting barefoot and digging in.

2. Our bodies are one huge feedback loop of information to and from the brain. Connecting our feet into the group and utilizing the natural spiral effects of muscle tension to center the joint are excellent ways to tap into improved movement. Starting off slow with short exposures to “mindful” training allows you to make steady and safe steps towards barefoot training.

3. Getting to a solid point of any real appreciable foot stability takes time and progression or maybe is it regression? Nonetheless we all need to start somewhere so let’s get to work and learn a thing or two about ourselves.


Improving positional awareness through barefoot training can protect your body by decrease the chances of developing a lower extremity injury and at the same time improve your muscle strength and athletic performance. Our gifted feet provide a wealth of information about joint positions, muscle tension and most importantly the ground. Improving performance from the ground up is how we have developed but now after years of wearing shoes, we can’t just go cold turkey. A gradual step down approach from padded shoes to minimalist shoes to finally being barefoot is what is recommended. Let’s cover some of the science and then dig our toes into what we really need to know about barefoot weight training and how it can help you be your best.

Evolution Gave Us All That We Need And Nothing More

Arnold Barefoot Training

From fat pads to heels our feet have adapted in ways far different than that of our ancestors. Long gone are the traits for grasping in our feet but what remains is the highly adaptive and highly specialized information that our feet provide about movement and equally the surface we are moving on. This information equally allows for us to intuitively activate and tension our muscles for force production and force absorption.

When we dull or dampen the incoming information from out feet we over use the outgoing information and place our tissues and bones under more stress to provide increased awareness. In other words, the more padded the foot wear the greater we must compression before selecting the optimal recruitment pattern. This is a perfect scenario ripe for an overuse injury (volume of use), or overload injury (volume of force all at once).

No one in their right mind would play a piano concert with garden gloves on; equally no one would wear heavy rubber boots on their feet to improve in their ballet dance (and that shit is really tough, wink wink to my dancer patients).

Due to the lack in barefoot muscle recruitment studies performed with weight lifters we will in part some facts from the plethora of barefoot running studies and extrapolate what is applicable to our weight lifting cause.

In fact when we compare the rates of lower extremity injuries in barefoot runners (BF) versus shoe (SH) runners for example, we find an increased rate of injuries to the knee and hip/pelvis.

Barefoot runner’s still experience injuries. Common injuries in the BF runner are directed at the foot and are attributed to superficial cuts, abrasions, and blisters but also they initially suffer plantar fascial injuries as concrete and pavement are unforgiving; also most of these BF running studies have used subjects with 6 months to 3 yrs of BF experience.

Most of these foot injuries are not a reality when training at a gym but even accidents can happen and stepped on toes or dropped weights can really ruin a good day. None the less, common sense should prevail as should hygiene and proper gym mat cleaning (don’t scoff at socked feet. Please have you ever stopped to think about the literal crap you step on each day and mop into your own house?). Ok back on topic.

Again, longevity is fundamental to performance and strength gains/adaptations, so staying injury free is and should be at the forefront of any trainers, and trainees mind.

Improved proprioception and kinesthetic awareness are big words for what we take for granted about movement in general. Learning how to tap into our lower extremities evolutionary feedback mechanism can altogether prevent injuries and increase in muscle strength but it starts by getting barefoot and digging in.

Get Connected

Barefoot Deadlift

Our bodies are one huge feedback loop of information to and from the brain. Connecting our feet into the ground and utilizing the natural spiral effects of muscle tension to center the joint are excellent ways to tap into improved movement.

As written before by John Rusin in “Shoulder Packing & Centration” utilizing the natural winding up or synergistic spiral of the fascial layers, to tension the extremities; can create improved joint positions such as the term centration defines.

With the lower extremities this means “rooting” into the ground.

Time For An Experiment

Take off your shoes. Stand up.

Feel the ground out and notice how relaxed the foot, lateral leg muscles, and lowback muscles are.

Now tension your glutes (come one squeeze them like you have a $100 bill in there, and there aight no one that’s going to take it).

Feel how the tension drives the arch up, so that the tripod of the foot (The first metatarsal head, fifth head, and heel) are in contact with the ground.

Start to now center your knee cap over your last three toes. Essentially, externally rotate your femurs outward to emphasize the recruitment of the lateral chain.

Finally set in the core by bracing, and externally rotate the arms to retraction and depress the scapula.

The posterior chain is set.

Simply stated, using this tensioning postural cue throughout the day can re-enforce how the foot is tied into the rest of the body. What is interesting here is the potential correlation between glute weakness/motor control and uncoordinated flat arches in the feet.

As such a chicken and egg scenario is created.

Do shoes lead to weak feet that decrease the proper input required for greater glute recruitment or do weak glutes lead to dropped arches that then require arch support to maintain proper knee alignment (reduced knee valgus or compensated varus)?

Nonetheless we need to start somewhere so here is an ironed out approach

Phase 1: Strength Building

Note: If you already have a program like the JRx 12-week Functional Hypertrophy Training Program, then inter-mix the barefoot concepts in for additional adaptation. If you are looking to try something new then use the provided progressions below.

Stick with phase 1 and perform at best 2/week for a solid 4 weeks before moving on. Remember that training has a purpose and exercise is just a means to stay healthy. If you are serious about training then you know that strength comes before anything else. Strength is the top priority and if you skip out on that fact, then it’s on you. Stick with a plan and be methodical.

Warm-Up: Bodyweight Squats with Posterior Chain Isometric Emphasis

This setting exercise can take place prior to a training session to ramp up the nervous system and again tie in the whole body, (most notably the posterior chain) through tension. We will combine the posterior chain setting exercise with an eccentric isometric variation to as our warm up.

Grab a towel and find a place to go and get barefoot.

Use an appropriate squat depth and get ready for an eccentric isometric.

Eccentric isometric: Squat down to your depth, pause at that bottom position and begin to tension the glutes and outwardly push the knee’s for a total of 5 seconds. Come out of the squat to a standing position and now use you posterior chain setting isometric for 2 seconds.

Bodyweight Squats

Sets: 3

Reps: 10

Tempo: 2502

Rest: 30 seconds

Goblet Squats

Coaching Notes: Grab a towel and find a place to go and get barefoot. Perform an elbow to thigh squat (of course considering you are not rounding at the low back). Push the knee’s outward (knee cap over last 3 toes) and contract the glute the entire way up. Get to the top and squeeze just like you have been practicing.

Sets: 5

Reps: 10

Tempo: 4011

Rest: 40-60 seconds

Last Set: Perform 30 reps @ bodyweight


Coaching Notes: Barefoot again. Use whatever grip you like, I prefer a match grip as I don’t like alternating grips (feel like I can’t set the Lats in with the hand that is palm up or supinated; which when you think about it the Lats assists with internal arm rotation so the external arm is placing the Lats to be asymmetrically loaded as one side is pre-stretched vs the other)

Get the bar just over the arch of your foot. Lower down into position, shrug then depress the scapula to set in the Lats (quick stretch to cue the muscle). Now pre-stretch the hamstring by performing a quick knee extension. Begin to push the knees out slightly and for god sake keep your head neutral with the rest of your spine and stop watching yourself in the mirror (break necker)

Sets: 5

Reps: 8-10

Tempo: 4012

Rest: 40-60 seconds

Farmer’s Walk Variations

Coaching Notes: Try these in a low traffic area while being barefoot. Your heel strike pattern will have to change and you will have to maintain tension throughout the glute, Lat, and core.

Recall that what you are doing is conditioning the tissues of the foot to increase in their capacity so don’t over load this when first getting started. Shoes allow you to load more but also they dampen the muscle reaction to the ground leaving you critical fractions of a second that you are placing more load through cartilage, ligaments, and bone. Recall you muscles are massive shock absorbers, when they are on and the switch as the foot.

Sets: 3

Distance: 100ft progressing to 200ft

Tempo: Move slow and over time you can increase speed

Bulgarian Split Squat

Coaching Notes: Use a bench and a rack to hold onto. Keep that towel with you to stay barefoot but if you can’t well these splits squats are and should be a part of your stable. These can be performed to failure and then use the rack to support yourself to maintain form and rep them out with body weight.

Sets: 3

Reps: 12-15

Tempo: 4020

Rest: 40 seconds

Last Set: Perform to failure while using support from the rack.

Single Leg Dumbbell RDL

Coaching Notes: Perform with 2 dumbbells as this isn’t for balance and 2 dumbbells keep the pelvis balanced and equally symmetrically load the hamstring.

Sets: 3 sets

Reps: 10

Tempo: 3010

Last Set: Perform a drop set and work till failure

Bodyweight Finishers

These are performed as circuit A1-A2-A3, B1-B2-B3. Repeat circuit A and B for 2 sets total. Use a rack to hold onto for stability as we will be going to failure:

A1 Single Leg Reverse Lunge

*20 reps, 4 second rest

A2 Squat to Jump

*15 reps, 10 second rest

A3 Single Leg Box Step Up

*12 reps, 60 second rest

B1 Forward Box Step Up

*20 reps, 4 second rest

B2 Bodyweight Speed Squats

*15 reps, 10 second rest

B3 Romanian Deadlift

*12 reps, 60 second rest

Phase 1: Accessory Work

Accessory work should always be performed on a conditioning day after the main activities.

The best bang for your buck is rowing, cycling, sprinting, or prowler sled work. I am not a huge proponent to using Olympic lifting on conditioning days, unless it is with a kettle bell and you are working on single arm work. Why?

Well for one, no one in their right mind would or should be doing Olympic lifting for conditioning as form is fundamental for safety. On the other hand, a kettle bell or FatBell would allow for safer conditioning that provides an element of improving symmetry.

Perform your conditioning for 30 minutes and follow up with this accessory work. Check out the exercises below:

Band Moster Walk

*10 Rounds to Each Side

Arm Supported Squat Band Hip Abduction

*3 Sets – 15 Reps

Landmine Anti-Rotation

*3 Sets – 12 Reps

Standing Anti-Rotation Cable or Band Chops

C0aching Notes: This variation starts you rotated and ends with you statically holding the midline position.

*2 Sets – 10 Reps to each side with a 5 second hold at midline

Lateral Plank with Hip Abduction

2 Sets – 5 Reps with a 10 second hold

Coaching Notes: workouts for those who can’t get on the ground or have a screwed up shoulder use a standing variation against a wall such as an isometric wall hip press

Banded Hip Thrust From Bench

*3 Sets – 15 Reps

Swiss Ball “Stir the Pot”

*3 sets – 10/reps each way (counter clockwise/ clock wise)

Push-Up to Plank on Elbows

*3 Sets – 10 Reps

Phase 2: Power

Let’s now Increase the force production by increasing acceleration of the lifts.

Warm-up A: 2 Arm Kettlebell Swing

Sets: 3, Reps: 40, Rest: 40 seconds

Warm-up B: Single Arm Kettlebell High Pull

Sets: 3, Reps: 40, Rest: 40 seconds

Reverse Medicine Ball Toss

Coaching Notes: Grab a heavy ball, and head outside or to a cleared out spot in the gym. Again we are barefoot. Use a deep squat, grab the ball and toss is overhead and behind you. Try to clear you head and please don’t catch the ball. Again, let people know what you’re doing.

Sets: 4

Reps: 6

Rest: 60 seconds.

Single Arm Kettle bell or Fatbell Power Clean

Coaching Notes: Hey, single arm work allows for all types of shoulders to get in on the action. Using a barbell yes when training specifically for barbell work is a must, but if you are training for figure, bodybuilding, or athletics (not weight training) then use a single arm implement or tool. Recall that a barbell is a tool that emphasizes symmetry and that takes time to master; as well it takes a good set of shoulders. So stay in your training lane and don’t do things without a reason people.

Sets: 5

Reps: 6

Rest: 60 seconds

Landmine Squat to Press

Coaching Notes: Use a single arm or 2 arm variation depending on bringing up a weak side.

Sets: 5

Reps: 6

Rest: 60 seconds

Drop Landing Squat Jump

Coaching Notes: Name says it all. I for one am not a fan of box jumps power production because rarely in sports do we see the need to jump and land into a squat position above the starting height, unless you are in cheerleading and are trying to land a pyramid jump. Rather in reality we focus on jumping, landing, and recovering from that landing phase such as in basketball, volley ball, tennis (think lateral jump to reversal lunge). Nonetheless this is a more translatable power exercise that is focused on injury prevention. Lord knows that when fatigue kicks, the last thing you want is a sharp corner of a box ruining the rest of your week with wearing shorts.

“What happened to your shins?” Oh it was my mom’s dog. “Doesn’t your mom own a Chihuahua?”

Get a 4 to 8 inch box. Start at the top and drop down. When you drop focus on a cat like landing with your arms in front of you. Then immediately thrust your arms upward and jump up. Use an alternating forward step up with each reset.

Sets: 3

Reps: 6

Rest: 60 seconds

Phase 3: Plyometrics

The progression into this phase will test your strength and put the foot literally to the test. You can incorporate this phase at the end of your power workout session for increased metabolic expenditure but realize that the power phase, challenges your nervous system and your immune system as well. So don’t be shocked if you keep getting flu like pains and symptoms when you jump from one program to the next. Stay focused and really set out to finish what you started.

Here I will outline the exercises and use a general set and rep scheme.

Sets: 3

Reps: 20

Rest: 40

  1. Squat to jump
  2. Lateral hop to hold
  3. Speed skaters
  4. Broad jump to hops back
  5. Power skips
  6. Power step ups

Put Your Foot Down

The progress I have outlined above should make a notable gain in lower body strength, and more importantly it should improve your feet. Again, the rule of thumb is progress slow, expect bumps, but stay focused and listen to your body.

When you see plans like this, take a moment to understand the development process and that although skipping right away to harder and yes more interesting exercises may seem appealing, progression starts at the level of the tissue.

Tissue capacity is a more specific term taken out of functional movement. In that the systems of tissues produce function, the capacity of a specific tissue type and anatomical location will vary.

Capacity is directly related to the stress you place on a tissue. A balanced stress, equals a balanced tissue. In either direction of balance you have failure so be smart.

Being coached again is fundamental if you are serious about training so stop sitting around and waiting for the next best supplement to come out, and hope that a single compound or proprietary blend is going to make the difference.

About The Author

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Dr. Mario Novo is a results driven sports orthopedic physical therapist who specializes in strength and conditioning and is also the originator The Lifter’s Clinic . Known well by his clients/patients as a mentor and educator, Mario’s passion is to unify the highest levels of rehab science with successful mind and body strength coaching. With Mario’s research having focused on new advancements in muscle hypertrophy periodization and joint health, his goals are to share his knowledge and improve on the human condition through personalized cutting edge program design. Mario currently resides in middle TN where he plans on integrating his skills and knowledge in resistance exercise and rehab to empower and inspire those individuals ready to make a change in their lives through health and fitness.

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