What gym shoes should I get? I get this question quite often, probably due to the fact that there’s a pile of shoes beside my computer in the gym, but it’s a question that I wish the people wearing their brand new Nike runners would ask more often.
For you busy folk, here’s the best and worst footwear to wear in the gym, if you’re interested in more details, read on afterwards
- Olympic Lifts and Variations: Olympic lifting shoes, no surprise here look at the 2016 Olympic games, I didn’t see many running shoes…I’m not even going to address this later as most of you doing the Oly lifts already know this
- Narrow to Mid Stance Squatters: Olympic lifting shoes, a small percentage may do better with flatter shoes if they have the requisite mobility, and athletes may want to consider barefoot
- Wide stance squatters: Chuck Taylors or wrestling shoes, look for the flattest sole and the least cushioning
- Bench Press: If you use a high arch and tuck the feet behind you, but your federation requires you to have flat feet, use olympic shoes (you can get up to 2″ heels for the IPF). If you bench flat footed use Chuck Taylor’s or another flat soled shoe
- Deadlift: barefoot, deadlift slippers or Chuck Taylor/equivalent
- General training shoe: barefoot/rubberized socks, New Balance Minimus, Chuck Taylor/equivalent
- Worst Footwear to wear for lifting: Running shoes (worst), most cross trainers (almost as bad)
So looking at this list you’d think you’d see a lot of people in bare feet, Chuck Taylors, Olympic lifting shoes, and minimalist shoes at the gym, and guess what? If you go to a serious powerlifting gym or athletic training facility, it’s exactly what you’ll see, but head to your average public gym and what do you see speckled all across the gym floor? Runners with massive heel cushioning (the worst is nike shox, thank god those have almost gone extinct).
We all know the newest Nikes make the best Instagram photos, but after that their benefits abruptly stop. On the soles of your feet are some of the most important pressure sensors (proprioceptors) in your body, they communicate to the spine and brain where your centre of mass is in relation to your the centreline of your body, they are responsible for reflexively firing the appropriate muscles to keep you from face planting in epic fashion while you stand and wait for the guy to finish curling in the squat rack. Those proprioceptors also allow you to intentionally change the focus of an exercise to accentuate the contraction of a certain chain of muscles just by placing the weight in different areas of the foot, for instance, want some more glute on the squat? Get your weight on your heels. Want more quadricep activation? Put some pressure on the ball of your foot. Want more lateral stability and to control the knees from caving in? Grind your feet into the floor so there’s some pressure on the outside of the foot. Each one of these actions signals to the body that you may fall towards the direction of the weight shift, so reflexively it will fire the muscles that will push you back towards centreline. If you buy something with even small amounts of cushioning, you reduces the strength of these reflexes resulting in reduced muscle activity, poor balance and delayed muscle firing, less total weight lifted, and you may complete that faceplate (probably not, but THAT would make a great instagram post).
So you’re all grown up now, you’re serious about training now and are ready for some serious footwear upgrading, so what should you get? I’m going to break down shoes by their usage and give you a little better idea of which ones you should consider
If you use a narrower to mid stance more quad dominant squatting style, an olympic lifting shoe can help put even more pressure on the ball of the foot allowing for more quad activation. The raised heel acts as artificial ankle range, allowing the knee to travel further past the toes and the increased joint angle at the knee again allows for more quad activation. These can be especially useful for taller lifters who must stay more upright to avoid falling forward. Heel heights range from 0.5 inches (something like the Adidas powerlift trainer or some Rogue Do-wins) to the standard 0.75 inches (the most popular being the Adidas Adipower and the Nike Romaleos) to some models going as high as 2inches, although these are much rarer and harder to find. Choose your heel height by finding the lowest heel that allows you to hit full depth without any serious movement compensations. Long term this will allow you to get the benefits of using a raised heel while still getting significant contribution from the glutes and other important squatting muscles that can add to you total poundage lifted.
the Adidas Adipower, my personal favourite squatting and olympic lifting shoe
while there are a plethora of options for olympic lifting shoes, you’re looking for some main things when buying a pair:
- Hard heel material – avoid rubber or any type of foam, no matter how hard it may feel to your hands, it will compress under high loads
- Metatarsal strap – lock the foot in, may control some pronation or deformation of the foot under load
- Correct heel height for your squatting style
when in doubt, choose from the two most popular shoes out there, they’re popular for a reason: if you have a narrower foot, buy the Adidas Adipower, if you have a wider foot, buy the Nike Romaleos.
If you use a wider stance, use a flatter shoe to allow more glute and hip activation with slightly less contribution from the quads; the less cushioning the better. The all time classic is the original Chuck Taylor; I don’t have any concrete data in front of me, but I’m willing to bet that more world record squats have been set in this shoe than any other shoe on the market. Sadly, the new Chuck Taylors have more cushioning and sadly are not as good as the predecessor for our intended purposes. Some other options include:
- Rubberized socks such as those by pedestal footwear (may not be legal for competition in your federation, worth checking into)
- Chuck Taylor knockoffs with removable insoles, and take the insoles out
Chuck Taylor knock offs may be the best option as they allow you to upshot
The Pedestal Footwear rubberized socks (thanks to Tony Gentilcore for letting me know these exist)
Lastly if you’re an athlete no matter what stance you use, you may want to consider minimalist options or barefoot. Minimalist shoes or barefoot squatting will require you to make small corrections in foot posture to maintain balance and apply power, much as you need to do while jumping, running, or cutting on a field or court.
Anything that allows you to grip the floor with a solid connection is good to go. Some lifters who lift in the IPF or other federations that require a totally flat foot may want to consider olympic lifting shoes if they bench with a large arch, this will allow you to tuck your feet further underneath you while keeping the feet flat on the floor, many female benchers with great spinal mobility will bench like this with great success. I’ll repeat this for the last time, but again, we’re looking for as little cushioning and the best connection to the ground.
You’re looking for the lowest profile hardest soled shoe you can find, if you deadlift conventional you want as close to barefoot as you possibly can, reducing the total range of motion of the lift. For competition you can get deadlift slippers, which are really glorified socks but fit the legal requirements as footwear for most powerlifting federations. If you deadlift hybrid or sumo style, you still want to be as close and connected to the ground as possible, but you also want something the you can push out against to allow for better glute and hip activation, again something like the original Chuck Taylor that allows you to sit inside the sole works best. If you don’t have competitive plans, or just want to do a majority of your training barefoot, this is also a great option
Best General Training Shoes:
If you don’t have competitive goals and just want a good all around shoe to lift in, Chuck Taylors, the aforementioned rubberized socks, or the New Balance Minimus MX20 are your best options. Although the original Chuck Taylor is tough to beat, people with wider feet may find them uncomfortable for longer periods of time or downright unbearable, this person may benefit from the wider toe box of the New Balance, or could go with something like the Pedestal 2.0 sock (I’ve yet to hear of anyone who’s had fit issues with these). I spend my entire days in the gym, and when I’m just training other people, but need to be ready to demonstrate an exercise at a moment’s notice, I’m in my MX20s all day.
The timeless classic, the original Chuck Taylors
For what it’s worth, I personally use the Adidas Adipower for squatting, Chuck Taylors for benching and deadlifting, and either barefoot/socks or the Vibram Five Fingers for kettlebell work, and whatever I’m wearing for general training and accessory/machine work. Hope you enjoyed reading this article and feel free to shoot me any questions you may have