Weightlifting Shoes: Why You Need a Pair, What to Look For, and When to Wear Them
If I had a pound for every time I’m asked about Olympic weightlifting shoes, well, I’d be able to afford plenty more pairs of weightlifting shoes. But since no one seems to give me a pound when they ask me this question, I thought I might as well share a typical conversation on this hot topic with you lot. Any resemblances to conversations I have had with any of you are purely coincidental.
Once you've read this article, if you're interested in shopping for weightlifting shoes, check out The 5 Best Olympic Weightlifting Shoes for Under $200 in 2012. In the fall of 2014, we'll be coming out with an updated edition of that buying guide, too.
“Chet, can I ask your advice on Olympic weightlifting shoes?”
Sure thing, ask away.
“Well, I’m fairly new to weightlifting. Do I really need a pair?”
Do you clean, jerk, and snatch regularly?
“Yes, pretty much every week.”
Then you need a pair.
“What’s wrong with my current shoes?
Let me put it like this - you can lift more weight with a pair of weightlifting shoes.
“Really?! How does that work?”
I thought that might get your attention. Those shoes you have on now are made for running, and have an inbuilt cushion to absorb impact with each step you take. This is great for running, but not so great for weightlifting. Rather than absorb force, you need a shoe that will help you use all the force your body produces to help you move weight. The more force you can produce, the more weight you can move. That making sense so far?
“Yeah, but how would these shoes actually help me lift more weight?”
In a couple of simple ways. First, if you can generate more force through the ground you can pull the bar higher. If you can pull the bar higher, you have more chance of getting under it. Also, when you are under the bar, you can drive hard out of the squat knowing your shoes, being your contact point with the ground, are transmitting as much as possible of the force you are creating up from the floor, through your body, and into moving that barbell.
“Got it, so I need something without cushioning. What about those [insert latest pair of barefoot shoes here]?”
I like the way you’re thinking. The fact those shoes have little or no padding is definitely a step in the right direction, but weightlifting shoes have a couple more distinct benefits.
Weightlifting shoes have a raised heel. This is a massive advantage, as it allows you to squat into a deeper position through increased ankle range of motion. This will help you to improve your overall position too, as you’ll find yourself sitting more upright. A more upright torso means more chance of keeping hold of that barbell and sending it in the right direction - up! This heel also allows you to activate far more of your musculature to send that bar upwards.
Weightlifting shoes are also more stable than your typical barefoot or minimalist shoe, not just underfoot, but around your foot. Again this ensures you have a strong and consistent base to land on, push through, and push out into - important for performance and injury prevention in equal measure. And the less you get injured, the more you can train. The more you can train, the more you can increase how much you lift!
“That’s cool! But I want to be able to lift in anything, any time. In life, you don’t get a chance to put on your weightlifting shoes. So surely they are not very functional?”
I agree with that in principle. But in life, you are not jumping and landing with a heavy weight above your head multiple times over the course of an hour or two. As with any sport, it’s important to have the right kit to stay safe and be effective in that sport.
And what is functional anyway? My definition of functional, in any kind of fitness context, is fit for a task. A movement is functional if it helps the athlete in performing that task.So a functional shoe for Olympic weightlifting is one that helps you lift weights!
“True. Thanks Chet, I’ll have a think about it.”
A few days later, I’ll inevitably have the following conversation:
“Chet, thanks for your advice the other day. I’ve decided to get myself a pair of weightlifting shoes.”
“Which ones do you recommend? I like the look of the new [insert fancy custom unreleased weighlifting shoe here].”
There’s no point waiting, just get a damn pair. Any pair. The biggest difference is going to come from actually lifting in a pair of weightlifting shoes, not which make they are, what anyone else thinks, whether they are last season’s, this season’s, next season’s, or what color they are! So really, there is little point in holding out for those new ones.
“Yeah, that’s true. But they look really cool!”
I get that. You need to feel confident and awesome in them. If you are choosing between readily available pairs, that is probably going to be the biggest difference between different shoes. This means not only how the shoe feels, but yes, also the color, brand, or whatever else rocks your world. For me, this is half the benefit of any training aid - compression gear, KT tape, or whatever else. Confidence will play directly into your lifting, particular in Olympic weightlifting where speed, aggression, and commitment are crucial. That is all cool if you’re choosing between shoes that are available now. But seeing as it’s your first pair, I would just pick up a pair you like as soon as possible.
“Fine, will take a look. What should I look out for?”
The heel height is one thing. Most vary from half an inch to an inch. Then you’ll look at the strapping and support. Your feet should feel supported within your shoe in all directions. Weightlifting shoes vary in width quite a lot. Some makes, such as Adidas, are better for narrow feet, whereas others, such as DoWin, cater to wider feet. Though most will have laces right down to the toe to help tighten the shoe against different foot widths. It’s important to choose the right size too. You don’t want your foot sliding about inside the shoe. Basically, get a shoe that is a snug, stable, and supportive.
It goes without saying that your shoe should have a solid base, though some new hybrid shoes compromise on this a little for the sake of allowing extra movement, particularly at the front of the shoe. Will you be wearing them for strictly Olympic weightlifting, or CrossFit-type stuff too?
“Not sure. What should I wear them for?”
Well, I recommend that you definitely wear your weightlifting shoes when you are weightlifting, every time.
“Yeah, will do. You’ve convinced me.”
Also, always wear them when you’re squatting. Ultimately, it boils down to the fact that you can squat more with weightlifting shoes on, for all the reasons we’ve been chatting about. Which means you’ll get stronger. Plus squatting with these shoes on will transfer directly into the movement, muscles, and mechanics for getting up out of a snatch or a clean.
“Makes sense. What about other big lifts? Press? Deadlift? What do you use?”
That’s up to you. Personally I like to deadlift in flat powerlifting shoes. They have a thin, firm sole, so I still get maximal force through the ground. However, the heel on weightlifting shoes may give you some advantage on the deadlift, depending on your body proportions. Try them out and see how they feel. It all boils down to the same test. Which footwear can you lift more weight with? Same for a press. For a press, push press, or push jerk in a workout, I’ll often be cleaning the bar up anyway, so I will have my weightlifting shoes on.
“Thanks. Should I wear them for CrossFit WODs then, too?”
It depends. In most WODs you won’t just be doing lifting. You may even be running or otherwise moving around fast on your feet. So it becomes a question of priorities. Will weightlifting shoes help you more than they will impede you? The crossover shoes we were talking about are an advantage here, as their construction allows for greater movement, so you’ll probably feel better when doing stuff like box jumps or skipping. I would only buy these if you’re going to be wearing them for workouts too. If you’re just weightlifting, go for a classic weightlifting shoe that’s built for that one purpose.
Think about the movements in the workout. Weightlifting shoes will definitely help in squat-based movements where you need extra stability, range of motion, or position - thrusters are a good example. The question is, how much do you need that help compared to how much the shoes will impede you in the rest of the workout? Sometimes you won’t be able to wear them at all. For example, running in them is still pretty difficult. So if you have a workout that includes running, you’ll need to wear to your normal shoes.
If you have the option, and if they don’t cause an issue in the rest of the workout, then go ahead and wear your weightlifting shoes. If they slow you down in other movements, weigh up what will be better for your movement efficiency overall - where do you need to most help?
“Okay, cool. But sounds like I’ll be wearing them for quite a lot of stuff. Won’t I become reliant on them?”
Actually, that’s a good point. Once you have them, and have lifted in them even a few times, it will feel wrong, in all senses, to lift without them. Do they go some way to making amends for some mobility issues? Yes. But like any aid, if you ignore the underlying issues, you will form a reliance.
The same goes for if you use wrist wraps and don’t bother to strengthen your wrists without wraps, or if you use a belt and don’t learn to create torso stability without one. If you can do a decent squat in weightlifting shoes but your air squat in bare feet sucks, you need to work on your mobility.
“Fair enough. Point taken. Anything else I should know?”
Yes, know that if you walk back home, to the train station, or generally wear your weightlifting shoes for anything other than lifting, I will cry a little inside. Treat them with care and respect, and they will last you a long time.
“Thanks Chet. Here’s a pound for you.”