While a pair of Chuck Taylors used to be all you needed to start CrossFitting, the state of our lifestyle in 2017 brings with it a whole new world of gear options. This new segment will explore the myriad wraps, straps, sleeves, shoes and other stuff used by CrossFitters to get an edge during workouts. First, we will explain “what the heck are these thangs?” Then we will examine the “why” and “when” surrounding commonly used gear- why someone might potentially use it, and when it is appropriate for use, both in terms of how long you’ve been CrossFitting and in what scenarios/workouts the item would be more or less useful.
What Are They?
Weightlifting shoes have been around for a long time, used by competitive Olympic weightlifters and powerlifters (suprise!) to aid in moving heavy weights around. Compared to a normal sneaker, weightlifting shoes (please don’t call them Oly’s) are usually heavier, with a flat sole and usually some sort of midfoot straps for a secure fit. Weightlifting shoes have a raised heel, usually .75-1” in height, made of hard, non-compressible material. Historically heels were made of wood, but that has generally been supplanted by some sort of hard plastic, mainly for cost savings. Nothing is cooler than the sound of a wood heel striking a wood platform- think of the sound of a well struck home run, generally without the roar of adoring fans.
Why Should I Use Them?
The main benefit of a weightlifting shoe is improved mechanical angles at the bottom of a squat position. Due to the raised heel your ankle has to perform less dorsiflexion (shins to shoelaces) to reach the bottom of your squat. Don’t confuse this with making dorsiflexion easier, it actually just reduces the demand for flexion due to the change in effective angle. Along with that, the weight, density, and flatness of the shoe increases stability, making you feel more locked in and cemented to the ground. Aside from that, weightlifting shoes have no magical properties.
When Should I Use Them?
Weightlifting shoes should be considered a useful tool, and used as such. It’s very easy for that tool to turn into a harmful crutch if you aren’t careful about how and when you deploy it. First, before you consider weightlifting shoes, you should be able to squat and squat well. If you are still learning to squat there is important proprioceptive feedback that a thick and incompressible shoe might mask. More importantly using a lifting shoe to overcome a lack of ability to squat due to some sort of flexibility or mobility issue amounts to pushing the problem down the line- and you will pay for it at some point. If this is your situation, your first priority should be to fixing what Kelly Starrett calls your open-circuit (lack of understanding, experience, or proprioception) and closed-circuit faults (mobility/flexibility and other joint/tissue restrictions) before relying on a $200 shoe to save you.
If you can already squat well, it is still worthwhile to use your lifting shoes sparingly, and to have a reason for doing so. Most “slow” lifts (squat, press, etc.) might be slightly easier with a lifting shoe, but if you aren’t a competitive lifter, the trade-off of less time spent in deep and full ankle dorsiflexion probably isn’t worth it. (Also, don’t be a jabroni and deadlift in lifting shoes- the raised heel is actually antithetical to your desired goal.) For the “fast” lifts (snatch, clean and jerk, etc) lifting shoes can be invaluable, as they allow you to catch with stability and authority in challenging positions, potentially saving you from overcompensating at other joints to save a lift. This is far more important in full versions of the lift- power cleans and snatches in lifting shoes are a bit easier due to the hard sole, but not incredibly so.
Finally, keep in mind that as a CrossFitter, training mixed modalities is the name of the game. You will inevitably encounter workouts where you have to run and overhead squat (Nancy) or do snatches and gymnastics (Amanda) and if you have gotten ultra reliant on a shoe to hit positions cleanly, you are asking for it when one of those workouts chews you up and spits you out.
But Which Shoes Should I Buy Tho?
I’m not trying to start a Reebok vs. Nike flame war (in this post), so I won’t get into this topic, other than to say that there is little actual difference between lifting shoes from the top brands- other than that some look awesome and some look like 70’s bowling shoes ;).