Shoes Wisely

Want to clean, squat and snatch more weight? Take a look at your footwear. The right pair of shoes can instantly put your body in a position to move more weight.
By Eric Velazquez, NSCA-CSCS,

Consider the following statements:

• As an athlete, it pays to figure out what’s standing between you and a bigger, deeper squat. 

• As an athlete, you never want to become over-reliant on your equipment.

Now ask yourself what happens if what’s standing between you and a bigger, deeper squat is equipment. It’s a conundrum that comes into sharp focus when considering the issue of footwear, particularly how many types of shoes any given CrossFitter needs to schlep around in his or her gym bag. Yes, we’re talking about the ever-present Olympic-lifting shoe question: To buy or not to buy.

It remains a valid topic of conversation because lack of ankle mobility can often be the greatest limiting factor in achieving a proper range of motion on the squat, and that lack of mobility can be mitigated by a good pair of weightlifting shoes. Yes, the right shoe can put you in a better starting position for key lifts like the squat and clean, which can help you lift heavier weight for more reps and with less chance of injury. Sounds like an equation for results.

But of course, that doesn’t mean that you can leave your favorite set of cross-trainers at home. After all, not every WOD includes time under the barbell. Still, if you want to maximize your time on the platform, it might be time to add some dedicated weightlifting footwear to your gear bag.

Much Ado About Shoes

Olympic lifts are inherently violent movements. The goal is to generate as much force as possible to move the bar from A to B as efficiently as possible. And doing that requires a proper setup, solid heel contact with the floor and stable feet for the drive. Research published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that squatters using weightlifting shoes were able to reduce forward lean and enhance activity in their quads, two highly desirable outcomes for any athlete. In essence, this means a greater range of motion, which means greater potential gains in strength and flexibility and increased force production, which means a more explosive lift. Check and check.

Bob LeFavi, Ph.D., CSCS, USAW, CF-L1, a professor of sports medicine at Armstrong State University in Georgia, sees these purpose-built shoes as a must-have for those serious about strength, particularly on ground-start Olympic lifts. “A key issue in good lifting performance on Olympic lifts is maintaining a stable foot during the first pull,” he says. “Because proper setup position has the lifter’s shoulders in front of the bar, the athlete has to lean forward. That can be difficult to do for a beginner or for anyone with tight ankles. Lifting shoes basically place a hard wooden platform under the heels so the lifter is able to maintain a flat foot but with an elevated heel. It’s important for the athlete to have stable feet from which to drive.”

This is imperative for lifts such as the snatch, clean or jerk, but it’s also vital for generating maximal force on lifts like squats and push presses — “any exercise in which driving out of flat feet is important,” LeFavi says. “So basically, most of them. Competitive deadlifters are something of an exception — the lower they can get, the better, so an elevated heel isn’t ideal.”

This might sound questionable to the lesser shoed among us, who have never really felt “unstable” in our cross-trainers or running shoes. And there’s also a trend “afoot” to ditch the shoes entirely when doing closed-chain exercises in the gym. But LeFavi says that the benefits become apparent once you slip on a pair of weightlifting shoes and then try to lift something heavy from the floor. “You can’t go barefoot and expect to make serious progress,” he says, flatly. “There’s just too much force on the foot, putting the bones at risk of bruising easily. Cross-trainers don’t have the heel, and running shoes have no side support.”

In other words, you do what you can with what you’ve got, but if you’re not in lifting shoes, you’re flat-out denying yourself the opportunity to see what you can really do.

The Price of Performance

So that begs the question: What should you look for in a quality lifting shoe? “It has to have a hard, thick heel,” LeFavi says. “It should have a tight, solid upper, and it should rock an athlete back to center if they land on the side of the foot.”

The shoes should obviously have a good fit, but don’t expect it to feel like your wear-around-town shoes. They should be stable and supportive first, stylish a distant second. This obviously necessitates trying on a few pairs to see what fits and what feels good, especially if you’re shopping for your first pair. Expect to shell out at least $100 for a good pair. You can spend a great deal more if you have the means, but LeFavi has seen them for as low as $60. Can you get a gently used pair for a bargain? Because the shoes tend to have a long shelf life, absolutely. Just make sure you have the opportunity to try them on before parting ways with your greenbacks.

Mixed-Purpose WODs

When Olympic lifts, deadlifts or squat variations are on the schedule, most knowledgeable coaches separate box time into two distinct phases, with the strength component coming first and the mixed-purpose WOD second. This is ideal because it allows you to use the proper recovery periods for lifting max weight and gives you the opportunity to don the proper footwear (weightlifting shoes) for each phase of the workout.

Trust us: You don’t want to take your rigid soles out for a 400- or 800-meter run or undertake a marathon set of double-unders while wearing them. You’re likely to end up with a lousy time or score and/or thrashed arches. Better to finish your strength work, change shoes and then tackle the second half of your session.

This separation of footwear isn’t always avoidable, of course. Some coaches like to combine activities — thrusters with runs or cleans with box jumps, for example. When this happens, it’s best to either forgo the weightlifting shoes altogether and resign yourself to a slight reduction in force production on those key lifts or to invest in a hybrid lifting shoe like the Reebok CrossFit Lifter, which has a bit more flexibility but still has a hard, elevated heel.

Foot Note

The bottom line is that you don’t want to try to separate a loaded barbell from terra firma while sporting a set of squishy-heeled comfort kicks. Without proper footwear, your lifts are inherently compromised from the start, putting you at risk of injury or, at the very least, perpetually subpar strength numbers. Alas, what you put on your feet can definitely affect the numbers you throw on the board.

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