The first time I saw the Vibram Five Finger shoes, I thought they looked friggin’ weird as hell.
I mean, shoes that look like feet (or glove shoes) looks pretty damn strange.
But when you think about it, “toed shoes” like the Vibram FiveFingers resemble a human foot more than normal shoes do, so it should look less strange that it actually does.
Wearing gloves on your hands compared to wearing mittens, doesn’t look very strange, but wearing toed shoes on your feet compared to wearing regular non-toed shoes doesn’t have the same effect.
They remind me of those shoes that ninjas wear (Jika-Tabi) which have a split toe design, separating the big toe from the rest of the other toes, like this:
But the VFF takes it to a whole other level by separating all the toes.
I even thought the name was dumb. I mean, it’s 5 TOES we have on each foot, not 5 fingers! That’s like calling gloves Five Toe Gloves. Doesn’t make sense man!
Anyway, because they were marketed towards the barefoot running crowd, and I don’t run, I pretty much dismissed Vibram FiveFingers. That is, until I saw UFC heavyweight champ Cain Valesquez wear them while training during a fight promo video.
That’s when I thought,
“I should get some toed shoes to hit the heavy bag”.
It seemed to make perfect sense to wear barefoot shoes for something that’s normally done barefoot, such as martial arts training, namely kicking a bag or pads.
I used to do most of my martial arts training while barefoot, and the problem with a Thai style roundhouse kick (or swing kick or whatever you want to call it) is that the rotation on the pivoting foot from kick after kick usually leads to blisters and torn skin, especially when the calluses on the foot has not been built up.
Also, I have tried hitting my heavy bag while barefoot down in my basement home gym, and there’s something about my rubber mats that rubs off on the bottom of my feet making them all black. It’s difficult to clean off, and it leaves a mess on the bathtub.
The Vibram 5 Finger shoes looked to be the solution I was looking for the combined the feel of being barefoot during martial arts training, along with the protection it provided to the bottom of my feet in preventing blisters.
On top of that, the thickness of the soles are thin, so it would make for good deadlifting shoes as well.
I decided to go with the Vibram FiveFinger KSO, because I didn’t need the aggressive tread on the bottom of the shoe like on some of the other models, and it looked as though the KSO model would work best for martial arts training.
Vibram Five Fingers Sizing
I found the best deal online for these shoes, but the problem with buying shoes (or any other piece of clothing) is finding the right size. It’s especially difficult with Vibrams because their sizing are not the normal US sizing that I’m accustomed to.
I made the mistake the first time when ordering Vibrams by just going with their sizing guide.
Initially, I ordered a size that fit my feet lengthwise. However, I have wide, meaty, flat feet and the Vibrams I ordered were way too tight. It looked like my foot was bursting at the seams. Unfortunately, Vibrams do not make wide FiveFinger shoes for us wide-feet folks.
At this point I had to either return the shoes for a refund, or exchange for a different size.
Well, I went to the mall to try out another size of the Vibram Five Fingers KSO shoes, just to make sure they would fit properly.
This is something I should have done in the first place!
Turns out the “M42” size fits better width-wise, but it was a little long at the heel.
Overall, it was a better fit than the M41’s I had ordered, so I opted for an exchange.
A perfect size for me would probably be a M41 or M41 ½ WIDE. But apparently Vibram does not make wide or half sized FiveFinger shoes.
Five Toe Socks
I’ve read that you’re supposed to wear the Vibram 5 Finger shoes barefoot. But I’ve also read that they’ll stink up pretty bad requiring you to wash them in the laundry on a regular basis.
Wearing Vibram FiveFinger shoes barefoot really never made sense to me, and it seems like a huge pain in the ass having to deal with smelly shoes and having to wash them all the time. So right from the beginning I ordered some toe socks (Five Finger socks?) to go along with these toed shoes.
That way, most of the sweat will be absorbed by the socks, and I just have to wash the socks and not the shoes.
I purchased the toe socks from eBay. You can find them being sold from overseas for cheap...and often with free shipping!
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Training With Five Finger Shoes
Vibram markets these shoes for barefoot running, often citing the benefits of running barefoot over the traditional running shoe.
Personally, I don’t do any running at all, so I can’t comment on how these minimalist toe shoes are for running.
I do use them for other forms of training, which I think they’re very well suited: martial arts training, and deadlifting. I’ve also included some notes on wearing VFF while jumping rope and squatting, because those are the other exercises I’ve tried while wearing these shoes.
Martial Arts Training
I wear Five Fingers primarily to hit the heavy bag.
I also have some experience training in Muay Thai Kickboxing (only the training, no fighting), so most of my techniques are based on the science of 8 limbs.
Even though these shoes are “grippy”, I have no problems pivoting on the ball of my foot during a swing kick. Also, because Vibrams are “grippy”, they don’t slip when I plant my foot on the ground and launch a punch or knee or some other strike.
I usually make contact with my shins on the heavy bag, but occasionally I’ll misjudge the distance I am from the bag and end up hitting it with my foot.
Even though there is a Velcro strap on top of the shoes, they don’t bother me at all when I land a kick to the bag with my foot. I suspect that some other models of the Vibram Five Fingers that have laces instead of Velcro would pose more problems, because the impact of the foot on the heavy bag could cause the laces do dig into the top of the foot.
Pivoting during kicks will wear down some of the rubber on the bottom of the shoe, but not much. As you can see from the pictures below, there’s some noticeable wear on the ball of the foot and big toe area:
The weight of the Vibram Five Fingers are very light, so it almost feels like I’m kicking the bag without shoes. I’ve worn wrestling shoes for Muay Thai training before, and they end up feeling like a heavy boot after multiple rounds of kicks.
The top of the straps are showing noticeable wear-and-tear from my foot making impact on the bag. It’s mostly on the left side, which probably means that I have better aim with my right leg when it comes to making shin contact with the punching bag compared to my left leg.
I haven’t used these for sparring or partner drills, but I think that the Velcro on top of the VFF KSO will scratch the skin off of your training partner. The Vibram Classics or the Vibram EL-X may be better when it comes to not scratching people with the Velcro hooks.
I’m surprised Vibram haven’t launched a full scale marketing campaign and specialty shoes targeting martial artists and wanna-be-tough-guys on how well their shoes work for martial arts training, especially with the increasing popular of mixed martial arts.
As far as grappling/Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is concerned, I’m not sure how well these shoes work because I don’t do BJJ. But I've heard Eddie Bravo speak highly of Vibram Five Fingers and seen him demonstrate a few submissions in this video:
Even though these are essentially barefoot shoes, they don’t feel or function 100% like being barefoot.
Case in point, skipping, or jumping rope.
I find that wearing the Vibrams FF while jumping rope, the rope ends up getting caught in between where my baby toe and...the ring finger toe...is. Usually when I jump rope with my bare feet, I don’t have this issue.
I think the reason why this is happening is because while wearing the toed shoes, the toes are actually spread further apart than being barefoot. Meaning, the pinking toe is spread out wider, and there is a bigger gap in between toes, so the chances of a thin rope like the Rogue SR-1 skipping rope is more likely to be caught while skipping.
For jumping rope, I prefer my wrestling shoes simply because I don’t have to deal with the interruptions of a rope being caught in between my toes every so often.
I don’t normally squat with the VFF, but for this review, I decided to try it out.
Here I am low bar squatting 500 lb (no belt PR!) in Vibram FiveFingers KSO:
For the low bar squat, it feels great. Better than Chuck Taylors, but not as good as the Nike Romaleos 2.
I ran into problems when I tried high bar and front squatting with Vibram FF’s. I like to go rock bottom when it comes to high bar and front squats (hamstrings to calves if possible), and I could feel my heel come off the ground when I was in the hole.
Overall, for squatting purposes, I like Vibram Five Fingers better than the Converse Chuck Taylor All Star shoes.
However, I prefer the elevated heel of a weightlifting shoe to help me get depth during the squat. Also, I find that I’m way more stable in weightlifting shoes than Vibrams FF when it comes to having a heavy barbell on my back during the squat.
Even a Huge Jacked Man deadlifts in Vibrams FiveFingers!
— Hugh Jackman (@RealHughJackman) July 30, 2013
These are my favorite shoes for deadlifts, and I have set a few PR’s wearing these toed shoes. Here’s one of them:
I actually prefer these over those cheap Titan deadlifting slippers and wrestling shoes that I have. I think I have hit PRs wearing wrestling shoes, but that’s mostly because I don’t have as many toe socks compared to regular socks. VFF feel more stable during the deadlift for some reason. It could be because with the Five Fingers, the toes are spread apart instead of squished together inside of a slipper or shoe, allowing me to use to toes to help keep me balanced.
I’m almost inclined to say that they feel like you’re deadlifting barefoot, but I haven’t actually done this.
By the way, I don’t understand why some people lift weights barefoot. It’s dangerous! You’re handing heavy objects, and if they drop on your foot or toe accidentally, you might get injured. I remember one time someone at a gym I used to go to always trained barefoot. One day, while moving a 25 lb plate, it slipped out of his hands and dropped onto his foot. Ended up breaking his foot and was out of the gym for a few months.
Anyway, another reason why they work well for deadlifting due to the thickness of the soles.
The thickness of the Vibram KSO’s works out to be about 6mm (2mm EVA insole and ~4mm rubber sole), meaning you are essentially doing a 6mm (or around 0.24”) deficit deadlift wearing these shoes. Not taking into account any compression, it’s really nothing.
Some people deadlift (conventional) in the ever popular Chuck Taylor All Star shoes (which was originally a BASKETBALL SHOE), even when attempting a PR and/or in a powerlifting meet.
The thing is, with the deadlift, the close you are to the ground, the better. The Chucks have a sole thickness of about ¾”. If you think about it, deadlifting if Chucks is essentially doing a 0.75” deficit deadlift.
I can understand wearing shoes with a thick sole during training to create the effect of a slight deficit during deadlift without having to stand on anything but the ground, however, in competition or just going for a PR, it’s best to get all the advantage you can get, and a thin soled shoe is the best option.
You can read more about people deadlifting in shoes here.
The Vibram Five Fingers KSO are great for martial arts training, particularly for striking, and they are my favorite shoes for the deadlift.
Low bar squats works well with the Vibram FF, but high bar and front squats require a shoe with an elevated heel in order to get depth without having the heel come off the floor (at least for me). Overall, I like them better than Chuck Taylors, but they're no match for Nike Romaleos 2 weightlifting shoe when it comes to squatting.
I don’t do any running, so I can’t personally comment on how these five toed minimalist shoes work for that activity. If you are interested in how VFF are for running, I suggest you check out the reviews here (which seem to be written by mostly runners).
If you’re going to order these toed shoes online, be sure to try them out in store first to determine the right size and not have to deal with the hassle of exchanging them like I did!
Vibram FiveFingers do look strange and you’ll probably get more weird stares and under-the-breath comments from people, but if you focus on the functionality, comfort and performance of the shoe rather than how they look, you’ll find that wearing Vibram FiveFingers for certain exercises and activities well worth the risk of ridicule.
To paraphrase Bruce Lee’s famous quote:
Don’t concentrate on the FiveFingers or you will miss all that heavenly glory.