Plantar Fasciitis & Barefoot Squats:
Why High Tech Shoes Equal Low Tech Feet
Written by David Grant
Masters of Science in Human Performance & Injury Prevention
B.S. in Sports Medicine & Athletic Training
Founder of Grant Training Systems
My Introduction to the Squat
Why do I call it my introduction? I like to look at the squat as a fundamental human movement. Sitting in a chair, getting on the floor to play with your dog or child, or merely lifting something from the ground are all examples of our body utilizing the squat archetype. Injuries like plantar fasciitis, achilles & knee tendonitis and a host of others are also directly connected to the squat. Squatting heavy weights to build muscle or increase sports performance is also essential. Still, we must first master & understand the basics of the movement before optimization.
The moves I listed before are something we are not taught, they are basic positions our body naturally performs throughout the day. This is essential to understand because this will become the basis for our movement template. When we have a strong understanding of the squat as a movement, we can start to optimize by increasing strength and the level of difficulty with the exercise. This progression is crucial for people wanting to build muscle or athletes wishing to improve their performance. However, when these steps are taken out of order or implemented too quickly – the system will break down, and injury will occur.
Research suggests that we are ninety-five percent genetically the same as our ancestors. That being said, our bodies were not made for Nike Free’s. The natural position of our foot is flat on the ground. No heel drop lifting our heel, toe spring technology preparing our foot for striking the ground, and a narrowing of the forefoot to make our shoe more sleek and aerodynamic is not needed. I will argue that these technological advances are the cause of our injuries like plantar fasciitis, aches, pains, and decreased athletic performance. If I were to shift the engine in a formula one race car half a millimeter, you would laugh at its chance to win a race. Yet, we do this to our own feet under the falsehood that it will improve our performance or decrease our pain – why?
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Before I dive into my argument, it is important to discuss something I call the “Joint Laws” of the human body. These laws were put into place to keep our bodies in check. The “Joint Laws” keep our eyes over our toes. This natural law has helped us stay alive & at the top of the food chain. Try standing in a contorted stance where your eyes do not line up over the toes and try to walk, none the less run – it’s almost impossible. In 2019 this is still extremely useful as it allows us to accomplish all the mundane tasks throughout the day. The downside is that it becomes challenging for us to see our postural imbalances.
Joint Law #1: When one joint goes back, the other will go forward.
Try locking your knees out when standing. Notice what happens to your hips? They fall forward. Your body is one large kinetic chain, and each link will be affected by the other. As your hips fall forward, can you feel your back arch backward? This is why the heel drop (when the heel of your foot is higher than your toe) is a disaster. This creates the first bend or kink in your chain. It is also the culprit behind the knees locking themselves out (hyperextension.)
Joint Law #2: When one joint goes left, the other will go right.
If you stand dominantly on your right leg, your ribs will shift to the left. This keeps your spine straight & your balance aligned. Arch supports are detrimental because they weaken your body’s natural ability to maintain a neutral arch. When they collapse inwards, they take the lower leg with them. This unnatural position can cause the femur to rotate to compensate. If your arm is broken, the doctor will give you cast. Imagine if doctors were to do the same with an arm that merely hurt? The same analogy can be applied to the arch of our foot. After the cast is removed (in this example) intense rehabilitation would take place to strengthen the arm to prevent future injuries. However, arch support is usually a life long crutch, and no rehabilitation exercises are given. You are simply told that your arch is weak, and that’s just the way it is (insert life long medication to deal with injuries like plantar fasciitis here.)
I have already gotten a bit down a rabbit hole. I will limit the depth I go into about postural laws and theory. My goal with this blog is to give some anatomical context so you can understand the importance of squatting barefoot or in an appropriate shoe.
Now that we have a better understanding of how the body works, understanding the importance of squatting with a natural foot position makes more sense. The soft tissue of our body should last (on average) one hundred & twenty years. We can only achieve this with the correct balance of movement, mobility, & strength. This concept is vital because it makes the goal of the squat relatable for everyone. From a grandmother wanting to pick up her grandson to an elite athlete wanting to increase his performance. The template, theory, and movement goals are the same.
Part 2: The Barefoot Squat: Where to start & what is acceptable.
The first question I often get is, “should we always be squatting barefoot, and are weightlifting shoes ok?” That is a fantastic question and is often a topic of confusion. My personal belief is that we are having the wrong conversation. Let’s reframe that question by understanding what our goal is. Are you the grandmother wanting to pick up her grandson or an athlete wanting better performance? Most likely, you are something in-between. When we place the goal of the individual at the forefront of the question, the topic becomes much less confusing, and we realize that there are no “wrong” answers. A Porsche 911 is a beautiful car, but not for a soccer mom trying to get her five kids to practice. The same can be valid for the comparison of barefoot squats and the use of a weightlifting shoe (with a substantial heel raise.)
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What’s Our Goal?
Are you a weightlifter that is competing in different Olympic lifts? Are you a Crossfitter competing for time? If so, a weightlifting shoe makes complete sense – when used/implemented correctly. However, it should not be a crutch for your lack of achilles and or ankle mobility.
We had many elite-level German Judo National athletes training at our performance center (www.alles-machbar.de) and preparing for the upcoming Bundesliga season. To our amazement, many of them ONLY did their Olympic lifts in weightlifting shoes. This makes little to no sense if we think about their sport – they are fighting their opponent BAREFOOT on the mat. My business partner Simon Beuttler & I explained to their coach that they are gaining strength in a position they will never be in. A weightlifting shoe raises the heel a considerable amount to decrease the pressure on the achilles and in return, increasing the ankle mobility. This new range of motion (ROM) allows people to go much deeper into their squat. The advantage is better mechanical technique and more significant gains in power and strength. If this can not be functionally applied on the mat (in the judo athletes case), then the performance gains might be lost in translation.
Simon and I developed a program that focused on both. The heel raise in the shoes allowed them to gain more power and strength, while simultaneously creating a mobility program that increased the ROM of the achilles & opened up the ankle. Within three months, the athletes were able to squat the same weight barefoot and used the weightlifting shoes ONLY to overload their regular squat. This helped them develop a natural arch, prevent the onset of injuries like plantar fasciitis, & reach their performance goals without the fear of injury.
What if your not an athlete?
No worries, it applies to you even more! Just like the previous example of a doctor not casting an arm that only hurts, we don’t want to do the same to our ankles and feet. When someone breaks their arm, what does it look like when the cast comes off? The arm is weak, smaller than the other one, and not able to perform like it should. That is why physical therapy focuses on strengthening the muscles that support the arm, regaining the lost ROM, and bringing back the functionality of the limb.
Now, let’s use the example of a “pronated” ankle. First, without pronation, we could not walk. It is an integral part of our spiral fascial line. If it were eliminated, walking and running would not be possible. Pronation is often mistaken for “over-pronation” or a “collapsed” ankle & is always the topic of plantarfasciitis. If something is weak (which is why the ankle overpronates or collapses), does it make sense to give it a “life long” support? I would say NO. It only makes it weaker over the long term (just like the cast on the arm.) I believe (and research validates) the correct path would be to strengthen the arch through specific exercises.
“If we don’t use it, we will lose it.”
Great! Let’s use it. The best way to do this is by going barefoot or find a barefoot shoe that makes our muscles work (insert shamless shoutout to www.vivobarefoot.com) A saying I always tell my clients is “high tech shoes equal low tech feet.” By dumping the heel drop, the unneeded arch support, and the harmful toe spring technology and the pointless narrowing of the forefoot, you can wake your feet up from their LONG SLUMBER.
Sometimes, clients have been a little overzealous and made the switch a little to fast (myself included.) I suggest getting a pair of barefoot shoes like Vivobarefoot and sharing the day between them and your old shoes. We would never expect someone to go from a sedentary lifestyle to a seven-day training program. So we should treat the feet the same. If your arches get sore, the knees begin to ache, or your achilles catches on fire – that is ok. Signs of switching too fast are when those symptoms become too painful. This transition time is fantastic because it allows you to start a conversation between you and your body that is long overdue. This is one of the first steps to your pain-free path & will help you become the best physio for your own body.
What about Injury?
I have always joked about the secret to rehab is its simplicity. When it comes to nutrition, exercise, or Lifestyle – everyone seems to be a professional. When an injury is involved, it appears to humble or scare the over-night professionals into keeping their opinion to themselves. Funny thing is, rehabilitation is not that much different. My business partner Simon is a fantastic example of this.
Disclaimer: Simon is far from an overnight professional. He is one of the best strength coaches I have ever worked with. However, it was his knowledge of both strength & conditioning along with KNOWING & UNDERSTANDING HIS BODY that allowed him to become his own best physio. I ONLY assisted with short (20-30 minutes) cross frictional massage over his surgical scar. Other than that, Simon not only rehabilitated his achilles rupture entirely on his own. He did it in record time. After six weeks, Simon was walking barefoot around his home and the training center to help regain mobility in his achilles tendon. He chose to ditch the walking boot and replaced it with a Timberland boot. This was more for safety reasons (weights dropping and so on) than anything else. Twelve weeks later, Simon was performing bodyweight barefoot squats. Simon’s Youtube videos explain in detail (in German) how he did it and he has been helping people worldwide (in both German & English) achieve the same.
When I questioned him about his “secret sauce” and or method that allowed him to reach his goals weeks quicker than the average, he told me it was all about being barefoot. Simon believes that too many people are afraid to push their achilles injury because they might hurt it again. “This is a normal fear, and people do need to be careful. However, it is a catch 22. If you don’t regain mobility after the surgery, your achilles will always hurt/be tight and lead to further problems in the future.” Simon told me. He also insisted that I give a shout out to Theragun, Powerdot, & Vivobarefoot. Without the G3 Pro and the Powerdot 2.0 Duo, he believed his recovery would have taken longer. The ability of the G3 Pro to break up the scar tissue and the Powerdot Duo to relieve the pain was essential. Simon owns his own training center and can squat barefoot whenever he wants, Vivobarefoot shoes were essential for allowing him to stay barefoot outside or when training in facilities that demanded shoes. “Many people want to save money and also time. I think it is almost impossible to do both. For me, the decision was simple, a small investment for a quicker return. I would have never done it any other way.”
How to Start Your Barefoot Squat Journey: The Beginners Protocol
I like to follow a Movement, Mobility, Corrective Exercise, Lifestyle Templet with all of my clients.
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This is our Test & Retest Section. Let’s teach you how to squat & then see where the problem is. Maybe your achilles is tight, or perhaps it is a poor understanding of the movement. Either way, when we retest, we are guaranteed to see improvement.
Understanding the Law of External Rotation
Understanding the Law of Internal Rotation
How to Squat Video
How to Deadlift Video
How to sit & Stand
Once you understand these videos it is ok to move one to the mobility section. The “Movement” portion is about education & daily practice. The next stages will be about daily/weekly programming & implementation.
5 Way Foot Stretches: 5-10 minutes each foot 3-5x weekly (This one is great for plantar fasciitis)
Thinking Man: 2-3 minutes each foot 3-5x weekly (another great one for plantar fasciitis)
Standing Version: 2-3 minutes each foot 3-5x weekly (this is a perfect modification for anyone that struggles to peform this stretch on the floor.)
3 way Hip Mobility/Fascia Release Exercise: 5-10 minutes each leg/side 3-5x weekly
3 way Hip Stretch: 5-10 minutes each leg/side 3-5x weekly
Retest: Try your squat now. You might be amazed by the ability to go deeper with better technique. These are crucial steps in your path to becoming pain-free and your own best physio.
Barefoot Step ups: 2×15 Video Coming Soon
Barefoot Box Squats: 2×15 Video Coming Soon
Barefoot Bar Assisted Pistol Squats: 2×7 Video Coming Soon
Ballerina Toe Walk: 2×15-20 steps 3-5x 3-5x weekly
Pen Arch Exercise: 2×15-20 3x weekly
I am a big fan and supporter of Vivobarefoot. I reached out to them a while back & totally became one of their influencers. How could I not? Their brand ethos was on point with everything that I believe and passionately teach. You might notice many of my shoes in the videos are the trainers from Nobull (https://www.nobullproject.com/) These were great shoes for me to use as a transition to a barefoot shoe. This option is not a bad for someone needing a shoe in the middle to help the transition. Their running shoes are complete trash (sorry Nobull), so stay FAR AWAY FROM THEM! For your Vivobarefoot option, use the code MOVEFREEGTS to save 10% on your next (or first) pair. If you have another brand that you love, GREAT! The most important thing is that you have a shoe that supports the natural movement system of the body and builds you the high tech feet that you deserve. I will post a testimonial from one of my clients where she sweared switching to a barefoot shoe was the final cure of her life long knee pain and her husbands plantar fasciitis. Sounds a little dramatic, but it is not at all. Once the interview is done, I will link it here!
Check out the Podcast: Why High Tech Shoes Equal Low Tech Feet
Movement is our Medicine & Education is our Therapy!
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