You’ve all seen those peculiar looking shoes in the gym – raised heel, straps across the front and let’s face it, not the most stylish overall. You’ve probably even worn a pair, may even own a pair or have an interest in trying them to see what they’re all about.
They are of course weightlifting shoes.
In the gym, everyone from weightlifting beginners to the big heavy lifters may be seen in weightlifting shoes doing their thing. Some people swear by them and won’t be seen weightlifting without them, whereas for others they’re just a nice addition. Some people prefer squatting without them.
There are good reasons for all of these points of view and a large part is down to personal preference. It’s clear though that weightlifting shoes do have a number of benefits to them when it comes to body positioning, form and helping you lift heavier weights.
But why do weightlifting shoes have a raised heel? How does this help to lift weights?
Brief history of weightlifting shoes
As the name quite rightly suggests, weightlifting shoes have a history in the sport of weightlifting.
As I’m sure you already know, professional weightlifting centres around two main movements:
- Clean and jerk
Some people are surprised to find out that squats and deadlifts aren’t weightlifting events in their own right. Instead they are both vital components to the snatch and clean and jerk, which means they’re an integral part of any weightlifting programme.
The weightlifting shoes as we know them today rose to prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s. They evolved out of weightlifters trying different types of footwear, such as boxing shoes and both work boots, both of which had plus points but weren’t quite right.
Weightlifters realised that having a raised heel helped keep them grounded as they lowered into a deep squat, plus a few other benefits. The design of the weightlifting shoe then really took off after the Soviet’s had an idea of nailing a thick heel onto a leather sole.
It was this primitive Soviet idea that inspired manufacturers down a different design pathway, including those of Adidas who made significant traction with their weightlifting shoes in the 60s. Mr Adi Dassler and the people at Adidas gained notably traction in the early 1970s when Tommy Kono, an American Olympic weightlifter, joined forces and helped them improve the design of their shoes. At this point Kono was national coach of the west Germany weightlifting team after a highly successful weightlifting and bodybuilding career in the 50s and 60s.
50 years down the line and Adidas are still one of the top producers of weightlifting shoes, which haven’t changed an awful lot in terms of their basic design – high heel, low top.
You can read a more detailed view on the history of the weightlifting shoe here.
Why do weightlifting shoes have a raised heel?
The raised heel of weightlifting shoes brings several benefits to the lifters body position when performing a main lift. In short, the raised heel of the weightlifting shoe helps to preferentially position and align the trunk of the body, thigh and shin.
There are two key reasons why having a raised heel helps to do this.
- A raised heel improves ankle mobility
- A raised heel allows the torso to remain more vertical and upright
Let’s dig into these a little.
Raised heels of weightlifting shoes improves ankle mobility
Ankle mobility is a major factor in how deep a person can squat. For genetic and biomechanical reasons, some people have tighter ankles than others.
Lifters with reduced ankle flexibility get to a certain point near the bottom position of the squat and find it difficult to go further. The limited ankle mobility here doesn’t let the shins, and therefore the knees, tilt any further forward above the toes to continue bringing the body down.
This ankle movement is known as dorsiflexion – the movement of bringing your toes up towards your shin or shin towards your toes to make the angle between the foot and shin more acute. Good ankle flexibility, i.e. good dorsiflexion, is great for deep squats, as the lifter has the capability of bringing the shin and knees further forward.
It’s important to note that the raised heel of weightlifting shoes does not improve dorsiflexion and ankle mobility. Instead the raised heel helps to open up the ankle by increasing the angle of the foot and shin. Increasing the ankle angle therefore increases the range of motion limits whilst reducing the demand of natural mobility required.
Raised heels of weightlifting shoes keeps the body more vertical
Body posture and the right form are both key when it comes to weightlifting, maximising performance and reducing the risk of injury.
Having a raised heel helps to keep the upper body more upright and in a stronger, more balance position. The effect of pushing the knees into a more forward position, helps to bring the hips closer to the ankle and feet which helps with a more vertical position. Studies have shown that the raised heel of weightlifting shoes helps to reduce forward trunk lean, which can also reduce the chance of lower back stress and injury according to this study by Sato et al. On the other hand, a more recent study indicated that weightlifting shoes had no significant impact on trunk and lower body muscle activations on 14 recreational lifters when squatting 80% of their 1 rep maximum. Maybe there’s more to come on this.
So, it’s safe to say that most evidence indicates raised heel primarily helps to do two things: keep the torso more vertical and the shin less vertical.
The other major benefit of the raised heel of a weightlifting shoe is that it helps to keep the feet and heels grounded during the lift. Having contact with a firm surface, means you can transfer more power during the movement from the ground and up to get the weight shifted.
Not having your heels in contact with the floor means you’re at more risk of losing balance. Try getting in a deep squat position with your heels off the floor and you’ll do very well to retain balance. Add a loaded bar into the equation and this might not be very fun!
On the flip side, an elevated heel pushes your weight forward onto your toes from the very start of the lift, which for some lifters is too much, impairing their balance. If you are new to weightlifting shoes this would take a bit of retraining and getting used to. For some lifters who already have good ankle mobility, this initial imbalance isn’t worth the mobility gains that a weightlifting shoe brings.
Weightlifting shoes heel height
The heel height of most weightlifting shoes varies from 12.5mm (0.5 inches) to 25mm (1 inch).
The standard weightlifting shoe heel height is 19mm (0.75 inches)
There aren’t too many shoes on the market with heels over 25mm (1 inch) in height.
This is because there comes a point where the trade-off between the increased range of motion at the ankle and more vertical trunk are outweighed by too much emphasis on the quadriceps and stress on the knees due to too much forward movement.
What weightlifting shoe heel height is right for me?
In general terms, the taller you are the harder it is to squat deep with a straight back, due to long shins and long femurs and potentially a long torso.
For taller lifters it’s often beneficial to go for a heel height that is 19mm (0.75 inches) or over. This is because the higher heel height helps to increase the range of motion at the ankle, which taller lifters may struggle with.
For lifters with shorter legs, it’s better to go for a weightlifting shoe heel height between 12.5mm – 19mm (0.5-0.75 inches).
These are good starting points, but it all comes down to personal preferences and body mechanics. They only way to get a definitive answer is to experiment with different heights.
If you’re looking for a little hack, trying squatting a light load in flat shoes or even better barefoot.
Add different plates under your heels, squat down and see how it feels. Start small with the 1.25kg plates, then 2.5kg, then 5kg. For each of these you should be able to feel the difference they have on your posture and body position, plus the effects on the muscles worked.
You can also get heel inserts as a temporary fix to try out different heights. These aren’t perfect as they will affect the fit of the shoe and may increase tightness, but might be worth a go before you commit to buying a weightlifting shoe.
When should you wear weightlifting shoes?
It’s important to remember that weightlifting shoes are an accessory. A good accessory, just like lifting straps or a weightlifting belt, with the aim of improving performance, but an accessory none the less.
This means that you shouldn’t become over-reliant on them. If you do have ankle mobility issues for instance, work on this too rather than needing to use your weightlifting shoes for the rest of time.
It may seem obvious, but it’s worth stating – only use weightlifting shoes when you are training on focussed weightlifting work where you have to push your heels through the ground to perform the movement. This way you’ll get maximum benefit from them. Biceps curls and chest press? No, you don’t need to wear your weightlifting shoes.
The main exercises when you should wear weightlifting shoes are:
- Clean and jerk
- Squat (all varieties)
- Overhead press
The reason why weightlifting shoes are good for these specific movements is because you need a lot of explosive strength and power all stemming from your lower body. Unlike the spongy, absorbent soles of a running shoe, the sole of a weightlifting shoe is hard and rigid, ideal for power transfer up through your body.
Are weightlifting shoes worth it?
As each lifters biomechanics and body structure are all unique, it’s difficult to categorically state one way or another. What works for one, or a number, of people, doesn’t necessarily work for another.
For weightlifting professionals, the anecdotal data from trainers and the top-performing weightlifters is fairly clear – weightlifting shoes are beneficial to performance particularly when the individual has reduced ankle mobility.
Although the anecdotal evidence is strong, the scientific research is fairly limited and inconclusive. It’s also almost entirely conducted on the barbell back squat.
For an untrained individual starting out in lifting weights or just strength training, you’d be best to learn how to squat properly first without weightlifting shoes. It’s important to develop proper sensory pathways from the muscles, tendons and ligaments in the feet and ankles without extreme heel height variation. Adding an unnatural heel height to the basic movement may impede this development. Running shoes and other footwear do decrease these sensory (proprioceptor) pathways anyway, but a weightlifting shoe would do even more so.
My thought is once you’ve got the basics of the movement and have made initial progress and now believe you’d benefit from a pair of weightlifting shoes, then invest. This way you and your body will have the best of both worlds.
If you perform weightlifting moves and exercises in the list identified above on a regular basis, then it will be worth investing in a pair of weightlifting shoes. Just be clever about your use of them and don’t become overly reliant.
From a personal point of view, although I squat regularly, I don’t train the snatch or clean and jerk. I also have good ankle mobility (mainly thanks to hypermobile joints, which is a blessing and a curse) and good trunk position, so don’t feel the need to use weightlifting shoes. My personal preference is to squat without shoes or in those with a slight heel.
The best way to figure out if weightlifting shoes are worth it is to give them a try and see for yourself. Even very small alterations in biomechanics can make something feel very different and ‘better’ in your eyes. Maybe video yourself to see if you can notice any differences in body position and posture. It’s worth playing around and seeing what works for you.