So much is talked about in the gym when it comes to getting an “edge” on performance or making an exercise more effective. Many times, it is just a simple tweak in how something is gripped or moved, but not often does it have to do with what is worn.
The great debate about footwear and its influence on the squat and how the muscles in the leg are worked has been around for a long time. This dates most recognizably back to the 60s and 70s of bodybuilding, when most people in the gym wore dock shoes or trained barefoot.
The theory is that squatting barefoot or in a hard-soled shoe in someway causes more stimulation in the legs as opposed to wearing regular sneakers that have a softer and more forgiving sole.
This all falls into something called kinematics.
Kinematics is a branch of classical mechanics that describes the motion of points, bodies, and systems of bodies without considering the mass of each or the forces that caused the motion. In general, evaluating a movement or motion such as a squat, without considering weight of the person doing the squatting or the weight they are using as well. This is simply just looking at the motion of the points involved.
Enter the footwear.
In numerous kinematic based studies, subjects with the same build and lifting experience were split into two groups. Group 1 wore regular sneakers that resembled a running shoe. Group 2 was barefoot. Now in some cases there was a Group 3 which wore a hard-soled lifting shoe, but they were often categorized in with Group 2 because the results were somewhat the same between Groups 2 and 3.
After the studies were conducted, Group 2 (barefoot) showed much more muscle activity in the lower leg and slightly more in the upper leg than Group 1. This was attributed to the lack of support around the foot therefore the foot had to engage more in balancing the weight, which led to other muscle in the leg having to engage more as well. Group 2 (sneaker) was able to show more ROM (range of motion) in the squat because of the slight lift in the heel of the sneaker, but lacked or equaled muscle stimulation in the leg as a whole.
One would have to conclude that the bodybuilders of the Golden Age were on to something with lifting barefoot or in hard soled shoes.
So next time you go squat, ditch the sneakers and get some Chuck Taylor’s or go barefoot.