When I started giving seminars 10 years ago, out of an average 30-person group, maybe 5-10 would have weightlifting shoes. These days, I may get 1-2 people at each seminar who don’t wear weightlifting shoes. My point is that in the last few years, familiarity with weightlifting has improved, but probably more importantly, the availability of weightlifting shoes has increased dramatically and training in weightlifting shoes isn’t such a weird thing that only a handful of hardcore lifters do anymore.
That said, there is still resistance among non-competitive weightlifters to wearing weightlifting shoes, even when training the snatch, clean & jerk and related lifts for the sake of getting better at the snatch and clean & jerk. If we’re being totally honest, I find this odd for a number of reasons—it’s no different to me than playing football and refusing to wear cleats, or playing baseball and refusing to wear a glove. I’ve heard all kinds of fascinating rationales, my favorite of which is that weightlifting shoes aren’t “natural”… neither are barbells, rubberized plates, lifting platforms, or any of the other things you are
using to train weightlifting. If you want to be natural, go lift rocks barefoot out in the dirt with your gens in the breeze—at least that makes sense.
Let me make a simple case for shoes even if you’re not a competitive weightlifter:
- They will help you achieve positions/postures optimal for the snatch and clean & jerk, i.e. a very upright trunk in a full-depth squat.
- They will provide greater stability in all directions with the wider base of the stiffer sole.
- They will provide greater stability with stiffer uppers, keeping the foot in place.
- They will allow more of the force you produce to go into elevating and accelerating the bar because the hard soles will absorb very little.
All of these things translate into more weight lifted and less risk of injury. Seems like a good deal to me.
But I Have Incredible Mobility
A pretty typical argument from the resistance is that they already have good mobility and can squat deep without weightlifting shoes. There are usually two problems with this: their depth is nowhere near true full depth (knee joint closed as completely as possible with the back still in its proper arch and weight balanced over the foot) and their posture is suboptimal, i.e. the trunk is inclined forward excessively, or they have to arch the back to an extreme degree to bring the upper back into an upright position.
If you truly have adequate ankle and hip mobility to sit into a full-depth, nearly-vertical-trunked squat in flat shoes, that’s fantastic and I agree you don’t need lifting shoes for the reason of mobility. However, this doesn’t address the elements of stability and force transfer that lifting shoes provide—you can’t replicate that with other shoes.
What to Expect When You Switch
Here’s the tricky thing—if you’ve been snatching, clean & jerking, squatting, etc. in non-weightlifting shoes for a while, you’re more than likely going to feel worse initially when you begin using weightlifting shoes. This shouldn’t be surprising considering you’re changing something quite significant—like any other change, adjustment and adaptation will be required. An initial adjustment period doesn’t mean shoes are making things worse, in the same way that correcting a long-standing technical bad habit will make the lift feel “wrong” at first.
You can expect two things initially: to feel a bit out of balance forward (and/or more pressure on the balls of the foot), and to feel weaker or less comfortable in the squat.
The raised heel of lifting shoes will initially make you feel like you’re too far forward on your feet. However, this is just because you haven’t adjusted yet to position your body properly for balance. Claiming that weightlifting shoes unavoidably create a forward imbalance is like saying no one can stand on a slope without falling. There’s no reason, anatomically or mechanically, that you can’t balance yourself over your foot however you want in a raised heel, especially when the angle of the foot is so minimal.
Your squats may feel weaker or less comfortable during the adjustment period as well for a pretty simple reason: If you’ve trained your whole life in flat shoes, you likely have been sitting the hips back somewhat more when you squat, and consequently developed a balance of leg and hip strength that favors the posterior chain to some degree. When squatting in weightlifting shoes and moving in the optimal weightlifting squat posture, you’ll be relying more on the quads than you have previously, which will be relatively underdeveloped. Don’t lose your mind and get rid of the shoes—retrain your body to do what it needs to do.
Do You Have to Wear Weightlifting Shoes?
Of course not—you can train and even compete in any shoes you want (there is no rule in the IWF or USAW that specifically requires the use of weightlifting shoes, although there are some simple requirements).
If you’re a competitive CrossFitter or Griddler who is sure you’ll never wear weightlifting shoes when you compete in CrossFit or Grid, for example, don’t wear them in training—that’s a situation in which not using weightlifting shoes is in fact the smart decision. However, it seems to me that you will have opportunities in both to perform big lifts in isolation, as well as lifts within workouts involving elements you don’t want weightlifting shoes for; in this case, it would make more sense to train both ways to prepare—lifting shoes when working on heavy Olympic lifts, and non-lifting shoes when training mixed-mode workouts.
If you believe that the positions allowed by weightlifting shoes and promoted by weightlifting coaches are bad for the knees, I encourage you to do some more homework on the topic because this is simply untrue and you’re robbing yourself of a lot of gain for no actual benefit.
If you just plain don’t like the idea and think weightlifting shoes are stupid and funny looking, that’s your natural right as a human and I won’t interfere—just don’t pretend you’re doing it for rational reasons.