By Carl Valle
Debates over the value of weightlifting shoes are not new, but recently, we have been seeing more studies looking at footwear and performance. Some of the research is conflicting, and this article will explain why much of the available information must be taken with a grain of salt.
The value of weightlifting shoes for key lifting exercises will range from “near essential” to “nice to have,” but for the most part, a good pair of weightlifting shoes is a valuable addition to a training program. In this review, we will explore everything from the history to the current technology used, to evaluate how weightlifting shoes may help you get an edge in training and competition.
A Brief but Important History of Weightlifting Shoes
I first tried using weightlifting shoes in the 1990s. There was an Australian athlete training in a gym I used, and his brash and bold attitude was both entertaining and educating. His training knowledge was impressive, and his use of weightlifting shoes during his cleans and squats was completely foreign to me. He called out all the other lifters who weren’t going deep enough for his liking and he wouldn’t stop talking about rugby being better than American football.
He and I had the same shoe size, so his weightlifting shoes were, literally, a perfect fit. It was my first time experiencing the subtle difference between the athletic cross-trainer shoe started by Bo Jackson and the shoe serious athletes used to aid their strength training. For matters of clarification, a weightlifting shoe is mainly for doing the type of competitive weightlifting seen at the Olympics, where lifts like squats are part of the equation. Powerlifting favors more minimalist style options, including bare feet, and this will be explained further later in the article.
My history using weightlifting shoes isn’t long, and the great site, Physical Culture Study, features information about the origin and evolution of weightlifting shoes. I link to their website in my RDL article, and I believe that physical culture history helps foster a deeper understanding of the reason we do things today by referencing the past. Knowing that the 1970s inspired the current models because of the literal limitations of the earlier designs is helpful in educating coaches trying to decide whether investing in a specialized shoe makes sense.
Without cutting too many details, weightlifting shoes were engineered when athletes used raised heels. The first change from glorified ballet slippers or similar was the elevation of the heel, using a firm material for theoretically greater force transfer. After a few decades of athletes keeping the top laces of the boots untied, the modern weightlifting shoe was born, again. Little innovation has occurred with weightlifting shoes since the days of paisley butterfly collars and disco. Beyond different brands refining the looks of their shoes, what we have now in 2017 is what we had in the Olympics nearly half a century ago.
How Science Evaluates the Function of Weightlifting Shoes
Recent research shed some light on the differences between going barefoot, using a running shoe, and using a conventional weightlifting shoe. What seems like a simple investigation into the effects of a shoe is actually difficult, because populations of athletes are not homogeneous, even if they appear similar. To reveal differences between footwear or the lack of shoe use, sport science uses kinetic and kinematic data.
In simple terms, sport science explores the forces and motions involved with athletes when analyzing shoes. Well-researched biomechanics and sports podiatry both use multiple tools or instruments, such as force plates, pressure-mapping insoles, and motion-capture systems. In addition to sensor technology, electromyography (EMG) is used to estimate muscle contribution. While this is not as solid a measure as the earlier ones for several reasons, it’s a valid and useful option to get reasonable conclusions.
Ironically, most studies done on weightlifting shoes are not performed on the competitive lifts that they were designed for. Instead, nearly all the research is on the back squat. While the conclusions and data are generally helpful, they’re not specific enough to determine their value for the specific lifts, such as the clean and jerk and snatch. Some investigation into the pattern of pressure inside the shoes or on the platform was performed decades ago, but the researchers never compared them to different shoes or going barefoot. In what is a fair summary of the current effect of weightlifting shoes on weightlifting exercises, we have enough information to make a great educated guess, but not enough to nail the coffin shut.
This article will review the kinematics of joints, muscle activation between types of shoe selection, and forces employed by the lifter in different conditions. My conclusions are logical leaps based on the fact that, without data on the competitive lifts, we have to have some speculation on what squat data can give us on the Olympic-style weightlifting.
Important Points on Ankle, Hip, and Spine Anatomy
Before getting into the findings of the research on squatting, it’s important to note that most of the studies do a poor job of profiling the details of the subjects outside of their weight, height, age, years of lifting, and maybe average performances. To me, without getting into specific anatomy, many of the conclusions show few differences because several factors may cloud the data. Coaches and athletes must know other factors that contribute to joint motion and muscle recruitment, such as technique and athlete body structure. Even injury history and type of variation of lift matter when you’re evaluating the impact of shoes on body motion. Coaches and athletes should factor in the following to see if weightlifting shoes can help:
Foot Function – The performance of the joint and muscle system of the foot can be augmented by simple elevation. Foot function is beyond the range of motion and anatomical structure; it’s the orchestration of all the components of the kinetic chain, including the nervous system.
Ankle Mobility – Gross range of motion, both passive and active, can influence lower body movement. It’s important that coaches are aware of structural or potential range of motion versus current range of motion from injury or heavy workloads. Some radiology might be necessary to fully assess low mobility scores, as not every athlete has the potential to hit above 10 degrees of dorsiflexion.
Hip Structure – Squat depth and squat safety are highly related to the hip joint. Both the structures of the acetabulum and the head of the femur will be deciding factors in the range of motion and the risks of squatting to damage surfaces of the hip joint. In an earlier article on barbell displacement, I suggested medical expertise to gauge the proper depth for each athlete, along with the proper distribution of joint stress.
Spine Architecture – The back pain hype peaked more than a decade ago, with gurus proclaiming that certain movements were bad and that the spine was some fragile set of dominoes waiting to collapse in a series. What we do know is that low back pain is far more complicated than biomechanics, but dismissing mechanical form and function is not smart either. Long torsos and bad flexibility place the spinal column in a disadvantaged position.
I have been part of many reclamation processes with severe back injuries that make herniations look like child’s play, specifically with loss of motor function or nerve damage. If a muscle doesn’t receive information from the nervous system, explaining pain with picture books and “light patient reading” isn’t going to help. Respect the back, but don’t fear loading it—just be responsible.
Injury History – In addition to the dorsiflexion mentioned earlier, other joints can be spared, such as the first metatarsal. Turf toe can restrict range of motion, but with weightlifting this likely won’t matter. Factor in all past injuries, not just those directly affecting the foot. In my experience, working around the excessive motions that a good weightlifting shoe restricts alleviates many nagging injuries.Good weightlifting shoes alleviate chronic injuries by restricting excessive motions. Click To Tweet
A sensible question that plays into squatting is how all the factors above relate to footwear, specifically the weightlifting shoe compared to something convenient, like a trainer. A safe bet is to individualize the approach and not expect dramatic differences between a regular shoe option and a pair of weightlifting shoes. Special cases are often outliers to research—this is the reason absolute conclusions are rarely helpful in high-level sport or with any population.
Do Weightlifting Shoes Change Joint Motion?
The current research is hinting that a slight incline of the rear foot will increase the tibial angle and decrease the lean of the torso. These two changes—getting a more vertical torso and less vertical tibia—are rather universal with shoes that have a heel, compared to barefoot conditions. Additionally, movement in the hip, specifically rotation of the femur, is possible with some athletes that wear minimalist shoes or no shoes at all, compared to those with a heel that raises the calcaneus up a few centimeters. Some coaches theorize that joint positions of the pelvis happen with lumbar lordosis, causing excessive hamstring recruitment, but the facts are that both the front squat and back squat usually increase flexion of the spine rather than extension.
A fair question to ask is whether the small changes are enough to spot visibly, but perhaps not large enough to see changes in performance worth talking about. In the world of sport, it’s not a game of inches—as they say in America—but millimeters. Athletes with too little space in the knee joint may not get a contract extended. With movements to the body, sometimes pathomechanics will actually be the cause of biomaterial damage (structural damage) to hard and soft tissues.
Much of the speculation in the authors’ conclusions fails to theorize the long-term benefits. Most coaches prefer deep squats and a full range of motion, and having a heel lift will improve those positions, based on the research available. The recent study of partial squats showing up in running performance can cause a coach to rethink the value of deep squatting, but the truth is that having a range of options and abilities is far more valuable than having fewer options and being painted into a corner.
Moving into external rotation will slightly change EMG and recruitment. The question is: What ripple effect will this cause with running velocity or injury patterns in speed and power sports? Many sports have athletes with low internal rotation abilities from chronic adaptations, and I have seen hip flexion patterns overload areas that may not recover fast enough, like the adductor system.
Soccer and other sports that have flared patterns of foot spacing might be a problem down the road, but injury is not just about mechanics; it’s about being prepared and resilient from managing load risk factors. Some athletes never have problems with posture and structure (as several journal articles dismantle the notion of injury and pain stemming from body position), but be careful not to dismiss some clinical expertise. A study is only specific to a population, and damaged body parts may function very well for grandpa gardening with degeneration, but be crippling for athletes trying to achieve much different tasks.
My position is very simple. If the data is conflicting in the research, why take the chance? It’s better to do extra work and know the variable can’t be a problem than to leave risk up to a coin flip. One word of caution: The mind is a very hazardous, yet robust, Pandora’s Box, so feeding it negative thoughts is a risk factor for athletes. When adjusting a body to function better, think Formula One meets regenerative body. Only so much can be done to adapt, so save the biological resources for performance and not for fighting excessive and perhaps unnecessary wear and tear. On the record, I have seen external and internal rotation changes from both shod and barefoot motions when squatting.
Do Weightlifting Shoes Change Muscle Recruitment?
Muscle activation during complex or even simple tasks like squatting isn’t clear, but two studies may shed enough light for a reasonable position on weightlifting shoes and muscle recruitment. One study lead by Sinclair and colleagues showed an increased peak activation in the rectus femoris with the running shoe compared to barefoot conditions, but not in Vibrams or weightlifting shoes. This was very strange, but a thesis from ETSU, while not comparing running shoes, showed that activation strategies were the same. EMG interpretation isn’t about the force created from muscles, so readers should not equate EMG patterns as exact relationships to recruitment.
I used EMG sometime around 1999 with the Retrainer from Chattanooga with little success, as the device was inappropriate for real research. Although no solid data was collected, years later both clinical EMG and tensiomyography use did reveal that muscle recruitment is still foggy on connecting activation and motor unit recruitment. I liked Strengtheory’s article on EMG and Hypertrophy, but adaptations that don’t elicit CSA (cross-sectional area) changes are not going to show up, even at the molecular level with genes, only because higher centers like the brain are also involved.
Some other technologies are rarely used to show muscle adaptations or changes from training, but based on current information, nothing extraordinary is happening with heel elevation. The differences may feel notable, but the changes are not going to go beyond comfort and adding visible improvements to joint motion, that we know of. If the joint motion changes the option of using an exercise, that will obviously enable different benefits. However, as far as being a game changer in muscle recruitment, the little data available hints that nothing major is happening, as the exercise motion changes in a squatting pattern aren’t significant enough to talk about.
Obviously, squatting data on EMG is all we really have for weightlifting shoes, so conventional trainers and elevated heels are also not likely to be different, but nobody can be sure yet. I think it’s wise to not worry or falsely believe that adding a pair is going to turn a skinny basketball player into “Quadzilla.”
Do Weightlifting Shoes Change Force Production?
One very interesting and resourceful study on forces and footwear looked at four different shoe conditions with force plates. I wish it included a barefoot condition and a very low-profile shoe like a minimalist shoe option, but it was very useful because it tossed in the old 2.5-pound plate technique coaches have used to encourage better squat depth. The study involved bilateral force plates, but it really focused on anterior and posterior forces of the forefoot and rearfoot. In addition to the force plates, the research team measured the core ankle mobility of the subjects: a wonderful inclusion, to say the least.
While it was with a goniometer, and perhaps done with unknown expertise, the intent of determining whether eversion, inversion, plantar flexion, or dorsiflexion range of motion contributed to the output was better than including nothing. With ankle mobility a major factor in squatting, it’s bizarre to me when researchers leave this out of their studies.
The four types of squatting conditions were only different based on the shoe used and, of course, the inclusion of a heel elevated by the weight plate. Three models of shoes were used: the cross-trainer, the high-end powerlifting shoe, and the weightlifting shoe. The fourth condition was using the cross-trainer again, only with additional elevation to the heel. A simple conclusion was reached: All of the conditions were so similar it wasn’t worth noting the differences. All four options had elevated heel positions and materials that were close enough to each other, with not enough differences to matter statistically, for the most part.In general, force transfer is about leg strength and experience more than overall shoe design. Click To Tweet
I think the outcomes were not surprising and definitely not shocking, but forces in squatting with low-level student volunteers are not what coaches want to know. Athletes, especially intermediate and advanced athletes who likely need more stability, will have increased confidence when going maximally. In general, force transfer is about leg strength and experience more than overall shoe design. Peak force in squatting will be universal between nearly all shoe types, but the way that forces move through the body is a different topic.
What About Center of Pressure and Weightlifting?
The magnitude of the change from elevating the hips in the Center of Pressure (CoP) of lifts is unknown. The CoP is used in modern podiatry and biomechanics to show how forces are likely to be transmitted from the ground up the kinetic chain. CoP can be calculated using high-resolution pressure mapping or high-fidelity force plates.
As I shared earlier from my article on force plates and pressure mapping, the data from inside a shoe is not the same as the force analysis coming from a transducer embedded in a contact plate. Force and pressure are similar, but they can’t be used interchangeably. However, they can, for the most part, tell similar stories about locomotive events like walking, running, cutting, and jumping.
The research on Olympic lifts, like the snatch or clean and jerk, is very thought-provoking. I consider two studies, published roughly 20 years apart, as landmark papers. The first is the classic Garhammer study in the early 1980s that proliferated in different forms years later with regards to the CoP in the weightlifting movement. In that study, the author was instrumental in explaining how forces move through the feet in a boomerang pattern. The second study on the snatch was less novel, but interesting because it connected the motions of the joint actions to the foot pressure pattern. The CoP not only moves back and forth, but lateral action happens due to the structure of the foot. A concluding question is: What happens differently with other shoes or barefoot?
Nobody has a good conjecture for what happens with barefoot conditions because, while some people may run or lift barefoot, very few do explosive cleans or ballistic snatches on the platform unless it’s to get views on YouTube. No theoretical benefit exists for performing those activities barefoot, so not many studies will likely come out. However, some coaches will want to know about athletic training shoes that might be a hybrid between running and weightlifting.
Based on what I have seen using the same research tools, heel elevation may change the time course of the CoP pattern—meaning what happens at different phases of the lift—but the differences are not going to be as dramatic. I sometimes see athletes having significantly different performances with barbell velocity and load from the floor, but when an athlete uses blocks or hang positions those advantages wane.
The primary changes I see with CoP are that the early forces have a longer duration, but nothing statistically long enough to merit an argument for the need for a weightlifting shoe. I saw athletes with ankle restrictions having better lumbar and upper back positions during the first pull, but it is such a small population that I would never claim it as a systemic pattern among athletes. With talus spurring and other ankle impingements, ankle dorsiflexion tends to be a problem with tall athletes or those in soccer.
While weightlifting shoes will never fix mobility, I do see many of my own athletes hit greater than 12 degrees after years between 9-10 degrees from lifting full range, while wearing the shoes. Again, this is just an observation, but full range movement is a good chronic adaptation provided it’s under control and doesn’t cause a medical pathology. Time will show sports medicine if some degeneration is caused by certain activities versus correlation (association). Much of what we see in the current literature is genetic and not caused by “faulty movements,” so mechanical damage fears need to be delicately reviewed.
Why I Changed My Mind on Weightlifting Shoes and Why You Should Care
For years, I made weightlifting shoes an option for athletes, as the costs are high for youth athletes and some athletes simply didn’t need them to get the job done in the weight room. Much of my training was complexed and contrasted, meaning it was mixed with general athletic motions like sprinting and lifting or jumping and lifting, so it was not practical to wear firm weightlifting shoes. Lately, I am finding that times of very focused work with weightlifting shoes on the platform or the rack gave us a great weightlifting experience.
Since we tend to squat after snatching or cleaning, it hasn’t been a burden with time and small differences are noticeable with athletes I train. Some athletes don’t use weightlifting shoes and have not missed out, but those that make the commitment to getting the most out of their training have never looked back. The benefits are highly individual, but most athletes with joint restrictions or impairments may find just a little lift in the heel makes it worth the investment.