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To Shoe or Not to Shoe?

Barbell back squats are one of key exercises of any good training program and is considered by many as the King of exercises. The compound nature of the exercise means you’re working out a huge range of muscle groups during the exercise, including the quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, your lower back and your core muscles. Over the years, there have been many studies looking at different methods to improve squat performance. One of these variations looks at how squat performance changes with different shoes and with barefoot training.

Over the years a range of specialist training footwear has been created for the sole purpose of benefitting those who powerlift or Olympic lift. Barefoot training has also experienced a resurgence as of late and has been employed in strength and conditioning programs. This has resulted in the creation of barefoot inspired footwear such as the Vibram Five Fingers. Sinclair et al (2014) decided to test whether or not different types of footwear as well as training in bare feet made any significant difference to the squat.

The study took 14 males who had at least 5 years experience with the squat and got them to perform 5 reps of a 70% 1RM squat with different footwear conditions (barefoot, barefoot inspired footwear, weight lifting shoes and running shoes). These footwear conditions were randomised for each participant and adequate rest was given between sets to avoid fatigue and bias. 3D kinematics (movement measurements) and surface EMG (muscle activation) measurements were taken to analyse the differences between each footwear condition.

Better Muscle Activation & Greater Range of Motion with Running Shoes

The study found that the running shoe allowed for greater squat depth as well as ankle and knee range of motion compared to the barefoot condition. In terms of muscle activation, the running shoe condition also resulted in a significantly greater rectus femoris activation. The rectus femoris is one of the four main muscles that make up the bulk of the quads. There was slightly greater hamstring activation with the barefoot inspired footwear and it should be noted that barefoot condition resulted in the least variability when it came to muscle activation. The EMG muscle activation results are shown below:

Barefoot

Barefoot inspired

Weightlifting shoes

Running shoes

Mean muscle activation

Gastrocnemius

21 ± 0.13

24 ± 16

27 ± 22

25 ± 19

Tibialis anterior

43 ± 0.18

44 ± 25

46 ± 15

43 ± 15

Rectus femoris

77 ± 0.56

86 ± 56

81 ± 52

94 ± 67A*

Bicep femoris

38 ± 0.24

57 ± 49

41 ± 24

40 ± 24

Rector spinae

47 ± 0.19

46 ± 20

46 ± 20

46 ± 19

Peak muscle activation

Gastrocnemius

50 ± 35

0.63 ± 0.40

96 ± 130

64 ± 50

Tibialis anterior

112 ± 41

1.36 ± 1.26

125 ± 033

114 ± 40

Rectus femoris

207 ± 177

2.32 ± 1.81

215 ± 162

261 ± 208A*

Bicep femoris

114 ± 88

1.69 ± 1.54

119 ± 091

117 ± 83

Erector spinae

102 ± 39

1.00 ± 0.44

98 ± 037

99 ± 43

Table I. Muscle activation magnitudes (% MVC) as a function of footwear

Practical Applications

In the grand scheme of things, it actually won’t make a huge difference what types of shoes you wear to do squats or whether your use shoes at all. Running shoes though fares better than other conditions so just stick with those if you want an effective squat. Barefoot training though has its benefits and has had increasing research on its applications to running performance.

Sinclair J, McCarthy D, Bentley I, Hurst HT, Atkins S. ‘The influence of different footwear on 3-D kinematics and muscle activation during the barbell back squat in males.’ Eur J Sport Sci. 2014 Oct 21:1-8.

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