I am a big believer in using the right tool for the job – and one of the most important tools you’ll use in the gym (or home gym) is footwear … or lack thereof. Different activities call for different types of footwear to maximize both safety and performance. For example, it would be a bit silly to try and run a marathon in hiking boots, they are not the right tool for the job. While that example may be a bit on the extreme / obvious side, many people do not realize that all “gym” shoes are not created equal. For the most serious of gym goers, I typically recommend three types of footwear:
- Minimal / bare feet
Lifters are used pretty much only for squat variations (back squats, front squats, Zercher squats, etc.) and weightlifting movements (snatch, clean and jerk, and variants). There is also one kettlebell movement that I like these for, and that is the jerk (either single or double kettlebell) – but that’s about it. The large heel lift in these shoes make them great for deep squatting, but for many other exercises they are not the right choice.
Trainers are the middle of the road; generally a good all-around shoe for most activities, but not really specific to any one thing. They often come with a moderate heel lift (less than the lifters above) and come in a range of densities (high density, which is my preference, all the way down to squishy, which I discourage).
For most kettlebell movements though, bare feet is the way to go (minus the jerks that were noted above). Why bare feet? Well, there are a few reasons. First, the “hip hinge” pattern used in swings, snatches, and cleans is the main movement pattern used in kettlebell training, and in the vast majority of cases a heel lift in a shoe will hurt this pattern more than it will help it. For the hinge, the weight should be mid-to-rear foot, and a shoe with a heel lift will try to shift your weight towards the ball of the foot … this can be quite helpful for squatting, but not nearly as much for hinging. Plus, if you are squatting with a kettlebell it will be in front of you almost all the time (goblet squat or front squat), and the weight being in front usually negates the need for a heel lift anyway.
The next reason is you want to be able to “root” your feet into the ground. To do this, you need to be able to A) splay your toes wide, and b) dig your entire foot into the ground. Being barefoot allows both of these, since your toes have no restriction and your feet are literally on the ground, making it easy to feel the ground and stay connected. On dynamic movements like swings there is ample opportunity for excessive (unwanted) weight shifting, which often results in the toes or even the ball of the foot lifting up off the ground – this is bad news! I’ve seen a lot of people who get “knocked onto their heels” during the backswing of a swing or snatch, and that puts way too much stress on the lower back and robs the lift of power. If you are wearing sneakers you are likely to not even feel this, but if you are barefoot then you’ll be more tuned in and will realize you are off balance.
The third reason is the basic science of force production. Remember, the whole idea with strength training is to produce force – either by moving a moderate weight quickly (kettlebell swing or snatch) or by moving a heavy weight, albeit more slowly (kettlebell military press or front squat). When you lift, your muscles generate force which then gets transferred into the ground; since the earth doesn’t move, what happens is the kettlebell moves instead. The key here is that you want ALL the force that your muscles produce to get transferred into the kettlebell, and if you wear squishy shoes then some of that force will be lost into compressing the shoes instead of moving the kettlebell.
Lastly, don’t forget that your feet and ankles have muscles too, and they need to be trained just like any other muscle! When you train in bare feet these muscles get challenged and get stronger just like any other muscle would. On the flip side, if you wear big sneakers that takes away from the input to the muscles (and other tissues) in your feet and ankles, robbing them of their training.
If for some reason you have to wear shoes (your facility requires it, you have a cut on your foot, you have to train outside on concrete until your gym reopens, etc.) then look for athletic shoes that are as minimal as possible, and have a wide toe box.
In summary, training kettlebells in bare feet is helpful because:
- It helps you keep your balance on the proper part of your foot
- It will help you quickly realize if your weight starts to come off the correct part of your foot
- It allows you to splay your toes wide, which is beneficial in many ways
- It allows all the force your muscles produce to be transferred into lifting the kettlebell
- It will strengthen your feet and ankles – they have muscles too!