NOTE: This is a featured article from our latest eBook- Restorative Foot Series. RFS will be available for download Saturday 12/19/20. Access here.
I am constantly auditing my programming. I don’t believe training is something that should remain sedentary, and I think making changes is not only inevitable, but sensible. Admittedly, I’ve completely changed my stance on barefoot training, actually to my own surprise. While this was something I once viewed as trivial or even imprudent in some cases, I now have almost all of my athletes perform some type of barefoot training. One of the more impactful changes I felt I made to my training this year was adding Low intensity plyos (i.e. hops, skips, light bounding, running) 2-3 days/wk. as a movement prep option. While low-level plyos are movements that appear rudimentary, barefoot plyometrics are not an endeavor that should just be thrown in and performed from 0-60, irrespective of population or ability. Even for your elite athletes, like anything else, there’s a gradient buildup that should occur to ingratiate the athlete without potentiating injury risk. And really, this is speaking to the barefoot aspect more so than the movement selection.
There’s a lot to love about barefoot plyos, but for my money it really boils down to two things: ground compliance and foot-to-hip integration. As it’s been illustrated throughout this handbook, the structures of the foot are small and plentiful. The optimization of the foot is a result of addressing and improving several individual components of the foot and challenging the segments to work in concert. While we can achieve the foundational elements of foot structure and mechanics through conventional training performed without shoes, I think the absence of dynamic action puts a proverbial barrier on how much return we can get. When we add speed and dynamic movement to the equation, we subject the athlete to the demands of foot proprioception and compliance, and this is where low level plyos really demonstrate their value.
Executing these dynamic actions without the interference of shoes creates a new stimulus for the foot. A new stimulus means a new foundation needs to be met. We need to be cognizant of the appropriate prerequisites here, to include addressing foundational strength and stability, proficiency in SL stability, and foundational mobility. Once we become proficient with the foundational elements, then we can start to introduce speed/dynamic endeavors.
The benefits of barefoot plyometrics for your athletes are centered around stimulating the foot proprioceptors and nervous system by prompting the foot to interact with the ground under dynamic conditions. A secondary factor to consider is optimizing the foot-hip integration, whereby barefoot plyos force the athlete to navigate stability and positional awareness while also managing the compliance of the foot. Anybody can compensate at slow speeds and low intensities, once we add velocity it becomes much more difficult to rely on compensatory patterns. I should also mention, there is just a good, general motor control and coordination required for these types of drills, and in my opinion, this is a valuable element to almost anyone’s training in and of itself.
Warm-Up, Intraset, & Accessories
The most feasible and arguably most prudent time to program barefoot plyos is in the warm-up & movement prep part of training. An advantage also being that not a tremendous amount of time needs to be dedicated here. Selecting a handful of drills (2-4) and running through them in circuit fashion for 5-10 minutes is really all that’s needed.
Sample Warm-Up Options
Another good opportunity to sneak in barefoot plyo drills is applying them as intraset options. I particularly like programming this when I’m working back squats or deadlifts barefoot (YouTube video provided via Squat University), as this combo can provide somewhat of a potentiation effect. It also makes it much smoother in practice to have the primary lift be done barefoot as well, this way avoiding spending time putting shoes on and off. With intraset work, however, we want to be sure the movements are non-competing and non-fatiguing in relation to the primary lift. In an ideal world, we would like for the intraset option to stimulate or potentiate the main lift, but even that is a secondary goal.
Barefoot Intraset Options
The third area that is low hanging fruit for incorporating barefoot plyos is the accessory block. While a lot of these would be most applicable for a designated power/strength-speed training phase, it isn’t a bad idea to sample some periodically throughout other phases of the training calendar. Again, it’s not a major component to your training time wise, so the return on investment normally remains net positive.
Sample Accessory Options
Measuring volume for plyometrics has been fairly agreed upon industry wide and is about as direct of a monitoring system as you can create- measuring by impact/contact frequency. If you’re working with elite (truly elite) athletes, there are secondary considerations such as adding multipliers for jump height, speed, or external load. But as it applies here, total number of impacts is perfectly sufficient. With SL plyos, I consider ground contacts to be 1.5. Meaning, if we do a set of 4 bilateral jumps, that equals 4 ground contacts, whereas SL jumps, would be 6 ground contacts. The element of being barefoot does slightly change the parameters in terms of ground contact volume and peak intensity. I try to keep total volume a bit lower than if the athlete were in shoes, and we won’t do more than ~50% intensity of what we would/could do with shoes (i.e. 12” box in lieu of a 24”). This is simply a precautionary measure mostly for the bones.
The progressions for both volume and intensity should be predicated solely on being earned by the athlete. It’s the coach’s responsibility to apply the appropriate exercise selections, and once the athlete demonstrates proficiency, it’s time to add a new layer. Nevertheless, the following chart provides a general progression scheme that applies for most athletes:
Bringing it All Together
For all intents and purposes, the movement selections, variations, and ways of progressing shouldn’t be perceived any differently than conventional plyos. Follow the standard protocol of progression: simple to complex, bilateral to single leg, slow to fast, standard to augmented surface. I normally try to select movements, positions and patterns based on the construct of the athlete’s sport, in accordance with the individual deficits they’ve presented. Irrespective of the specific movement, we want to pay particular attention to the mechanics and function of the foot at independent phases of movement- i.e. landing/loading, support, take-off, as being deficient in one component prompts a different training strategy versus another. I think above all else, the return is reasonably high for most, with little risk when applied appropriately. Barefoot plyos add an element of motor skill, coordination and foot compliance that is rarely experienced elsewhere in training. With such minimal requirement/time needed, I think these are a great bang for your buck program addition.