From weekend warriors to pro athletes, those of us concerned about maintaining a high fitness level rely on a strong set of core muscles to stabilize the body and allow us to perform to the best of our ability. The squat is one of the primary exercises in strengthening the core. As renowned strength coach Mark Rippetoe notes the squat is one exercise that works those core muscles.
In an effort to perform this basic exercise better, athletes look to improve form. For squats, this means reducing forward lean, getting the thighs close to horizontal, and keeping the hips at or below knee level.
What happens to the feet is a matter of debate. Some believe the feet should be flat on the ground. Others believe the heel should be slightly elevated. Those who believe in elevating the heel often choose running or weightlifting shoes.
Differences between running shoes and weightlifting shoes
At first glance, weightlifting shoes appear to be the better choice. Most weightlifting shoes come with a lateral stability that running shoes don’t offer thanks to a wider base and differences in construction, like a less flexible midsole. Moreover, running shoes are cushioned, which absorb energy when exercising. The weightlifter wants to redirect as much energy as possible during the movement vertically.
We assume the differences in shape, cushioning and construction between weightlifting shoes and other kinds of footwear will produce a different result when wearing the weightlifting shoes. However, scientific studies can show exactly what kinematic differences will manifest when wearing either type of shoe.
Effects on the body when using weightlifting shoes during squats
A study conducted by three researchers at the University of Northern Colorado observed the differences when fit, college-aged males performed repetitions of squats at 60% of their maximum ability. The study participants randomly switched between running shoes and an unnamed brand of weightlifting shoes. The researchers observed the range of motion (ROM), trunk displacement and ankle flexion.
The weightlifting shoes produced less trunk displacement than the running shoes. This means the athletes in the study exhibited less forward lean during the exercise. They were able to redirect the energy upward. The researchers surmised this was due to less stress on the lower back.
The weightlifting shoes produced a difference in peak ankle flexion. This was to be expected due to the lifted position of the heel in weightlifting shoes. The result was that it was easier for the study participants to maintain proper squat form during the exercise, with the thighs and hips closer to vertical and less forward lean. The knees more easily moved over the toes, reducing hip flexion, which also promoted better form and performance.
The participants in the study commented that they thought it was easier to perform squats in the weightlifting shoes than in the running shoes. This may have been due to the reduced stress on the lower back or through some other factors, such as the mental conditioning of being told you are using shoes specifically for weightlifting rather than for running.
Potential benefits of wearing weightlifting shoes during squats
For weekend athletes and non-professionals, the benefits of weightlifting shoes when doing squats may be negligible. It may even be more beneficial to wear shoes with less heel lift so that the novice can focus on proper form. For strength athletes or powerlifters, weightlifting shoes may help maintain form during heavy lifting or competition.
Proper form when executing squats will help prevent injury. The study results suggest that the weightlifting shoes promote better form, and should then help prevent injury. Athletes at any level of experience can benefit from this aspect of wearing weightlifting shoes while performing squats.