February 2018

Do specialty shoes boost weightlifting performance?

Sport-specific shoes may protect athletes from injury or enhance their performance. Do specialty weightlifting shoes offer these same benefits? What effect do the shoes have on posture, rearfoot force production, ankle range of motion, the ability to bend the knee deeply,  and other para­meters? Research is mixed.

By Jill R. Dorson

Weightlifting shoes generally employ an inflexible, noncompressible sole; rigid bottom; and a heel elevated typically by 2.5 cm.1,2 The design is to provide the weightlifter with a good base from which to lift, some protection for the lumbar spine, and improved lifting posture.

Saleena Niehaus, DPM, AACFAS, a foot and ankle surgeon in State College, PA, notes that the sole of a weightlifting shoes may be made of wood or thermoplastic polyurethane to improve stability by creating a rigid heel cup. The rigidity and stability of the shoe will allow for smoother landings in the snatch and clean-and-jerk movements compared with other athletic shoe gear, and that the elevated heel provides greater dorsiflexion at the ankle joint. “The slight elevation of the rearfoot relative to the forefoot may have a positive effect in increasing the activity of the quadriceps femoris muscles,” said Niehaus. “Increased activity of the quadriceps muscles enables the athlete to be more powerful as he or she returns from the bottom of a squat or reaches full extension through the lower extremity in the snatch or power-clean lifts.”

Sifting through the evidence

What evidence demonstrates that weightlifting shoes have an effect on weightlifting performance?

Researchers in a 2017 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research asked 14 recreational weightlifters to squat with 80% of their single-repetition maximum while barefoot on a flat surface, barefoot on a heel-raised platform, and wearing weightlifting shoes.3 The authors concluded that raising the heel either with a platform or a shoe did not significantly alter the biomechanics and was therefore unlikely to improve biomechanics or protect the athlete’s back during squats.

One consistency among studies of the usefulness of weightlifting shoes is that standardization across the research is needed, particularly the depth of squat.

Twenty-four male and female experienced weightlifters were asked in a 2016 study to perform back squats at 80% of their single-repetition maximum while wearing no shoes, wearing weightlifting shoes, and wearing running shoes. 1 The goal was to investigate how specialty shoes affect biomechanical loading during the exercise. The researchers concluded that weightlifting shoes only marginally changed biomechanical loading, and therefore they offered limited advantage to athletes.

Other research demonstrates that weightlifting shoes may help athletes with limited squat depth to achieve greater squat depth without compromising posture. 4 Male and female athletes of varying weightlifting experience performed squat exercise while wearing athletic shoes and again while wearing weightlifting shoes.

“In the novice lifters, we demonstrated a reduction in ankle angle and an increase in knee angle…both with and without load. This would suggest that there are some benefits for novice lifters, too,” said lead author Hayley Legg, MRes, FHEA, CSCS, ASCC, a senior lecturer in strength and conditioning science at St. Mary’s University in Twickenham, UK. “Even with small benefits, marginal gains can be achieved in a performance and recreational setting,” added Legg.

A 2012 study concluded that use of weightlifting shoes increased foot segment angle and decreased forward trunk lean.2 The study, which involved experienced college-aged weightlifters, concluded that wearing weightlifting shoes helped athletes achieve the recommended vertical position used for squatting.

Apples and oranges?

Although practitioners generally agree that using a weightlifting shoe at elite or novice levels is not harmful, comparing study results can be a challenge, with variability in the depth of the squat that study subjects were asked to perform, equipment used, and the subjects’ weightlifting experience.

Carl Valle, a track coach and sports science performance consultant based in Boston, observes that standardizing the depth of the squat among studies would be helpful in interpreting the data. “If you were to standardize the depth, then maybe there is something. The question is: What’s the advantage of going deeper? Maybe there is a benefit of that range or maybe they need [a deeper range] to compete properly. That’s my unknown territory.… What happens when you go really deep in a squat?”

Available research provides no clear answer to that question. For example, a 2015 study sought to determine whether weightlifting shoes were beneficial to rearfoot force production. 5 Twenty male athletes with a range of weightlifting experience were observed performing barbell back squats under 4 different conditions: wearing low-end weightlifting shoes, high-end weightlifting shoes, athletic shoes, and athletic shoes while elevating the heel on a weight disc. Athletes lifted 75% of their single-repetition maximum. The results were not what the investigators anticipated: Not only was there no effect on rearfoot force production, but there was also little-to-no change in the ankle range of motion or the ability to bend the knee to get a deeper squat.

Like many other researchers, Thomas Schermoly, lead author of the study, found the process frustrating and the results at odds with his expectations.

“We did find a few differences before and after the squat, but because that didn’t indicate differences in the motion,” those results weren’t relevant, Schermoly said. “I did mention toward the end of the study [publication] that there were limitations.… We weren’t able to control how each athlete descended and ascended. They were at different speeds, had different styles. Because we were looking at rearfoot stress production, we didn’t want to tell the subjects that they should push through the heels. We didn’t want it to alter the integrity of the study.” Schermoly noted that some study subjects were unable to achieve the requested 90-degree angle.

In addition to standardizing the depth of the squat, current research is focused on how weightlifting shoes can affect the biomechanics of only one movement—the squat—while the key moves in elite weightlifting are the snatch and the clean-and-jerk. Though squatting certainly plays a role in both moves, neither has been studied specifically.

“The squat is an integral part of both the snatch and the clean,” Legg said. “In order to lift more weight, [athletes] need to drop under the bar to catch it in a deep-squat position.” But Valle is not convinced that the existing research is applicable to elite weightlifters. “There is very little information.”

Whatever the benefit, it appears to be limited

Regardless of what the data demonstrate, many weightlifters, particularly at the highest level, wear specialty shoes. As Schermoly pointed out, “If you’re a top athlete, you want any advantage you can get.” Valle, the consultant, shares that observation.

“The subjective feedback from athletes is that they feel it’s not a luxury item, there’s a reason that the athletes want to wear them and that’s just the sense of security,” Valle said. “It’s a hard surface that they are pushing against. The feeling of stability that they gain, psychologically, there’s something there, it’s just comfortable.”

Weightlifting shoes are not inexpensive. Schermoly said the shoes purchased for his study cost $100 for the “low-end” shoe and $200 for the “high-end” shoe. For a recreational weightlifter or person using weightlifting as part of a workout regimen, such an investment may not be worth the price for a specialized piece of footwear that may not be adaptable to other activities.

Shutterstock.com 508616008

There are, however, other ways to replicate at least some of the feel and effect of a specialty shoe. Although most studies demonstrated no clear benefits to recreational weight­lifters from elevating the heel, it likely doesn’t hurt, and the elevation can be achieved in different ways. In Schermoly’s study, athletes wearing athletic shoes raised their heels by resting them on a 2.5-pound weight disc; a 2017 study had athletes standing on a raised platform. 3 Niehaus recommends shoe inserts that elevate the rearfoot and add stability to the shoe. Schermoly notes that elevating the heel using a weight disc would not be effective for more active moves such as the snatch or clean-and-jerk.

Similarly, Niehaus recommends wearing the weightlifting shoes for weightlifting only. “Weightlifting shoes are designed to be worn specifically for weightlifting,” she said. Although an athlete will be able to walk in a weightlifting shoe, they may be too stiff and heavy for other exercise.

Likely the only consistency among studies of the usefulness of weightlifting shoes is that more research and more standardization across the research is needed.

“The research on weightlifting shoes is limited with studies demonstrating varying results,” Niehaus said. “The issue lies in the lack of high-level, head-to-head blinded, randomized studies. To my knowledge, there are currently no studies evaluating performance of the Olympic lifts in weightlifting shoes. Unfortunately, this is a difficult undertaking. It certainly would be an area worth exploring further.” Such studies would require many participants and would have to control for all variables, from equipment to how the lifts are performed.

Valle notes that the true benefit of weightlifting shoes would come at the highest levels, where athletes are able to squat beyond 90 degrees. “When does it create benefit?” Valle asked. “Probably at the most extreme levels of depth. But most squat studies cut off where usefulness of weightlifting shoes may begin.”

REFERENCES
  1. Southwell DJ, Petersen A, Beach T, et al. The effect of squatting footwear on three-dimensional lower limb and spine kinetics. J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2016;31:111-118.
  2. Sato K, Fortenbaugh D, Hydock DS. Kinematic changes using weightlifting shoes on barbell back squat. J Strength Cond Res. 2012;26:28-33.
  3. Lee SP, Gillis C, Ibarra J, et al. Heel-raised foot posture do not affect trunk and lower extremity biomechanics during a barbell back squat in recreational weightlifters [published ahead of print June 19, 2017]. J Strength Cond Res. 2017:doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001938.
  4. Legg HS, Glaister M, Cleather DJ, Goodwin JE. The effect of weightlifting shoes on the kinetics and kinematics of the back squat. J Sports Sci. 2017;35(5):508-515.
  5. Schermoly TP, Hough IG, Senchina DS. The effects of footwear on force production during barbell back squats. J Undergrad Kinesiol Res. 2015;10(2):42-51.
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