Gym attire is a funny thing. Guys stress over what Nike or Under Armour shirt is gonna make them looked jacked. Girls lose sleep over which pair of Lululemon leggings will make us sneak a peak at their butt (joke’s on you – we were gonna look at it anyways).
What we wear up top might affect how we feel in the gym, but it’s what we wear on our feet that can truly affect how we perform. Gym footwear goes beyond fancy running shoes, and if the recent Vibram FiveFingers debacle is any indication, people take their footwear seriously.
Did you know that typical running shoes are actually a terrible choice for most strength and conditioning workouts? I’m not usually one to sweat the small stuff (although I used to look a lot like Kevin James when I was a chubby little kid), but lifting footwear is a small thing that can make a big difference.
Form follows function, so you’d better wear the right shoes for the right workout. I’ll never forget when Jason Ferruggia convinced me to get a pair of squat shoes. “You wear basketball sneakers to play basketball and football cleats to play football,” he said, “so why wouldn’t you wear squat shoes to squat?” I went out and bought a pair of squat shoes the next day and never looked back.
Here’s the lowdown on how your footwear can enhance – or halt – your fitness efforts.
Running shoes are – surprise, surprise – good for running. But they’re not so great for lifting.
A combination of too much cushioning and an elevated heel make for a lousy foundation with lots of weight on your back or in your hands.
Most running shoes have a significant heel drop (difference in height from heel to forefoot). According to the Runner’s World 2014 Spring Shoe Guide, the Asics Gel-Kayano 20 (the most expensive big-name shoe on the list at $160), has a 9-millimeter heel drop. That’s over a third of an inch for you non-metric folks.
An elevated heel can be good in some cases, which I’ll explain later. But spending too much time in an elevated heel can lead to perpetually shortened calf muscles and Achilles tendons, which wrecks ankle mobility. Take it from someone who spent a decade walking on his toes and has spent an equal amount of time battling to get that mobility back – it’s not fun. We know ankle mobility is important for injury prevention and performance, so why wreck it with lousy shoes?
Eric Cressey put it perfectly in a recent Tweet:
Everyone who’s ever dabbled in powerlifting knows that Converse Chuck Taylors are the go-to for tons of strong dudes and dudettes. That’s because Chucks have flat soles and virtually no heel drop, which allows the lifter to maintain a vertical shin ankle (i.e. keep the knees behind the toes) and shift more weight to the hip musculature.
I love Chucks for deadlifting. I wear my black-on-black All Stars every time I pull. That’s because they allow for a better posterior weight shift, which keeps your knees behind the bar. You get a greater contribution from the glutes and hamstrings and reduce the chance of the bar fading out in front of you.
Chucks, Adidas Sambas and New Balance Minimus are all solid flat-soled shoes for deadlifting variations. Flat soles are great for day-to-day wear too.
But think twice before you lace up your Chucks for a set of wide-stance squats like your favorite Westside powerlifter. Most people – raw lifters especially – lack the ankle mobility and hip strength to squat ultra-wide with a flat sole. If you’re not using a squat suit or doing box squats, you may be better off wearing our next shoe…
Unstable elevated heels (like running shoes) are lousy for lifting. And stable flat soles (like Chucks) aren’t ideal for raw squatters. But a stable elevated heel is a thing of beauty.
Weighlifting shoes are perfect for squats, cleans and snatches because they have a rock solid elevated heel that makes it easier to keep a vertical torso while squatting low with a narrow stance. The heel provides a little extra “fake” ankle mobility (much like the heels-up trick in my “4 Steps to Fix Your Squat” test) which can reduce the dreaded “butt wink” and protect your lower back. And if you fall forward during front squats or lose the bar forward during a snatch, weightlifting shoes can help.
Weightlifting shoes won’t fix everything though. They’re a lousy choice for deadlifts and single-leg exercises like lunges or split squats. They also suck for anything that requires a rapid toe-to-heel transition, such as a box jump landing.
Please, pretty please don’t use weightlifting shoes as a bandaid for crappy ankle mobility. Use them to let you keep squatting while improving your mobility over time.
The one-two punch of the book Born to Run and the rapid rise of Vibram FiveFingers sent the exercise world into a barefoot training frenzy. This had its pros and cons.
Pro: people started ditching their crappy high-heeled running shoes and high-top sneakers, and their ankles thanked them.
Con: people started doing EVERYTHING barefoot, including squatting, sprinting and jumping. Their ankles, knees and hips hated them.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for barefoot warmups and spending less time in heel-elevated shoes that destroy our ankle mobility, perpetually shorten our calves and make our glutes forget how to function. Barefoot deadlifts are fine too, since any extra distance can make or break the lift. Many powerlifters use socks or ballet slippers during competition, like deadlift phenom Benedikt Magnusson during his 1,015-pound deadlift, which I consider to be the greatest single lift of all time:
Here’s the deal – most people don’t have anywhere near enough ankle mobility to squat properly in bare feet. In fact, I have every new client do an overhead squat test in bare feet, and nearly all of them have their heels pop up at first. I instruct them to sit back into their hips and some people improve, but most need to prop their heels up on 5-pound plates to squat butt-to-calves. Even then, the lack of ankle mobility leads to serious lower back rounding, which is a great way to destroy your lower back while squatting heavy.
If you improve ankle range of motion, you improve lower back stability and get that much closer to ideal squat form. For most lifters, an elevated heel such as a weightlifting shoe is the way to go – NOT bare feet. Ditch your shoes for the warmup and for deadlifts, but don’t squat heavy in bare feet unless your ankle mobility is superb.
SMALL CHANGE, BIG DIFFERENCE
We’ve just scratched the surface of why proper training footwear makes a big difference. There’s no need to overcomplicate things. Just know that you shouldn’t be deadlifting in high heels or running in weightlifting shoes. Pick a goal and lace up accordingly.