Weightlifting Shoes can Improve Your Back Squat

A few months ago I visited Deep South Barbell, a competitive powerlifting gym, and saw something odd. Two of the athletes were wearing weightlifting shoes—shoes with hard, inclined heels normally used in Olympic weightlifting. But mixing weightlifting and powerlifting…that’s like oil and water. I had to ask about this, so I caught the attention of Will, whom I watched squat almost 700 pounds, and asked him why he wore weightlifting shoes. He said, “I saw a guy at a meet wearing them and I decided to try it. Using them is the only way I’m able to still squat pain-free.” It turns out that science backs up his experience.

A recent study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research shows that weightlifting shoes offer some distinct advantages for barbell back squat.

Researchers set up an experiment by attaching reflectors to their subjects. They attached reflectors to the barbell, hip, knee, ankle, and toe. Subjects performed barbell back squats at 60% 1RM in running shoes and then in weightlifting shoes while researchers took all sorts of measurements from the reflectors. The study does not address this point, but from the diagrams I believe the subjects used a high bar back squat technique with the bar resting on their traps.

The results show that using weightlifting shoes means maintaining a much more upright torso during the squat. Weightlifting shoes decreased forward lean considerably compared to running shoes. Forward lean increases shear forces on your lumbar spine, so being able to maintain an upright torso is a huge advantage for athletes that are injury prone or limited in mobility.

Weightlifting shoes also showed greater activation of the quads. This is a pretty well-understood and accepted facet of using weightlifting shoes and high bar back squat technique. However, after my experience above, I decided to try weightlifting shoes with low bar technique. Yes, it sounds crazy, but it felt pretty good. I set my current squat PR using weightlifting shoes and low bar technique.

Unfortunately, the study ignored barefoot squatting. I cannot fathom why the researchers decided to use running shoes in the control group and not the shoes we’re born with that took 2.5 million years to design. I would have loved to see all three conditions compared. I am a big fan of squatting barefoot. I think the more efficient force transfer to the ground can be an advantage for strength training.

What do you think? Will you be changing your shoes for your next set of squats?

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