Weightlifting is a niche sport and so weightlifting shoes used to be a rare sight. However, over time, heretical powerlifters who weren’t wearing their obligatory All-star Chucks (along with bodybuilders, crossfitters, strongmen and other athletes) started to use them too. Nowadays pretty much everyone in the gym has a pair of these lifting clogs.
Their popularity is partly driven by the recent dramatic increase in people squatting. Once a few serious lifters are wearing lifting shoes in a gym, it is not long before people are infected by the idea they must have them too.
Look Geppetto, I’m a real lifter!
Someone walking into a gym for the first time and seeing all the serious lifters wearing lifting shoes could reasonably assume they have value. Not wanting to stand out, the newbie is likely to buy themselves a pair. Before you know it, everyone is wearing them because everyone is wearing them.
The minority not wearing a pair of lifting shoes are those concerned by the look, those who don’t think the shoes will do anything and finally the hipsters who used to wear them before they became mainstream. Previously they were exercising on wobble boards, jumping in on the barefoot training trend and now they weave and ferment their own footwear.
But should you get a pair? This depends if one of their two main features are of benefit. These are:
The solid base
Lifters are always looking for that edge – something to add a few kilos to your lift without actually needing to get stronger.
Many sports shoes are designed to offer cushioning against impact. Some are soft enough to stop a fairy tale princess detecting peas underfoot, but this is not desirable here.
Whether called squat shoe, lifting shoe or weightlifting shoe, all were made for weightlifters. They are harder and more rigid than regular sports shoes so if a lifter’s heels do come off the ground mid clean or snatch, there is still a stable base of support waiting for them upon landing.
The misconception is that these stiff soled shoes are designed to prevent any strength ‘leaking’ during a lift. But these are shoes, not colanders. Just because regular squidgy trainers absorb impact, it doesn’t follow they attenuate the force you are trying to transmit into the floor. Provided your feet do not leave the ground, the shoe remains compressed and the floor isn’t going to yield, so none of your efforts will be lost or wasted by trainers deforming.
Having said that, do make sure the shoes you intend to squat in are not like a pair of memory foam mattresses stuck to your feet. A decent shoe must keep your feet from moving around during the lift and offer good arch support throughout. This is more important than how solid the base is.
The raised heel
Someone’s ability to squat incident free can be restricted by lack of ankle mobility, preventing them from hitting depth or putting increased demands onto their knees or lower back. To avoid bad form and injury, the problem must be i. fixed or ii. worked around (depending circumstances). So should you fix the ‘issue’ or simply work around it?
Fixing the problem (if there is one)
The more people squat, the more problems are encountered. Some are real (although are often avoidable), but others are imaginary, whether self-diagnosed or pointed out by gym “experts” who pathologise anything that deviates from their ideal Vitruvian posture. Such assessments have no more worth than cold readings and are often based on nothing more than long chains of dubious reasoning. However, they may be gratefully accepted as they remove blame from the afflicted – it makes them the victim, not the culprit.
Ideally the findings should incorporate just enough medical terminology to confer credibility, whilst avoiding the legalities of giving an actual diagnosis. Despite this, the examiner is sure to be confident with the prognosis and will conveniently have some cure or quick fix ready to sell you. Hence the plethora of mobility drills available.
The calves and the Achilles tendon are malleable to a degree. They can shorten from a lifetime of abuse and insult, such as always wearing high heels or years of long distance running. The latter is a useful adaption for improved running efficiency, but not so good for the flexibility required for squatting. However, expectations for change should be on a geological, rather biological timescale considering continents move quicker and are probably less effort to reverse.
Mobility work can of course help but its importance is overstated, the expected results exaggerated and the whole process overcomplicated and its benefits overstated. Only a targeted limbering up. If you do improve then you should progress by using less props, simplify and reduce the amount of mobility.
Within a few sessions the problem would either have gone forever or assume it is staying for good.
The work around
If you can’t fix your ankles through mobility work, a pair of lifting shoes may make it possible to work around this lack of flexibility. The raised heel reduces the amount of dorsiflexion required and can help a lifter remain more upright when they squat.
Some studies found negligible change in the torso angle and no significant reduction in injuries using lifting shoes. However, for some individuals, the shoes made a marked difference and transformed their ugly duckling squat into a beautiful swan. Although on average out the effects were not statistically significant, lifting shoes made a real difference to a few.
Just as seatbelts offer little benefit to drivers not crashing, a raised heel will do nothing to someone who can already squat problem-free. Nor would the shoes do much for lifters whose issues lay elsewhere such as with positioning, coordination and control.
However, if your ankles prevent you squatting well, these shoes could have a profound effect.
So, should you get a pair?
No, unless you are practising the Olympic lifts or you can’t keep a good upright position during your squat. Carting them needlessly to the gym and back is just a faff. Worse, they reduce the ankle movement during the squats and you lose the benefit on your flexibility the exercise would otherwise provide. After all, you got to move it or lose it! So, if you don’t need them, don’t get them.
Conversely, if you do perform the Olympic lifts, they are all but a must. Equally if you’ve benefitted from placing a weight plate under your heel when you squat, lifting shoes will be a more convenient alternative.
They can help if you struggle to keep your whole foot grounded when you bench press. Finally, some benefit from the ritual of always wearing a familiar pair of lifting shoes, like smelling salts or lucky socks. If it puts you in the right mindset, it is as good a justification as any other totem to have a pair of lifting shoes in your gym bag.
The choice really is yours.