By: Ashley Henriques, Vida Integrated Health
Ah, shoes. Throughout time shoe function has evolved from basic foot protection to highly researched wearable technology. Companies promise improved performance via thermoplastic polyurethane foam, air cushion pockets, and microengineered flyknit. However, since the time of bellbottom jeans weightlifting shoes have not changed much in design. When participating in CrossFit, it is common to see a variety of shoes, but what makes one shoe more superior than another? The goal of this blog is to give you some basic history and science concepts of how weightlifting shoes can possibly be of benefit.
We’re going back to the start…
Back in the early to mid 1900’s sneakers and boxing shoes were the rage for weightlifting competitions. When the clean, jerk, and snatch technique first started to be tested in competitions lifters used the “splitter” technique to better receive the bar. Thank goodness we do not lift like this besides a split jerk or else I would be really tempted to yell out SUPERSTAR when catching the bar!
It was not until Pete and Jim George popularized the squatting technique that changed weightlifting as we know it. The squat proved to be more efficient for moving and catching heavy weight, however the demands of this position were much different than the “splitter” technique. To meet the new demands of the squat position, participants started experimenting with different types of footwear, which lead to the eventual birth of the weightlifting shoe.
Differences of the weightlifting shoe – claims vs. research
The weightlifting shoe has several characteristics that make it stand out from the crowd, including a very firm and rigid sole, a raised heel, and extra support straps. They are typically used for cleans, snatches, squats, and jerks. The major theories behind weightlifting shoes include:
1. Firm sole helps to improve force transfer between feet and the floor, thus less energy lost if you were to wear soft-soled running shoes.
2. Straps to help improve mid foot stability and control, meaning less foot sliding.
3. Heel lift helps improve squat depth and helps the athlete achieve upright posture.
What is not to love , right!?!?
Research says hold on one second, Oprah.
Research has been completed on a number of topics including force production, kinematics, muscle recruitment, weight distribution, back injury prevention, and like most topics the results are pretty mixed. Research on this topic usually compares weight lifting shoes to barefoot or running shoes, and only slight improvements in upright torso, squat depth, and quad recruitment have been demonstrated. Now, there are always limitations in research, especially with design constraints, we cannot hang our hat on research alone but I think it is safe to say buying weightlifting shoes will not automatically make you a better lifter.
If you really want to nerd out I would suggest watching this video which demonstrates the relationship between the torso, femur length, tibia length and how these lengths can influence how hard the hip vs. knee has to work against gravity. At minute 4:40 the video explains very clearly how wearing a heel lift can set off a chain reaction to increase the demand at the knee vs. the hip.
Since weightlifting shoes will hypothetically increase the demand at the knee, if you have a history of meniscus issues, it is likely not the shoe for you.
So… how do I know it is right for me?
There are several factors to consider before taking the plunge to buy weightlifting shoes. The reality is the decision to use weightlifting shoes is highly individualized due to mobility, stability, bony anatomy and personal preference.
1. Poor ankle mobility
In the deepest part of the squat, the ankle needs to have a large amount of dorsiflexion (top of foot coming towards the front of the shin). A quick and easy test to check yourself is to kneel facing a wall, place your fist against the wall, your toe against the other side of your fist, and see if you can easily touch your knee to the wall without your heel lifting up. If you do have poor ankle mobility issues, lifters can help, but you better be working on improving that ankle motion anyway!!
2. You have difficulty keeping the torso upright and the barbell over the middle of the foot throughout the lift.
If the ankles and hips have been ruled out for mobility concerns, excessive bending forward is usually caused by lack of control of the core / hip complex. Depending on your bony anatomy, long femurs (the thigh bones) can also cause excessive bending forward. If you have a history of back issues, do not feel comfortable in a deep squat, have pinching in the front of the hips, it could be a good idea to wear lifters to keep a more upright trunk.
3. If you feel stronger, more confident in weightlifting shoes.
Maybe your ankles, core, femurs are all just fine, but you are still curious. Ask to try on a pair of shoes at the gym, or throw some 5# plates under your heels. Do you feel more efficient with a squat? Do you feel more upright? Are you willing to spent $100-200 on an extra pair of shoes? Depending on your goals and how heavy you are aiming to lift, a pair of lifters can help you feel more confident with strength days.
Thanks for reading! If you have mobility concerns or issues with technique, talk to your coaches or myself for drills that can help you improve. If you have pain during or after lifts, consider making an appointment for a physical therapy evaluation to dive into why this may be occurring, and to learn how to modify lifts to keep you participating safely!