You wouldn’t play basketball in hiking boots or go running in baseball cleats, so why would you perform Squats and Deadlifts in high heels?
“But I’m not,” You say. “I’m wearing my gym shoes.”
Well, news flash: Your “gym shoes” are probably the wrong shoes for lifting weights. And if you’re hitting the gym in thick-soled shoes designed for basketball, running or “cross training,” it’s not that different from working out in a pair of red pumps–you know, the kind your mom wears to work.
As much as you love her, you don’t want to look like your mom in the gym. Here’s how to find the right type of footwear for your weight room workout and avoid lacing up with kicks that can hamper your strength routine.
Take a look at the side of your shoe. See that line of foam between where your foot rests inside the shoe and the ground? That’s the midsole. In many shoes, midsoles can be 30 millimeters thick in the heel, meaning your foot is more than an inch off the ground.
Elevating the heel decreases the amount of muscle activation your lifts produce in your lower legs and feet. During big standing movements like Squats, Deadlifts and Presses, the muscles in your feet are especially important. Your feet need to grip the floor, and for them to do so, you need to engage the muscles in your calves, hamstrings and gluteals. By placing your feet off the ground in cushioned shoes, you restrict that muscle engagement.
Having a larger cushion underfoot can also create a slightly unstable surface for your body, placing you off balance as you lift. So when you’re looking to lift, steer clear of footwear with thick or wide midsoles.
When it comes to weightlifting shoes, less is more. The more ground contact you have with your feet, the more force and muscle stimulation you can generate. So it’s a good idea to invest in a pair of “minimalist shoes” (see Minimalist Shoes: A Beginner's Guide), which bring your feet closer to the ground. Many professional weightlifters train in Converse Chuck Taylors, ultra-thin New Balance Minimus shoes, or Vibram’s FiveFingers—those “toe shoes” you may have seen your hippie friend running in. Some lifters even train with no shoes at all; but not every gym allows barefoot training. (Read "Barefoot" Training: Proceed With Caution.)
Another option: professional weightlifting shoes. They're a little harder to find, but they provide only a slight elevation of the heel, a subtle upward tilt that can improve your performance in exercises like Squats and Cleans without throwing your body off balance or reducing muscle stimulus in your lower legs.
The bottom line: the right shoe for your workout is the one that provides protection from the ground without over-cushioning the underside of your foot. You want to be comfortable and mobile enough to handle all of the movements in your workout. Don’t be afraid to shop at several stores until you find the footwear that’s right for you. (For reviews of top training shoes, check out STACK’s Lifestyle page.)