Great, another “So, you want to get in shape? You NEED to buy (insert gimmicky fitness product here – shakeweight, belly wraps, whatever, here)” post. This post simply isn’t that – sorry. It’s about the most important and effective piece of equipment you need if you want to finally put your gym membership to good use. The title gives the product away, so I’ll relieve you from your faux suspense. I’m talking about shoes. They connect us to Mother Nature, Earth, pavement, my family’s yappy Pekingese, everything. Dr. Scholls has already drilled the health benefits of quality shoes and soles into your mind; but, far too many people still don’t know what constitutes a good gym shoe. Hopefully, I can clear that up for you. This isn’t a product placement for the newest set of Nike Airs or why you need to ditch your prized New Balance-esque dad shoes; this post is about the various types of shoes worn in the gym, their purpose, and how to identify a proper shoe for your goals.
How Your Goals Affect Your Shoe Choice
Defining Your Goal:
I am not concerned with your personal fitness goals of losing x amount of weight (generally I am, but not for the purposes of this article), I am more concerned with the style of exercise and training you want to do. I will have a “Training Styles 101” post coming soon, but for now, we can refer to the following to help determine your training goal and style.
- Powerlifting: Lifting as much weight as possible for a single rep in squat, bench, and deadlift.
- Bodybuilding: Gain size, reduce fat
- Powerbuilding: Lift like a powerlifting, look like a bodybuilder – the powerbuilding mantra.
- Olympic Weightlifting: Performing two lifts, the snatch and the clean and jerk, with the most weight possible.
- Strongman: Moving uncomfortable and large amounts of weight under various conditions and in many different styles.
- Cardio: Running for speed and/or distance.
- General Fitness: The majority of people fall under this category. A mixture of intermediate intensity and weight with periodic cardio.
- Cross-Fit: Typically focusing on powerlifting and Olympic lifts at a high intensity with the ultimate goal of slipping a disc (semi-kidding).
Heel Drop, Cushioning, and Support:
You wouldn’t wear flip-flops to an interview with a corporate-law firm. Why? The shoe doesn’t match purpose or your goals in that situation. The same theory applies to gym shoes. Heel drop (“drop”), the amount of cushioning provided by the midsole, and support and stability of the shoe help define the purpose of a shoe. It’s necessary to first understand your purpose in the gym and the goals you hope to achieve before determining what shoe to buy.
- Heel drop is most commonly discussed in the running community but is just as important in weightlifting. It refers to the difference of the sole’s difference at the heel and toe. If both the heel and toe are on the same plane, then a shoe has zero drop; if the sole is 30mm thick at the heel and 15mm thick at the toe, then a shoe has a 15 drop.
- Cushioning, though not a technical term, is used (by me) to describe the thickness and softness of the midsole. The amount of cushioning are actually two separate considerations in weightlifting but often mistakenly combined into a single consideration. A shoe with a 30mm sole can still be a zero-drop shoe simply because there’s no change in sole-width from between the heel and toe.
- Here, Support is used in reference to ankle support and snugness around the foot.
I’ve found that heel drop, cushioning, and support, while not the only factors, are the most important for gym shoes. Other facts, such as cost and materials, will usually fall in line.
Men’s and Women’s varieties are also available at Asics.com.
Recommended for: Running
Running shoes are typically characterized with a medium-to-high amount of cushioning and decent ankle support. Although not discussed in this article, recent products sporting zero-drop and minimal cushioning have risen in popularity. The rigidity of concrete and pavement creates the demand for thick cushioning in the midsole. A compressible midsole creates a degree of protection against the repetitive impact while running.
Heel drop, however, varies from zero-drop shoes all the way up to 16mm. Typically, toe runners want a shoe with minimal drop whereas heel ploppers will need a shoe with a high drop (12-16mm).
Many running shoes offer solid support around the ankle. This can prevent common ankle injuries, such as rolling and twisting. Around the foot itself, however, does not typically have the support necessary for heavy weightlifting.
Suitable for: General fitness
Individuals shopping for shoes that can do both running and some weightlifting can use running shoes but should be wary. The amount of cushioning in running shoes creates a shifting platform while lifting. Squats, deadlifts, and even bench press require a solid foundation for your feet to press into and running shoes do not provide that. The cushioning in running shoes compress and shift under your feet which can be dangerous when lifting weights. Cross-trainers are more suitable for general fitness purposes (see below).
Unsuitable for: Powerlifting, bodybuilding, powerbuilding, Olympic weightlifting, strongman, and CrossFit
Too much cushioning, not enough support, and, with the exception of Olympic lifting, the heel drop is too severe, that pretty much sums up why running shoes are not only unsuitable but dangerous for these forms of training – but why? Even more so than with general fitness, the amount of cushioning found in running shoes is wholly unsuitable for these forms of training which commonly incorporate one rep maxes and require heavy lifting. Running shoes are dangerous to use for these forms of training because they don’t allow the lifter to firmly plant him/herself on the ground. Whether performing deadlifts, clean and jerks, or yolk carries, powerlifters, Olympic lifters, and strongmen alike need a firm connection with the ground. The constant compression and shifting within of running shoes prevent that. The amount of cushioning also increases the distance that a bar has to travel for a complete rep, making them further unsuitable for powerlifting (where a common tactic is to shorten the R.O.M. as much as possible in order to be able to lift more weight).
Support is another issue for these forms of training. Various forms of training demand support beyond the ankles. Shoes also need to secure the body of your foot in order to prevent slipping within the shoe itself. This is why Olympic weightlifting shoes almost always have velcro straps across the shoe.
Recommended for: Bodybuilding, General Fitness, and CrossFit
The most common type of shoe in the gym probably falls under the category of cross trainer. It offers the best of both worlds: cushioning, support, mild and a mild heel drop. If a gym shoe could be a Jack of all trades, then it’d be the cross trainer. This is what makes them suitable for almost all types of lifting but perfect for very few. They’re perfect for the bodybuilder’s 30-minute saunter on the treadmill as well as the CrossFitter’s disc-slipping WOD.
Suitable for: Powerlifting, Powerbuilding, Strongman, and Cardio
Although cross trainers characteristics of less cushioning, snug fit for support, and a minor heel drop make them an ideal shoe for many people, they also preclude them from specialized forms of training. Powerlifting, powerbuilding, and strongman all benefit from little to no cushioning or heel drop whereas many runners prefer more cushioning and severe heel drop. Cross trainers are great shoes for many of these types of lifting, but there are far better options below.
Unsuitable for: Olympic Lifting
Sure, you may be able to complete a WOD with a 21-15-9 rep scheme for 95-pound snatches, but if you’re serious about Olympic lifting then you need to get serious about the shoes. Cross trainers are a fine starting point, but they lack the proper density, heel drop, and support throughout the foot. The most technical and specialized form of training discussed in this article is probably Olympic lifting; people train for years simply to understand and master the form. A compressible heel, shallow drop, and unsupported feet will cause minor but critical errors in your position and ability to progress through all three pulls.
Olympic Weightlifting Shoes
Recommended for: Powerlifting, Olympic Lifting, and Strongman
As the name suggests, Olympic lifting shoes are perfect for Olympic lifting. This is because of the solid, uncompressible heel and sole, the heel drop angle, and added support around the body of the foot. Having a stiff heel and sole are imperative to heavy lifting, especially during the explosive portions of Olympic lifts. The explosive force applied during heavy weightlifting is spent on compressing all materials between the lifter’s foot and the floor. The midsole of Olympic shoes is made up of incompressible materials in order to minimize this effect and maximize the explosive forces applied to the floor.
Additionally, the heel drop of Olympic weightlifting shoes creates the ability to sit into a deeper squat position than usual. The raised heel provides for more ankle mobility and an upright torso position which are extremely important for compound movements, like snatches and squats. Pair that with the strap that most, if not all, Olympic weightlifting shoes have a strap around the foot to minimize movement and shifting within the shoe and Olympic shoes are the only viable option for Olympic weightlifting.
Although the added distance between your body and the floor may slightly increase the distance the bar has to travel for powerlifting (specifically, deadlifts), some people believe the advantages this style of shoe offers for Olympic lifting translate to the world of powerlifting and strongman. Personally, I use my Olympic shoes only for squats and Olympic lifts and wrestling shoes for bench and deadlifts.
Suitable for: Powerbuilding and CrossFit
Using Olympic shoes for powerbuilding and CrossFit comes at a cost. Cross trainers are better equipped to handle the variation in weightlifting and cardio that is common in these categories. Box jumps, circuits, and cardio may be difficult with the rigid midsole and heel of Olympic shoes. I highly recommend the Reebok CrossFit Lifter 2.0, to those who are interested in this style of shoe but fall under these categories. I didn’t want to foot the hefty price tag of a solid Olympic lifting shoe and got the Lifter 2.0 on sale about a year ago and absolutely love these shoes (other than the “CrossFit” marketing all over it). These shoes offer a rigid heel with a decent amount of flexibility in the upper sole and toe area. I’m able to immediately transition into the next stage of my workout instead of changing shoes.
Unsuitable for: Bodybuilding, Cardio, and General Fitness.
Olympic shoes aren’t unsuited for these styles of lifting as much as they are unnecessary. Time under tension is a greater concern to bodybuilders than ankle mobility and their torso position. Also, the mechanical advantage created by Olympic shoes is completely unnecessary for weekend warriors/general fitness seekers. For cardio, however, these shoes are absolutely unsuitable; if you’re looking for a shoe with a high heel drop for running, just buy running shoes.
Recommended for: Powerlifting, Powerbuilding, and Strongman
Wrestling shoes are by far my favorite shoe to lift in. I don’t enjoy wearing shoes in general and I used to deadlift and squat barefoot until I decided to bite the bullet to buy a pair of $35.00 wrestling shoes. There’s a reason why wrestling shoes, specifically Matflexs (pictured above), are favored among the powerlifting and strongman community. These shoes are designed to create a solid connection with the ground in order to generate the power and leverage. Designed with no heel drop, compression, and substantial support, wrestling shoes easily transition to weightlifting. They are effective in preventing shifting within the shoe because of their snug fit through the foot and around the ankle. Also, wrestling shoes are effective for strongman training because the tread of many wrestling shoes wrap around the midsole and allow you to maintain grip during awkward positions. Apart from deadlift slippers, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better connection with the floor; sacrificing grip and support don’t warrant buying deadlift slippers instead of wrestling shoes.
Suitable for: Bodybuilding
Wrestling shoes won’t aren’t unsuitable for bodybuilding, but the lack of drop and cushioning are excessive for bodbuilding purposes.
Unsuitable for: Olympic lifting, Cardio, General Fitness, and CrossFit
Wrestling shoes aren’t ideal for Olympic lifting simply because there’s no heel-drop; Olympic lifting with wrestling shoes is possible but requires mobility beyond that of the average lifter. Also, unless you fall into the zero-drop/minimalist runner group, then stay away from wrestling shoes. They’ll most likely cause some excruciating shin splints.
Wrestling shoes aren’t necessarily unsuitable for CrossFit or general fitness purposes, but they are probably unnecessary. Both forms of training don’t require a foundation to the ground as solid as other forms of training. Consequently, gym-goers under these categories would be better served by cross-trainers.
Reference Chart and Suggested Shoes
- Recommended Use
- Suitable Use
- Unsuitable/Unnecessary Use
Note: My personal experience is the basis of each and every recommendation below. I have personally bought each shoe listed and either used them in the past or currently use them in my training.
Available at Amazon.com.
See more styles and colors at Asics.com
Available at Amazon.com
Olympic Weightlifting Shoe
Available at Amazon.com
Available at Amazon.com
Available at Amazon.com
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