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Let’s Talk About Shoes

It’s no secret that CrossFitters love to accessorize. Like ladies with purses and men with watches, shoes to a CrossFitter are all about style, performance, and comfort. While some people may opt for a single shoe that does it all or multiple shoes meant for specific tasks, it’s important to know what’s available on the market and how they can help improve your performance in the gym.

The Barefooting Craze

By now, most people involved with CrossFit have seen a pair of Vibram Five Fingers, or ‘weird toe shoes’ as my friends call them. Over the past 4 years, these shoes have catalyzed a minimalist shoe revolution, prompting established companies like Nike, New Balance, Merrell, and Fila to fall into lockstep with market demand and create their own product lines.

People tend to ask, ‘why are you wearing shoes like that? Don’t you need cushioning and arch support?’ For all but those who have very messed up feet (typically from wearing shoes with lots of arch support for a long time), the answer is no. One of the best explanations I’ve hard on this subject compared the mechanics of the foot to bridge construction. The arch in the human foot is designed similarly to the concrete arches you see holding up bridges across the world. Arches are used because they actually become stronger and more stable as compressive force is pressed down upon them, making them the ideal structure to bear significant loads. In human beings, the foot arch acts the same way and becomes stronger and stronger as you allow it to brace the compressive force of the body during activity throughout life. Once you support that arch from underneath, you immobilize it, similar to putting a plaster cast on a broken arm. And we all know how quickly the muscles in a limb will atrophy when a cast has been on it for a while. The foot is brilliantly designed to brace the weight of your body when distributed correctly, but the arch will only strengthen and do what its meant to do by removing the support.

The Human Arch

The Human Arch

Minimalist Multi Purpose Shoes

Some people might be a little leery of training barefoot or in shoes like Vibrams because of the safety factor. Unless you really have your coordination and balance dialed in, certain exercises like box jumps, jump rope, and olympic lifting can be tricky. Dropping from even a height of a few feet onto a hard floor can cause a lot of pain in unshod feet, not to mention the possibility of rolling an ankle. For people who want to approximate barefoot training but with a bit more protection and cushioning, here are some great options:

Many of these were designed specifically to mimic barefooting, which results in a snug fit in the heel cup and a wide toe box in front to allow the toes to spread out. They all offer a thin layer of cushioning as well as a closed toe box to protect against hard landings and accidentally dropping plates. In addition to the benefit of the snug fit and minimal heel, these shoes are incredibly light, which can be a big factor in long workouts that include an exercise like toes to bar. The Minimus, Innov8’s, and Merrell’s are also designed to be a light trail running shoe, so they can serve many purposes in and out of the gym.

Lifting Shoes

Regardless of your shoe preference during CrossFit, it’s important to understand why people wear certain shoes while they lift weights. Olympic weightlifting shoes are supported by a wedged, wooden heel that is raised about 1″-2″. The sole of this wooden wedge is covered in tacky rubber and is squared off rather than rounded. This design makes the shoe as rigid as it can possibly be in order to aid in stability for the clean, snatch, and jerk. There is a great deal of instability involved in these lifts due to the explosive and athletic nature of them. You’re trying to control a heavy, fast moving weight through multiple positions. In order to land strong in the bottom position of each lift and control the weight, you want a shoe that will give you all the help you can get. A soft, cushiony shoe with a rounded outer sole will produce a weak drive into the floor and will be very unstable compared to a weightlifting shoe. As an extreme, picture how difficult it would be to try and clean and jerk a heavy weight while standing on a matress and box spring. The raised heel is also an important function of the shoe because it allows for a deeper squat with less ankle flexibility. With the heel flat on the ground, the angle between the tibia and the foot needs to be much more closed to get in a deep position than if the heel is raised a few inches off the ground. If you find yourself coming onto your toes at the bottom of a heavy snatch or clean and losing the bar forward, a raised heel might be the difference between being sucessful and missing the lift.

weightlifting shoe with a wedged heel

weightlifting shoe with a wedged heel

For lifts like the barbell press, squat, and deadlift, olympic weightlifting shoes can be effective thanks to the solid heel, but they’re not as necessary as during the olympic lifts. There is far less instability involved in powerlifting since the weight moves more slowly and under control. The main factor is being able to press firmly into the ground and engage the muscles correctly. This can be done using Five Fingers, minimalist shoes, dress shoes, or even barefoot. Anything that has a solid heel or no heel at all will be effective. A soft heeled, cushioned running shoe will diminish the amount of force you can generate into the ground and will reduce the amount of weight you can lift. Many powerlifters will deadlift in ballet slippers. For squatting, they typically use old Converse Chuck Taylor’s because of the solid heel construction that allows them to press outward, spread the floor, and engage the right muscles during the movement.

Regardless of your preference of shoe in the gym, it’s important to know the why certain shoes work better than others in certain situations. At one point or another, I’ve seen all of the shoes I listed above being worn by someone in our gym. All of the people I’ve talked to seem to be happy with their choices, so it’s a good bet you’ll find something you like among the shoes I mentioned in this article.

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