If you've ever been to a CrossFit class or a gym where olympic lifting is taught, you've probably seen weightlifting shoes before. They're colloquially known as Oly shoes, and to the unfamiliar eye, they look like weird platform wedge sneakers. In reality, they're anything but a fashion statement: accomplished powerlifters swear by them for the solid foundation and stability they provide.
But those who are newer to the sport are often unsure of whether or not they need to invest in a pair. Here, experienced lifters and coaches confess whether you really need to wear them, and why. (Related: 3 Myths About Heavy Lifting That Women Need to Quit Believing)
Do I Need Weightlifting Shoes?
Experts agree that if you're not looking to improve your weightlifting performance in a significant way, then you probably don't need these shoes. But if you're lifting on a regular basis and want to get better, go ahead and get yourself some—after you've learned proper mechanics and movements for your lifts. "Once you are committed to the sport and consistent in training, a good pair of weightlifting shoes will be the most important piece of equipment you need to improve performance," says Lisa Reed, C.S.C.S., owner of Lisa Reed Fitness.
They can be helpful at any level, too, regardless of how light or heavy your lifts are. "It's a common misconception that an athlete needs to be at a certain level, or lift a certain amount of weight, before they get to wear lifting shoes," says Blake Shutterly, a CrossFit Level 2 trainer at Neo Fifth in NYC. "But they aren't something that needs to be earned. It's a pair of shoes!"
What Do Weightlifting Shoes Do, Exactly?
They won't suddenly turn you into a pro athlete, but "weightlifting shoes have a lifted heel, which will increase the ankle's range of motion, or the ability to stretch the Achilles," says Reed. So if you have a hard time sitting all the way down into a squat, they could help you achieve greater depth. "They also allow for hip flexion and extension in all of the Olympic movements," adds Reed, meaning they help you move through the full range of motion required for powerful lifts like squat cleans and snatches.
Weightlifting shoes can also help you lift more weight, says Mat Forzaglia, C.P.T., a CrossFit coach at Neo Fifth. If you're wondering how that works, it's pretty simple: "They give you such a solid and stable surface that they allow you to generate more power in your lifts," he explains. Any sneakers with cushioning, like running shoes, allow your feet to sink into the cushion, which means you absorb some of the force that's generated when pushing out of the bottom of a lift. (Not sure powerlifting is for you? These Instagram girls will inspire you to give it a try.)
When You Shouldn't Wear Weightlifting Shoes
Important information alert: "Weight lifting shoes are only for weightlifting," says Forzaglia. That means if you're doing back or front squats, clean and jerks, snatches, or overhead squats, they'll probably help you out, and it doesn't matter if you're going for a PR or working with a lighter weight.
But Forzaglia says weightlifting shoes and deadlifts do not go together. Why? The shoes raise your heels, which means you would have to pull the bar a further distance when lifting it from the ground—and that makes it harder to actually get it off the ground. Weightlifting shoes can also shift your weight forward, making it more difficult to get into the right position for the lift. Of course, there's an exception: Some people purposely train this way to help them get stronger at their deadlifts, but Forzaglia says it should only be done under the guidance of a trainer or a coach.
Otherwise, if you're busting out a workout that involves both weightlifting and other activities (like box jumps or running, for example), Reed recommends a crossover shoe that doesn't have much cushion or a raised heel platform. And don't wear your weightlifting shoes home, or when you're going about your everyday business, says Forzaglia. Doing so means you won't reap all the benefits you can from them, and they'll wear out insanely fast.
How to Pick A Pair of Weightlifting Shoes
Experts say the best way to figure out which weightlifting shoes are best for you is simply through trial and error. "As much as we'd all love to have that Cinderella moment where you try on your first pair of Oly shoes and they magically fit, that's usually not the case," says Shutterly. "There are so many different kinds out there now, so there's no real way to say which are best. They're made of different materials, different heights, and different weights."
Head to a store and try out a few different kinds—Shutterly says brands like Nike, Inov-8, Risto, Reebok, and Adidas all have good options—before making a commitment. Focus on how they feel and move—you can even move through different lift positions (without the weight, obviously) to get a better idea of how they'll feel in the gym.