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To Bare Or Not To Bare

Dafna Kettlebell Push-ups LeadPhotos

I’ve come to realize that many people find much of what we do in our training to be "shocking". Kettlebell swings look scary, snatches seem unnatural, and farmers carries are odd—"you just pick them up and walk around the room?" But as we introduce our students to kettlebells and the RKC school of thought, their first mental hurdle to overcome is simply taking off their shoes. Traditional gyms and fitness studios require footwear—and there is much discussion over the type, brand, and necessary level of support. By the time they find the "freaks of fitness" (as Al and Danny Kavadlo call us) they are trained to show up with a water bottle, a towel, and sneakers. Asking these new trainees to step on to the floor with bare feet is like pulling the rug (or shoes) out from under them.

I am a huge proponent of barefoot work, and immediately took to it. However, as coaches, we should determine if our clients are good candidates for barefoot training—and if they are mentally and physically ready to make the transition. During the "rapport building" stage of your coach-client relationship, a first step is to simply explain why we encourage barefoot training or minimalist footwear.

My 20-30 second explanation is, "There are lots of sensors on the bottoms of your feet that give your brain information about how to use your muscles correctly. When you learn to use your feet properly, you will improve your balance and your body’s spatial awareness. We want our feet to be able to sense and move freely. Shoes inhibit and restrict that kind of movement". I find that is enough of an explanation for most people. More questions will come up over time when certain exercises feel different without shoes. For example, squatting without the heel elevation from full support sneakers.

As coaches, it is our responsibility to appropriately engineer our clients’ transition to barefoot training. First, we must determine the client's level of comfort. For many, the thought of being barefoot might feel extremely uncomfortable and revealing. Alternately, they can choose from many perfectly acceptable options for minimal support shoes. This is not a case of "my way or the highway".

Next, it is absolutely importance to physically prepare the feet, beginning with an assessment. Before leading a client in a barefoot workout, screen for any contraindications or any reasons your client should not be working out barefoot. For example, ask the client and make sure that they don’t have any structural issues—those are also beyond your scope as a coach—or any conditions that may shift the risk/reward ratio in favor of shoes. Certain conditions such as diabetes may also need to be taken into account.

When you’re screening a new client with the FMS or any other movement assessment tool, be sure to observe the client's foot mechanics. Do they have full range of motion and ankle rotation? Can the move their toes?

When the shoes come off, I am often amazed by how much dysfunction some people are enduring. But, our expertise as coaches can make the transition to barefoot training a success. Like any other training progression, this transition needs to be thoughtfully planned. If a client has spent the last twenty years in an office with her shoes on, chances are we will need to spend some time getting her feet accustomed to being free and functional. At first, you may notice her toes are clumped together with no spacing. As your client frees herself of the constraints of restrictive footwear and begins training, her feet will relax and the spacing between her toes will return.

Here are a few exercises for waking up the feet, improving blood circulation, strengthening the arch of the foot, and stimulating the sensors on the bottom of the foot in order to ensure a healthy and positive experience:

Start by working on ankle mobility with simple ankle rotations, plantar flexion and dorsiflexion of each foot. Then progress to calf raises driving the heals up as high as possible. Ask your client to wiggle one toe at a time or tap their toes the same way you would tap your fingers on a desk. Most new clients will find this very difficult. If they can, ask them to isolate and lift one toe at a time.

Stimulus:

Turn on the nerve endings at the bottoms of your feet by walking on different surfaces such as grass, turf, carpet, etc. Since most my clients are office dwellers and don’t have the freedom to walk around barefoot, I suggest that they place a small piece of turf under their desks. Other good options are spiky foot massage balls or foam rollers. After years of being told to put our shoes on when we go outside, our feet have become hyper-sensitive to the sensation of any surfaces that are not perfectly smooth. The brain might even translate the new sensations into pain. Unfortunately, it can take time for that sensitivity to subside.

Towel/Dowel/Pen Toe Activation:

Place a towel on the floor, then ask your client to grab, pull, and "scrunch up" the towel with his toes. This will improve motor control and strengthen the arches of the feet. It might be easier to start with both feet at the same time and then progress to one foot. Once your client has mastered that, you can challenge them to lift a dowel and then a pen off the floor using only their toes. Then, have your client bring their knee up to hip height and hold it for a count of ten.
 
Dafna Foot Exercise with towel
 
Dafna Foot Exercise
 
Arch Strengthening:

Have your client walk barefoot across a beam on only her toes and the balls of her feet. This will force her to work harder to keep her heels off the floor. You can get creative as your clients improve and gain more confidence by asking them to put one foot behind the other "grapevine style". This is also an excellent drill for improving balance.
 
Dafna Foot Exercise Stimulus

Progressions:

Progressions and regressions are necessary in any program, and will require the body to adapt. The skin and connective tissues will need time to transition so start with small changes. At first, consider having your client train barefoot only during the warm up, then gradually extend the barefoot training to the rest of your training session until they are comfortable enough to train barefoot for the whole session. When the floor is cold in winter, you might want to suggest non-skid socks so the toes can keep warm while still moving freely.

As the saying goes, "Everything in moderation, including moderation". Like many other lifestyle changes, these transitional steps are most successful when they happen naturally and gradually over time.
 

DafnaKettlebellPushups1 thumbnailDafna Hayman, RKC-II, PCC trains clients in Newton, MA. Read her Dragon Door interview to learn more.
 

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