This week we are going to discuss popular footwear for individuals interested in training for strength. More people than not choose footwear for function over form. However, if you are someone who often chooses the latter of the two options who have probably made decisions based on what the footwear does for you, not necessarily what it is doing to you. Let me break that down just a little bit:
Heeled shoes such as used in weightlifting allow many lifters to achieve a lower squat position via accommodation of ankle flexion. A common misconception is that these shoes increase ankle mobility. The fact is they reduce ankle dorsiflexion demands of a low squat by pre-setting the ankle into a greater range of plantar flexion. So, you are not actually improving ankle mobility so much as you are avoiding ankle movement.
“What does it really matter so long as you were able to squat deeper?”
In this example the shoes did allow for you to squat deeper but, through accommodation of ankle flexion you have also reduced the need for the foot to be strong and stable. A strong foot sets a foundation for ankle mobility while directly contributing to hip stability and knee tracking. So even if you no longer need deep ankle dorsiflexion to achieve a lower squat you have not fixed the problem of poor foot strength which was more than likely the linchpin of your ankle mobility.
Weightlifting shoes are not all bad though. There are certain individuals with allometric proportions who cannot squat to what is considered “parallel” without flexion at the lumbar spine. For these individuals weightlifting shoes could be the lesser of two evils between spinal rounding vs reduced foot strength and stability.
Another example of what footwear does for you and to you is the iconic Chuck Taylor. I believe this shoe gained popularity due to it being minimal, flat, and cost effective. The problem is the narrow width of construction and the upward curvature of the toes. This upward curvature is referred to as toe springs. Toe springs like heel elevation is a shoe construction feature which immobilizes the forefoot and toes. By immobilizing this area, the foot is required to work less in normal gait activities which often improves the out of box comfort in a pair of new shoes. This is incredibly problematic for a strength athlete as forefoot mobility (the ability to splay the foot) is crucial for maintaining center of mass pressure, the foot’s ability to stabilize the ankle/tibia, and ultimately knee extensor strength.
Sensory motor feedback is also crucial for your brain to coordinate your body in space especially when load and high levels of force are involved. Shoes which immobilize the foot/ankle alter sensory feedback which changes the motor reaction of up (or down) stream systems.
So what shoes do I recommend? Well to be honest, there is not one type or brand of shoe that is the best. I generally recommend lifters to be barefoot more often than not, but I realize the practical limitations of this. That said, I encourage most of the people I work with to explore their joint ROM, stability, and sensory feedback in loaded movement while being barefoot. I also do not believe its bad to train with shoes on for most of your training. If you are someone though who has stability challenges or joint pain caused by poor movement patterns you need to do your due diligence and remove the foot coffins that prevent you from improving.
Remember, shoes are mostly made for comfort and fashion while being marketed for function.