Lessons from Lifters: Finding the Perfect Workout Shoes

Lee Boyce
Written By: Lee Boyce
September 9th, 2015
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Training
12.6K Reads
Lessons from Lifters: Finding the Perfect Workout Shoes
Serious lifters need serious equipment. Regular tennis shoes aren't going to cut it if you're looking to push your limits and grow.

Consider this for a moment: maybe your shoes are prevent you from squatting 3 plates or finally deadlifting 500lbs?

Turns out if you can’t do either of those it’s likely because you need to get stronger but your shoes will have quite an impactful role on your strength development, biomechanics, and force output.

What you put on your feet in the gym often flies under the radar but there’s a lot resting on your feet (literally) from both an athletic and a training standpoint. Use the wrong footwear and you could be doing yourself a disservice when you’re pumping iron.

Depending on your particular needs, you might find additional benefits from using one type of footwear compared to another. I’ve had personal experience lifting in all of the following shoes, so I’ll combine my knowledge with some science to help you make the right choice.

Exhibit A: The Classic Running Shoe

Slapping on a pair of Asics to hit the weights may sound like a good idea – you’re wearing a pair of athletic shoes to do athletic things. The thing is, a pair of shoes designed for running is quite different than a pair of shoes for lifting weights.

For running, you need more support; the constant impact requires a thicker sole and more lateral cushioning. As well, most running shoes have great forefoot mobility (as a track athlete, I found that especially the case with Saucony) so rolling onto the toe felt natural.

That’s excellent for a guy who spends most of his time running, but when you’re lifting weights it’s better to have more stability and a closer ground contact.

To use an extreme example, think about squatting on solid ground, compared to squatting with your feet on the round side of the BOSU ball. It’s much more difficult to move in a coordinated and balanced fashioned and as such, it will ultimately limit your maximal strength development if you’re using unstable surfaces.

By using shoes that have a thick, cushioned sole and contoured shape, we’re basically applying this on a smaller level.  Keep your running shoes for running.

Exhibit B: The Bare Foot

Lessons from Lifters: Finding the Perfect Workout Shoes

Unfortunately there are many gyms which still outlaw barefoot training despite the numerous benefits one can receive from ditching their shoes.

No shoes at all, and direct ground contact - It’s gotta be the most natural thing you can do, right?

The true story is it all depends on the construction of your feet, and how you set yourself up. It can be used to your advantage just as much as it can be used to your disadvantage, and hopefully this can clear the air. 

If you’re someone walks and stands flat-footed, you’ll have minimal arch in your foot. It’s going to act on your knees and give you the propensity to roll inwards towards the big toe when you squat, deadlift, or even walk around.

Setting your foot to create rigidity and stability while you exercise is of pinnacle importance to get the most out of barefoot training. If you don’t you could simply exacerbate the muscle imbalances you already have.  The same goes for someone with the opposite problem of high arches. 

Watch this excellent video in which my friend Dean Somerset goes through the steps in making feet stable in both scenarios.

Exhibit C: Olympic Weightlifting Shoes

Lifting shoes create plenty of lateral stability by using a wooden sole with a completely flat bottom and just enough contour on the inside to support the foot in the right way. The thing that makes these shoes different than the rest is the fact that every Olympic lifting shoe has an elevated heel.

As you know from training, raising the heels can affect pelvic position, and can help achieve added squat depth that mobility restrictions may prevent a lifter from reaching.

When looking for weightlifting shoes, It’s important to be aware of a few things. First of all, some lifting shoes have a much more aggressive heel lift than others, depending on the brand you choose.

Personally, I’ve found that a lower heel lift is better for me – which brings me to my next point.  If you’re a taller lifter, or a lifter with very long legs relative to the torso (or both at the same time!), an aggressive heel lift can have the potential to wreak havoc on your joints.

Due to the fact that elevated heels allow for a much more vertical torso, this means two things:

  1. The knees will track further forward over the toes to squat down, allowing for greater shear forces on the knee.
  2. The hips will be allowed to drop into a deeper bottom end range, which could initially be stressful on lower back structures like the SI region, if you’re not used to achieving this range previously. 

Moral of the story: If you’re a stranger to elevated heels, tread warily. Don’t go for the highest elevation you can find – it may make your squat look aesthetically pleasing to the untrained eye, but it may create a shock response that is less than desirable at the time, especially if you’re a tall guy. My advice would be to start low, and gradually move up.

Exhibit D: Flat Soled Shoes (Minimal Heel-to-Toe Drop)

In my books, minimalist shoes like Vibram 5 Fingers, classic Chucks, and New Balance Minimus aren’t as bad as they may seem. All of them have low soles to keep good ground contact, and can create just enough support to make a difference when compared to bare feet.

Lessons from Lifters: Finding the Perfect Workout Shoes

Of course, Vibrams and New Balance Minimus are slightly more technologically advanced when compared to vintage Chuck Taylors, and offer a slightly more rigid arch support. The drawbacks are that the uppers in each of these shoes are fairly flimsy, and sometimes that can translate to poor lateral stability, should you require it.

Choose Your Sole Wisely

This article was in no way meant to favour any specific shoe over the others as the truth is, it all depends on the lifter and his individual needs.

The nature of your workouts, the musculature of your feet, your skill level and your overall anthropometry all play into what footwear will work best for you. 

When you bring a bit of science into the mix, you quickly realize that it’s a whole lot different than just getting a pair of the latest gym shoes that match your workout shirt.

Train smart, you won’t regret it in the long run.