Barefoot training considerations for martial arts athletes

Barefoot BJJ

The barefoot aspect of martial arts is an interesting double edged sword. On one hand, it helps develop extraordinary sensorimotor processing skills from hours of rich input into the foot during training; on the other hand, it leads to injuries that are not as commonly seen in shod sports. Today I’m going to talk a little bit about barefoot considerations for training.

This post is inspired by Kate Buttino, pictured above, who not only kicks ass at BJJ but she also drew the beautiful foot and ankle sketches that you see below. 

Fighters have AMAZING balance! There was an interesting study by Perrin et al that compared balance competencies of judo athletes versus ballet dancers. While many might think that ballet dancers are the quintessence of balance mastery, it was actually judoists that were found to have superior balance control across all of the sensory challenges. The authors attribute this to the goal of martial arts – to disturb the balance of the opponent in order to submit or strike. “During fights, each judoist learns to use unstable dynamic situations to turn them to his advantage, using the stimulation of muscular, articular and cutaneous mechanoreceptors to adapt to the constant modifications of posture, support, ground, and partner contact.” Although ballet dancers also demonstrate techniques involving unstable dynamic conditions, authors point out that ballet dancers generate their own controlled instability from choreography, whereas judo fighters are subjected to uncontrolled instability as a result of counter-movements from their opponents.

Screen Shot 2017-03-19 at 9.47.40 AMThe very essence of our barefoot technique that produces superior balance is also the cause of a unique set of injuries. Traumatic injuries of the foot that often occur during striking techniques, such as kicks and jumps, include toe dislocations, fractures, turf toe, and metatarsalgia. The ankle is also a common site for both traumatic and overuse injuries. Most traumatic injuries at the ankle involve the outside of the ankle, and are due to high level stability challenges of the sport in combination with plant and twist skills, such as turn and throw and shuffle and lunge. Finally, a common overuse injury is Achilles tendinopathy due to the strain on the calf muscles from explosive push off from the toes.

Most of these injuries are unavoidable, considered to be the nature of combat sports. However, some may be avoided with proper striking techniques and training considerations:

  • Striking skills include both location of foot contact as well as strategies to decrease the mechanical symptoms
  • Training considerations include core and low body strengthening to improve the body’s capability to exert and absorb these great forces (see past posts for  core & glute exercises)
  • Balance and proprioception drills to improve activation and feedforward mechanisms in order to decrease stress on the toes and ankle. I’ll briefly talk about these…

Balance & Proprioception Drills

RearfootIt is very important to appreciate the high levels of balance that a fighter must return to when picking exercises. Just as it’s not enough for a gymnast to have enough shoulder stability to do a pushup but not a handstand, we must raise the bar for our balance challenges to achieve or regain what we need to be successful on the mat. In addition, the exercises must work toward being sport specific (including perturbations, movements and surface).

Prerequisites to superior stability are strong core and glutes (previously discussed in other posts), as well as good balance on one leg and in half kneeling positions. But what people often forget are the little muscles in the foot and ankle that support us in all positions! These muscles are important for (1) sending information to the brain about surface and movement challenges we need to adjust to, and (2) tweaking balance.

image_011041SHORT FOOT: This exercise is so named because the goal is to shorten your foot, or build up your arch. Start with your foot on the ground in sitting or standing. Rules for this exercise is that you need to keep 3 points of contact on the ground – (1) heel, (2) ball of your foot near where your big toe starts, and (3) outside of your foot near where your pinky starts. Then try to contract your little foot muscles so that points (1) and (2) come closer to one another. Try not to let (2) lift off the ground or let your toes scrunch up.

First, try to hold this position and then relax. As it becomes easier, try performing it while you balance on one foot! After that, the possibilities are endless to challenge these muscles – swing your leg, perform single leg squats, throw a med ball, have your friend push you around and get you to try to lose your balance, or just close your eyes.

TOE YOGA: When people think about improving their balance, inevitably someone says yoga. So why not yoga for your toes? Start by sitting with your foot flat on the ground, then: (1) Lift your big toe while keeping your other toes relaxed, (2) Lift your other toes while keeping your big toe relaxed, (3) Spread all your toes apart without lifting them in the air, and (4) Bring your toes together without pushing them into the ground.

Here are just a couple things to throw into your routine to start beefing up those small muscles in your feet that we ask so much of when we train! Along the way, just spending more time in barefoot will improve proprioception (sensory signals that send information to the brain) and activation (ability to quickly and specifically turn on muscles).

Enjoy your Toga!

See more from Kate at



Perrin, P., Deviterne, D., Hugel, F., & Perrot, C. (2002). Judo, better than dance, develops sensorimotor adaptabilities involved in balance control. Gait & posture15(2), 187-194.

Vormittag, K., Calonje, R., & Briner, W. W. (2009). Foot and ankle injuries in the barefoot sports. Current sports medicine reports8(5), 262-266.


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