by Dave Thomas
The last thing I want to convey is that you need to spend $200 on your shoes in order to see results. You absolutely do not. You can train in thick foam heels and still get good results, lose weight and get stronger. No question. Hell, our gym record of 565# deadlift was pulled in a pair of Nike Frees by Shawn Anderson at 176 pounds. Something I still have not forgiven him for.
There is absolutely, without any question the scientific fact that a thick foamy heel underneath you is going to result in a less forceful lift and below your maximum output.
If you truly seek maximization of your lifts and strength, then I urge you to keep ’em in the closet and break out the cash.
The Science of Air Bags
Old time strongmen performed their feats barefoot. Modern day powerlifters will let it rip in Chuck Taylor’s. Pavel demos every image in his books swinging and moving the kettlebell barefoot. Throughout weightlifting time, we have found a way to receive the benefits of a minimal amount of material between our feet and the floor.
Think of this conceptually like an airbag in a car. When those crash test dummies drive head on into a wall they are thrown forward at maximum force and the only thing that stands between them and the immovable object that is a steering wheel or dashboard is the cushion of the air bag.
The air bag is there to lesson the force of two objects meeting.
Your foamy heel acts in this exact same manner. The ground is the steering wheel/dashboard, you are the crash test dummy and the foam heel is the airbag. Only, we don’t want an airbag between our feet and the floor because it’s critical that maximum force be exerted against the ground if we want to achieve our maximal weight lifted.
When you are squatting, deadlifting, cleaning, snatching or jerking at near maximal weight, at some point in the lift you are driving into the floor underneath the load of a weighted barbell.
That force your body and feet transmit against the floor is what creates the speed and power needed to execute the lift. It’s why a lot of P360 lifters will remove their shoes prior to a heavy deadlift, so that absolutely no force bleeds out into a foamy heel. The heel of a running shoe will catch and trap a lot of your body’s natural force, just like the trap the Ghostbusters would throw onto the floor to reel in Slimer.
Take this video of squats being performed at 135 pounds with typical running shoe.
The direction of force is shooting momentum anywhere and everywhere but upward. You can see the imbalance and shakiness of the lift, and this is just at a light load for reps. Imagine this amplified trying to squat a few hundred pounds or attempting to achieve a PR.
If you were to lay an egg down on the ground with the intent to crush it, would you first put a pillow over top of it?
When you pull a deadlift at anywhere close to your max, before you can even move the bar your weight gets thrown around like a lotto ball like the image above, if performed in a running shoe. Good luck trying to achieve your true max under that kind of set-up.
This is not a license to go barefoot for all lifts. Deadlifts are great to perform barefoot as the need for ankle mobility is extremely low and you remain grounded the entire time. Squats are questionable, it would greatly depend on one’s ankle mobility and if you are poor in that area I would advise against it. Never, under any circumstances should you Olympic lift barefoot as your feet reposition most of the time.
(Note: It is not uncommon to deaadlift in an Olympic/weightlifting shoe as there is thought it will engage the quads and help aid the lift off the floor. We do not recommend this as it will bring your torso angle more forward and create imbalance. To each his or her own, though. Possibly worth trying if you stick off the floor.)
What to Do?
Get yourself a good cross training shoe. My personal favorites are the Inov-8 F-Lite 195 (good for narrow feet, very light, not super durable), New Balance Minimus (the flattest option) and Reebok Nanos (wider foot, very durable, heavier).
Read some reviews and try one that seems good for you, but all three are better than your running shoes.
Do I Need Olympic Shoes?
While I am sure this will ruffle the feathers of the Oly community, I say, no. At least not as you start out. If you want to make the $200 investment before you find out if you even like and have good potential for Olympic lifts, by all means go for it as they will help. But I prefer the route of getting fairly decent at them prior to making that investment.
The heel of a good Olympic shoe is wooden or plastic, not foam.
Thus, it bleeds absolutely zero force under pressure and you maintain 100% of your force transmission against the ground.
In addition, it has a raised heel which can aid in ankle mobility (where a lot of people struggle) and improve the posture of the entire lift.
If you want to really maximize your potential, there is no question they help create a more stable and stronger squat, clean, snatch and jerk.
If you are more than a year in and lifting solid weight, get them. Now.
If really developing your strength and technique in the Olympic lifts (including all forms of squats) is a goal, get them.
They work. There is a reason that actual Olympians wear them. Spend the money if you want to get really good.
- Barefoot, or
- Minimalist/Cross Training Shoe
- Minimalist Shoe/Cross Training, or
- Olympic Weightlifting Shoe
- Minimalist Shoe, or
- Olympic Weightlifting Shoe
To truly maximize your gains there is little place for the running shoe in strength and conditioning.
That’s a wrap, kids. Ditch the running shoe, invest in a good minimalist cross-training shoe, and consider an Olympic shoe if you are serious in that style of lifting.
Dave Thomas is a coach and owner at Performance360 in San Diego, CA.