Are You Wearing the Right Shoes for Squatting?
If you’ve ever been to a CrossFit or powerlifting gym where Olympic lifting is taught, chances are you’ve seen people wearing weightlifting trainers. These shoes go by many different names, and to the uninitiated, they look like weird wedge trainers with a platform shoved in the heel.
The reality is that squat trainers can be an invaluable asset for the stability and foundational support they provide.
If you’re new to Olympic lifting, or if you’re wondering whether or not a squat trainer is worth the money, you’re not alone. It’s one of the most common questions about Olympic lifting. Let’s take a look at what these shoes can do for you and if you even need them in the first place.
Weightlifting trainers have been around for a long time – used mainly by competitive Olympic lifters and powerlifters to assist in squat depth. Compared to standard trainers, these shoes are generally heavier, with a flat sole, some Velcro strap, and a raised heel. The heel is made from hard, non-compressible material – typically some sort of composite plastic.
Back in the day, heels were made from wood, but you’d be hard-pressed to find wooden soles these days. If you ever manage to happen upon a pair of wooden-soled trainers, grab them! There’s nothing like the sound of a wooden heel striking a wooden platform. But more on platforms and flooring later. For now, let’s take a look at squat shoes in-depth and try to answer the question, “Do weightlifting shoes really make a difference?”
Why Do I Need a Weightlifting Shoe?
If you’ve been following our series on squat mobility and depth, you’ll know already that one of the deciding factors in a powerful squat is the ability to get to your spine’s version of parallel. Once there, driving up with force and control helps you execute the lift properly.
For those who don’t have fantastic flexibility in their ankles and knees, or for anyone who has shallow hip sockets, an Olympic trainer can help augment the mechanical angles at the bottom of the squat position. Let’s unpack that because it probably warrants a micro-lesson on anatomy.
The raised heel of a squat shoe means your ankle has to perform less dorsiflexion. Dorsiflexion is just a fancy word for raising your foot toward your shin in an upward direction.
So, when you have on a pair of weightlifting trainers, your ankle has to flex less to reach the bottom of your squat. That’s not to say that these shoes make dorsiflexion easier, just that it reduces the amount of flexion required for the movement. By changing the angle of your foot, it makes the flexion easier.
The weight and flatness of squat trainers also help to increase your stability. These shoes help you lock in and feel rooted to the ground – critical when you’re trying to push the earth from beneath you and drive up on a heavy lift.
Other Types of Shoes
You might see people attempting to squat barefoot, assuming that without a shoe, their squat form might somehow be better than it was before. While it’s true that it might help improve balance if you’re lifting lift and working on technique, the advantages completely disappear once you start lifting heavy.
Taking away the sole of the shoe that acts as interference between you and the ground might help you learn to stabilise and engage more. That’s an advantage if you’re brand new to barbell lifting and want to feel the movement. But for any serious training, there’s no real benefit from squatting barefoot. It might lead to injury instead.
Wearing no shoes doesn’t help improve form unless you’re a person who never wears shoes. In which case, it’s probably very comfortable for you to squat shoe-less. For the rest of us, when attempting to squat shoe-less, the following things happen.
Barefoot squatting increases the muscle activation of the tibialis anterior. This muscle is involved in the dorsiflexion of the foot and helps you maintain balance. The increased activation of this muscle is likely because there’s a decrease in stability while lifting barefoot.
When you have a lot of weight loaded on the bar, the very last thing you want is unsure footing. It’s more likely to happen if you’re attempting to squat barefoot than in a pair of trainers. Remember that the more weight on the bar, the more your foot needs to be securely supported.
Without support from the arch of the shoe, you’re at risk of losing your balance. You might lean on the ball of your foot and not push from your heels, which can ultimately lead to failed reps.
Another alternative to squat shoes is to wear zero drop shoes. This is a type of shoe where the heel is at the same height as the ball of the foot. It helps to mimic how you stand without shoes on. Since most of us wear shoes that have a heel drop, our feet become inflexible and less strong over time. Shoes act like casts on feet, so zero drop will help keep feet in their natural position.
Posture and overall alignment tend to improve in zero drop shoes since they’re more stable and help increase balance. The stability that comes with wearing zero drop shoes makes them a good choice for functional fitness athletes who need to perform many different types of movements in a single training session. They’re never going to take the place of a good pair of squat trainers, though since they do very little to concerning arch support and foot stability inside the shoe.
The very last kind of shoe you want to wear while squatting is the same pair that you wear to run a 5k. Running trainers are meant to roll to the ball of your foot, which is the exact opposite movement you want while squatting.
A Raised Heel Is Going to Change the Way You Squat
Squat trainers shift the emphasis of a squat from your hips to your legs. That doesn’t mean your hips totally come out of play. Relative to squatting in zero-drop flat bottomed shoes, heeled shoes mean you use your hips a little bit less. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on your goals.
If you’re trying to get as strong as possible, then focusing on your largest muscle groups is key. That probably means wearing squat trainers if your leg muscles are strong and wearing them until your hip musculature develops. If your goal is shoring up your weaknesses, then you should focus on your weakest muscle groups. So, in that instance, wearing flat shoes might be better.
A heeled shoe is going to change the way you squat because the heel acts as a counterbalance for whatever is on the barbell. It helps to keep your centre of gravity more neutral. Whether or not this is critical depends largely on your own goals.
Hip mobility, ankle and knee flexibility, and proper breathing are all important when you’re squatting. One part of the body that often gets overlooked is your feet and how they contribute to the success or challenges of lifting heavy with proper form.
The foot has over 25 bones and four different joints, making it capable of lots of different kinds of movement. Since a secure foot is integral to a quality squat, it’s imperative that you create stability at the foot. This means having a neutral arched position.
Arches and Width
Flat arches often lead a knee to track inward, essentially caving in on heavy squats. This can cause injury, obviously, but can also decrease the amount of weight you’re able to push successfully.
Addressing flat feet with strengthening exercises is important, but the progress is often slow and takes a while. If you have anatomical structural issues like that, they’re always going to exist, no matter how much you shore up your weakness.
So, choosing shoes that have good arch support can help offset the flatness of the arch. Squat shoes tend to have excellent arch support, making them a good choice for anyone who has this anatomic issue.
Next, the width of your feet significantly factors into squat trainer purchasing decisions. If your shoes are narrow and your feet are wide, it’s going to be tough to find a shoe that allows you to push your feet out against the sidewall. In time this can lead to improper recruitment of the posterior chain on compound lifts, which will eventually lead to significant deficiencies and injury.
How to Squat in Weightlifting Shoes?
Since wearing squat trainers changes the range of motion of the foot and ankle, they also help with producing as much force as possible to help you get up off the ground.
The elevated heel will allow you to get deeper into your squat, with your knees tracking out. Increased ankle flexibility means the load of the bar is evenly displaced throughout your body, not just at pivotal joints. People with tight ankles will benefit from wearing squat trainers – especially if they’re unconcerned with working on flexibility and mobility issues.
Squat shoes come with straps that help feel your foot snug and secure, making it easier to hold a squat at depth. This is instrumental in working on the drive up since more power and force means more strength.
When Should You Use Squat Shoes?
Just like all other gear, squat trainers are a tool that can be used effectively. Or they can turn into a crutch that prevents true growth. Before you consider wearing weightlifting trainers, make sure you know how to squat. What this means is that you’ve been squatting long enough that you could squat with the perfect form with your eyes closed.
Why Is This Important?
Well, if you’re still learning to squat, you haven’t developed enough muscle memory to benefit from squat trainers. Even more importantly, there’s important proprioceptive feedback that squat shoes might cover-up. The most important reason to know how to squat before donning a pair of Olympic trainers is that you never want to use gear to cover up mobility or flexibility issues.
In short, trying to wear shoes to cover up your inability to reach your version of parallel will only cause problems later. A raised here essentially trades flexibility required for a balance requirement. It’s generally easier to develop flexibility than it is to perfect your balance.
If this even remotely sounds like you, then consider learning proper form before letting your ego guide your purchases.
But, if you can squat well already, then it’s still a great idea to have a pair of squat trainers in your gym back. Even still, it’s a good idea to use these shoes sparingly. Most of your slow lifts that require control and measures movements might be slightly easier when you’re wearing a squat shoe. If you’re not even remotely training for a competition, it might behoove you to stick to zero-drop shoes instead. The trade-off here is that when you’re wearing a squat trainer, you’re going to spend less time in full ankle dorsiflexion, something that will ultimately be a detriment in the end.
If you’re working your way through fast lifts like snatches and clean and jerks (and all their variations), then a squat trainer will be invaluable. They allow you to catch the barbell with stability. These shoes will help you feel locked in on the floor, helping you execute the lifts and helps you from overcompensating on other joints.
Keep in mind that much of this is largely dependent on the type of training you enjoy. If you’re a standard bodybuilder whose primary goals are aesthetics, then there might not be a benefit to purchasing squat shoes. If you’re experimenting with Olympic lifts as part of functional fitness training, then squat shoes might be worth it. Powerlifters generally benefit from squat trainers. So make sure you’re clear on your goals and then start to decide what kind of shoes will be best suited for you.
Deadlifts and Squat Shoes
Never should the two meet. No, seriously. Deadlifting in squat trainers is not only a fitness faux pas, but also puts you at risk. The reason is that squat trainers raise your heels, so you have to pull the bar a further distance when you’re deadlifting. That makes it harder to get it off the ground.
Because weightlifting shoes can shift your weight, it might make it more difficult to get into the proper deadlift form. Some people do use deficit deads as part of their training program, which is fine – just make sure you’re wearing your tried and true Chuck Taylors.
A Note on Gender
Squatting and Olympic lifting is becoming increasingly more popular among all genders and age groups. However, the limited supply of reliable squat shoes gendered for females is slim.
The truth is that there’s no different construction for male shoes versus female shoes. For females, simply size down on the “male” shoe.
The trade-off with wearing “male” shoes as a female is only aesthetic. Neither have any real gender qualities, making the marketing of the shoes to each gender a tactic just to increase sales.
What to Look for in a Squat Shoe
When you’re searching for the best squat shoe, you should keep in mind how the shoe will perform during your lifts. No matter if you’re simply training, attempting PRs, or competing, the best squat shoes will take into consideration some of the following factors.
Squat trainers have perforation holes and mesh panels to help breath and eliminate excess moisture.
One or two straps that help keep the foot in place
Increase ankle mobility and puts your hips and knees in a better position to squat deep
Flat, stiff outsole that doesn’t compress the foot and creates a stable platform
Stiff upper section
Wide toe box and a stiff upper sole gives support while also maintaining some flexibility to execute lifts
The higher the heel, the more dorsiflexion in the ankles. For people with a lot of mobility, lower heels are generally best. The opposite goes for those with less than stellar mobility.
|High heel >19mm||Standard heel 19mm||Low heel <19mm|
Best for athletes with long legs and long torso or legs longer than their torso
Good for those with limited ankle flexibility
High bar squats, safety bar squats, and narrow stance squats
Best for athletes with torso longer than legs
Good for those with decent mobility and dorsiflexion
Useful for all squat variations and Olympic lifts
Best for shorter athletes with short legs and torsos
Good for those with excellent flexibility
Use with a wide stance and low-bar squats and Olympic lifts
The best-fitting squat shoes will meet these six criteria
- Feet should not be able to move once laced and strapped
- Generous toe box
- No blood flow restriction after wearing them for a few hours
- No more than 3 mm of space between toe and top of trainer
- No pressure on to the top of the foot or big toe joint
- Snug fit with no heel movement
Remember that establishing the fundamentals of a proper squat is more important than footwear. Without this foundational knowledge, it’s impossible to understand how footwear impacts and affects your lift.
The right pair of trainers will help support your foot by reinforcing the arch and supporting the angle to prevent it from rolling. Support in squat trainers will help you spread the floor – that is, to apply force to the ground in an outward matter.
Make sure that your squat shoe fits snuggly to eliminate movement within the shoe. The best weightlifting shoes will have a strap to help keep the foot stable during the movement and a stiff, inflexible sole. This helps increase the transfer of force and reinforces consistent movement patterns since the foot is unable to move.
Always keep in mind that your shoe choice has as much to do with your anatomy as it does with your goals. If you’re quad dominant and spend a lot of time on speed-movements like the snatch or clean and jerk, then a raised squat shoe is going to be instrumental in achieving your goals. If you’re trying to put up the biggest number possible on the bar, squat trainers will be excellent to help you improve your form and in turn, push more weight.