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What's in a Shoe? Choosing the Right Weightlifting Footwear


Personal trainers seldom get the chance to witness the sport of weightlifting, at least in the United States. Despite the fact that men and women of all ages and sizes are represented in its demographics, the sport remains very small in terms of active participants. As a result, finding a local competition or watching talented weightlifters train usually takes a dedicated effort.

Within the past few years, however, weightlifting has experienced a surge in popularity in the U.S. This is largely due to the growth of CrossFit facilities and their training philosophy, which includes a heavy reliance on total body lifts (such as the snatch, clean-and-jerk, and related movements) for truly functional strength and power development. At the same time, many fitness professionals have also found greater use for Olympic-style weightlifting training, for both athlete and non-athlete clients seeking alternative training methods that produce improved strength and power, greater flexibility, and require a coordinated, total body effort.

For fitness professionals, much of the discussion about weightlifting training focuses on coaching clients to perform safe, effective technique. However one vital element that is easily overlooked is finding the correct footwear. Weightlifting shoes play a critical role in performing Olympic-style lifts, and understanding the science and subtle design behind this specialty equipment can give you an edge in training clients to reach their performance goals.

What’s So Special about Weightlifting Shoes?

Most noticeably, weightlifting shoes have a pronounced heel elevation that facilitates, especially among the inflexible, a more dorsiflexed ankle position. This promotes the erect style of squatting utilized by weightlifters that allows the hips to descend closer to the heels. It also avoids the forward-leaning torso angle that contributes to added lumbar stress (Sato, Fortenbaugh, & Hydock, 2012). In rare cases when a lifter demonstrates a complete lack of ankle flexibility, it’s better to learn the split and/or power styles of snatch and clean. Adequate ankle flexibility – with or without weightlifting shoes – is required for the squat style snatch or clean.

Many fitness professionals still embrace the popular, but largely inaccurate, opinion that a squatter’s knees should stay behind the toes or nearly perpendicular to the ground when squatting to the lowest position. I have discussed this matter at length in a previous PTontheNet Q&A article “Knees Over Toes?” that provides more background on the history of the knees-over-toes issue and how it impacts weightlifting. Yes, there may be some reasons to perhaps perform squats other than how the weightlifter squats. But we’re talking here about weightlifting, not powerlifting or some other purpose for low-bar squats. Weightlifting shoes help weightlifters get into a bottom position with the knees forward of the toes, allowing them to properly position the rest of the body to accept the load in either a snatch or a clean. Also, an elevated heel promotes a stronger, more solid starting (or get-set) position prior to lifting the barbell from the ground.

These two characteristics – the erect squatting position and the proper get-set position – are among the concepts most frequently misunderstood by newcomers to the sport of weightlifting. This lack of awareness, along with an inability to quickly correct problems, leads to many frustrating moments while trying to learn proper technique. The right footwear can set a new weightlifter up for success by forcing correct form and the development of good habits from the very beginning.

What Recent Research Says

A recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research examines the effect of weightlifting shoes on the squat (Sato, Fortenbaugh, & Hydock, 2012). Much of a weightlifter’s training involves the squat position, and this study drives home the importance of proper footwear to the safe and effective mastery of weightlifting techniques.

The researchers compared kinematics of subjects squatting with weightlifting shoes versus running shoes. Twenty-five college students, all with multiple years of squat experience, served as subjects. Although the training loads were quite moderate (60% 1RM), the conclusions clearly found that weightlifting shoes “alter the squat technique by minimizing the forward lean displacement and increasing the foot segment angle.”

Despite what some may think, this technique is what weightlifters want, i.e. minimal forward lean and/or stress to the lumbar spine, with knees forward and most of the squatting load felt in the quadriceps.

Weightlifting Shoes in Action

Let’s look at weightlifters performing the snatch and clean-and-jerk lifts at the recent USA Weightlifting National Championships. Also included in this clip are quick visual examples of young lifters training with both appropriate and inappropriate footwear choices. Readers will quickly spot the difference a quality weightlifting shoe can make.

We want to avoid, at all costs, a forward lean with the bar overhead (snatch) or on the shoulders (clean); leaning forward results in the barbell moving out of the lifter’s area of base. One’s area of base – or the space in which the barbell must remain for safe and effective execution – is defined as the central area of the foot that extends toward, but does not include, the toes or the heels.

As I’ve previously written for PTontheNet, learning the snatch, the clean, the jerk, or any number of associated assistance exercises makes a lot of sense for clients from varied backgrounds. It’s important that a trainer not only knows how to perform and teach the lifts, but also can quickly adjust the client's technique to ensure safe and effective execution.

Finding the Right Weightlifting Footwear

Once a specialty item virtually impossible to purchase other than through one or two relatively small and unknown sources, weightlifting shoes are now widely available from a variety of manufacturers. While weightlifters have more options from which to choose, the design of these shoes has remained basically the same over time.

Despite efforts by some shoe companies, we have yet to see a universal shoe that allows for proper running, rowing, jumping, and weightlifting. This would be ideal for programs like CrossFit, which regularly integrates weightlifting and non-weightlifting activities into particular Workouts of the Day (WODs). Attempts to utilize general footwear – or even the so-called five-finger or barefoot shoes – for multi-disciplinary WODs can result in incorrect weightlifting technique. And while snatching in weightlifting shoes makes perfect sense, heading outside to run around the facility or performing high repetition plyometric exercises in a $200 pair of weightlifting shoes may not be a wise move.

Many CrossFit trainees try to get by with footwear inappropriate for weightlifting. This may lead to successful lift completion, but with form that is often not optimal. Others switch shoes mid-workout to train their Olympic-style lifts in appropriate footwear.

So where may a potential customer find a good quality weightlifting shoe? As previously mentioned, popular lines such as adidas and Nike now offer weightlifting shoes. The former even has an entry-level shoe marketed specifically at the personal trainer market through their 3-Stripe Instructor program. Other companies such as VS Athletics and Rogue Fitness also feature shoes designed for weightlifting.

Conclusion

Weightlifting shoes are the easy solution to many novice lifters’ struggles to learn proper technique. Before investing, take the time to read Bud Charniga's comprehensive information on the subject. Although Charniga's company is a retailer of weightlifting shoes, he provides an objective history of this unique shoe design and explains in detail why this design is so important.

Without weightlifting shoes, doing movements like the snatch and clean-and-jerk is likely to be a huge challenge. By contrast, the use of weightlifting shoes is likely to cause an immediate and positive reaction. A small minority of clients may still have problems in obtaining proper positions, most likely due to lower body (especially ankle) inflexibility. In a case like this, use of a split or power-style snatch or clean (with weightlifting shoes) provides an opportunity for all to experience the positive results of weightlifting.

References

  1. Sato, K., Fortenbaugh, D. & Hydock, D. (2012). Kinematic changes using weightlifting shoes on barbell back squat. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(1) 28-33.
  2. Charniga, Jr., A. (undated). Why weightlifting shoes? From www.sportivnypress.com. Original articles.