Ever thought about the shoes that you wear to the gym? Of course you have. You’ve actually spent some time thinking about which shoes to wear, and you probably have a pair designated as your ‘gym shoes’. How did those shoes earn that illustrious title and serve such a noble purpose? Suitability for the task? Performance enhancement? Safety? Not usually. Comfort and looks seem to be the main criteria associated with gym shoe choice. This is a problem if your training includes any free weights at all. Most of us would never consider wearing a pair of Bruno Magli’s to play racquetball. They are built to look good, not to perform well on the court. While this may be obvious to some, many of us will make an equally poor footwear decision and wear running shoes to the gym to lift weights.
Proper footwear in the gym is important, especially if you are lifting free weights. When we lift weights we want two things to happen: (1) all the force our body produces under the bar should contribute to moving the weight and (2) the weight needs to be controlled in a safe manner. If we lift in a running shoe, it’s akin to trying to lift while standing on a giant marshmallow. The soles of the running shoes, the marshmallow, will absorb and dissipate a large amount of the force generated against the floor that should be directed towards moving the weight. A gel or air cell shoe is a great thing for reducing the impact shock that causes the repetitive use injuries associated with running. But in the weight room, shoes should provide for the efficient transmission of power between the bar and the ground. You can’t lift as much weight in the wrong shoes.
The second issue is control of the weight – and your body – while standing on an unstable surface. A compressible medium placed between the feet and the ground will behave inconsistently enough during each rep to alter the pattern of force transmission every time. This means that the subtle points of consistent good technique on any standing exercise are impossible to control. And there is an increased chance for a balance or stability loss-induced injury while lifting heavy weights, since perfect balance cannot be assured on an imperfect surface.
Weightlifters and powerlifters have known this for more than 50 years, although the shoe choices available for their purposes were formerly quite limited. Until the 1970’s, combat boots, Chuck Taylor’s, and even patent leather oxfords (see old photos of Paul Anderson) were the shoes used for lifting weights. To be stable and perform optimally, a weightlifting shoe needs to be snug fitting, provide exceptional support, and have a noncompressible wedge sole with neoprene or crepe for traction against the floor. Most will lace all the way down to the toe for adjustment to individual foot width, and will have an adjustable strap across the metatarsal area for added lateral stability. When Adidas from Germany and Kahru of Finland became available on a limited basis in the US, weightlifters finally had the opportunity to use equipment specifically designed for their activity. High topped and not especially stylish, these shoes had minimal appeal to the fashion conscious, but lifters loved them because they worked.
But there was a scheduling problem: the gym and fitness club industry had just been revolutionized by the simultaneously-evolving exercise machine industry. Having removed the factors of balance, coordination, and technique from the equation, exercise machines temporarily sidelined the development of weight training shoes. Over the past two decades, free weights and the benefits of their use have crept back into gyms and fitness clubs everywhere. The need for weightlifting shoes re-emerged without a supply beyond the stalwart Adidas corporation’s Power Perfect, Equipment, and Adistar models. Other major shoe brands like Nike, Puma, and Reebok began to experiment with weightlifting shoes. A number of foreign brands such as Do Win (China), and Power Firm (Canada), as well as the American company Safe-USA have also competed for a share of the growing US market. All these companies offer shoes that are designed for competitive weightlifting or powerlifting, but that are good for all basic lifts, especially the squat, given their exemplary support and incompressible heel design. A variety of powerlifting shoes with essentially flat soles and no heel lift, much like track flats or wrestling shoes, are also available from powerlifting equipment houses like Inzer (USA), and also work for basic exercise purposes. These shoes are less suited for squatting, since they require that you have better than average flexibility to squat in them, but they are excellent for floor work and standing exercises.
Another pair of shoes to buy? Is it really worth it? Yes. Effective training yields superior results. Safe training yields fewer training injuries. The logic is inescapable. For as little as $40 for a pair of old-school Chuck Taylor’s or as much as $170 for the state of the art Adidas shoe, you can have the right shoe for the right job. The right shoe is important for performance and safety, and for as little as half the cost of a premium running shoe, you can look and lift like a pro.
Solid sole design and micro-adjustable arch support make today’s economy lifting shoe perform on par with more expensive, stylish, and sought after premier shoes but the old standbys still work.
Article written by Lon Kilgore, PhD
Dr. Lon Kilgore is an associate professor of kinesiology at Midwestern State University (USA) where he teaches exercise physiology and anatomy. He also holds a senior faculty appointment in Exercise Science at Warnborough University (UK). He is author of two textbooks and numerous research articles on the biology of exercise. A nationally ranked weightlifter from age 13, he has extensive practical experience as an NCAA strength coach, and as coach of international caliber competitive weightlifters. He has been a member or Chair of the Sports Science Committee for USA Weightlifting since 1999, a researcher on the USOC Weightlifting Performance Enhancement Team project, and is a member of the Board of Certification for the American Society of Exercise Physiologists.