Arnold Schwarzenegger used to workout barefoot.
I know this because I used to work for a company that published fitness and bodybuilding magazines, and I would frequently hear all about Arnold’s legendary training protocol (his equally legendary personal shenanigans, not so much) from both my colleagues and our contributors.
And it turns out Arnold’s choice to forego footwear wasn’t about fashion.
“Golden-era bodybuilders sometimes preferred the feel of their feet against the gym floor on heavy lifts such as squats and deadlifts,” Muscle & Performance explains, “because they believed it built the supporting musculature of the feet, ankles and calves along with the rest of the larger muscles.”
I had never put much stock in the notion until recently, when I noticed that the contours of my cross-trainers’s insoles were forcing me to roll forward on to my toes while squatting, which made it hard to push through my heels.
I started thinking about the golden era’s preference for skipping the shoes altogether, but decided to heed the warning Muscle & Performance included in their story:
“Near-max loads should still be shoed — especially by those new to barefoot or minimalist footwear training — because of the incredible forces that come to bear on the bones of the feet.”
Fortunately, I think I found the perfect middle ground between the benefits of barefoot lifts and the safety of shoes: water shoes.
Unlike cross trainers, water shoes have almost no arch support, which in this case is a good thing. Because they have thin insoles with little cushioning, I’m able to push down through my heels on big lifts like squats and deadlifts, and I can almost feel the muscles in my feet making contact with the ground—with almost being the operative word.
The water shoes still provide some cushioning and comfort, but not so much that it impedes my lifts. Plus, because they’re made to absorb wetness, they’re great at wicking sweat off my feet and helping my gym bag avoid the dreaded shoe stank.
Is it a little bit weird? It is, and at first I felt weird about it. But I found a pair made by Speedo that almost look like sneakers, so people hardly notice that I’m wearing funky footwear in the gym.
But I notice the results, which is all that matters.
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Irreverent Gent founder Dave Bowden is a men’s style specialist, an Amazon bestselling author, an unrepentant introvert, a (patient, if long-suffering) Toronto sports fan and the husband of a wonderful (and fortunately much more patient) wife.