When a pair of weightlifting shoes hit the platform in the gym, you take notice. The signature call of a strength athlete who dons lifting shoes for their workout is the thunderous crack of the soles striking the floor.
In a way, the orchestral boom created by weightlifting shoes adds a bit of magic to the lifting itself, and may have even inspired you to pick up your own pair. It does beg the question, though — how high should you go?
There’s more variability in the construction and design of most weightlifting shoes than you’d think. Getting the height of the heel just right is the golden ticket to better performance, whether you’re a devoted weightlifter or just a gym rat looking to move better with the barbell.
- What Are Weightlifting Shoes?
- Factors to Consider for Heel Height
- Should You Wear Weightlifting Shoes?
- Benefits of Weightlifting Shoes
Weightlifting shoes are to the sport of Olympic lifting as cleats are to soccer players. Although they’ve grown in popularity beyond the boundaries of the sport itself, lifting shoes are specifically designed to support your body and improve your posture while you perform the snatch, clean & jerk, or squat.
All lifting shoes share several features that make them uniquely appropriate for resistance training. They’re supportive, rigid, and stable — much like you need to be while you lift.
From a design standpoint, (almost) all weightlifting shoes are required to have:
- A flat and uniform sole, usually made of wood, TPU, or compressed plastics.
- One or more straps across the forefoot that can be tightened to bind the shoe around your foot.
- An elevated heel wedge.
The heel wedge is the defining feature of a weightlifting shoe. Other types of footwear may be appropriate for exercises like the deadlift or cross-training, but a true weightlifting shoe must have an elevated heel.
Most weightlifting shoes will also come with a broad toe box so you can spread your toes, perforation for breathability, and an elevated heel cuff to support your ankle.
While you may choose your shoe based on elements like the strap, toe box, or aesthetic appeal, the heel height is far and away the biggest factor that affects how you move in the gym.
Lifting shoes generally come with an effective heel height (how much the shoe actually elevates your foot versus the physical height of the wedge itself) of .6 to 1.25 inches.
The most common heel height you’ll find across most popular brands is about .75 inches. Whether you go a bit higher or a bit lower depends on what you need from your footwear.
The primary purpose of elevating your heel is to artificially improve your ankle mobility. By tilting the back of your foot upward, your center of gravity changes slightly, allowing your knee to travel further forward in space than it would if your heel was directly in contact with the ground.
Athletes with restricted ankles will typically prefer a higher heel than someone who can comfortably push their kneecap far beyond their toes while barefoot.
Your height may also affect what kind of heel wedge works best for you. As you can imagine, walking around in a heeled shoe will affect your balance and proprioception. If you’re on the taller side, you might find that a high heel makes you feel clumsy and unstable.
However, taller athletes also tend to struggle with finding the correct posture during exercises like the clean or overhead squat. If that’s the case for you, the postural support of a higher heel might be worth feeling a bit wobbly sometimes.
Your segment length — how long your limbs are, particularly your legs — goes hand-in-hand with your height and ankle mobility.
The longer your thigh bone is, the further your knee will need to travel forward to keep your body upright. It’s simple physics; the larger and longer your leg, the more you’ll feel inclined to fold over since your limbs take up more physical space while you squat.
As such, weightlifters with long legs will generally benefit more from the breathing room provided by a higher-heeled shoe.
Much in the way that a nine iron is more difficult to wield than a putter, a high-heeled shoe takes more finesse to lift in than a low-heeled shoe due to how it displaces your body weight and alters your balance.
As such, if you’re new to Olympic lifting (or resistance training in general), you may want to err on the side of caution and start with a conservative heel height of .6 to .75 inches. You’d be surprised by how different exercise feels in even a low-heeled shoe.
If you’re comfortable training in lifting shoes, a higher heel will allow you to maintain a more upright torso while you train. You’ll just have to be more dexterous and aware of your balance along the way.
Your squat (and deadlift, to an extent) technique will strongly impact what kind of return you get from your heel height. Your squat form is highly individual, and your heel of choice needs to mesh well with how you like to lift in the first place.
If you squat with a wide stance (think notably wider than your pelvis), you might want to go for a low heel, as your squat depth will rely more on how deep you can sink your hips.
Squatters who stand with their feet closer together may want to opt for a higher heel, as a tight stance is commonly accompanied by more forward knee travel. Bear in mind, though, that these prescriptions are far from absolute.
If you want to learn (or master) the two disciplines of Olympic lifting, it’s an open-and-shut case. However, not every gymgoer is enamored by throwing barbells overhead. If that’s the case for you, the picture is a bit less clear.
As a Weightlifter
To participate in a sanctioned weightlifting competition, you must wear shoes that cover your toes — no snatching in flip-flops allowed. While this doesn’t strictly mean you have to wear weightlifting shoes, they’re as close to universally-used as a piece of equipment can get.
Weightlifting shoes are specifically designed to bolster your capabilities in the sport. If you want to be a weightlifter, you should have the appropriate footwear.
As a Powerlifter
Powerlifters are concerned with the squat, bench press, and deadlift — three movements that have vastly different postural and technical demands than the snatch and clean & jerk. Still, it’s relatively common to see powerlifters at all levels use lifting shoes for at least a portion of their training.
While you as a powerlifter may not benefit from more forward knee travel and an upright torso to the same degree as a weightlifter, the rock-solid stability of weightlifting shoes do make them a viable footwear choice.
Weightlifting shoes can improve your bench press via facilitating greater leg drive as well as help you hit depth in your squats if you’re immobile. They may not be suitable for deadlifts, though, as the elevated heel could pitch you forward or increase your range of motion.
As a CrossFitter
A piece of specialty equipment like weightlifting shoes may not mesh well with the constant variance of CrossFit. Weightlifting shoes are large and heavy, which can negatively impact your agility or make you feel sluggish during cardio-based workouts or drills.
On the other hand, most cross-training programs include a hearty amount of squats and pulls. You might want to consider snagging a pair of lifting shoes for your barbell-based accessory work and then move to something slimmer for metcons, calisthenics, or interval training.
As a Recreational Gymgoer
You don’t need to train (or compete) in a strength sport to benefit from weightlifting shoes. Heeled shoes still provide plenty of stability to your resistance training and can offer a bit of mobility assistance on your lower-body days.
Whether you’re an Olympic lifter or not, you shouldn’t be trudging through your workouts on shaky feet. Heeled shoes help you find your proverbial sea legs and can enhance your training in more ways than you might think.
Soft, pliable shoes designed for comfort are all well and good if you’re walking on a treadmill or doing some active stretching, but your foot needs to be snugly enclosed in a stable shoe to support your body while you lift.
The iconic heel of the weightlifting shoe improves your posture during any type of squat (and makes you a bit taller to boot). You can test this phenomenon for yourself by putting a pair of change plates under your heels during your next squat workout to simulate the effect of a lifting shoe.
Once you try it, there’s a good chance that you’ll want to pick up a heeled shoe for yourself. The difference in your posture and comfort will be palpable from your very first set.
Improved Force Output
Your muscles may generate contractile force, but your body is just one part of the complex kinetic chain that defines resistance training.
When you squat, your muscles push against the floor through your feet to move whatever type of resistance you’re using. The more “grounded” you are against the floor, and the wider your base of support, the better you’ll be able to drive against a barbell.
Weightlifting shoes are designed to facilitate effective force transfer via a wide, flat, and stable sole.
Accidents happen in the gym. They can range from a rep gone wrong that afflicts you with an injury to dropping a plate on your foot. Neither are particularly desirable outcomes, and a heeled weightlifting shoe can offer some protection from both.
The forefoot strap (or straps, as some shoes come with two) and high heel cuff help to secure your foot in the shoe and may limit your chances of spraining or rolling your ankle.
Most heeled shoes are quite sturdy, constructed out of durable and thick leather. They won’t protect your toes from a 45-pound plate or falling dumbbell, but it’s basically impossible to stub your toes in a pair of lifting shoes.
There are plenty of specialty athletic shoes out there — from deadlift slippers to cross trainers — but only a heeled shoe is considered true weightlifting footwear.
- Out of all its design elements, the heel height of your lifting shoe will have by far the greatest impact on your technique and performance.
- Heel height ranges from as low as about half an inch to over a full inch depending on the brand of the shoe.
- Beginners, powerlifters, or those with short femurs and mobile ankles would typically do well with a lower heel.
- If you’re on the tall side, have stiff ankles, squat with a narrow stance, or are an experienced athlete, consider a higher-heeled shoe.
A Cinderella Story in the Gym
Weightlifting is as much an aural experience as it is a visual spectacle. Seeing an athlete lift several hundred pounds overhead in the blink of an eye is one thing, but the accompanying slam of their shoes on the platform is a large part of what makes the snatch and clean & jerk so compelling to witness (and learn).
That aside, you don’t buy weightlifting shoes just because they sound cool. You buy them for what they can do for your training — and a vast majority of that outcome depends on the heel height.
Featured Image: Celso Pupo / Shutterstock