The right pair of shoes gave Michael Jordan the edge to lead Bugs Bunny and the rest of the Looney Tunes gang to victory in the 1996 movie Space Jam. For those serious about weight training, choosing the right shoe may help you break any personal records and improve performance.
Walk into any gym today and you’ll find a number of different shoes on peoples feet. Some don running shoes by Nike or Adidas, while others rock the old school Converse “Chuck Taylors”. If the gym you entered happened to be a CrossFit box, you would likely see athletes wear Metcons or Nanos. You might even see some people wearing minimalist shoes (Vibrams) or go barefoot while lifting or squatting!
With so many available options, it can be a daunting task to decide what to wear when you’re in the gym. The purpose of this week’s article is to discuss in detail the different shoes and how it relates to squatting. We’ll then give the pro’s and con’s of each option so you can make the best decision for yourself.
Most of us wouldn’t think of trying to run a marathon in bowling shoes. We also wouldn’t play basketball in baseball spikes! However, when it comes to weight training or barbell squatting, people reach for any tennis shoe without a second thought. Before we jump into different shoes, we need to first understand the purpose of our feet.
The Stable Foot
The feet set the foundation for every single functional movement we perform. Think of the feet like the base to a ‘house of cards’. The feet set the groundwork for the stability of our entire structure. If we want to squat with good technique, we have to pay attention to what is going on at the feet.
Our foot is inherently very mobile. With over 25 bones spread across 4 different joints, the foot is capable of a lot of movement. However, when we squat, we need to instantly create stability at the foot. The neutral arched position is the most stable position we can create.
The choice of footwear (or lack there of) during barbell training must compliment and support this arched stance. Without a stable foot the entire foundation for our bodies movement will collapse.
The Classic Running Shoe
If you’re training to run a 5K, it’s a great idea to find a good pair of running shoes. With that said, running shoes are NOT the best choice for weight lifting. Experts claim that squatting with the soft compressible sole of these shoes is basically like trying to lift while standing on a giant marshmallow (1).
The running shoe is constructed to absorb and dissipate forces that occur when the foot makes contact with the ground. This reduces the impact shock that would eventually cause injury while running (2). When squatting, we don’t want a gel or air based sole.These shoes will decrease the ability to maintain a stable connection to the floor. When lifting heavy weights, the compressible running shoe will not be able to support that neutral arch foot that we talked about earlier.
Running shoes are great for running. On that note, when you’re attempting a 3 RM or 1 RM squat, you do NOT want to be wearing your go to Asics or Brooks. Leave the running shoes for the runners.
As the name suggests, these shoes can be a great choice for anyone interested in the sport of weightlifting. The International Weighlifting Federation (IWF) states the purpose of these shoes are to protect lifters feet from falling weights while also providing a stable firm surface (5).
These shoes are designed with a stiff, non-compressible sole with a distinguished raised heel (usually made of wood or a plastic composite with a rubber bottom to prevent sliding). Most weightlifting shoes will have a raised heel of approximately 2.5 cm (3). While these shoes are well known by weightlifters across the world, they are still generally unfamiliar to everyday gym-goers.
Weightlifting shoes are beneficial in a number of ways. The first thing you’ll notice when you put on a pair of these shoes is the ability to squat deeper while maintaining a more upright chest position. This is due to the raised heel.
During the descent of the squat the knees need to eventually move forward toward the toes. This allows the hips to descend to the greatest depth possible. The further the knees can translate forward at the bottom of the squat the more upright the chest can remain while still staying balanced. This allows for better technique in lifts such as the front squat or overhead squat.
By keeping the torso more upright, less harmful forces are sustained at the low back (4). While a certain amount of forward trunk lean is necessary at times to stay balanced (especially with the low-bar back squat), you should attempt to keep the chest as upright as possible in order to minimize shear forces in the low back (4,6). Therefore, individuals who have a history of low back pain or want to reduce the stress to this area would benefit from wearing this type of shoe when squatting.
Weightlifting shoes can help keep the foot in a stable position during the squat. A raised heel actually keeps the foot in a neutral arched position (11). It also decreases tension in muscles that often become stiff in the lower leg (lateral gastrocnemius, soleus and peroneals) (12). For this reason, these shoes are great for anyone who has poor ankle mobility. Combined, these benefits limit the potential for technique errors such as the well-known valgus knee collapse.
While a good pair of these shoes were once hard to come by for less than $130, there are a number of companies jumping on board in recent years with options for less than $80. Nike and Adidas have the highest quality shoes on the current market. (Rogue Fitness has a large selection of weightlifting shoes)
Bottom line, these shoes are a great investment for any athlete, regardless of experience level. They have been shown to enhance squat technique, boost performance and reduce harmful joint stresses. You don’t have to be an Olympic weightlifter or CrossFit athlete to own a pair of weightlifting shoes. If you have any desire to squat heavy weight, these shoes are the way to go and well worth the money.
Flat Sole Shoes
If you compete in powerlifting, more than likely you have seen some athletes rock a pair of Chuck Taylors. The non-compressible rubber sole of this shoe provides support without breaking the bank (these shoes typically run for about $50). Chuck Taylors are terrible for running but for squatting, they’re not so bad.
This shoe offers a flat sole or a 0 mm drop (compared to the ~20 mm drop seen with the raised heel of the weightlifting shoe). This is the measured difference between the heel height and the forefoot height. This shoe therefore does not give any aid for those with limited ankle mobility. For this reason, if an athlete has stiff ankles and decides to use this shoe to perform any of the olympic lifts (or a squat that requires a more forward knee position and an upright chest) they could run into some problems.
However, these shoes do work very well for a variety of other lifts including the low-bar back squat. This variation allows athletes to manipulate joint torque production in order to lift more weight than any other squat technique. By sitting the hips back to a greater degree, the knees are not required to move forward nearly as far. For this reason, flat sole shoes (like Chuck Taylors) are a great choice for anyone interested in using the low-bar back squat! If you’re doing fine with Chuck Taylors when front squatting or high bar back squatting, by all means, stick with it
Cross Trainer Shoes
In 1987 Nike changed the shoe industry when it released the Air Trainer I, the first cross training shoe. These shoes, designed for any workout, was spreading life fire due to the Bo Knows campaign (YouTube/Google Bo Jackson if you have no idea who he is).
With the recent rise in CrossFit, we have seen an emergence of cross trainer shoes designed specifically for the weight room. These shoes offer good support and a small heel drop (usually 3-4 mm).
First, these shoes are a great alternative to your basic running shoe. The sole of these shoes are not made with air or gel and therefore will not compress. On the other hand the 4mm drop of these shoes are much smaller compared to that of the weightlifting shoe and therefore do not provide much help for athletes with stiff ankles.
For CrossFitters, this is a great shoe especially for the practicality of moving from a barbell movement to box jumps, burpees, or short runs. However if you’re your goal is to solely perform barbell squats and/or Olympic lifts, the weightlifting shoe is by far the superior option.
In recent years barefoot weight training has increased in popularity. Barefoot advocators suggest that ditching the sneakers will help with balance and stability. With the feet in greater contact with the floor, the thought is that the body can sense the position and movement of the foot to a greater degree. Much like wearing a pair of thick gloves, wearing shoes all the time is also believed to diminish the sensation and awareness of your feet. By going barefoot the goal is to then regain the conscious control of foot stability.
There is recent research that analyzes barefoot squatting. While some people do report the feeling of being more aware of their foot positioning, there has yet to be any significant evidence to support the notion (10). In fact what we actually find is that by taking off our shoes it can change the squat technique slightly.
When squatting barefoot, most people will actually lean further forward with their chest in order to stay balanced (7). From a technique perspective, barefoot training may not be ideal for athletes who need to maintain a more upright trunk during their squat. This would include anyone performing the high-bar back squat, front squat or overhead squat.
Individuals with low back pain may also want to stay away from barefoot squatting. Because the chest naturally inclines during barefoot squatting, the low-back will will sustain more force (6). The spine is the most vulnerable joint complex of the body and excessive forces from learning too far forward can easily lead to pain. Barefoot squatting is the least desirable option at this time. Not to mention the risk of dropping weights on your feet by accident or stepping on bacteria/fungus at the gym. With that said, only the low-bar back squat is recommended with barefoot squatting. If anything, we suggest that you throw on a pair of Chuck Taylors when doing the low-bar squats.
Some shoe manufactures in recent years have come out with “barefoot-like” footwear. These include the Vibram five-fingers shoe. They provide the sensation of training barefoot while offering a small amount of protection to the feet.
Research has shown that minimal footwear is related to increased strength and size (hypertrophy) of the muscles of the foot (8). When compared to a cross trainer shoe, the Fivefinger shoe has been shown to provide a more stable base during the squat (9). However, this also comes with a decrease in squat performance.
Too often, I see athletes who demonstrate an inability to stabilize their feet. Going barefoot or squatting in a minimalist shoe without the ability to maintain an arched foot position can lead to a breakdown in technique. For this reason, consult with an experienced medical professional before deciding to lift/squat with minimalist shoes. If you get the go-ahead, make sure to always concentrate on maintaining a stable foot so that good technique is maintained.
It’s our humble opinion that barbell squatting and barefoot/minimalist do not mix well. There is some value with performing body weight squats or goblet squats barefoot or with minimalist shoes. With barefoot/minimalist, your intrinsic foot muscles can potentially strengthen and your feet awareness/sensation can improve as well.
Your choice of footwear should be tailored to your personal goals. If you have any desire to squat heavy weights, we highly recommend purchasing a pair of weightlifting shoes. If you plan on keeping the weight casual, we recommend cross trainers. If you’re more of a runner and occasionally squat, sticking with running shoes or minimalist is probably your best bet.
If you have any doubts, consider speaking with a certified strength and conditioning expert or a sports/orthopedic physical therapist.
Until next time,
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- Sato K, Fortenbaugh D, & Hydock DS. Kinematic changes using weightlifting shoes on barbell back squat. JSCR. 2012; 26(1):28-33
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- International Weightlifting Federation. Technical and competition rules. Available at: http://www.iwf.net/doc/handbook/Handbook(2009)_technical_and_competition_rules.pdf. Accessed April 25th, 2016.
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- Shorter K, Lake J, Smith N & Lauder M. Influence of the foot-floor interface on squatting performance. Portuguese Journal of Sport Sciences. 2001; 11:385-388
- Sinclair J, McCarthy D, Bentley I, Hurst HT & Atkins S. The influence of different footwear on 3-D kinematics and muscle activation during the barbell back squat in males. European Journal of Sport Science. 2014; 00(00):1-8.
- Power V & Clifford AM. The effects of rearfoot position on lower limb kinematics during bilateral squatting in asymptomatic individuals with a pronated foot type. Journal of Human Kinetics. 2012; 31:5-15
- Hirth CJ. Clinical movement analysis to identify muscle imbalances and guide exercise. Athlet Ther Today. 2007; 12(4):10-14