Do your heels come up when squatting? Do you feel like you get thrown forwards as soon as you come out of the hole? If the answer is yes, you probably have limited ankle mobility. Does this mean you absolutely need a heeled squat shoe to fix it?
No. But that being said, it can be very helpful to some while actually detrimental to others. Let’s explore when and why some lifters decide to use “squat” shoes.
Squat Shoes Explained
Let’s start off with something that should not have to be stated, the equipment you wear does not make or break you as a lifter. Just because some world record lifters use squat shoes it does not mean that is the key to their freakish squats. What it does mean is that they have found it useful to wear them while squatting and maybe so can you.
What they are
What is a squat shoe? A squat shoe refers to a hard-bottomed shoe with heel lifts that give you an elevated heel. They’re used in both Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting. Heel heights vary widely depending on the brand and model of the shoe. A lower heel is typically preferred for newer lifters just starting to try them and can be progressed into a higher heel squat shoe if found to be beneficial.
What they do
The main purpose of the squat shoe is to allow more forward movement of the knees while keeping the heel planted. This is incredibly important in olympic weight lifting as it allows for a more upward torso while catching a clean or snatch. But when it comes to powerlifting, the main focus is on the forward knee travel which may allow for deeper squats and more quad involvement.
As mentioned before, limited ankle mobility will “throw you” forwards as the heel raises and the weight of the bar gets shifted towards your toes. A squat shoe will help maintain even weight distribution while allowing for a more efficient squat if limited ankle mobility is your problem. The squat shoe will also allow for more forward knee travel but therefore place more demand on the quadriceps and knee flexion when compared to non heeled squats.
Do you need them?
First, do you have mobility concerns?
If you’re not sure if your ankle mobility is limited or that you might benefit from wearing weightlifting shoes you can always stick two small plates under your heels (to mimic a raised heel) and squat. If your squats feel much better with the small plates under your heels, you might want to get some squat shoes. If they feel awkward and hard to balance you might not need them.
Let’s say your ankle dorsiflexion is fine but you’d like to use heeled shoes because you might feel stronger with them. That’s a perfectly fine reason to try them, but know that it will change your biomechanics (which could be why you might feel stronger) for better or worse.
The forward knee travel biases more quads and allows for a more upright torso which can benefit lifters with disproportionately strong quads and/or long torsos who struggle to maintain an upright position. Long femur lifters might find it more difficult to use squat shoes as the forward knee travel can mess with their balance.
If you decide to try squat shoes, pick a pair and stick with it for at least a year.
Although in reality, with enough repetition and intent most lifters can achieve a perfectly good squat with or without the squat shoe but the key here is to stick with it. And make sure to mix it up with different variations too. Front squatting or high bar squatting if you’re a low-bar regular will help you identify how the shoe affects your performance in different movements.
If you are like me and have struggled with committing to heels or flats for longer than a few training blocks you (and I) need to make a decision on which footwear to use and stick with it for at least a year.
This will allow you to have enough time and data to get very proficient with your squat with the footwear of choice and see any possible trends in your lifting performance with that footwear.
Alternatives to squat shoes
What if you do have limited ankle mobility but would like to wear flat shoes? Well get ready for a lot of mobility work on your ankles.
Now, ankle mobility often gets better the longer you squat over the years as the body will adapt to the demands of the sport but you can do mobility work to speed up the process. The most sport specific mobility you can do is do some deep squats with a hold at the bottom. You can do this with just bodyweight or a small amount of weight on your back while focusing on keeping your heel planted on the ground.
So, do you need a pair of weightlifting shoes to squat? No, but they might still have benefits to offer you. The biggest thing to remember is that to get a better squat you must simply squat and get stronger.
While there is no shoe or any equipment for that matter that will instantly transform you into a world class lifter, you can potentially maximize your leverages and position to achieve a better squat with squat shoes.