In gym circles, debates over gear like weightlifting belts, gloves or shoes can get ugly. Either they're a crutch or you're a fool for not wearing them. But like belts, weightlifting shoes can help in some cases, but in others they're just for show. The key is figuring out your needs, and your goals.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
If you run, you get a pair of running shoes that fits and feels comfortable when you run. For most people, those same running shoes will be fine for casual weight lifting, too. But if you want to lift heavy weights and are pretty serious about getting stronger, you want shoes that help you maintain a firm, stable stance on the floor. For example, the classic Converse Chuck Taylors are a popular choice among seasoned lifters. Chucks are not exactly weightlifting shoes, but they are ideal for lifting weights. They're flat and low to the ground, have decent traction and support your feet. When you do certain exercises like squats, deadlifts and overhead presses, where you need to "push through your heels", these features help you use your energy more efficiently to lift the bar up.
Olympic weightlifting shoes follow a similar pattern: They have a hard, flat sole that protects your feet and provides solid traction to keep them from slipping. They feature all-around stiffness and a raised heel, which makes your heel sit usually 2.5cm higher than your forefoot. All of this together creates a snug foundation for your feet to push against (similar to how you push your abs against a weightlifting belt) and do very specific exercises safely and with more stability.
But not everyone needs them. Whether you use weightlifting shoes depends on the kind of lifting you do. If your workouts involve Olympic lifts, heavy squats, deadlifts and overhead presses and you want to get as strong as possible in these exercises for competition, then you would benefit from wearing weightlifting shoes. In fact, one study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research observed that weightlifting shoes had a positive impact on how someone squats. In the study, the researchers had 20 experienced trainees squat in their own cushioned running shoes and then again in provided weightlifting shoes. A few key findings arose from this study: Subjects who wore weightlifting shoes were able to maintain a more upright and "ideal" squat position, which reduces stress on the lower back, and weightlifting shoes allowed subjects to use more leg muscles during the squat. Taken together, this suggests that people can squat safer, with better form, and gradually build stronger legs while wearing weightlifting shoes.
Weightlifting shoes can also be useful for people with limited flexibility in their ankles or really long femurs, both of which make squatting more difficult. If you're six feet (182cm) or taller or just have mobility issues and want to squat, the shoe's heel lift can help with your squat. JC Deen, a personal trainer from Nashville, told me:
Weightlifting shoes are unnecessary for most people, but they do help you sink into a better-looking squat because of the shoe's raised heel, which allows you to sit more upright and increases your ankle's range of motion. However, shoes can be on the expensive side, so if you're not keen on paying a few hundred bucks on shoes that you'll only wear a few times per week, you can always elevate your heels by propping them up on a sturdy piece of plywood, or some 2.5 or 2kg plates.
As Deen pointed out, weightlifting shoes are quite the investment. Big-name shoe companies like Nike, Reebok and Adidas all make weightlifting shoes, all of which can cost $100 to $400 a pair. Those pricey shoes would be worth it if you compete or plan on competing. The shoe's benefits can also be psychological: If you believe you can lift more weight with them on, then you very well could.
If you're a casual lifter or, like most people, on a budget, then you can do without special weightlifting shoes or try more affordable alternatives. Those Chucks we mentioned are something to consider if you don't already own a pair. I've even seen people lift pretty comfortably in minimalist footwear like Vibram FiveFingers or the less cushiony Nike Free. These shoes still have some protection and aren't as stiff as weightlifting shoes, but they have a lightweight design that let you "feel the ground" better when you lift. And still others go barefoot, but I wouldn't recommend that because it isn't safe, and let's be honest here, it's really gross.
While weightlifting shoes can enhance some of your lifts for the reasons we talked about, the shoes themselves don't automatically fix underlying problems. If poor form, mobility or flexibility are your issues, you should focus on improving those and use the shoes as a supplementary tool, not a quick fix.