Just in case you haven’t heard this old quip before, I’ll say it again: any strong structure has to begin with a strong foundation. Like construction, building strength has to begin with a strong foundation. This isn’t abstract to set up a talk about technique, programming or anything mental. I’m going to be talking about the literal foundation of our physical bodies, the feet. Everything starts with the feet. Just about every athletic movement imaginable begins with the feet. The feet are the first parts of the human body that generate stability and power. In terms of strength training and strength sports, proper footwork can make the difference between utter failure and setting a new world record.
The Feet Create Stability First
The feet are quite literally the first body parts that play a part in any strength movement. How the feet are positioned and how the feet are engaged will play a tremendous factor in the success or failure in any movement. Let’s take the squat as an example. Even before unracking the bar, foot placement is everything. The ability to unrack, step back and squat heavy weight largely depend on the placement and engagement of the feet. Everyone will have their own preference in terms of feet position depending on their body mechanics and their sport specificity. However, one fact is not negotiable: the feet must be stable. Having stable feet allow the load of the weights to be evenly dispersed on the entire surface of the feet and help the lifter press off of the floor. So how do we visualize and create stability with the feet? Imagine the underneath of the foot to be a triangle. Draw a triangle from the heel to the ball of the big toe and to the ball of the smallest toe. This triangle is where the lifter should place the load of the weights when trying to push upwards. An old cue that many coaches use is to tell lifters to sit back in their heels. That may be applicable for some people, because some people may in fact put too much pressure on the balls of their feet, but most people should focus on distributing force throughout the triangle of each foot to create maximum stability. If a lifter leans too far back, the lifter could fall backwards. If a lifter falls too far forward, the lifter could fall forward. If a lifter’s feet are either pronated or supinated, then the lifter will likely experience issues stabilizing the knees in the correct manner. How do we create that stability with our feet? A cue that I found works great for myself, is to grip the floor with your toes. Once the feet are in position, I like to spread my toes out wide, then bring them back in like I'm trying to grab the floors with my toes. Whenever I do that, I can feel the arches of my feet flex and the entire triangle of my feet rooted to the ground. From there, the stability of my feet allow my ankles to move as they should which allows my knees to move with stability which allows my hip to hinge properly which allows me to create a tremendous transfer of power to the bar. The idea of grounding the feet matters in EVERY lift. That includes bench press, deadlift, overhead press, power cleans, log press, Atlas stones, yoke walks, throws, sprinting, etcetera. Every power movement must begin with stability of the feet. It is not negotiable.
Forget Fashion, Think Function
The shoes you put on your feet will have a direct correlation to the performance of your feet. I get it, you want to walk in the gym with that swag. Those fresh Nike’s make you look like a trendy pro. But here is something you need to accept: those Nike tennis shoes don’t translate well to heavy lifting. Most tennis shoes, not just Nike’s, are built with a narrow toe box and high arches. The narrow toe boxes have a tendency to smush toes together into a point. It is practically impossible to spread the toes in a toe box that is shaped like a cone. The high arches do not allow the feet to flex as it should to help generate stability and power. They may be good for running, and I’m seeing good arguments against that, too, but they do very little to aid strength athletes. When evaluating shoes, there are two things I like to look at. First, is the toe box big enough for me to spread my toes to their widest point? If the answer is no, I don’t buy them. Second, is the sole of the shoe flat with minimum padding so that I can properly flex my feet? If the answer is no, then I don’t buy them. One of the most popular shoes in the gym are good ole fashioned Chuck Taylors. They have a stylish and minimalist design that allows lifters to have good foot grounding. However, they do have a flaw. The toe box can be narrow, but I have found that it’s possible to create space by loosening up the strings a little. The Air Force 1 and Air Jordan lines by Nike do have a wider toe box, but I do find that they have a bit more padding on the sole than what I would like for lifting. In an ideal world, we would lift with bare feet, but that is not always possible, especially when on the road for competitions. You never know what kind of environment you’ll be performing in. Or you may train in a gym that won’t allow you to train with bare feet (find a better gym….or join Atlas). It’s just not always feasible to have bare feet. There are companies out there that offer minimalist shoes. One company that specifically has lifters in mind is the Bearfoot shoe company. If you’ve ever spent any time on Dr. Aaron Horsching’s social media pages (Squat University) you have likely seen him promote the Bearfoot shoes. They are designed with a wide toe box with a flat and minimally padded sole. They are also made in America. The design is to allow optimum performance of the feet with power movement in mind. I have ordered a pair, and I will provide a review of them once I get to wear them for a while. There is an exception for Olympic lifters. Because of the high demand in mobility, it will be more difficult to perform power cleans and snatches with flat shoes. It is not impossible, but there will need to be an increase in ankle mobility before making the switch to flat shoes.
Transitioning to Minimalist Shoes
If you have spent most of your time in tennis shoes, it is best to transition to flat shoes slowly. Currently, your feet are adapted to the arch support of modern tennis shoes. It will take some time to develop the muscles in the arches of feet before being able to properly use flat shoes. Because of the arch support, the muscles in the arches of the feet have sort of atrophied. It’s the same principle as someone who stops training. The muscle growth and strength decreases as a result of less stimulation. You will have to train the arches of the feet the same way. Start off my training in them once or twice per week, or go on walks in them. Over time, the arches of the feet will redevelop, and you will be able to wear them full time. If you transition to minimalist shoes full time too soon, you will likely experience some pain and discomfort. Take your time and allow the feet to adapt to the change. Over time, the feet will actually become stronger and help create better stability and increasing performance in and out of the gym.
Does your gym not allow you to walk around and train with bare feet as God intended? Then come pay a visit to the Atlas Strength Shop! With 7600 square feet of rubber flooring, you’ll be able to let those puppies breathe, stretch those toes and bend bars. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule your next visit. Do you need some high quality energy supplements? Check out veteran owned and operated strikeforceenergy.com and use promo code ATLASSTRENGTH at checkout to get 20% off of your order. Make sure you like our Facebook page here, and follow us on Instagram here.
One October 30, 2021, the Atlas Strength Shop will be hosting its second annual strongman competition, the Rougarou Classic. If you want to compete, check out the Facebook event page here, or visit ironpodium.com for registration information. If you’re a business owner who wants to expand their reach, send an email to email@example.com for sponsorship opportunities.
“There is no genius without a touch of madness.” -Seneca