Home Blog Should You Wear Olympic Lifting Shoes?

Should You Wear Olympic Lifting Shoes?

Written on June 3, 2014 at 3:13 am, by Eric Cressey

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.

snatc345

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).

Red_&_Gold_Nike_Air_Shox

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.

Ext1

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.

Ext2

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.

Ext3

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.

Ext4

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.

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  • Phillip

    Great post Eric!
    I will say that the stability of Oly shoes is way, way beyond that of Chucks or even the new Reebok CrossFit Lite TR shoes. I don’t want the heel, but put up with it to get the extra stability.

  • Kevin

    Just getting into PRI. I believe they don’t mind a but wink and a little lumbar flexion with the squat pattern, especially goblet or the curved trap bar on the shoulder.
    Have I mis understood??

    Otherwise fantastic post, while you definitely stressed maintaining mobility and stability, I am gonna buy a pair and crush big weight

  • Patrick O’Flaherty

    Eric,

    I recall an ankle dorsiflexion scale of anything less than 4 inches from the tip of the big toe to the wall without the heel raising to compensate is considered poor range of motion. What are your thoughts on this?

  • Tyler Satnick

    Great article Eric. I have actually noticed the opposite of what you were discussing as it relates to core control and ankle mobility as well. In these cases the lifter overextends various spinal regions or all of them in order to stay upright as a result of poor dorsiflexion ROM (especially in the overhead squat/snatch). However I have a seen many cases of poor core control effecting squat depth like uou describe as well. The squat truly is complex which is why I’m so fond of the FMS placing it last in the corrective higherachy. If everything is is gravy it’s probably a problem specific to the squat pattern and not fundamental mobility and stability like we are discussing.

  • Guillermo Muñoz

    Great post Eric. It cleared some things up for me. I have a quick question, though.

    My squat pattern is very similar to the one you showed on the video and I have been abusing the use of Oly shoes to obtain a good one. My ankle mobility is not bad, but no great either— my knee just barely passes the toes. The issue is that I can’t use this range of motion when doing squats barefoot and I always feel tension on my tibialis anterior. What do you think might explain this tension and how do you think I can minimize it/eliminate it?

    Thank you.

  • Tyler Satnick

    ***i also have seen these extension strategies used to compensate for lack of overhead ranges in the OHS and snatch as it creates the “uprightness” necessary for load support up top. But the problem is actually not limited to the overhead squat as I see BOTH of these extension hacks show up on the standard high bar squat as well (as a way to work around poor shoulder motion as it relates to the rack position plus the ankle)

  • Nancy H.

    NICE NICE NICE evaluation of multiple issues that can trick you in to thinking in a one-sided fashion… The “If all you have is a hammer, everything you see is a nail” approach quickly produces less than stellar results, and I think you do a great job of laying that out!!

  • Rosanna

    Best article I’ve seen on this subject, I’ve posted it on my women’s FB weightlifting site, this question has come up many times. I’d reached this conclusion after an injury due to poor squat patterns, now I’m working on those in barefoot shoes.

  • Brent

    Eric – Why is it important to have good hip internal rotation for a squat? Is it simply to prevent too much hip external rotation? wouldn’t you want to control and prevent hip internal rotation during all exercises?

    Great article!

  • Boston Langley

    If there was a question I had regarding squat form, what look for, and how to address it, that question has been answered. Fantastic article.

  • James

    Eric-

    I have to disagree with the idea that Olympic lifting shoes are a crutch for a lack of ankle/hip mobility or core stability. I bought that argument for years and lifted instead in Merrell barefoot-style shoes (very similar to the New Balance Minimus that you endorse), at the time competing in powerlifting meets and squatting in the low 400s (to depth, no butt wink, as confirmed by video). I was convinced to try Olympic shoes and, after getting used to them, I would never switch back–the difference is huge.

    The heel lift isn’t just about range of motion or anything like that, but rather about quad activation as much as anything else — essentially, it’s easier to engage your quads in a low-bar squat with your heels lifted. I’m a firm believer that the idea that a raw, non-equipped lifter should wear Chucks and squat ultra wide and not care about his quads is simply wrong, an idea that carried over from Westside exponents but really only applies if you’re wearing a triple ply suit. If you’re a raw lifter, wear your Oly shoes, engage your quads, and get strong. The best explanation I’ve seen of the importance of Oly shoes for raw lifters, including low bar squatters, that I’ve seen is at the site 70s Big: http://70sbig.com/blog/2010/01/equip-for-the-quest-shoes-part-1/, http://70sbig.com/blog/2010/01/equip-for-the-quest-%E2%80%93-shoes-part-2/

  • Ray Krumme

    What are the specific breathing and core drills for butt wink/ anterior pelvic tilt? They are not mentioned in the article. Thanks!

  • Kevin,

    I think it’s important to separate loaded from unloaded flexion – definitely a big difference.

  • Hi Patrick,

    I don’t think it necessarily has to be 4″, but 2.5-3″ would be a good bare minimum to shoot for.

  • Great read, Eric, thanks for going into depth here! I’m very glad you brought up the SCM, scalenes, and subclavius stiff and short or “toned” issues. From your experience, what are the most common indications that cause these effects? One you mentioned was the overactive lats but I know there are a lot more that can cause these issues. Thanks for the help!!

  • Mark,

    They’re really just accessory respiratory muscles. If folks don’t use diaphragm effectively, they’ll over-recruit their “gills.”

  • Eric,

    Thanks, that’s what I thought…”gills”,haha, I like it.

    I was wondering, have you seen any correlation with overactive upper traps, pec major/minor, subscap, and/or supraspinatus and causing the overactive “gills” or vice versa? Or is the poor diaphram control solely to blame for the overactive gills? In some instances underactive mid/low traps and rhomboid are to the blame for the overactive upper traps et al which will happen with a lot of the kyphotic general fitness population who will also in turn have poor diaphramtic control. So in your experience, are they related or is this just the gradual deterioration of modern man’s posture?

  • Leroy

    What about actual dorsiflexion restriction? What then? Someone not having the ability to squat well because they are not learned squatters and those that can’t squat because they have no ankle mobility then what?

  • Leroy,

    It really depends if it comes from a structural ankle issue (bony block) or it’s because of soft tissue restrictions. In the former case, I’d be a “more okay” with it, but not in the latter.

  • Ryan Johnson

    Eric,
    Does the type of cleats you wear help our hurt you During pitching? If so what are so good ones in your opinion.

  • Ryan,

    I’m biased, but I think New Balance makes the most comfortable cleats on the market. This is a sentiment shared by just about every pro guy with whom I’ve spoken.

  • This is great. I just did a post on my site and linked back heaps to here as I have had a lot of CrossFitters ask me questions about this topic. Love your work. Always so educational and easy to read.

  • Great post eric, what if you have an equines foot (structural DF fixed at PG?)

    Thanks

    Steve

  • Tor André

    Hi!

    Wouldn’t putting the weight in front of the body as in front squats and goblet squats just be another way to compensate for lack of ROM? By having a counterweight you don’t need to be as flexible because you can more easily get the weight centered over your foot, just like when raising the heel.

  • Tor,

    Correct, but I view it as a more functional way that maintains the base of support we’d actually encounter in the real world.

  • Abdullah Hotaki

    19 years old, had this back strain for about 2 years now from a squat injury, this article is amazing, you are amazing, your strive to teach others about this problem is amazing. Keep doing what youre doing, ill let you know how my back problem goes in about 2 months. I was a phenomenal athlete, at 6’4ft 205lbs, i touched 11’9ft for my spike test( i play volleyball) at the age of 17!

  • Max Harris

    I am interested in the effect of typical weightlifting shoes with raised heel for masters lifters who are not able to catch the snatch or clean deep in the squat. I expect if their competition clean is really a power clean then they may be better at pulling from the floor with a flat shoe. Same for the snatch. If a lifter uses the split snatch do they get any advantage from a raised heel? I am 61 y.o. and while I am working on catching deeper and can now overhead squat and snatch balance the loads I can use for these exercises is still below what I can snatch in comp.


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