For the squash player, the ability to move dynamically and efficiently around the court is key.
To this end, much of the training that we do to improve our athletic capabilities revolves around various drills and workouts focusing on the muscles of the lower limbs – various squats, jumps, and lunges, that predominantly target the quads, hamstrings, and gluteals.
As vital to our athletic development as these kinds of movements and exercises are, there is usually very little (if any) attention paid to the only part of our body that actually makes contact with the ground, and through which all of our drive, push, and stabilisation force actions stem – the feet.
Most people spend the vast majority of their day wearing some kind of footwear, which for most working adults will often be some kind of formal shoe or high heel. These shoes are generally hard soled, flat bottomed, and relatively inflexible.
Our feet then are quite often kept contained and very limited in their mobility, allowing little natural movement or muscle activation. The structure of our feet is incredibly complex, with over 30 joints, 20 muscles, and 28 bones, and the activity of all of these complimentary parts is severely limited when contained all day within a stiff unyielding shoe.
By keeping our foot movement so restricted, there can develop unwelcome decreases in strength, mobility, and proprioception (the ability to sense and finely adjust the relative position of our body parts). These decreases can potentially result in impairments further up the kinetic chain, as our feet are no longer optimally moving and reacting to the surface beneath them.
One method that many physical therapists believe may be able to help offset these issues, is to incorporate some barefoot training into your weekly programme.
Just simply starting by getting into the habit of going barefoot around the house can be of benefit to the development and maintenance of many of the small muscles located in and around the soles of the feet. Particularly for those people who spend the majority of their day wearing shoes, this can be a great habit to get into initially before progressing onto the more advanced sessions and exercises discussed below.
The next step, is to try replacing one of your standard conditioning sessions with a barefoot session on an occasional basis. This can be a great way to help develop and strengthen the foot muscularity – try performing simple compound exercises such as squats, lunges, and step-ups with just your bodyweight (or for more advanced gym-goers, using a weight of no more than around 60-70% of what you'd normally use).
You can preface this with a bare-footed warm-up on court warm-up, such as our own SquashSkills Dynamic On-Court Warm-Up. The action of going through these kinds of exercises barefoot for 30mins or so each week, can really help to start training and developing the fine muscles of the feet.
Of course, when we're playing such a fast and physically demanding sport as squash, the additional grip, support, and cushioning that a good court trainer provides is very important – actually playing your matches barefooted isn't going to be a great idea!
By strengthening and developing our ability to properly activate all of the fine muscles of the foot however, we can go some way to counteracting the negative impact of hours upon hours of wearing hard inflexible shoes, and help to optimise the contribution of the foot to the exertions of force from the larger muscles of the legs while playing squash – potentially enhancing the quality and efficiency of our movements around the court.
That said, there are two caveats to bear in mind with barefoot training.
One, is that it's not suitable for very heavy lifting in the gym. More advanced gym attendees who are working with heavier weights at higher intensities, should not attempt to lift barefoot on their more demanding exercises - max effort squats or olympic style lifts for example.
Hardcore lifters tend to wear specifically designed weight-training shoes for their sessions, where the flat, solid base provides enhanced stability and dispersion of force (as well as often having reinforced toe capsules to help prevent injury from weights landing on the foot). Save the barefoot training here for lighter warm-up sets, or for more muscular endurance or circuit based sessions when working simpler exercises with lighter weights.
Secondly, bear in mind that barefoot training is useful to add in occasionally as a complement to your standard training, but it isn't recommended to be used as a complete overhaul.
Barefoot training (and more specifically barefoot running in particular), has become increasingly popular with some exercisers - to the point where many perform almost all of their running barefoot, adapting the running gait to reflect the bio-mechanical influences of running without cushioning and support - this was touched upon in our previous blog post.
The popular argument in support of this, is to cite the evolution of our bodies and what is 'natural' for us. This is a bit of a fallacy however, as there is very little research that backs up the idea that adopting a comprehensive barefoot style of running has any significant performance or injury prevention benefits.
So the extensive time and effort it would take to re-learn a different running action and adapt to performing all of your physical training and conditioning work barefooted, is a huge shift where the time input may very well not be reflected in the benefits gained.
That's not to mention the knock on effects of developing a style of running that doesn't necessarily transfer well to squash, where the heel strike that is so disparaged by barefoot running devotees is actually a crucial aspect to the squash player - not least in the form of the ubiquitous lunge.
A great article that goes further into the barefoot running debate can be found here, and is well worth a read.
Adding in just the occasional barefoot session to a standard training programme however, has the far more modest goal of simply targeting a general increase in the strength and activation of the muscles of the foot - as opposed to making wholesale changes in running gait and biomechanics of movement.
Start by giving our sample session below a try once a week, and see how barefoot training works for you.
Sample barefoot training session:
SquashSkills Dynamic On-Court Warm-Up: Initial Pulse Raiser + Dynamic Mobility only (no ghosting/sprints)
Lunges: 3 sets of 12 reps with 0 (beginner) to 50% (advanced) bodyweight external resistance
Squat: 3 sets of 12 reps with 0 to 50% bodyweight external resistance
Step-Up: 3 sets of 12 reps with 0 to 50% bodyweight external resistance
?Rest for 90secs between exercises. Technique videos for each exercise can be found on the fitness area of the site.
Gary Nisbet - B.Sc.(Hons), CSCS, NSCA-CPT, Dip. FTST
Squashskills Fitness & Performance Director