Fun fact: I own almost two dozen pairs of lifting shoes. In fact, you might say I’m a bit of an expert on the subject – and I get a lot of questions about how I choose which pair to wear when I lift.
If you follow me on Instagram, you already know that I favor the Reebok Lite TRs for all three lifts, but that’s just because they fit my body well. Everyone is different, and if you’re trying to find the right pair for you, here are some questions to ask yourself.
[Check out our lifting shoe round-up to view the best lifting shoes on the market.]
Are You Strong Enough to Need Squat Shoes?
This is a bit of a trick question. A lot of people tell me they don’t think they’re strong enough to justify buying a pair of shoes that might cost a couple hundred bucks. It’s usually not about the money, but about avoiding “imposter syndrome” – the idea that you don’t really fit in until you’ve made it.
I don’t really agree with that logic. If you would benefit from them, I think it makes sense to invest in a pair of lifting shoes sooner rather than later, because more effective training means faster progress. Here’s the catch: when you’re just starting out, you probably won’t know what kind of shoes you need. Until you figure that out, you’re fine sticking with whatever athletic shoes you happen to have available.
Should You Use Heels or Flats?
On the flip side, I really don’t agree with the people who decide they’re gonna start lifting, and immediately run out and buy a pair of squat shoes with an elevated heel. Many people make that decision almost reflexively: they see other people wearing heeled shoes, and figure that they need some, too. That’s a terrible call. In fact, in my opinion, far too many powerlifters wear heeled shoes.
Proponents of the practice claim that the elevated heels make it easier to hit depth. They’re referring to the reduced ankle flexibility required to push the knees forward without coming up on the toes when squatting. And that is a benefit of wearing heels. But there are drawbacks, too. For example, an elevated heel tends to make balance more difficult. Heels can push your weight forward on your feet, towards your toes – exactly the problem they’re supposed to prevent. You’re essentially trading a flexibility requirement for a balance requirement. And, in my experience, it’s much easier to develop sufficient flexibility for squatting than balance.
So, instead of thinking about ankle flexibility, take a look a leverages and squatting style. This video does a fantastic job of explaining why elevating a heel doesn’t often make it easier to hit depth – just different.
Essentially, a raised heel will tend to shift the emphasis on a squat from your hips to your legs. That doesn’t mean it will take the hips out of play – just that, relative to squatting without heels, you’ll tend to use them a bit less. Is that a good thing? Well, it depends: what are your goals? If you want to lift the most weight, you should put the emphasis on your strongest muscles (which probably means wearing heels if you have stronger legs, and ditching them if you have stronger hips). If your goal is muscular development, or bringing up weak points, you’d probably want to put the emphasis on your weakest muscle groups.
It’s worth noting that under heavy weight, your body is probably going to default to using your strongest muscles regardless of whether you’re wearing heels or flats. Because of that, I prefer to use the shoes that fit my strong points, not my weak ones. I then use assistance movements to bring up the weak points. This just fits my mentality better – one approach is not better than the other.
Finally, note that on some exercises – particularly front squats, the Olympic lifts, and overhead press – virtually everyone is better off with heeled shoes. That’s because when the weight is held in the front of your body, the heel acts as a mechanical counterbalance, helping to keep your center of gravity more neutral. However, unless you plan to compete in those lifts, it’s not strictly necessary to wear squat shoes while performing them. And on some exercises, like deadlifts, you always should wear flat shoes, unless you are intentionally performing a variation that calls for raised heels. On bench, I’ve found that for most people (except those very lacking in dorsiflexion), heels seem to make almost no noticeable difference.
Do You Have Good Feet?
To heel or not to heel is the hardest question, but even after you’ve answered it, there are some more details you should consider before you shell out any of your hard-earned cash on a new pair of kicks.
First: do you have strong arches? Flattened arches will often lead to knee caving on heavy squats and deadlifts, which can both cause injury and decrease the amount of weight you’ll be able to handle. While you should always try to address flat feet with strengthening exercises, that process can take a while, and in my experience, if you’ve got structural issues like that, they’re always going to exist at some level. For that reason, I suggest choosing shoes with either good arch support or with removable shoe inserts, so that you can use your own third-party orthotics. Note that you might not need this arch support on every lift, and you should really only use it when you do. I use orthotics when I squat, but remove them before benching and deadlifting.
Next, how wide are your feet? Those with narrow feet will have more shoe options than lifters with wider feet, but it’s important that you choose a shoe that’s wide enough for you to push your feet out against the sidewall comfortably. Chances are, if your shoes are too narrow, you’re going to struggle to do that, and, as a result, struggle to properly recruit your posterior chain on compound movements. I increased my sumo deadlift fairly significantly just by switching to wider-sized shoes.
I know you were waiting for this part, so I hope it’s not too disappointing when I tell you that my all-time favorite shoe, the Reebok CrossFit Lite TR, is no longer produced and only available at very high prices from third-party resellers. I have heard some rumors that Reebok is developing a new version of that shoe, so keep your fingers crossed!
That said, I do have some experience with other shoes, and here are my thoughts on them:
- Chuck Taylors: probably the best “default” option if you want flat shoes and don’t want to spend a lot of money. These don’t hold up well, and they don’t have great traction, but they’re definitely adequate for most people.
- Wrestling shoes: obviously, there’s a huge variety of wrestling shoes, but in general, they’re going to be about as thin-soled as Chucks with better traction, but also a narrower footbed. For people with wide feet, this might be a problem. The
- Sabo deadlift shoes are essentially wrestling shoes with an added metatarsal strap, which is beneficial, especially for those with flat arches.
- Metal squat shoes: very expensive, but also very well-made, powerlifting-specific shoes. I have a pair that has lasted over a decade and is still fully functional, although the original laces frayed through. These shoes have unbelievable traction, and the leather upper is designed to limit movement of your shin (which can be a positive or negative depending on your ideal positioning and what you’re using them for). They’re a tad on the narrow side, but not too bad; and they do have a metatarsal strap, which is a nice bonus.
- Nike Romaleos: I have worn all three versions of the Romaleos, and as far as powerlifting goes, the original version is my favorite. The originals are virtually identical to the version 2, but they’re heavier – which may be a drawback for Olympic weightlifting, but provides a nice sense of stability for heavy back squats. The 2s offer excellent arch support, a fairly wide footbed, two metatarsal straps, and are my recommendation if you want heeled shoes.
- Adidas Adipower: Very similar to the Romaleos, both in design and price point. Some people say the Adipower runs slightly narrower than the Romaleos, but this one essentially comes down to personal preference.
- Adidas Powerlift: Adidas also makes a cheaper version of their weightlifting shoe with a slightly smaller effective heel height. I actually really, really like this shoe, especially for people who want a heel but don’t feel entirely comfortable in the Romaleos or Adipowers. The heel on these shoes does have a bit of give, but in my experience, even under very heavy weights, that does not create any significant stability issues.
Hopefully this article has helped shed some light on both your squat and your shoe choice. If you’ve already been through the decision-making process, and have some tips that can make it easier for others to do the same, share them in the comments below!