Strength training is all about producing force. The more force you can produce in the weight room, the greater your chances of transferring that strength to the field of play. Believe it or nor, the footwear you wear plays a signficant role in your force production. A solid foundation begins from the ground up, and footwear can alter the response you see in training.
A Solid Foundation
One way to create a solid foundation is to wear weightlifting shoes. Let’s take a look at the Back Squat. As you load your spine, the force is transferred to the ground, which acts as a counterbalance to propel your body back upward. In the case of the Back Squat, the ground actually works in your favor to help you produce higher rates of force.
Imagine building a house. The first thing you are going to do is lay the foundation. If that foundation is weak, the whole house is at risk for structural issues. Training is very similar. To put yourself in a position for success, your foundation must be structurally sound.
Most athlete development programs are built around the Squat or pulling variations that require the athlete’s feet to be placed firmly on the ground. With so many sets and reps of core lifts being performed, it makes sense to invest in a shoe that will aid in the performance of these movements, such as a weightlifting shoe.
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Weightlifting Shoes vs. Running Shoes
Many athletes train in running shoes. Even more popular now are minimalist shoes. Running shoes are named appropriately. They are to be worn while logging miles on the track or cross country course. They are built to absorb the force associated with each foot strike. As force is applied to the sole of the running shoe, it compresses. In the weight room, you want to be able to transfer that force into the ground rather than absorb it. This allows you to push into the ground with more force, thereby increasing your ability to pull the bar higher on your Olympic lifts or transfer the force back into the barbell when you drive out of the bottom portion of the Squat.
Because of their raised heel design, weightlifting shoes serve to increase the range of motion at the ankle, thereby keeping a more consistent torso angle at the bottom of the Squat. A consistent torso angle permits a smoother transfer of force back through your body and into the barbell while minimizing anterior and posterior displacement. These shoes also provide increased support to all areas of the foot, allowing you to strap your feet in, creating more stability and minimizing inversion or eversion of the ankle. Compared to running shoes, weightlifting shoes are more consistent in their response to the load from the barbell. This allows you to sit back into the Squat, rather than leaning forward and producing more forward trunk lean.
Studies have suggested that weightlifting shoes can improve Squat performance compared to running shoes. One such study in 2010 stated: “Lifters demonstrated significantly more peak ankle flexion and significantly less combined anterior bar and posterior hip displacement when wearing weightlifting shoes as compared to running shoes. This suggests that weightlifting shoes allow for the more vertical shank position and erect posture during squatting that strength coaches recommend.”
When learning to Squat properly, one cue many coaches use is to keep the torso upright, which will allow you to sit into your heels. This creates a more stable position, maximizing force output.
Compensation for Poor Ankle Mobility
Poor ankle mobility is another limiting factor in the Back Squat, since it can cause a decrease of range of motion on the downward movement. Since the soles of weightlifting shoes are slightly raised, they compensate for poor ankle mobility. A 2012 study found increased peak angle flexion and significantly less combined anterior bar and posterior hip displacement in athletes wearing weightlifting shoes compared to traditional running shoes, meaning the athletes’ overall technique was more sound.
Training is about placing your body in the best position for success. If you are a baseball player, you do not expect to take the field without wearing baseball cleats. The same goes for weightlifting. Based on the available research, weightlifting shoes can best be used by those who are prone to displaying a forward trunk lean and aim to increase knee extensor activation.
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