When most people think about what a martial artist would be wearing to class, chances are most are imagining somebody barefoot and in a gi or other martial arts uniform. While barefoot training originally happened due to tradition, there are actually benefits to practicing barefoot that go beyond tradition.
Here are seven benefits of training martial arts barefoot:
- Helps improve posture.
- Reduces risk of injury.
- Enhances balance.
- Improves circulation.
- Better body awareness.
- Reduced blood pressure.
- Keeps feet healthy.
In this article, we’ll take a look at why martial arts are practiced barefoot, the benefits of doing so, and the exceptions that can be made to the barefoot rule.
Why Do Martial Artists Train Barefoot?
While the physical benefits of training barefoot are substantial, martial arts that are practiced barefoot are usually practiced this way due to traditional and cultural reasons.
Martial artists train barefoot because most martial art forms were developed in Asian societies, where it’s customary to remove your footwear before entering any establishment. Culture and tradition do play a significant role in why people continue to practice martial arts barefooted today.
Origins and Tradition
In Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and other Asian countries, it was expected that guests would remove their footwear before entering someone’s house or place of business. This became a norm that’s carried on into modern martial arts dojos since culture is an important part of the martial arts tradition.
If we were to take a look at the origins of this custom, it boils down to two main reasons.
- The first is related to sanitation, as footwear often holds dirt from the outside world that shouldn’t be brought indoors.
- The second reason is that in most Asian homes, people prefer to conduct certain activities, like eating, socializing, and even relaxing, on the floor.
A study showed that our footwear could hold up to 400,000 units of bacteria per square centimeter. And, to make matters worse, most of this bacteria comes from fecal matter. The prevalence of mat diseases and skin infections is due to improper hygiene and bringing in a bacterial load from footwear into the training area adds an element of additional health risk.
This is also a reason why it is critical to maintain separate shoes or sandals for use outside of the training area and not to track in germs from the bathroom either by going to the bathroom in bare feet or by wearing shoes that have been in the bathroom into the actual training area.
So while it may seem like mostly a cultural custom, asking students to leave shoes outside of the training area is perhaps the most straightforward way to keep your training area free of germs. Martial artists have to spend a lot of time in close contact with each other and on the training floors, so keeping the training floors clean can be a huge health impact.
Another reason shoes are left outside is that in some Asian countries, the family spends the majority of their time on the floor. Meals are eaten together while sitting on the floor, and beds in most homes are laid out on the floor. As such, it makes sense that they would want their living space to be free from any dirt your shoes might have dragged in.
Aside from these reasons, religious beliefs may have a specific role in why people are asked to leave their footwear outside before entering the dojo. In early China and Japan (and some homes today), it was believed that the feet are the lowest energy points in the body.
As such, people believe that things which have touched your feet are ‘unclean’ or contain low-level energy and should not be allowed within the living space.
Chinese reflexology practices also believe that the feet are energetic centers in the body and that releasing specific points in the feet allows energy (called Qi) to move efficiently throughout the body. As such, a foot encased in a shoe is restricted and blocks the movement of energy throughout the body.
These customs and beliefs were the initial reasons why martial artists were only allowed to enter a dojo and practice barefoot.
The Benefits of Training Martial Arts Barefoot
Now that you have an idea of how this barefoot custom originated, it’s worth looking at the benefits of practicing martial arts without footwear. Aside from traditions and beliefs, master martial artists intuitively understand why training barefoot is beneficial to their practice.
Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of training martial arts barefoot.
1. Helps Improve Posture
When we wear shoes, we tend to support our bodies through the heels and structure of the shoe instead of the muscles of our feet.
Your body is designed so the muscles in your feet work in tandem to support your weight. Posture starts from the feet and affects the whole body. When you put on footwear, these muscles are more disengaged as your weight is supported primarily by the rigid parts of your shoe.
Practicing martial arts without shoes allows you to distribute the weight evenly across the feet. This even distribution ensures that your entire foot is engaged and your body is in proper alignment as you flow through the movements.
As such, practicing barefoot helps improve and even correct bad posture over time.
2. Reduces Risk of Injury
As the previous point stated, barefoot training helps improve posture and weight distribution in your foot. By strengthening your feet and ensuring your body is in alignment with every movement, you can significantly reduce the risk of injury.
Additionally, when you wear shoes, your feet are less mobile and unable to twist or turn in every direction compared to when moving without a shoe. Shoes can either have an unnatural amount of traction or be slippery depending on the shoe, giving an inconsistent movement experience for martial arts.
When you’re wearing shoes, your feet are held in a particular position and, therefore, can’t move freely. This immobility can significantly increase the risk of injury and result in strained muscles or damaged tendons.
However, when you’re practicing barefoot, your weight is equally distributed through different points across the feet and you have better control over the movement and level of traction by using the small muscles of your foot to adjust how much grip and contact you want to the floor at any given moment.
As such, it’s easier to center yourself during practice, and even if you’re knocked off balance, your feet are free to turn and move with you as you fall, effectively reducing the risks of injury.
3. Enhances Balance
Perhaps one of the main reasons martial arts is practiced barefoot is to improve the body’s balance as it executes different moves.
Whether it’s Muay Thai, Kung Fu, or Taekwondo, each kick or punch requires you to move your body a certain way, which is easier to execute to a high level if you can feel the ground underneath your feet and make adjustments to techniques starting with using the muscles of your feet and ankles to establish the right connection to the ground.
When practicing barefoot, your feet can firmly grip the ground or lightly grip the ground based upon how you use the muscles of your feet, allowing you to execute specific movements required to perform a technique or skill.
And as you move through different techniques, your feet learn which muscles to contract or relax while performing specific movements.
Over time, your muscle memory will improve, which in turn will enhance your overall balance, more so when executing the specific martial art form you’re practicing. This improved understanding will help you perform the movement more efficiently and powerfully.
When you wear shoes during practice, your feet won’t come into direct contact with the ground underneath, meaning you won’t be engaging all muscles involved in fine motor skills.
It’ll be hard to learn the parts of the foot to put pressure on during a specific movement, and without this knowledge, it’s easy to end up more off balance.
4. Improves Circulation
Walking barefoot is known to improve circulation in the body, and training in combat sports without footwear helps bring this benefit into practice. Improved blood circulation translates to better cardiovascular health and increased stamina.
It isn’t hard to generalize the improved circulation from being barefoot to other actions that use your body starting at the feet like performing martial arts and other exercises.
This means that training martial arts without footwear can actually enhance your abilities and help you take your skills to the next level.
5. Better Body Awareness
Just like our brains, our bodies are intelligent and store certain actions and movements that we can repeat without having to think about them every time. Our feet have nerve endings that send signals to the brain about our surroundings, and when we wear shoes, we cut off these nerve signals.
Proprioception, or kinesthesia, is our body’s ability to sense certain actions, predict a sequence of movements, and understand our position in relation to these movements. When you practice martial arts barefoot, you build this skill and improve your mind-body connection.
Take the example of wearing padded gloves while performing a fine motor activity, like climbing or typing. While you can still complete the action, you don’t get as strong of a feel for what your hands are coming in contact with.
The same goes for your feet. When you perform specific movements with footwear, you’re unable to get as accurate of an understanding of how the action is carried out when it comes to finer details.
When you train barefoot, every move sends signals to your brain, improving your understanding of the specific movement you’re engaging in.
Over time, practicing martial arts barefoot helps sharpen your movements and gives you a better understanding of your surroundings and how to operate within them.
6. Reduced Blood Pressure
The benefits of grounding have been studied for a few years now, and it’s well known that regular barefoot contact with the Earth can play a role in relieving hypertension in many people.
While dojos may not have mud flooring, practicing barefoot still allows your body to release any excess tension through the nerve endings in your feet.
As such, practicing martial arts barefoot helps balance blood pressure and manage stress levels, which are essential for health, and can also benefit you when you’re training in a combat sport.
Improving your stress levels can help you keep a cool head and a properly regulated nervous system, which can carry over in helping you to perform better in training overall.
7. Keeps Feet Healthy
Being barefoot during practice stimulates nerve endings, releases tension in the feet, increases balance, and improves circulation. All these benefits work in tandem to keep your feet and ankles strong and healthy.
Additionally, as you build the muscles in your feet, you’re less likely to get injured or experience as much loss of balance or accidental falls.
Our feet also tend to accumulate a lot of sweat during martial arts training. If you wear shoes and trap that moisture and bacteria during exercise you create an environment that could end up encouraging fungal and bacterial infections if not handled properly.
By practicing barefoot, you allow the moisture to dissipate during and after training, and minimize the overall bacterial load on your feet.
Exceptions to Training Barefoot
As you can see, training barefoot has a significant positive impact on your body as well as your progress in the martial art form you’re practicing.
However, while it’s best to train barefoot, there are some situations where you may be required to wear shoes when training.
While many martial art forms mandate practicing barefoot, you may be able to talk to your trainer and request that you wear shoes in certain situations, as explained below.
In some cases, like when you’ve sprained an ankle or dropped a heavy load on your foot, wearing shoes can help protect your feet as they heal. If you’re in a similar situation, it’s best to ask your sensei or trainer if you can wear shoes for a few sessions until the problem goes away.
Wrestling shoes are a good option to provide some ankle support and protect your feet and toes in case of injury. These wrestling shoes available on Amazon are a great value and are solid wrestling shoes in their own right and do a great job supporting ankles and protecting foot injuries.
Open cuts or wounds can also be aggravated if your foot is left open during a training session, and you want to take necessary precautions if this is the case. Martial arts shoes or wrestling shoes can help to keep your foot from being further cut and reduce the number of bacteria that gets to the open cuts.
However, I believe that in most instances, small open cuts or partially healed cuts should simply be covered up with a liquid bandage. I use this brand of liquid bandage available on Amazon and always keep some in my gym bag in case of minor cuts.
Additionally, conditions like tendinitis or an arched heel can worsen if your feet aren’t used to feeling stabilized without shoes. And aside from wearing footwear, you may want to alter your training routine, at least until the injury has fully healed.
Fungal infections are unfortunately quite common in martial arts and usually take the form of ringworm which is highly contagious and can be transmitted through physical contact with an infected surface as well as contact with an infected person.
If you have it on your feet, get it treated as soon as possible and stay off the mats if possible. If it is a mild case and limited to your foot it is usually okay to keep it covered with a wrestling shoe and sock after getting real treatment.
Do not train with a serious fungal infection, you will not be popular with your instructors or training partners and it is irresponsible to spread infection around your gym or dojo.
Warts are another foot condition you may want to cover up when training at the dojo. Aside from looking unsightly, warts can also spread to other people although warts aren’t considered to be highly contagious. Seek treatment for it and make sure any warts you have are covered up during training.
As such, it’s best to inform your trainer of any skin conditions and see if covering it up appropriately is enough for the school. If not, it’s best to take a break from training and focus on other things until it is handled properly.
Certain Martial Arts Use Shoes
While training barefoot is the norm in many martial arts, some martial arts are designed to be learned while wearing shoes. Generally speaking, being barefoot is a good idea when it is an option but not required, but following the norms of the martial art in regards to shoes is the best policy.
Martial arts like wrestling and boxing use footwear to provide better support, traction, and mobility. Opting out of using shoes in these martial arts can end up providing you with a disadvantage in training and competition settings.
In such cases, it’s best to follow the norms laid down by these martial art forms and put on footwear while practicing them.
There are a great many reasons that training martial arts barefoot is optimal for your body and your overall training. When possible, training barefoot is optimal whenever that is an option that is safe for the martial art or any other athletic activity.
While tradition may have started the prevalence of barefoot training in martial arts, the health benefits are helping to keep barefoot training around in modern times.
For more check out Do You Wear Shoes in Martial Arts?