In the gym, not all footwear is created equal especially if you’re training for strength and power. We all know shoes can be important for athletic performance and beneficial, but how do they influence lifting performance? For example, if we’re squatting and deadlifting, do we need shoes?
One of my favorite nuanced topics to dive into and discuss is footwear for weight lifting. There are a lot of misconceptions out there in regard to what footwear is best for lifting weights.
If you can understand what types of footwear or lack thereof can benefit your lifting performance, then you can become even more dynamic with your training.
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Are Shoes Necessary for Deadlifts and Squats?
Yes, shoes are not necessary for deadlifts or squats. It’s important to understand though that your footwear choice for deadlifts and squats can influence your overall movement mechanics and performance output.
This is due to different shoes providing varying levels of stability and heel heights which can alter how we stabilize the body in deadlifts and how much ankle mobility we need to achieve certain depths in squats.
For squats and deadlifts, you do not necessarily need shoes to excel and you can perform optically barefoot. However, certain deadlift and squat shoes can help performance in some contexts and they can be useful to have for those in crowded commercial gyms where going barefoot is not an option, but shoes (and specific squat and deadlift shoes, at that!) are by no means a must-have if you prefer to squat and deadlift barefoot.
If you’re only here for a quick answer, then hopefully the above can help answer your ask. Below, I’m going to dive into the more in-depth “whys” behind training without shoes and with certain shoes for deadlifts and squats.
Why Do People Deadlift Without Shoes?
There are multiple reasons why lifters will do deadlifts without shoes. The first and common reason is that, without shoes, lifters will be closer to the ground. This can help decrease the total range of motion one needs to lift the weight which can positively influence performance when working at or near maximal loads.
In a lot of situations, super heavy deadlifts can be a game of inches. So, if we can limit an extra .5″-1″ on our deadlift range of motion, then, in theory, we may be able to improve our performance further.
The second reason which also stems from the first is to feel more connected with the ground. Deadlifts start with the feet and if we can create a more stable base to lift from by fully grounding the feet, then we’ll feel more stable during our pull. This is an essential key for strong deadlifts, especially when breaking the floor (initiating deadlifts).
The third and more complex reason is that shoes can alter our deadlift mechanics. Let’s say we’re wearing a thick pair of running shoes with a high heel-to-toe drop for deadlifts. This thicker pair of shoes with a slightly elevated heel will change our deadlift setup positioning slightly. This is why I also recommend NOT deadlifting in weightlifting shoes.
Subtle changes can shift how we execute deadlifts with consistent form. If you want to test this, do a few lighter slower-paced deadlifts barefoot, then use a thicker pair of shoes or elevate the heels. You’ll likely notice right away that your positioning changes and your pull feels slightly different, and these are generally not beneficial changes.
The Takeaway: Lifters deadlift without shoes because they want to fully ground the feet and feel stable, limit their total range of motion, and maintain consistent deadlift form to properly leverage the muscles used in deadlifts.
What Are Good Shoes to Deadlift In?
If you don’t want to deadlift barefoot or you physically can’t due to gym limitations and rules, then you’re likely wondering what types of shoes will work best for deadlifts. The best shoes for deadlifting will have two key attributes in common, 1) they’ll have a zero drop, and 2) they’ll have minimalist stack heights.
The first point about zero drop entails shoes that have a 0mm heel-to-toe drop or offset. These are shoes that replicate a barefoot positioning as they’ll have no elevation between the base of the heel and forefoot.
Some great examples here, include shoes like barefoot shoes, Converse and Vans, and deadlift slippers and shoes. These are all options that are commonly used for deadlifts for their “barefoot-like” positing in regard to their offset.
The second point about minimalist stack heights includes shoes that have very thin soles separating the foot from the floor. This provides a very “natural” feeling with the ground and limits the overall range of motion that a shoe will add to your deadlift range of motion.
Some great examples here, include barefoot shoes, deadlift slippers, and deadlift shoes. All of these options have very minimalist soles that are perfect for deadlift performance.
The Takeaway: The best types of shoes for deadlifts will have 0mm heel-to-toe drops and minimalist stack heights to decrease the range of motion that you need to lift and to promote overall stability.
Why Do People Squat Without Shoes?
Generally, lifters and athletes will squat without shoes for two key reasons, 1) they enjoy feeling the ground to the fullest with their foot when training for stability purposes, and 2) they genuinely enjoy training barefoot and it feeds well into their squat movement mechanics.
When we squat without shoes, it’s important to recognize how lifting barefoot will change ankle mechanics. If we don’t have any form of heel elevation, then the ankle will usually be required to move through greater ranges of motion to achieve certain squat depths.
For context, let’s compare a weightlifting shoe to barefoot lifting. A weightlifting shoe will provide you with an elevated heel that can range anywhere from .6″-1″ in height. This elevated heel position will place the foot into a plantarflexed position before initiating the lowering portion of the squat.
If we start the foot in a plantarflexed position in a squat, then we can generally promote better knee tracking mechanics over the toes. The elevated heel is placing the ankle into an environment that will better feed into dorsiflexion.
If we can promote more knee tracking with an elevated heel, then we’ll change the demands required from the body when achieving certain squat depths. Neither squatting barefoot or with shoes is necessarily better than the other, they’re just different in regard to what demands they’ll place on the body when working to achieve certain squat depths.
This is why tall lifters with really long legs will often opt for weightlifting shoes because the elevated heel allows them to achieve better squat depths without form breakdown from things like folding over at the torso in their squats. A weightlifting shoe will feel more natural for them versus someone who may have shorter legs that feels comfortable training barefoot.
How Much Do Squat Shoes Help?
How much weightlifting shoes (squat shoes) help depend on multiple factors and no two lifters are the same. In general, weightlifting shoes can help some lifters achieve greater squat depths while maintaining more upright torso mechanics.
There are three key aspects to look at when discussing how a pair of weightlifting shoes can influence one’s lifting squat performance.
- Current Squat Form Abilities: Your training age and squat abilities can play a role.
- Anatomy and Anthropometrics: Height and limb lengths can play a role.
- Mobility Levels: Your current mobility levels can also play a role.
All three of these can play a fairly large role in how much a pair of weightlifting shoes can support your lifting performance. This is why there isn’t just a one-size-fits-all answer here that goes something like, “Weightlifting shoes help this much for everyone and so forth.”
To take it a step further, let’s look at a practical example. Let’s compare a taller lifter who just started lifting and compare them to a shorter lifter who’s been training for years.
The taller lifter could struggle with things like maintaining their balance and hitting full range of motion in their squat, while the shorter lifter has better mobility due to their training history and may find it easy to hit full squat depth. In this example, weightlifting shoes could be more beneficial for the taller newer lifter as they’ll support their performance to a greater degree.
The Takeaway: Squat shoes/weightlifting shoes can help a lifter’s performance to various degrees based on multiple factors that can influence how one moves and executes squats.
What Are Good Shoes to Squat In?
Good shoes to squat in will possess two keys attributes. First, they’ll provide you with some level of stability that will not compress under whatever weight you’re using to squat with. Second, they’ll be wide enough to promote toe splay so you can grip the ground and stabilize the feet.
The first aspect is key for lifters that are starting to take their squatting more seriously and are adding more load to their training. If a shoe is compressing under the foot when we’re lifting, then we can run into issues with stability which can hinder long-term performance.
Squatting in shoes that compress a lot when lifting is like building a house on a shaky and muddy foundation. If the feet don’t feel stable and grounded, then we can have our squats mechanics shift all the way up the chain, so from the feet up through the torso, we may experience form discrepancies.
The second aspect is key for promoting balance and furthering stability. If a shoe is so narrow that we can’t fully grip the floor with the feet, then we can once again run into squat form breakdown and general discomfort. When we load the feet, it’s normal for them naturally widen a little bit so it’s important to have shoes that interact well with our foot’s width.
Some great examples of shoes to squat in if you’re not going barefoot include cross-training shoes, Converse and Vans, and weightlifting shoes.
The Takeaway: Good shoes to squat in will provide us with a stable base and will be wide enough to accommodate our foot’s width and promote toe splay so we can fully grip the floor.
My Coaching Background
I’ve been personal training and coaching for nearly a decade and have my M.S. in Sports Science. In that time, I’ve helped a variety of lifters and athletes pursue and accomplish their goals while helping them find the right gear (tools) to achieve the task at hand.
There are multiple aspects that can influence whether it’s best for you to squat and deadlift barefoot or with shoes on. What’s most important is that you’re considering the multiple layers and factors that can come along with your footwear choices and how they can influence lifting performance.
You can certainly squat and deadlift without shoes with no issues, but I’d ask, is this optimal for your performance goals?
If you have any questions on this topic, drop a comment below or reach out to me personally via Instagram (@jake_boly).