When it comes to squatting, footwear (or lack thereof) is an important thing to consider. I see people squat in weightlifting shoes, cross training shoes, running shoes, minimalist/barefoot shoes, and without shoes. Which is best?
The answer to this question depends on your goals and your purpose for squatting. Here is a very brief overview of the differences between the above mentioned footwear. Keep in mind that different brands will have slight variations from the information below.
Squatting barefoot (no shoes at all) offers the benefits of gaining more feedback from the ground compared to any pair of shoes, rooting your foot to the ground to build up strength in the intrinsic foot muscles, and better balance. You are in control of your body and you direct the squat.
If you have great ankle mobility, squatting barefoot may be for you. If you lack adequate ankle mobility, you will benefit from squatting in a shoe with a greater heel to toe drop in order to maintain proper balance and positioning in the bottom of a squat. In fact, they build weightlifting shoes with such an aggressive heel to toe drop in order to help with positioning in the bottom of the squat. Squatting barefoot will lead to an increased forward torso angle, whereas squatting in weightlifting shoes and/or with great ankle mobility will lead to a more upright chest/torso squat (which will take pressure off of your back). If you are a high-barbell back squat, front squat, or overhead squat, you will need a more upright torso and barefoot squatting will make this more challenging. If you are performing a low-barbell back squat, which has a more forward torso angle, then squatting barefoot may still allow you to reach parallel without sacrificing your form.
Another consideration is your training session. Are you just squatting or are you performing other exercises? For instance, it is very difficult to do a CrossFit workout barefoot. It is also very difficult to do a CrossFit workout in weightlifting shoes. Cross trainers were built to give a slight heel to toe drop to help with squats while offering a solid platform for running short distances, jumping, and other lifts. If you are performing squats in isolation or as a part of a warm-up, barefoot squatting becomes an option. I am a big supporter of learning how to squat barefoot prior to loading up the movement with shoes on. For some with ankle mobility restrictions or the lack of being able to maintain a strong base with the foot (arch raised, toes gripping the floor), then this may not be the right first step. Even if you decide to wear shoes for your squats, it is worth doing barefoot squats as a warm-up to work on mobility, stability, and form in a natural way.
Give it a try and let us know how you do. If you haven’t trained barefoot squats before, I bet you will be surprised and notice a big difference. Just because weightlifting shoes give you the largest heel to toe drop does not mean that they are the best things for your feet while squatting.