The right shoes gave Cinderella a one-way ticket to the good life. For weight lifters, choosing the right shoes may just be the ticket to better lifts. Lacing up that perfect pair (or ditching the shoes entirely) is often a personal preference, and varies depending on the frequency and dedication of that individual. But one thing holds true for any lifter, from the weekend warrior to the guy who closes down the gym every night: Not every shoe is fit for the job. Read on to see whether or not your current kicks make the cut and why.
When Any Ol’ Shoe Won’t Do — The Need-to-Know
Training for a 5K in high heels is probably a bad idea. But what might not be such common knowledge is that cushion-soled shoes (generally worn for running, walking, tennis, or basketball) don’t always make the best foot companions when it comes to lifting weights. Soft, compressible soles were designed to absorb impact while running, jumping, and cutting side-to-side. But when it’s time for weight training (think deadlifts, squats, and presses), lifters need their feet to create a strong, stable base. This allows the heels and midfoot to drive into the floor to make those glutes and hamstrings work more efficiently Biomechanics of Changes in Lumbar Spine Posture in Static Lifting. Arjmand, N., Shirazi-Adl, A. Spine, 2005 Dec; 30 (23) 2637-2648. A Functional Subdivision of Hip, Abdominal, and Back Muscles During Asymmetrical Lifting. Danneels, L., Vanderstraeten, G., Cambier, D., et al. Department of Rehabilitation Sciences and Physical Therapy, Faculty of Medicine, Ghent University, Belgium. Spine, 2001 Mar; 26 (6) E114-E121. Stature and Flexibility Variables as Discriminators of Foot Contact During the Squat Exercise. Fry, A.C., Housh, T.J., Hughes, R.A, et al. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1988 May; 2 (2). Muscle force output and electromyographic activity in squats with various unstable surfaces. Saetrbakken, A., Fimland, M. 1 Faculty of Teacher Education and Sport, Sogn og Fjordane University College, Norway; 2 Department of Public Health and General Practice, Faculty of Medicine, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Trondheim, Norway; 3 Hysnes Rehabilitation Center, St. Olavs University Hospital, Trondheim, Norway. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2012 Mar; 24..
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When wearing compressible soles, the shoe absorbs much of the energy required to complete the movement. These types of shoes also may cause issues such as rising up on the toes (causing your body to move forward), ankle instability, and uneven weight distribution. Don’t tiptoe out of the weight room just yet. While choice of footwear will depend on the frequency, style, and dedication of the lifter, there are a few essentials to look out for:
- Hard, non-compressible soles. To provide a completely stable surface under hundreds of pounds of pressure created by the weight of the load, look for a shoe with a hard, dense sole (read: no squishy heels allowed) Stature and Flexibility Variables as Discriminators of Foot Contact During the Squat Exercise. Fry, A.C., Housh, T.J., Hughes, R.A, et al. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1988 May; 2 (2)..
- Proper fit. Shoes should hug the foot to provide proper support (in other words, the foot should not move around inside the shoe). The shoe should also not be too constrictive as this may cause discomfort and prevent proper muscle activation in your feet.
- Good traction. Choose shoes that will keep the foot grounded during lifts to prevent slipping and sliding (landing in a full split is definitely not the goal here).
Checklist sound easy enough? With the help of our Greatist Experts, we got the lowdown on a few better options for your feet.
Getting Off on the Right Foot — Your Action Plan
Ready to play matchmaker for your feet? Below are four of the most popular footwear options to help you get the most out of your lifts, from head to toe.
Including Vibram FiveFingers, New Balance Minimus, Nike Free, Reebok Reflex, and Adidas Adizero, minimalist shoes do away with thick insoles and arch support, and feature a zero-drop sole, wide toe box, and a level of flexibility that allows for more natural foot movement. The idea behind the lightweight design is to create a more biomechanically efficient movement. That means the feet and legs are in a position to provide stability and control, enhanced proprioception (the feeling of being grounded or oriented in space), and equal ground contact with the heel and forefoot during movement (the ideal foot placement for lifting) Hot Topic: Minimalist footwear in strength and conditioning. Schilling, B. Health and Sports Science Neuromechanics Laboratory at The University of Memphis, Memphis, TN..
If the Shoe Fits: Wearing these shoes requires a certain amount of dorsiflexion and plantarflexion (read: range of motion in the ankle, foot, and toes). Because of this, breaking in the shoes very important. To transition safely, try spending short durations of time (begin with about 10 to 15 minutes three times a day) wearing the shoes around the house. Once the shoes are sufficiently broken in (timing will vary from person to person), you’ll be ready to begin wearing minimalists for longer intervals of time, including at the gym.
Named after a famed basketball star, Chuck Taylor All-Stars by Converse are one of the most successful selling basketball shoes in history. Coincidently, according to EliteFTS founder and strength coach Dave Tate in his article “Squat 900 Pounds,” the flat soles and sturdy side construction (where the two outside shoe flaps meet the sole) is strong enough to push out against without rolling over the sole or tearing the shoe. Hoops aside, these flat-soled shoes have been known to work well for a variety of lifts, including wide stance or low bar squats, deadlifts, and Pendlay rows Stature and Flexibility Variables as Discriminators of Foot Contact During the Squat Exercise. Fry, A.C., Housh, T.J., Hughes, R.A, et al. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 1988 May; 2 (2)..
If the Shoe Fits: Greatist Expert, training consultant, and powerlifter Jordan Syatt recommends the high top style in these shoes because they seem to provide more support at the ankles, which can be helpful when "spreading the floor" while squatting or deadlifting. Bonus: At $50-$55 a pop, there’s no breaking the bank for a pair of these old school sneaks.
Olympic Weightlifting Shoes
As the name suggests, weightlifting shoes can be a solid choice for individuals who plan to practice mostly Olympic-style lifts (think: high-bar squats, power cleans, jerks, snatches, front squats, and overhead squats). Olympic shoes have a .5-1 inch raised wooden or plastic composite sole with a rubber bottom to prevent sliding. The raised heel makes it easier to achieve greater depth while keeping the chest up in these lifts by keeping the hips further forward during the movement. Some lifts, such as deadlifts and bent over rows, may be more difficult to perform while in the forward lean position because the lifter is placed too far out in front of the bar.
If the Shoe Fits: Since weightlifting shoes are only used during specific lifts, at $79-$200 (or more) per pair, they may not be cost-effective for the average lifter. Greatist Expert and fitness and performance coach Matt McGorry says the specialized shoes are only worth the investment “if you're training with maximal loads, [or if] Olympic lifting is a big part of your programming.” Still, new research suggests they can be beneficial for even average gym goers. In a study comparing weightlifting shoes to running shoes during the back squat, researchers found weightlifting shoes may offer an advantage for those who are prone to a forward trunk lean during this particular lift Kinematic changes using weightlifting shoes on barbell back squat. Sato, K., Fortenbaugh, D., and Hydock, D.S. Kinesiology Program, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ. Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 2012 Jan;26(1):28-33..
Ditching the Shoes Entirely
Sometimes the feet can use a little “free” time. The human foot has 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than 100 muscles, ligaments, and tendons which work together to keep your body balanced and mobile. Stuff them into shoes all day, and proper foot mechanics can sometimes get out of whack.
Athletic consultant and strength expert Martin Rooney is known as the “barefoot training guy” because he trains many of his athletes shoeless during specific drills and exercises. Rooney believes when the foot proprioception and mobility directly relates to other athletic abilities such as running and cutting.
The Fine (Foot)print: Those who suffer poor foot and/or ankle flexibility may find it uncomfortable to go bare. Always consult with an experienced medical professional first before deciding to ditch the kicks. If given the go-ahead, be sure to introduce barefoot training slowly over time. Begin with bodyweight movements barefoot, such as lunges and squats, before introducing a load. And for those training in commercial gyms: Ask permission before removing those shoes. Some gyms ban barefoot training for sanitation and/or safety purposes. Not even the toughest feet can withstand the impact of a 45-pound plate when it’s dropped.
In the end, choosing the right shoes for weightlifting may just come down to personal preference. When in doubt, consider starting with the basics. Speak with a certified strength and conditioning expert or physical therapist to find out what will work best. These experts can properly assess your movement patterns, flexibility, and foot health before you make your next shoe purchase.
Which shoes work best for your workouts? Tell us in the comments below!