I received the following question the other day, and thought it'd make for a good Q&A to post here. Enjoy!
Q: I was hoping to get your thoughts on whether or not I should incorporate Olympic lifting shoes with my training. I tried them out the other day, and they helped me to squat pretty deep, which is pretty significant, as I've always struggled to even make it to parallel without the "butt-wink" happening. Would you recommend I make them a part of my training so that I can get the benefits of squatting?
A: This is a great question; unfortunately, it's not a simple answer - so bear with me!
First and foremost, if you're an Olympic lifter, by all means, wear Olympic lifting shoes. It's how you compete and specificity is important. And, as we know, competing at the highest level of athletics always suggests an element of assuming a greater risk to achieve a greater reward - at least as compared to "simply" training.
If, however, you're an athlete in a different sport - or just a general fitness enthusiast - I don't think they're necessary. And, they may even be problematic if long-term improvements to your movement quality and health are goals of yours. I'll explain - but first, we need to understand the two primary reasons folks wear them.
First, there is the firmness factor. O-lifting shoes have a very solid heel without "give;" this makes them a better platform against which to produce force, as compared to normal sneakers. This firmness isn't exclusive to O-lifting shoes; you'll also find it in some minimalist shoes, Chuck Taylors, or no shoes at all. Most powerlifters know this, and it's why they generally lift in "firm" footwear that allows better heel contact with the floor. This leads us to point #2...
There is a prominent heel-lift in these shoes. I've seen heel lifts ranging from everything from a 0.5 to 1.25 inches. In the sneaker world, however, everything is generally related in terms of heel-toe drop, or % grade. For a long time, the standard running shoe was a 12mm heel-toe drop from 24mm (heel) to 12mm (toe), which creates a 8% grade. The tricky part about interpreting what this means in the context of Olympic lifting shoes is that I can't say that I've ever seen anyone list the height of the toe, so we don't really know the grade. The 0.5 inch lifts are surely pretty moderate, as 0.5 inches equates to 12.7mm, whereas the 1.25 inch ones would be 31.75mm, which is actually in excess of what you see with the much maligned Nike Shox (25mm).
This obviously leads to the question, why isn't a firm shoe alone sufficient? What's the rationale for the massive heel lift? Effectively, it's a crutch that helps lifters with mobility or stability deficits reach squat depth easier.
To squat deep, you need to be proficient on a number of fronts, the foremost of which are:
1. You must have sufficient dorsiflexion range of motion (knee over toe ankle mobility).
2. You have to have sufficient hip internal rotation (can be limited by muscular, capsular, alignment, or bony issues).
3. You have to have sufficient hip flexion (can be limited by muscular, capsular, alignment, or bony issues; this typically isn't much of a problem).
4. You have to have adequate knee flexion (this is rarely an issue; you'd need to have brutally short quads to have an issue here).
5. You need to have adequate core control - specifically anterior core control - to be able to appropriately position the pelvis and lumbar spine. This is especially true if we're talking about an overhead squat, as it's harder to resist extension with the arms overhead.
If you lack ankle mobility, you either turn the feet out, go up on your toes, or rely on the crutch that a heel lift provides. By elevating the heel, rather than going from neutral to dorsiflexion, you are going from plantarflexed to neutral. Effectively, it brings you a few yards behind the starting line so that you don't false start, if that makes sense (if it doesn't, don't worry; I'll have more on this in the video below).
If you lack hip internal rotation, you turn the toes out so that you're internally rotating from an externally rotated position to neutral, as opposed to going from neutral to an internally rotated position.
I think that we all agree that these positional changes allow you to make up for a lack of mobility - but that doesn't mean they're necessary a good thing, as you're effectively loading an aberrant movement pattern. As Gray Cook has taught us, if you continue to pile fitness (strength) on top of dysfunction, bad things happen.
As you may have noticed, I've left out proficiency #5 from above: you have to have adequate anterior core control. And, it's because I've saved the best for last; this is a HUGE issue.
I'm going to let the cat out of the bag and say that I think we've "over-diagnosed" ankle mobility restrictions. Most people automatically assume that if they have a poor squat pattern, it's because they have an ankle mobility problem. I'd estimate that in 90% of cases of people who think their ankle mobility stinks based on a bad squat pattern, they actually test pretty well when you look specifically at the joint, as opposed to relying solely on a gross movement pattern. Why? There is a tremendous interaction between mobility and stability. In this video, I elaborate:
As further proof of the fact that different athletes will demonstrate their patterns of insufficient control of extension differently, check out these four posture pictures of athletes who had poor squat patterns. In the first, you'll find a pretty "classic" extension posture that's distributed over multiple joints. Note the anterior pelvic tilt and lordosis, plus the relatively neutral knee and ankle positions.
In the second, note the plantarflexed ankles; this athlete has shifted his "extension compensation" further down. Do you think he'll have much of a squat pattern with that resting presentation? He might have perfectly good ankle mobility, but he's completely unable to shut off his plantarflexors (calves); that's where he's "finding" his stability.
In this third example, the athlete has dumped forward at the pelvis and lumbar spine to create what could be considered a swayback posture - even though his ankles actually look pretty neutral.
Finally, we'll look more full-body for our fourth example. Obviously, this athlete is in a heavily extended pattern through the pelvis and lumbar spine, but note also the positioning of the arms; his lats are so "on" that he carries his elbow considerably behind his humeral head, and the scapula dives into anterior tilt. There's a forward head posture, and while you can't appreciate it well from this angle, this athlete also had a ton of "tone" in his scalenes, sternocleidomastoid, and subclavius. He found his stability further up the chain.
Every single one of these out-of-whack presentations is a way for the athletes to shift their faulty movement patterns around to "get by." Athletes are tremendous compensators - but they all do it differently. I think we can all agree that these are issues that should be addressed, right? Well, they were - and the athletes felt a lot better from the training interventions.
How does this relate back to Olympic lifting shoes, though? Well, every single one of these athletes could demonstrate a perfect squat pattern if I put them in a pair of shoes with this dramatic a heel lift. It's like giving the most uncoordinated kid in the neighborhood training wheels...for good. At some point, you've got to lose the training wheels and learn to ride the bike. And, at some point you need to stop covering up your poor movement patterns and work to address them - rather than just loading them - if you want to stay healthy.
To me, squatting with a pronounced heel lift is really no different than squatting through a "butt-wink;" they are both compensations to allow a lifter to maintain the position of the center of mass within the base of support in the face of a gross extension pattern. Both fundamentally alter the ideal squat pattern, though. Conversely, if you use goblet squat or TRX overhead squats to train the pattern with a subtle counterbalance, though, you're keeping the movement intact, but reducing the challenge to the lifter.
In folks who have really poor squat patterns, I'd much rather see them work to improve the squat pattern for a bit, as opposed to considerable loading of the classic back squat. While they're working on improving the pattern (through these exercises and other breathing and core stabilization drills), they can train the heck out of the lower body with deadlift variations, single-leg drills, barbell supine bridges/hip thrusts, sled pushing/dragging, and a host of other exercises. Once their squat pattern has improved, progressing to a front squat is a great first step, with the back squat coming a bit later on.
With all that said, before I get any hate emails, let me be abundantly clear: if you move well (i.e., have a good squat pattern to below parallel in bare feet), then by all means, feel free to use Olympic lifting shoes for your squatting and Olympic lifting, if it tickles your fancy. After all, it's only 5-10% of your training volume, most likely. Just make sure to a) only wear them for these exercises, b) maintain the underlying "heel-less" squat pattern, and c) pick the shoes with the smaller heel lift (0.5" instead of 1.25"). You might also consider wearing more minimalist footwear for the rest of your training sessions to "cancel" the O-lifting shoes out. And, again, if you're a competitive Olympic lifter, please feel free to rock whatever you want - and crush big weights doing so.
If, however, you're an athlete in another sport who uses squatting and Olympic lifting as part of your training, I don't think it's a useful addition. And, it's certainly not an appropriate initiative if you are just someone who is looking for a way to work around your poor mobility. Ignoring a fundamental movement flaw - and certainly loading it - will always come back to bite you in the butt.
Sign-up Today for our FREE Newsletter and receive a four-part video series on how to deadlift!