Many, but not all, martial arts are practiced barefoot. Some, like wrestling, require the fighter to protect their feet because of the potential for their opponent to accidentally stand on them and do real damage. However, most martial arts are carried out without shoes and socks.
Why are martial arts practiced barefoot? The biggest reason to practice martial arts barefoot is that in Asia it’s traditional to stay barefoot indoors. There are also genuine advantages for the way that posture and muscles are trained. Lastly, being barefoot can help a fighter be more sensitive to their surroundings.
So, let’s examine the reasons for fighting barefoot and also what you might want to do if you have a good reason to want to avoid fighting in bare feet too.
The 4 Main Reasons That Martial Arts Are Practiced Barefoot
OK, as we said at the beginning there are good reasons that martial arts are generally fought in bare feet and they include:
Asians Don’t Wear Shoes Indoors
This is the most important reason that martial arts are all about naked feet. In a lot of Asia, the traditional home was raised above the ground. The idea was that this would help ventilate the house and stop the outside world from coming in too easily.
Thus, when you reached someone’s home, it was actually very easy to step out of your shoes and up onto their doorstep. Over time, this custom became tradition and as with many traditions it became hard to shake.
The Tradition Stays The Same Today
Visit Thailand, Japan, Vietnam, etc. in the modern era and you’ll find the same customs are in force. Most modern Asian homes will either have a doorway which is slightly raised from the surroundings or they will have a foot rack or a sort of porch step for you to leave your shoes on before you enter.
In many Asian homes much of the way people live is conducted on the floor. Mats are rolled out and low slung tables are piled with food. People spend much more time on the floor than they do in the West – is it any wonder that they’d prefer you didn’t wipe your dirty shoes all over the space they will soon be resting in to eat?
It’s A Reasonable Prejudice
A study from the University of Arizona found that dirty shoes carry a lot of bacteria. How much is a lot? Well, over 400,000 kinds of bacteria to be precise.
Seven of the shoes that the researchers tested had, well, bacteria from fecal matter on them. Yes, shoes covered in poop bacteria. That ought to encourage us in the West to follow suit on leaving shoes outside of our main living spaces.
Religion And Reflexology Play A Part Too
Many Asian religions consider your feet to be the lowest part of your body spiritually as well as physically and thus there is a prejudice within these religions against things that touch your feet – leaving shoes outside of temples is a clear indicator of this preference.
Also, Chinese reflexology practices which have been adopted widely in much of Asia also insist that being barefoot is good for your health (and, indeed, recent Western research suggests that this is an accurate understanding of the world).
You Can Better Train The Posture Of Your Feet
Going barefoot also helps with posture training. Posture helps you build up the right balance in your body and that’s a vital element of fighting well. You don’t have to take our word for it either – researchers in Australia have demonstrated the relationship between balance and the posture of your feet.
In the long run, if you don’t get the posture of your feet correctly then you end up putting too much pressure on the plantar section of your feet. This can cause quite extreme pain if you allow it to happen over time. Many adults in the middle years begin to develop plantar fasciitis which causes regular pain in the feet due to problems with foot posture over the years.
The good news is that you can “cure” plantar fasciitis by doing stretching exercises but it’s better not to get the problem in the first place.
Why can you better train the posture of your feet when you’re barefoot? Because your instructor can clearly see your feet and thus, they can advise you on how to move them to make certain that they’re in the right position.
You Can Better Train Your Feet’s Muscles When You Have Bare Feet
This should be fairly obvious as once again, part of the reason for this is that your instructor can see your feet clearly and can properly show you when things aren’t quite right.
However, if you head down to your local gym, you’ll notice that there are many people now working out with bare feet who aren’t doing martial arts. In fact, many of them aren’t working with an instructor at all. So, why are they bare foot?
Well, recent evidence shows that if you’re wearing shoes then you’re breaking the body’s natural feedback loop. Human beings weren’t designed to wear shoes. For hundreds of thousands of years (or maybe even millions of years) there were no handy shoe factories, humans went barefoot all of the time.
Thus, we evolved to be barefoot and when a naked foot is in contact with the floor, it sends messages to the brain about its position. Put a shoe on your foot and that message is lost. You’re quite literally destroying your brain’s ability to work out how you are standing and to make corrections.
You Can Better Understand Your Surroundings
We can look over our shoulders for part of the reason for this in our last answer – the brain’s feedback loop gives us a level of subconscious awareness that enables you to understand your surroundings.
This is a big deal, because the more aware you are of your environment, the easier it is to fight in that environment.
In addition, there is a lot of emphasis, in Eastern cultures, on meditation and mindfulness. A good fighter could become more aware of their feet and thus their surroundings by learning to meditate on their relationship with the ground.
This would be more difficult, if not impossible to do if the feet were in shoes because the feedback loop would be giving erroneous information if it were to provide any information at all.
What If You Can’t Go Barefoot?
There are some very good reasons that people might not want to go barefoot. These can include fungal infections and warts on the feet. Not only are these conditions unpleasant for the sufferer but they are also contagious.
A fighter who goes to their dojo and struts about barefoot, whilst giving his friends and fellow fighters warts, is likely to become an unpopular fighter very quickly.
So, here are our tips for this:
- Consider training in a martial art that doesn’t require you to go barefoot. Learn wrestling or Bujinkan Budu Taijutsu until the problem goes away.
- Talk to your sensei about the problem. They may be willing to let you train wearing socks or shoes. If not, you may need to consider working out at another dojo until the problem goes away.
- Consider a Chinese school of martial arts. Japanese and Korean schools are often fairly inflexible about the barefoot rule, but Chinese schools often treat it as a guideline rather than a mandatory requirement.
- Make sure you use boots or socks that are only used in the dojo. Don’t wear them outside and get them covered in bacteria and then drag them back in to the dojo, nobody’s going to appreciate that and it’s a good way to ensure nobody ever gets allowed to train in boots or socks again.
Martial arts are practiced barefoot because of centuries of tradition. In much of Asia you don’t enter a home or building wearing shoes or socks. It is rightly so considered that shoes are dirty. They can also interfere with your ability to train your muscles and your posture. It’s also possible that they might upset your ability to properly perceive your surroundings.
However, that doesn’t mean that this rule is always an absolute rule. There are martial arts that are not practiced barefoot and most modern dojos will allow you to train in socks or shoes if you have a good medical reason for doing so. If you do train in socks or shoes, they should only be used in the dojo, though, it’s bad form to wear them elsewhere.