Should Non-Olympic Weightlifters Wear Weightlifting Shoes?

Weightlifting specific shoes are commonly seen on platforms, competitions, and training facilities around the world, with many lifters left to ask themselves, “Should I get myself a pair of weightlifting shoes?”

As a weightlifting coach and athlete, 10 times out of 10 I would tell someone looking to become more skilled and capable in the sport of Olympic weightlifting to grab a pair of weightlifting shoes. As a college strength coach and student of human movement however, my answer may not be so definite, as I am left often to weigh the pros and cons of wearing weightlifting shoes for non-weightlifting athletes.

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Therefore, in this article, we will:

  1. Briefly describe the purpose of weightlifting shoes
  2. Highlight the main benefits most athletes that athletes can expect to get from wearing weightlifting shoes
  3. Discuss the disadvantages of wearing weightlifting shoes during non-weightlifting specific training

What Are Weightlifting Shoes

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Generally speaking, weightlifting shoes were made to improve the overall performance specific to the sport of Olympic weightlifting (snatch and clean and jerk). Weightlifting shoes have varying elevated heel heights, each allowing for increased range of motion, vertical torso and shin angles, and movement patterning specific to a lifter’s anthropometrics and mobility. Lastly, weightlifting shoes are often made of sturdy leather and/or non-supportive materials in and around the foot and sole of the shoe to minimize foot movement and increase overall sturdiness and connection to the floor during high force and or high power movements (squats, pulls, snatches, cleans, jerks, etc).

The Benefits of Weightlifting Shoes

Below are five main benefits of wearing Olympic weightlifting shoes during training.

1. Overall Sturdiness and Support

Many non-weightlifting shoes provide added comfort, often with plush foamy platforms and softer shoe construction. While having supportive, cushioned footwear can be helpful during some activities, heavy and explosive lifting (squats, presses, deadlifts, snatches, cleans, etc) should be done with sturdy shoes that do not allow for excessive movement of one’s foot within the shoe. Weightlifting shoes are made specifically with stiff, rigid heels (often made of solid wood and/or hard non-compressible plastic) that does not allow for compression (aka lost force production) of the sole of the shoe as a lifter drives into the floor. The additional weight of some weightlifting shoes helps a lifter stay connected to the floor (my new lifters make me feel so sturdy, almost as if I am wearing cement blocks) to drastically increase overall sturdiness.

2. More Vertical Torso and Shin Angles

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Once you have determined the effective heel height that corresponds with your sport and individual body anthropometrics, many athletes will notice an instant ability to remain more upright in the lifting positions, specifically during squats and pulls from the floor. Increased range of motion allows for greater ankle flexion, which minimizes the need to an excessive lean forward in response to poor movement and mobility. Increased torso angle, regardless of your sport, can produce greater demands upon the hips and quads in most squatting and pulling movements, rather than potentially increasing unwanted stress to the lower back (caused by excessive forward lean/balance forward).  

3. Lateral Stability

Weightlifting shoes often are made with one or two foot straps to buckle the foot into place during lifts so that it has very minimal lateral movement. When squatting and explosively moving the feet outwards during strength and power lifts, we want the foot to stay in place within the show, not allowing for sliding of the foot. Many non-weightlifting shoes lack the necessary lateral support that could impede maximal strength and power performance, or worse, result in injury due to excessive lateral foot movement within the shoe.

4. Greater Ankle Range of Motion

Due to the elevated heel of a weightlifting shoe, the ankle is placed in a position where less ankle dorsiflexion is needed (similar to doing squat corrective movements with the heels on a plate). The elevated heel decreases the strain placed upon the ankle, and in turn allows for greater knee and hip flexion during most squatting and pulling movements.

5. Proper Positioning in Lifts

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Although many individuals are not competitive weightlifters; squats, pulls, snatches, and cleans (or their variations) are foundational strength and power movements in most sports and training settings. Functional fitness athletes, bodybuilders, strength and conditioning coaches, strongmen (and strongwomen), and powerlifters may perform lifts that require proper positioning to target specific muscle groups (bodybuilders performing high bar squats to full depth to increase quad tension) and/or increase maximal performance (functional fitness athletes performing clean and jerk ladders). Weightlifting shoes have the ability to get an athlete in a better movement position for most strength and power lifts.

The exception to this would be with powerlifters who train low bar squats and deadlifts where low to no heel elevation is preferred to allow for the increase lean forward of the back. Even then however, one could argue that they may still benefit from performing high bar squats (overall balance and muscular growth) and even power cleans (dynamic pulling movements) in a more elevated heel.

The Disadvantages of Weightlifting Shoes

Below are some disadvantages of wearing weightlifting shoes during training.

1. Lack of Versatility

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The above benefits of weightlifting shoes can also be a disadvantage for lifters who may need the ability to move more rapidly from exercise to exercise during a training session. Most weightlifting shoes are heavier than others, making them bulky to wear during jump training, circuits, etc. Additionally, they may not be needed while performing accessory and corrective exercises, requiring a lifter to have a second pair of cross-training shoes.

2. Additional Cost

Weightlifting shoes aren’t cheap. Some lifters may struggle with paying $100-$200 (on average) for a pair of well-made, weightlifting specific training shoes, only to have them be a non-versatile footwear option. While the do have very specific benefits for strength and power training, some lifters may not need to invest in a pair unless they have specific goals of optimal strength and power performance.

3. Can Mask Mobility Issues

As a strength coach, I often find that weightlifting shoes have a tendency to mask a lifter’s mobility flaws, which if left unaddressed, could create a false sense of correct joint and tissue integrity. For weightlifting and non-weightlifting shoe wearing athletes, joint integrity and mobility is paramount to optimal health, in which coaches and trainers need to address and create a standard of movement for the athlete to improve upon regardless of training in weightlifting shoes or not.

Do You Really Need Them?

As someone who has competed and coached in weightlifting, powerlifting, functional fitness competitions, and collegiate strength and conditioning settings, my general consensus is that most individuals could benefit from owning a pair of weightlifting shoes. Weightlifters no doubt should own a pair, as that is like playing football in the rain without cleats. Other athletes, such as powerlifters, may do better lifting with a very small elevated heel (or zero heel), however may find a pair of weightlifting shoes to be beneficial to wear during some other lifts used to increase quad loading and power application (high bar squats, power cleans, etc). All other athletes should still be regularly performing the Olympic lifts (in the very least the clean and its variations) and high bar squats, as those have been effectively shown to increase sprint, jumping, and force output capacity, making weightlifting shoes a viable footwear option during strength and power training sessions.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Featured Image: @mikejdewar on Instagram