The right pair of lifting shoes can drastically enhance biomechanical efficiency and subsequent performance. Unfortunately, with countless shoes to choose from and contradictory recommendations coming from every which way, it’s difficult to know which kicks are best for your individual needs and goals.
To eliminate the confusion, this article will outline the pros and cons of the most popular training shoes and provide you with the necessary information to make a well informed purchase.
To kick things off let’s start with the most frugal and readily available option: barefoot training.
Training sans shoes has recently become a popular fad among a variety of fitness enthusiasts. While supporters claim it’s better for strengthening the foot and preventing overuse injuries, others question the inherent benefits and understand that it may be good for some but not for others.
Personally, I tend to agree with the latter group in that barefoot training certainly has its own unique advantages but it certainly isn’t the end-all be-all of training for performance.
- Barefoot training facilitates an efficient force transfer between the ground and the feet. Without any padding between the sole of the foot and the ground, little to no energy is lost making it ideal for lifts such as the Conventional Deadlift.
- Training barefoot may force the lifter to use the small, intrinsic muscles of the feet to a greater extent than they would while wearing shoes. In some cases this could lead to improved performance and/or decreased risk of injury.
- As most shoes provide a heel lift, we often find ourselves in some degree of plantar flexion which may contribute to tight calves and decreased ankle mobility. By removing the heel lift and training barefoot we can restore our ankle mobility by improving dorsiflexion range of motion.
- After wearing shoes for years on end, jumping into barefoot training can be stressful and possibly even dangerous. As such, it would be prudent to start slow and progressively work your way into barefoot training. If you do too much too fast you’ll likely negate all benefits and sustain an overuse injury.
- Some lifts – such as the Squat – benefit from a slight heel lift by creating a mechanical advantage. In removing the heel lift and training barefoot we simultaneously remove the mechanical advantage potentially making it more difficult to achieve proper depth.
When is Barefoot Training Most Beneficial?
The best times to train barefoot are listed in no particular order of importance below:
- During the Warm-up: The warm-up is, in my opinion, the ideal time to train barefoot. By removing our shoes and performing a variety of bodyweight drills we can glean all the benefits of barefoot training without worrying about overdoing it.
- Bilateral Lower Body Strength Training: Bilateral lower body lifts (i.e. Squat and Deadlift variations) are also appropriate for barefoot training. I’d note, I prefer to use Chuck Taylors (discussed later) but if you don’t want to spend the extra money, or you simply favor barefoot training, that’s totally fine as well.
With the advent of footwear like the New Balance Minimus and Vibram 5 Finger, minimalist shoes have recently become all the rage. Given the right circumstances I’m a fan of minimalist shoes as well but, as with most things in life, there are pros and cons which must be considered.
- The greatest aspect of minimalist footwear is that it offers most (if not all) of the same benefits as barefoot training minus the dangers associated with being shoeless. For example, minimalist shoes reduce heel lift and improve ankle mobility while simultaneously protecting the sole of the foot. If you want the advantages of training barefoot without risking unnecessary cuts/injuries, minimalist footwear is definitely the way to go.
- I’ve tried several versions of minimalist shoes and, compared to barefoot training, they provide much better traction. I found this to be particularly helpful when performing wider stance lifts (such as the Sumo Deadlift) when I need adequate friction to maintain proper form throughout the movement.
- As noted above, minimalist shoes provide just enough cushion to safeguard the feet from unnecessary cuts. Best of all, the thin cushion minimizes energy leaks which likely enhances performance.
There aren’t many bad things to say about minimalist shoes but I’ve listed a couple of my pet peeves below.
- My foremost grievance with minimalist footwear has nothing to do with the shoes and everything to do with the dogmatic advocates. It goes without saying that minimalist shoes provide numerous benefits and are a great option for a variety of individuals, but they aren’t the best option for everyone and definitely shouldn’t be treated as such.
- While most minimalist footwear is comfortable, some models haven’t received the greatest reviews. The Vibram 5 Finger, for example, is often criticized for its design and, specifically, the spacing for each individual toe.
When is Wearing Minimalist Lifting Shoes Most Beneficial?
The best times to train in minimalist shoes are listed below:
- All the Time: Minimalist shoes can be used for more or less every type of training. Keep in mind, however, that minimalist shoes aren’t always the best option. Rather, they tend to be a great alternative for those interested in an all-encompassing shoe.
Popularized by Powerlifter’s and strength enthusiasts, Converse All Stars (i.e. Chuck Taylors) represent the single best shoe for improved Squat and Deadlift performance. All things considered, they aren’t the most versatile but, when it comes to lower body strength work, nothing beats a slick pair of Chucks.
- Similar to barefoot and minimalist shoes, the flat soles on Chuck Taylors allow for an efficient force transfer directly into the ground.
- The combination of flat soles, high tops, and a relatively large base of support provides extra stability and specifically helps to maintain proper form during wide stance variations of the Squat and Deadlift.
- The bottoms of Chuck Taylors are somewhat sticky and consequently do a great job of gripping the floor. This is particularly helpful during wide stance Squat and Deadlift variations which require you to “spread the floor apart” as it prevents slipping and encourages proper technique.
- High tops restrict ankle movement and overtime may negatively affect ankle mobility.
- Chuck Taylors aren’t the most versatile shoe. While they’re great for most bilateral lower body strength movements, they’re pretty crappy for anything involving change of direction or single-leg work. If you’re going to use Chuck’s you’ll most likely need a pair of cross trainers as well.
- Some lifters find that Converse All Stars actually inhibit Squat performance because they don’t provide a mechanical advantage as they lack a heel lift. That being said, this usually pertains to those who Squat with a close stance.
When is Wearing Chuck Taylors Most Beneficial?
The best times to train in Chuck Taylors are listed below:
Bilateral Lower Body Training: Converse All Stars are great for pretty much all bilateral lower body movements such as variations of the Squat and Deadlift. That being the case, if you consider yourself a Powerlifter and/or plan on competing I highly recommend investing in a nice pair of high tops.
Olympic Lifting Shoes
At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, Olympic Lifting shoes are a ideal for individuals who compete in Olympic lifting. If you aren’t a competitive weight lifter they certainly aren’t necessary but, if your training revolves around the Olympic lifts, they might be worth the investment.
- As previously discussed, the raised heel in Olympic Lifting shoes provides a mechanical advantage which makes achieving proper depth and maintaining a vertical torso much easier to accomplish.
- The raised heel in Olympic Lifting shoes is very hard and doesn’t allow for any type of compression. As a result, there is an efficient force transfer between the foot, shoe, and the ground which can drastically enhance performance.
- The main issue with Olympic Lifting shoes is they, like Chuck Taylors, are not versatile. They are specifically made for Olympic Lifting and may actually impede performance in other movements.
- The other issue with Olympic Lifting shoes is their price. Unlike Chuck Taylors, Oly shoes tend to be very expensive and a good pair can cost you upwards of $100.
When is Wearing Olympic Lifting Shoes Most Beneficial?
The best times to train in Olympic Lifting Shoes are listed below:
- Olympic Lifting: This is obvious and doesn’t need much explanation. When training any variation of the Olympic Lifts (i.e. Squats, Snatches, Cleans, Jerks, etc) Oly shoes will be in your best interest.
In recent years running shoes have received a great deal of criticism. While some professionals consider running shoes unnatural and possibly even dangerous, when it comes to strength training they can actually be pretty damn useful. Granted, they definitely aren’t my first choice of performance enhancing footwear but they do have their own unique set of benefits which make them worthy of consideration.
- Most running shoes have a heel lift which, as mentioned earlier, can create a mechanical advantage when performing certain variations of the Squat. While I certainly wouldn’t recommend them to competitive weight lifters, running shoes are fine for the general strength enthusiast.
- As a shorter lifter (I’m 5’4”) I prefer to wear running shoes during the Bench Press as the thick cushion shortens the distance to the floor and makes it easier for me to use leg drive effectively.
- They’re called running shoes for a reason – they’re designed for running and other related high impact movements! If your training includes sprinting, jumping, or even sled work I highly recommend investing in a nice pair of running shoes as few others will provide the necessary support and protection.
- While the heel lift may provide a mechanical advantage, it comes at the expense of an inefficient force transfer. Since the heels of running shoes are designed to absorb high ground reaction forces, it limits our ability to transfer force directly into the ground during movements like the Squat and Deadlift.
- Because of the heel lift our bodyweight is pitched forward towards the balls of our feet and our toes. As a result, when Squatting and Deadlifting it’s easy to fall out of position and place excessive stress on the knees and/or low back.
When is Wearing Running Shoes Most Beneficial?
The best times to train in running shoes are listed in no particular order of importance below:
- High Impact Lower Body Training: As noted above, if you plan on sprinting, running, jumping, or performing any other high impact lower body movements I highly recommend investing in a nice pair of running shoes.
- Upper Body Training: Pretty much any shoe will work for upper body training but I prefer running shoes as I find them to be the most comfortable and least expensive option.
- Non-Competitive Strength Training: Competitive lifters would do well to find shoes most specific to their individual needs and goals. Non-competitive lifters, however, can wear running shoes during most (if not all) of their strength training.
Investing in the right pair of training shoes may drastically enhance movement efficiency and subsequent training performance. Whatever constitutes the “best” shoe, however, is almost solely dependent on individual preferences and goals. Using the information provided above you can make a clear plan of action and analyze your personal needs to determine which shoe is best for you.
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