Do You Really Need Special Weight Lifting Shoes?
Powerlifting pros explain whether lifting shoes will actually improve your performance—plus, which exercises you should never do while wearing them.
If you've ever been to a CrossFit class or a gym where Olympic-style weightlifting is taught, you've probably seen weight lifting shoes before. They're colloquially known as Oly shoes, and to the unfamiliar eye, they look like weird platform wedge sneakers. In reality, they're anything but a fashion statement: accomplished powerlifters swear by them for the solid foundation and stability they provide.
But those who are newer to the sport are often unsure of whether or not they need to invest in a pair. Here, experienced lifters and coaches confess whether you really need to wear lifting shoes, and why. (In case you need more convincing to lift heavy, here’s some new scientific evidence.)
Do You Really Need Lifting Shoes?
Experts agree that if you're not looking to improve your weight lifting performance in a significant way, then you probably don't need these shoes. But if you're lifting on a regular basis and want to get better, go ahead and get yourself some—after you've learned proper mechanics and movements for your lifts. "Once you are committed to the sport and consistent in training, a good pair of weight lifting shoes will be the most important piece of equipment you need to improve performance," says Lisa Reed, C.S.C.S., owner of Lisa Reed Fitness.
They can be helpful at any level, too, regardless of how light or heavy your lifts are. "It's a common misconception that an athlete needs to be at a certain level, or lift a certain amount of weight before they get to wear lifting shoes," says Blake Shutterly, a CrossFit Level 2 trainer at Neo Fifth in NYC. "But they aren't something that needs to be earned. It's a pair of shoes!" (Related: 11 Major Health and Fitness Benefits of Lifting Weights)
What Do Lifting Shoes Do for You Biomechanically?
They won't suddenly turn you into a pro athlete, but "weight lifting shoes have a lifted heel, which will increase the ankle's range of motion, or the ability to stretch the Achilles," says Reed. So if you have a hard time sitting all the way down into a squat, they could help you achieve greater depth. (BTW, here’s a hack to ace that squat form.) "They also allow for hip flexion and extension in all of the Olympic movements," adds Reed, meaning lifting shoes may help you move through the full range of motion required for powerful lifts like squat cleans and snatches.
Lifting shoes can also help you hoist more weight, says Mat Forzaglia, C.P.T., a CrossFit coach at Neo Fifth. If you're wondering how that works, it's pretty simple: "They give you such a solid and stable surface that they allow you to generate more power in your lifts," he explains. Any sneakers with cushioning, like running shoes, allow your feet to sink into the cushion, which means you absorb some of the force that's generated when pushing out of the bottom of a lift. (Not sure powerlifting is for you? These women who do Olympic-style weightlifting will inspire you to give it a try.)
When You Shouldn't Wear Lifting Shoes
Important information alert: "Lifting shoes are only for weightlifting," says Forzaglia. That means if you're doing back or front squats, clean and jerks, snatches, or overhead squats, they'll probably help you out, and it doesn't matter if you're going for a PR or working with a lighter weight.
But Forzaglia says weight lifting shoes and deadlifts do not go together. Why? The shoes raise your heels, which means you would have to pull the bar a further distance when lifting it from the ground—and that makes it harder to actually get it off the ground. Weight lifting shoes can also shift your weight forward, making it more difficult to get into the right position for the lift. Of course, there's an exception: Some people purposely train this way to help them get stronger at their deadlifts, but Forzaglia says it should only be done under the guidance of a trainer or a coach.
Otherwise, if you're busting out a workout that involves both weight lifting and other activities (like box jumps or running, for example), Reed recommends a crossover shoe that doesn't have much cushion or a raised heel platform. And don't wear your weight lifting shoes home, or when you're going about your everyday business, says Forzaglia. Doing so means you won't reap all the benefits you can from them, and they'll wear out insanely fast. (Discover the best shoes for every workout, according to a podiatrist.)
How to Pick a Pair of Lifting Shoes
Experts say the best way to figure out which weight lifting shoes are best for you is simply through trial and error. "As much as we'd all love to have that Cinderella moment where you try on your first pair of Oly shoes and they magically fit, that's usually not the case," says Shutterly. "There are so many different kinds out there now, so there's no real way to say which are best. They're made of different materials, different heights, and different weights."
Head to a store and try out a few different kinds—Shutterly says brands like Nike, Inov-8, Risto, Reebok, and Adidas all have good options—before making a commitment. Focus on how they feel and move—you can even move through different lift positions (without the weight, obviously) to get a better idea of how they'll feel in the gym. (Up Next: These $12 Slip-On Sneakers Are About to Become the Comfiest Shoes You Own)
Ready to make a purchase? Check out these picks for the best lifting shoes: