Barefoot Shoes vs. Minimalist Shoes vs. Maximalist Shoes: What's The Difference

November 30, 2021
Inside this article:

The barefoot shoes vs. minimalist shoes vs. maximalist shoes debate has been raging for years, and it doesn’t seem to be dying down any time soon. But what are the differences between these three types of shoes?

Well... It's complicated.

The trouble is that historically there was no industry standard for what makes a shoe "minimalist" or "barefoot". Most companies, bloggers and reviews all developed their own definitions for these terms, it's confusing.

Luckily for us, there is an industry-standard emerging called the 'Minimalist Index'.

Defining A Minimalist Shoe

In the world of shoes, 'Minimalist Shoes' refers to one end of a spectrum. The other end of the spectrum is 'Maximalist Shoes'.

A panel of 42 experts in 2015 came with the following definition of the minimalist shoe.

“Footwear providing minimal interference with the natural movement of the foot”

To figure out where on the spectrum a certain shoe falls, it's assessed specific criteria. Those criteria are:

  • Flexibility - How bendable the shoe is both forward to back and twisting.
  • Weight - The lighter the shoe, the higher the rating.
  • Stack Height - The distance between where the foot sits and the sole touches the ground.
  • Stability and Motion Control Devices - Any kind of extra support for the foot eg. arch support, orthotics etc.
  • Heel To Toe Drop - The difference between the thickness of the sole under the heel and the toes.

The higher score a shoe gets, the more towards the minimalist end of the spectrum it will be.

Where Do Barefoot Shoes Fall On The Spectrum

When we talk about 'Barefoot Shoes', we're referring to the extreme, minimalist end of the above spectrum.

Barefoot shoes are specifically designed to mimic being as close to barefoot as possible. So, for a shoe to be considered 'barefoot' it has to meet a more specific set of criteria:

  • Heel to Toe Drop - This must be 0mm aka 'zero drop'.
  • No Toe Spring - No upward curvature at the toes.
  • Low Stack Height - Sole is very thin.
  • Wide Toe Box - Shoes should allow the toes to splay more naturally.
  • No Stability and Motion Control Devices - No extra support for the foot eg. arch support, orthotics etc.
  • Flexible - Highly bendable both front and back and twisting.
  • Weight - Should be as light as possible.

Looking at the list, it's clear to see that some of the features are clear-cut and hard to argue with:

  • Zero Drop
  • No Toe Spring
  • Foot shaped
  • No extra support

But some are vague and undefined and so cause confusion:

  • Flexible
  • Lightweight
  • Stack height

Because of this, the term 'barefoot shoes' can be a little grey. For example, a hardcore minimalist advocate may have a very strict requirement for a stack height, whereas a company may have a looser one. How heavy does a shoe have to be before it's not barefoot anymore?

Tricky, right?

Perhaps the Minimalist Index could help us take a more objective stance on this. We could say that any shoe that has a rating of 90+ can be called a 'barefoot shoe' provided it meets the other criteria for a barefoot shoe. Sadly, however, the community is not quite there yet.

Conclusion

Until companies, bloggers and reviews start adopting the Minimalist Index, defining a shoe barefoot vs. minimalist will always be a cause for discussion and personal preference.

That said, I hope this article has helped clear up the different ends of the minimalist scale and how barefoot shoes fit into the bigger picture.

Check out our ultimate list of barefoot shoes here.