When you walk into the gym and look at the shoes people are wearing, you will see just about everything. You’ll see one person wearing thick, foamy running shoes and the next person wearing cross-training or functional fitness shoes, but when you start looking at the more advanced lifters, there seem to be two popular options.
The first option is a pair of Chuck Taylors. They are flat, very thin to the ground and a lot of people like how they feel. The second option (and what I use) is Olympic weightlifting shoes, otherwise known as lifters, squat shoes or oly shoes. Even though their name indicates they are for Olympic weightlifting, I and a lot of others find them very useful for general strength training, too! ;
The major reasons I suggest our lifters to buy or use a pair of Olympic Weightlifting Shoes are:
1. Their metatarsal strap
2. Their raised heel and
3. They have firm contact with the ground.
But, somewhere in the deep dark corners of the internet, there seems to be a rumor going around that wearing lifting shoes is cheating. Let’s dive deeper into this argument!
I think that argument needs to be broken into two different categories:
1. A person competing in weightlifting or powerlifting and
2. Your general person trying to get stronger.
But first, let’s talk about what exactly lifters are doing. A weightlifting shoe has a risen heel, which according to Sato et al., is generally around 2.5 cm higher in relation to the front of your foot.1 Lee et al. describes them as having a hard, non-compressible sole and providing a more stable platform for performing lifts such as the back squat.2
When we look deeper into some of the biomechanical benefits of lifting shoes, we need to take a look at the ankle joint.
The true ankle joint is the Talocrural joint, which is made up of your talus bone and the combination of the two bones on the lower portion of your legs, the tibia, and fibula.3 The tibia makes up a majority of the surface area of the upper portion of this joint. The major movements of the Talocrural joint, which we’ll just call the ankle joint from here on out, are dorsiflexion and plantar flexion. Dorsiflexion is bringing your foot towards your shins or your shins towards your foot. While plantar flexion is bringing your foot away from your shins or going up on your tippy-toes.
A common problem that some people have when it comes to squatting is not having the mobility to achieve enough dorsiflexion at your ankles to squat to depth. So, with the raised heel of lifters, it puts your foot into a more plantarflexed or tippy-toed position when standing. What I’ve seen this do and Lee et al. also saw this trend, too, is it allow you to squat deeper.2 Since you’re starting in a raised heel position, the athlete will be able to achieve a slightly greater squat depth before hitting their limit of ankle mobility.
Another concept that Sinclair et al. talked about when researching 3D kinematic and muscle activation of a barbell squat with different footwear was your foot movement in the frontal plane.4 The movements happening in this plane are pronation and supination, which is happening at a different joint in your ankle, but we don’t have to get into that.3
Whenever you look at a someone’s foot, you will be able to see an arch that’s created when they are standing up, but when you move your foot from side to side, that arch will decrease or increase.3
Everyone’s set arch is different, but when you’re standing up, the arch is in its closed pack position; which is just a fancy term for everything being locked into place and all the tiny bones in your foot are compacted. This is good for transferring forces from the rest of your body into the ground. But, Sinclair et al found that wearing lifting shoes does a significantly better job of keeping your foot locked into that position than squatting barefoot.4
Barefoot squatting was seen to lower your arch and spread the tarsal bones in your feet out, which is not as effective at transferring the force produced from your body into the ground. Another advantage of wearing lifting shoes is the hard, solid contact they make with the ground.2 That’s why I’m not a huge fan of someone lifting in running or walking shoes because the inch of foam under their feet compresses under load and the lifter might as well be squatting barefoot on a mattress.
So, is wearing Olympic weightlifting shoes cheating when competing in a strength sport?
My answer would be no! It’s a legal part of the game and it helps with performance. Do people say football players or baseball players are cheating because they wear cleats? No, because it’s a legal part of the sport. Another concept that often gets overlooked when discussing the benefits of a certain piece of equipment or modality is the placebo effect. I think the placebo effect plays a role in how much lifting shoes help someone. You have a pair of shoes that are made to help someone lift better if you go in with that mentality, there’s going to be some aspect of placebo. So, if you feel more comfortable and stronger wearing lifters, you should wear them, in training and on the platform! It’s not cheating!
When it comes to the general population, this is a controversial topic, but here’s my take. Let’s play out a random scenario. A random person comes in, off of the street, and can function normally throughout their daily life, but wants to get stronger. They go to squat and they just can’t squat all the way down for some reason or just feel very uncomfortable. You change up some positional stuff and give them some cues to think about and still nothing. But you throw a pair of shoes on them and it fixes the problem and they just feel more confident throughout the movement.
I don’t see why you wouldn’t use those shoes!
I understand everyone doesn’t have to squat all the way below parallel, but still, what are you going to do? Not let them squat or waste precious training time stretching? We need to get our athletes doing big, compound movements like squats and deadlifts. If we can use a different pair of shoes and get them feeling more comfortable with a specific movement, I think that is more time-effective than trying to get a few more degrees of ankle range of motion. We need to shift our mindset from a “you need this much ROM at this joint and this much at this that joint” to what activities does this person want to do? Do they have the mobility to do those activities? Okay, let’s get them stronger through those ranges of motion!
Overall, no pair of shoes that you could wear should be considered cheating, unless that pair of shoes is against a rule or regulation in the sport that you are competing in. For the everyday lifter, squatting or any other exercise is a very specific task and making claims that doing those exercises in a certain type of shoe is cheating yourself, is a very bold claim. I think you need to find what shoes work best for you and put you in a position to train consistently and pain-free so you can continue getting stronger regardless of if you’re a powerlifter or just doing it for fun!
- Sato K, Fortenbaugh D, Hydock DS. Kinematic changes using weightlifting shoes on barbell back squat. Journal of strength and conditioning research. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22201687. Published January 2012. Accessed August 3, 2019.
- Lee S-P, Gillis C, Ibarra JJ, Oldroyd D, Zane R. Heel-Raised Foot Posture Do Not Affect Trunk And Lower Extremity Biomechanics During A Barbell Back Squat In Recreational Weightlifters. Journal of strength and conditioning research. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28644193. Published June 19, 2017. Accessed August 3, 2019.
- Neumann DA, Kelly ER, Kiefer CL, Martens K, Grosz CM. Kinesiology of the Musculoskeletal System: Foundations for Rehabilitation. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier; 2017.
- Sinclair J, McCarthy D, Bentley I, Hurst HT, Atkins S. The influence of different footwear on 3-D kinematics and muscle activation during the barbell back squat in males. European journal of sport science. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25331484. Published 2015. Accessed August 3, 2019.