Weightlifting shoes — also referred to as squat shoes — in the gym are similar to what cleats are on a soccer field. They’re pieces of equipment that can support specific exercises, strength sports, and performance output goals. If you’re new to weightlifting shoes, then you likely have a lot of questions about whether you need them and what they do.
Weightlifting shoes can be somewhat pricey, so it’s always a good idea to spend some time researching them before blindly investing. In my coaching opinion, it’s important to understand what exactly weightlifting shoes can do for your performance. This knowledge can then help drive how you plan to use them and help you get the most out of them per your goals.
In this article, we’re going to discuss weightlifting shoes in-depth and I’m going to answer all of the questions that you might have about weightlifting shoes. Also, make sure you check out my weightlifting shoe guide video below!
What Are Weightlifting Shoes?
Weightlifting shoes are shoes designed to support the sport of weightlifting’s demands. The sport of weightlifting involves the snatch and clean & jerk and a weightlifting shoe’s construction was originally designed to promote lifting performance in these two movements.
However, with the growth of strength sports, an improved understanding of biomechanics, and increased validity of multiple coaching methodologies and applications, weightlifting shoes are now dynamic tools for a wide variety of lifters and strength sports athletes.
Weightlifting shoes are constructed with firm outsoles to increase stability, elevated heels which can support lifting mechanics, and additional mid-foot security to help lock down the foot when moving weight.
Why Wear Weightlifting Shoes?
As touched on above, weightlifting shoes are supportive pieces of strength equipment designed to promote performance in the sport of weightlifting and support lifting mechanics where an elevated heel is desired.
Weightlifters will often opt for wearing weightlifting shoes to support their performance in the snatch and clean & jerk. For powerlifters, they might opt for weightlifting shoes to support their performance in squats based on their lifting mechanics. For general lifters, they’ll typically grab weightlifting shoes for squats and other lower body exercises where an elevated heel assists their lifting mechanics and goals.
Weightlifting shoes are not limited to only strength sports athletes. In fact, a lot of lifters can benefit from weightlifting shoes especially when these shoes promote performance output and achieving greater ranges of motion while maintaining desired lifting mechanics. As long as there’s a rationale behind their use, weightlifting shoes can have multiple purposes in the gym and these purposes will be based on one’s goals and body type.
What Do Weightlifting Shoes Do?
When we elevate the heels during lifting with weightlifting shoes, we place the foot into an inherent varied level of plantar flexion. This means that a weightlifting shoe’s elevated heel will place the heel into a naturally elevated position in relation to the toes.
Plantar flexion is ankle extension, AKA it’s when we drive the toes down into the ground.
By placing the ankle into a degree of plantar flexion (extension) we then can create an environment that feeds better into dorsiflexion, or flexion at the ankle. Note, this does not mean we increase dorsiflexion with weightlifting shoes by having an initially plantarflexed (extended) ankle. Basically, by wearing weightlifting shoes we enable our body to better achieve positions while moving more seamlessly through various degrees of dorsiflexion.
It’s similar to standing and squatting on a hill with your heels facing up the hill and your toes facing downward. This squat-focused task is easy to do because we’re able to maintain balance better due to the elevated heel and even if we have limited dorsiflexion, to begin with, this initial plantarflexed position will assist with dorsiflexion capabilities.
I promise, if you’re brand new to weightlifting shoes, then it’s not as complicated as the more biomechanical and technical explanation above. Keep reading to learn more.
Who Should Wear Weightlifting Shoes?
In lifting terms, the above means that weightlifting shoes can be an awesome tool for helping lifters get into positions in exercises like the squat that they often feel limited with by their natural levels of dorsiflexion.
For example, if your ankles lack dorsiflexion to match the amount of hip flexion and balance you’re asking for of the body, then weightlifting shoes can be a great asset for your performance output.
Generally, lifters will be able to maintain more upright torso positions when achieving greater degrees of hip flexion with an elevated heel. This is why it generally feels easier to hit squat depth when wearing weightlifting shoes for some lifters. Factor in loading and we’ve now added a level of balance and bracing on top of the ankle mobility demands we require during various exercises and movements.
It’s fairly common knowledge that weightlifting shoes (AKA squat shoes) support squat performance, but that’s not all they’re limited to. They can also assist athletes in exercises like snatches, clean & jerks, split squats, lunges, and they can also be useful for some lifters with their body’s positioning and achieving greater ranges of motion on certain machines like the leg press and hack squat.
Weightlifting shoes are dynamic and they shouldn’t be limited to just the sport of weightlifting. There’s a reason heel wedges are commonly used for supporting certain lifting contexts and weightlifting shoes are essentially heel wedges that you wear on your feet.
That all being said and understanding their dynamic nature, who should wear weightlifting shoes?
- Weightlifting athletes
- Powerlifting athletes
- CrossFit athletes
- Lifters that want a heel wedge for certain lower body exercises
- Lifters that find weightlifting shoes help achieve better positioning on certain machine-focused exercises
At times, I hear some lifters say that weightlifting shoes are a waste and unneeded for many. This statement lacks context. As you can see by the above, when we use weightlifting shoes with intent and understanding we can get more out of them per our performance goals.
Does a true beginner need weightlifting shoes right away? Not necessarily. However, to play devil’s advocate with myself, if you’re coaching a beginner with heel wedges already, what difference is that from having them invest in a pair of weightlifting shoes?
In my coaching opinion, it’s always nice to have a pair of weightlifting shoes around just in case you need them (some models go for ~$80, so they’re really not that big of an investment).
They’re like a lifting belt or a pair of soccer cleats, you’re not always going to use them for your performance, but having them around can always be useful when they’re needed.
How Should Weightlifting Shoes Fit?
When sizing yourself for weightlifting shoes it can be a serious pain since a lot of sports apparel and shoe stores don’t carry them. This makes the buying process somewhat blind and leaves a lot of newer lifters who order online then try at home wondering, “How should weightlifting shoes fit?”
Unlike cross-training shoes or general wear shoes, you’ll likely want your weightlifting shoes to fit fairly snug. There’s a happy medium that you want in your shoes that limits the foot from sliding around during your lifts but also provides enough room to where your toes are not screaming every time you put them on.
How Tight Should Weightlifting Shoes Be?
I usually recommend lifters to have around ~.5″ of room at the toe to ensure their toes can breathe and splay.
This is also generally a good amount of room to limit sliding around and jamming the toes. The last thing you want is to be catching a clean & jerk and jamming your toes up in the bottom position of every single catch because your foot is sliding forward in your shoe.
Do Weightlifting Shoes Increase Ankle Mobility?
In short, no. Weightlifting shoes do NOT increase ankle mobility. What they do is create an environment that allows you to feed better into dorsiflexion during lower body squat variations.
When we begin lifting with a foot in a plantarflexed position we’re basically beginning our lifting with a slightly more forward knee position, thus why it feels easier to achieve greater ranges of motion with weightlifting shoes on. The belief that weightlifting shoes increase ankle mobility is a false narrative.
Yes, weightlifting shoes support squat performance and allow you to achieve greater ranges of motion by helping the knees track forward more and maintaining a more upright torso position, but they do not increase ankle mobility by themselves.
Essentially, you’re just creating a more forward knee position before you initiate your lifts and working with similar ranges of motion that you already possess. This more forward knee position will help you promote knee tracking which is why most lifters think their ankle mobility increase when wearing weightlifting shoes. Ankle mobility is not increasing, you’re just positioning yourself better to work with the ranges you already possess.
Where Can I Buy Weightlifting Shoes?
It can be super frustrating when trying to buy weightlifting shoes at a store. For whatever reason, companies typically don’t provide major retail outlets with weightlifting shoe models to sell in-store. My guess is since weightlifting shoes are so niche with their use that companies probably don’t have the inventory to stock every major retail outlet with a variety of sizes.
This is also the consensus and suggestion that my friends at Nike gave me when I asked them about this a few years ago. The lack of inventory would explain why most popular new models also sell out so quickly online.
That all being said, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost when it comes to finding pairs in store. In fact, newer weightlifting shoes like the Nike Savaleos — a budget-friendly “functional” weightlifting shoe — can be found at stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods.
However, not every location seems to have them in this example, so before going in I would highly suggest calling to check their inventory. My advice is to call specialty stores in your area that carry weightlifting gear and lifting equipment and niche strength sports gyms as they can sometimes carry certain models of weightlifting shoes.
This outreach should only take ~15 minutes and it will save you from trekking around and not finding any models to try on.
More Weightlifting Shoe Content
If you want to continue learning more about weightlifting shoes, I’ve built handfuls of articles discussing these shoes and contextualizing them in a variety of settings. Check out my additional weightlifting shoe content below!
- Weightlifting Shoes Vs Training Shoes Vs Barefoot Lifting
- Squat Shoes Vs Deadlift Shoes
- Should You Deadlift In Weightlifting Shoes? No, Here’s 3 Reasons Why
Weightlifting Shoe Takeaways
Weightlifting shoes can be beneficial to your lifting performance based on your individual needs and goals. It’s important to understand what weightlifting shoes do before investing because this can then help drive your intent of use to help you get the most out of your shoes.
If you have any additional questions about weightlifting shoes, feel free to drop a comment below or shoot me a message on Instagram (@jake_boly).