Squat shoes are a pretty common thing to see in the gym nowadays…they are so popular it’s almost worthy of calling them a fashion trend now with an increasing range of colours and styles available.
But what do they actually do?
How do they work and are they really worth the investment?
Squat shoes are technically weightlifting shoes and were originally designed for use with Olympic lifting, specifically for allowing lifters to get as deep as possible underneath the bar in a split or squat stance. This meant using footwear that would allow the back foot to flex so that the heel could be raised, while also allowing the ankle joint of the front foot to bend when in a split stance or, when in a deep squat position allowing the lifter to maintain a vertical trunk position but still being able to bend their knees and tilt their skins forward without their heels coming off the ground.
Normal gym shoes no longer became appropriate as they restricted movement of the ankle joint and limited the ability of the lifter to propel their shin forward (1).
So if we aren’t using them for Olympic lifting and are just squatting in them, what does this mean for us?
Well, a study by Sato et al. (2012) investigated the body’s mechanics when wearing lifting shoes compared to normal everyday running shoes. What they did discover was that when wearing the lifting shoes, the lifter was able reduce the overall trunk lean, increase the knee flexion and decrease the ankle flexion, leading them to theorise that weightlifting shoes could be used by those who display a significant forward trunk lean or those who are looking to increase the activation of the knee extensors (Quad muscles). Supporting this was another study showing that moderate dorsiflexion (reducing the distance between your foot and shin at the ankle) does activate leg muscles differently (Bourgit et al., 2008).
Interestingly enough, Sinclair et al. compared the difference between normal cushioned running shoes, barefoot and weightlifting shoes when used in a squat completed a study in 2014. This study demonstrated that squatting in running shoes or barefoot actually had similar effects on technique and muscle activation, which is different to what has been thought, however, this is the only study showing this at this stage.
Another point to consider is that if you do have poor ankle mobility or foot stability the lifting shoe will place your foot in a posturally advantageous position (Power & Clifford, 2012), something you will likely have difficulty doing on your own, which of course, in turn, will assist the lifter with improving their technique and range of motion.
So what does this all really mean and not sure if a weightlifting shoe is right for you?
If you are one of these 3 people below, then weight lifting shoes certainly have their benefits:
- Have poor structural ankle mobility that won’t get better with rehabilitation or mobility exercises
- Suffer from or have previously suffered from lower back issues
- Experience a significant forward trunk lean which affects your ability to reach depth in the squat
People suffering from the above may consider investing in a pair of squat shoes, not only to be able to perform the movement better but to enable the body to become stronger in the optimum positioning.
However, aside from this, for the majority of lifters weightlifting shoes seem to be being used as a quick fix for underlying movement, mobility or strength issues that could otherwise be addressed through carefully selected exercises and specific programming to work on the areas of weakness.
- Are your ankles immobile due to tight calf muscles?
- Are your calf muscles tight because your hips and glutes aren’t doing the work they are supposed to?
- Do you experience a significant forward trunk lean because your core is weak and it struggles to maintain your upright positioning?
- Are your lower back extensors weak resulting in the same issue?
- Are your adductors more immobile than your abductors, preventing you from reaching good depth during the squat?
There are plenty of factors to look at before purchasing a pair of lifting shoes. The important thing to take away from this is ensuring that if you do use them it is not for a quick fix as that could still mean getting injured at a later date because you didn’t address an obvious issue at the time when it wasn’t an injury.
So do you need squat shoes?
But don’t use them as a Band-Aid to fix an underlying issue that requires more attention than using a piece of equipment that is designed to enhance performance, not fix problems.
"The History of Weightlifting Shoes". Physical Culture Study. N.p., 2016. Web. 9 Dec. 2016
Sato K, Fortenbaugh D, Hydock DS, & Heise GD. Comparision of back squat kinematics between barefoot and shoe conditions. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching. Nov 2013; 8(3): 571-579
Schoenfeld BJ. Squatting kinematics and kinetics and their application to exercise performance. JSCR. January 2010; 24(12):3497-506.
McKenzie DC, Clement DB, & Taunton JE. Running shoes, orthotics, and injuries. Sports Medicine. Sept 1985, 2(5); 334-347.
Sinclair J, McCarthy D, Bentley I, Hurst HT & Atkins S. The influence of different footwear on 3-D kinematics and muscle activation during the barbell back squat in males. European Journal of Sport Science. 2014; 00(00):1-8.
Power V & Clifford AM. The effects of rearfoot position on lower limb kinematics during bilateral squatting in asymptomatic individuals with a pronated foot type. Journal of Human Kinetics. 2012; 31:5-15
Image courtesy of T nation