Choosing gym shoes | Lifting 101

Once you have your gym membership there’s only really one essential piece of gear that you need to purchase in order to start lifting. A greater level of experience or a desire to compete may require you to build up your lifting locker – but for a beginner, all you really need for the gym are shoes.

What kind of shoes? I hear you cry. Well, the choice is up to you. You can lift in almost any type of shoe as the most important consideration is that you feel comfortable in them. If you want to get the most out of your sessions take a look at the proposals and recommendations we’ve laid out in the rest of the article.

Before we breakdown the implications for each of the big 3 lifts we’ll start with one general piece of advice. It’s not ideal to wear running shoes for the heavy compound lifts. Running shoes have been designed to absorb and transfer energy across the shoe. The soles are made from squishy rubber which is perfect for absorbing the force that our bodies send down to the ground. Running shoes can be so efficient at this that the ‘Nike Vaporfly’ has effectively changed the face of elite running forever. When it comes to lifting weights, we want to convert all of our force into moving the bar upwards. Any amount of force absorption will make our lift less efficient – we’ll be doing more work without the payoff. If you only have your joggers at hand it’s not the end of the world. You’ll still be able to keep getting stronger, but if you want to lift optimally then we’d suggest looking at the following footwear advice.

Squatting:

Our feet need to be secure in our shoes, we don’t want them to be able to wriggle around. Lateral instability can change how our bodies react when fighting against heavy loads, and can lead to problems all of the way up the kinetic chain. Having a metatarsal strap or even just tightly fastened laces should help to reduce any unwanted movement. We should also make sure that the shoes aren’t made of flimsy material that will exacerbate this problem.

The main consideration for squatting is having a hard non-compressible sole to push against. As we’ve just mentioned, driving up from a cushioned sole isn’t great. Anything with a hard sole will put you in a good place to get the most from your squat. This could be anything from astroturf/futsal trainers, wrestling shoes, or even a sturdy pair of plimsolls. With Converse falling somewhere in the middle ground, Olympic lifting shoes guarantee a rock solid lifting base due to the wooden or tough plastic inner-sole.

And finally we should consider heel height. The presence and size of the trainer’s heel can cause fundamental changes to the way a lifter squats. The decision on heel vs no heel will need to be made on a case by case basis. The presence of a heel in the shoe decreases the starting angle at which the ankle begins the squat. This elevated position will subsequently artificially allow for more dorsiflexion of the foot, helping lifters with poor mobility to reach depth. This angle will allow the knees to track forwards, letting the lifter descend further. Athletes with longer femurs may also benefit from this improved ability to let the knees come forward in the bottom position.

A style consideration to take into account when debating flat shoes vs heeled is the stance of your squat. Squatters broadly fall into 2 camps – Narrow Stance and Wide Stance. Your squat preference can dictate the type of shoe you wear. Narrow stance squatters will likely benefit from lifting with a raised heel. The added ability for the knees to come forward is not only beneficial for this stance due to the relative height of the hips, but it also complements the greater recruitment of quadriceps muscles for narrow stance lifters. As wide stance squatters are primarily aiming to reduce the range of motion, lifting with a heel may become counterproductive. 

So to recap – anything with a hard sole that can keep your foot tight and secure is what we’re looking for. Further thought should be taken to whether or not you’d benefit from a heel.

Benching:

There’s less to think about here – it’s pretty much down to personal choice. For the bench press you can look again into whether you’d want to lift with a heeled shoe. Having an elevated heel means that you can engage a little more leg drive out of the hole. If you’ve ever failed a bench press you’ll notice that two things start to happen in the fight, your glutes and your feet start to raise. We can combat this by incorporating leg drive in the lift – starting with our feet in a slightly elevated position will facilitate this. The heel in this scenario isn’t essential, as you can design your starting position to be able to effectively incorporate leg drive without this elevation, so go with whatever’s most comfortable.

Again, it’s good to be able to lift from a solid base, so those marshmallowy running shoes should be avoided if possible. As most of the work is happening up at the chest on a supported bench, you can feel free to wear what you like without any significantly detrimental effects.

For competitive powerlifters, considerations should be made to account for whether your federation has limits on the legal height of a shoe’s heel (this will apply across all 3 lifts), and whether you are permitted to lift your heels during the bench. For example, in the IPF, the feet must remain motionless as one of the points of contact throughout the lift. In this scenario a heel would be advantageous in avoiding being red-lighted by the judges.

Deadlifting:

We have two main considerations here: firstly our old friend, the non-compressible sole needs to make a reappearance. When we deadlift we effectively push our feet through the ground with all of our might so that we can lever the bar up off of the floor. If we lose any of that driving force to a squishy sole then we’ll covert less of our power to the movement. Again, not ideal. So we want to be lifting from a hard base, you get the drill.

A deadlift specific implication is the height or thickness of the sole. The singular purpose of the deadlift is to bring the weight from the floor to the hips at lock-out. This is a fixed height which is determined by how tall you are. Therefore, if we increase this distance by adding an extra platform (a couple of inches on the sole in this case) then we increase the distance that we need to lift the bar, and ultimately the level of effort we’ll need to put in to complete the lift. By lifting in a shoe with a thick sole we basically lift from a deficit – the bar begins even further away from our hips. Now, this may only be a matter of inches, but every inch counts. If you’ve ever fought to wrestle-up a personal best lift you’ll know that voluntarily adding an extra couple of inches to that grind would be inconceivable. For this reason we want to aim to deadlift in shoes with as thin a sole as possible. 

The worst case scenario for the deadlift would be to lift in a shoe with a pronounced heel! Every extra inch that you artificially add to your legs is an extra inch that you’ll have to pull for. It’s for this reason that you often see powerlifters lift in ‘deadlift slippers’ which are basically socks with a hard flat sole. What you gain in the reduction of height with a deadlift slipper, you may lose with our old friend, ankle stability. 

Best of the rest:

For your general gyming needs you can still follow some of these above guidelines. You’ll want your feet to feel secure but you won’t need to worry as much about sole thickness, heel height, or the consistency of the shoe’s base. If you’re working away on the assisted machines or in the dumbbell section then you’ll probably be fine with any old trainer. If you’re taking part in any of the high energy classes with dynamic movements then you’ll actually want to come back to the running shoes that we’ve been poo-pooing above.

So the choice is yours. You’re probably going to want to get yourself a pair of shoes with a hard solid base. Something that will keep your foot tight and secure. If you have the option to be more specific then you can decide whether you’ll need to consider heels or sole thickness. Whatever type of shoe you choose, the real difference in results will be a product of the amount of work that you put in – not what’s covering your toes.

Image credits: Bev Goodwin (header), akunamatata, Gregor Winter, Thomas Leuthard, ljgoyke

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