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Top 5 Shoes To Wear Weight Lifting

It Makes No Sense-ory. How Our Feet Need To Feel While Lifting.

Imagine it’s dark out. No light at all.

You hear things in the dark around you, sure that something is going to jump out at you. You just want to get inside.

Your key is in your hand, you can find the lock on the door but can’t really see it. You fumble around with both hands and can feel the grooves of the keyhole.

Shoulders start tensing.

Neck gets stiff.

Heart rate is elevated.

Come on, come on…

After what seems like an eternity of fumbling around you finally manage to guide the key into the lock and get the door open. You’re inside. Safe.

Now imagine trying to open that same lock in the dark while wearing tight oven mitts.

You can’t feel, spread or articulate your fingers much less hold a key or locate the grooves of the keyhole. Stress, tension and compensation would go through the roof.

Maybe if you had a nice pair of thin gloves with no lining you’d have a shot, but with those sensory depriving oven mitts on, there’s no possible way to feel your way through it.

The things in the dark are going to get you.

Now you have an idea how your feet feel. Especially when you exercise. Think of squatting deep in the wrong kind of shoes. Yikes!

woman tying her shoelaces before a workout

Jumping In Feet First

Each foot has:

  • More than 150,000 nerve endings.
  • 26 bones and 33 joints.
  • More than 100 soft tissue structures such as muscles, tendons and ligaments.

When the foot is supple and responsive, the rest of our joints can line up more efficiently and our performance in the world is enhanced.

They are our most consistent contact with the ground and directly related to our ability to successfully beat gravity, yet they’re often our last consideration in our exercise pursuits.

We take these sensory rich marvels and wrap them in mini deprivation chambers, hiding them from the light and keeping them from touching the ground.

When was the last time you went barefoot?

If you slip your feet into house shoes or flip-flops or are never shoeless for more than the time it takes to shower or put on socks, we should talk.

That, however, is just foot for thought.

We’re here right now to talk about optimizing shoe selection and most specifically for lifting heavy things and training in gyms and fitness studios.

Get Your Feet Under You

When selecting footwear what’s your first consideration?

Fashion Forward or Function Forward?

If you’re picking shoes based on how they set off your outfit or because they looked cute on someone else (I have a friend or two who does this) it might be time to reexamine your shoe filter.

Not every shoe is appropriate for every activity. Just like a neurosurgeon wouldn’t wear a baseball mitt to operate on a brain, we shouldn’t use the wrong shoe for the wrong activity.

A great rule of thumb is if one performs a certain activity three or more times a week, it would be a good idea to have footwear specific to that activity. For that we should think Function Forward in finding the right shoe for the job.

Some shoes speak for themselves; Running shoes are for running, tennis shoes are for tennis and hiking shoes are for hiking. Others take a little more defining; cross training shoes are for lifting weights, jumping around and (very) short distance running and weightlifting shoes are (primarily) for Olympic Weightlifting.

Without a doubt, if you look at the shelves in sporting goods stores or the large number of running shoe stores, running shoes are the flashiest and most attractive members of the athletic shoe family.

If we’re doing bodyweight exercises, explosive athletic movement, direction changes or picking up heavy things, we need to branch away from the overwhelming number of running shoes out there and explore some more general fitness supportive options.

Running shoes are built for moving in essentially straight lines. Perfect for absorbing the multi-times body weight repetitive foot striking of running, they lack the lateral stability to support more extreme side to side direction changes that a cross-training shoe would offer. This lack of support can place greater stress on the soft tissue of the ankles and legs that are trying to find the ground through dense cushioning and not spill over the outsole and roll an ankle.

Young woman lifting a barbell at the gym. Fit female athlete exercising with heavy weights at cross training gym.

This degree of cushioning also minimizes our ability to produce force through the floor. In Powerlifting or Olympic Weightlifting this creates a lag or energy leak in moving the weight and could cost us the lift or worse destabilize necessary bracing to move the weight safely without injury.

This is not to bash running shoes. They’re great…for running.

Find Your Sole Mate

When we choose to pick up heavy things, we need to be able to create significant amounts of tension to sync our joints and produce the most force through the floor with the least negative impact on our bodies. Any energy leak could be costly.

We’ve already established the need to find specific footwear for specific sports, but there are even further differences within the pick up heavy things categories.

Powerlifting and Hardstyle Kettlebell Training: Both of these disciplines require a solid contact with the ground with very little movement of the feet. If not lifting barefoot, ideally our footwear would assist us in being as flat to the floor as possible with the least amount of change in height from heel to forefoot.

converse chuck taylor all stars indoor soccer shoe vivobarefoot primus lite

For this, a flatter, stiffer shoe like Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars, an indoor soccer shoe or a minimalist shoe such as Vivobarefoot Primus Lite or Vibram Five Fingers might be best.

Olympic Weightlifting: This sport requires intense force production, split second timing and force production again for barbell loads that are pulled from the floor and moved in a vertical path to overhead.

Of any sport shoe, Weightlifting shoes provide the most stable lifting base both under and around the foot. They are specially designed with an absolutely rigid sole to ensure no shoe compression or loss of force direction up from the floor, through your body and into the moving barbell.

They also have an elevated heel allowing more freedom at the ankle to hold a more upright start position with less torque on the back. They are so specific, that outside of perhaps squatting in them to increase strength relative to the postures of Olympic Weightlifting, they’re not great for anything else.

nike romaleo adidas powerlift do-win

Some popular versions are the Nike Romaleos 3, the Adidas Powerlift 3.1 and the Do-Win. The Powerlift and DoWin both offer a wider toebox for those of us with not so narrow feet.

Crossfit, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and Metabolic Resistance Training (Circuit Training): When we take up something like Crossfit with it’s great variety in movement expression we should have shoes that support direction changes, jumping and pushing sleds.

This means shoes with enough support to cushion landings, lateral support to shift sideways, stiffness for sub-maximal Olympic lift and traction to drive forward.
(Have you ever tried to push a heavy sled barefoot on Astroturf? Talk about spinning your wheels…it’s actually kinda funny…the first time.)

HIIT and Circuit Training also require meeting the demands of a broad range of patterns, like lunges, step-ups, crawling and sprinting. A generally supportive cross-training shoe or even minimalist footwear would be the better choice here. And most certainly a Cross-training shoes if you’re lacking in toe mobility or suffering from plantar issues. We want to correct those challenges, yes, but in the meantime, we should select shoes that at least give us a shot at a training effect without pain and immobility creating greater compensations.

reebok crossfit nano nike metcon new balance minimus no bull trainer

The Nike Metcon, Reebok Crossfit Nano, New Balance Minimus Trainers (different widths available) and No Bull Trainers are great choices.

If The Shoe Fits

Hopefully, it’s become clear that having a solid relationship with the ground is a big deal. The more you can find the floor, ultimately the better and safer for lifting everything heavy.

Once you’ve found the best shoes for your non-running athletic pursuits, there are still a few other things to consider.

How does it actually fit? The outsole should support the entire foot. If you’re like me and your Fred Flintstone foot spills over the side of most medium width shoes, you’re choices are going to be more limited. (I’ve worn mostly New Balance for years since they make widths or Merrell, which has a wider toe box. I haven’t been able to squeeze into a Nike in ages. I’m experimenting with Vivobarefoot and No Bull is next on my list).

You should be able to wiggle or spread your toes. Don’t just buy into the thought that they’ll stretch. (Sorry Nike, I so love the look but you cripple me). They may give over time but by then the damage is done.

You don’t want to feel like every step is pounding the ground like a sledgehammer. I’m a huge fan of barefoot training and minimalist footwear, but it takes time to adapt to that. Don’t rush in. Break into it slowly. If barefoot or minimal choices are running up against cranky toes in a lunge, I’d rather see success in footwear than failure in chasing an “ideal”.

Lastly, remember to choose Function over Fashion. It’s great if they’re stylish and match your fitness wardrobe but that should never be your first consideration. If you’re knocked off your feet by blowing a disc because you couldn’t feel the floor during a heavy squat and you lost an effective protective brace to save the lift, no one is going to care how cool your shoes look. Least of all you.

Would you like some help getting your feet under you and progressing your strength skill? Check out the next round of Essential Movement Method Workshop, September 15th and 16th at Urban Wellness Clinic.

Best in Health,

Matt Semrick