The best type of shoes to wear to the gym is going to depend on your workout, your body, and your goals. At a glance, here’s what I suggest:
- HIIT class like Orange Theory Fitness: sneakers with a minimal arch
- If you’re Olympic weightlifting: wear lifting shoes with a heel lift
- Deadlifting: flat soled shoes like Converse
- Running on the treadmill: your running shoes
- General weightlifting: sneakers with a minimal arch or minimalist shoes
That’s the takeaway, but let’s go a little more in depth such that (1) you can understand why I made these recommendations and (2) to ensure that you do indeed fit into one of the above categories.
First, a little background: footwear in the United States is a $54 billion market1. That’s huge. With so many shoes available, you have a ton of options to choose from.
But does it even matter?
If your goal is to gain lower body muscle mass or if you have chronically unstable ankles, then yes, it does matter what shoes you wear. And I’m not talking about the color!
Let’s take a look at each of the major categories.
Now before you start drafting an email to me combating my analysis of running shoes, know this: This isn’t a blog post about running shoes.
I’ve read McDougell’s book Born to Run, ran half marathons in FiveFingers because of it and now I don’t even run at all. But I know enough about running to know that the shod-free running debate has been hammered pretty good at this point. I won’t belabor the topic any more.
But let’s talk a little bit about running shoes in general terms.
When I was growing up I used to refer to all lace up athletic shoes as ‘tennis shoes.’ For whatever reason the name just stuck. And maybe I’m overgeneralizing yet again by referring to any sort of athletic shoe as a running shoe. But I think it’s a fair assumption because with running being the most prolific form of recreation today, everyone has some sort of running shoe in their closet. These are the shoes most people are going to lace up when they hit they gym.
Here in the Boulder area, the birthplace of Newton running shoes, you’ll find disciples of Newton all over town. I also see them in the gym. So, is this a bad thing?
First, we need to understand in broad terms what makes a running shoe a running shoe.
In a word: squishy.
The heel is squishy. The mid-sole is squishy. The sides are often vented and flex all over the place. All because these shoes are meant to absorb impact and help you to press off for your next stride. But you know this already.
So, what shoes should you wear in the gym?
Well, when we are in the weight room we want stability. When we squat we want to feel grounded and steady. We don’t want our heels to feel like they are squishing through our soles. We don’t want excessive pronating or supinating. Same thing with deadlifting or overhead pressing.
Stability is king.
Let’s look at a few scenarios.
Firstly, let’s say that you are into the group exercise scene. You’re not lifting really heavy weights and instead you’re probably doing a fair amount of calisthenics and jumping, hopping, crawling, all that good stuff. Wearing a running shoe probably isn’t going to make all that big of a difference because you aren’t necessarily trying to control large body weight percentage weights.
Secondly, what if you primarily weight lift when you go to the gym? Well, if you are lifting barbells and dumbbells for the purposes of growing bigger muscle or a shaping a sexy butt, I think you can benefit from a more minimalist inspired shoe. One that is going to maintain rigidity and not encourage a lot of movement at the ankle when you’re trying to manipulate weights. A running shoe that is designed to be springy may cause you problems when you’re trying to lift something heavy.
Thirdly, let’s say that you spend time on the machines and that you aren’t necessary working with barbells and dumbbells? In this case, I don’t think it matters one way or another what you’re wearing on your feet because much of the machines in the iron jungle are encouraging you to sit while you workout! I’m guessing that you spend more than enough time sitting at the office already!
Lifting shoes are most predominant among the Olympic weightlifting community. They have a stiff sole and a heel lift to facilitate stability in the big power lifts like the snatch and clean and jerk. But that heel lift has another purpose: It helps a lifter to achieve a lower squat.
A lower squat is of importance to O-lifters because as the weight gets heavier and heavier, the second pull isn’t going to get that bar very high for a lifter to quickly get under it. So what’s the next best thing? It’s getting your body lower such that you can sneak under.
And a heel lift facilitates this by giving you a little help with your range of motion. Specifically, it eliminates the need for a large bend at the ankle (ankle mobility). Alternatively, if you have tight ankles, you will most likely compensate farther up in the kinetic chain.
But don’t think that you have to perform regular clean-and-jerks and snatches in order to wear these shoes. I wear them exclusively for my front squat days because I feel more stable (i.e. confident) wearing them.
This category is really a catch-all for any lightweight, minimal structure and highly flexible shoe. From a weightlifting perspective, minimalist shoes are pretty great. There’s little to no arch support, they aren’t clunky and there isn’t normally a big squishy heel that’s going to crush under the weight of a heavy barbell and throw you off balance. They usually have a big toe box too. Keep those little piggies free!
Say what you want about Chris McDougall’s Born to Run, but you can’t deny that it was the catalyst for an unprecedented development cycle in the shoe business. Suddenly, every one of the major brands was racing around to strip their shoes of excess mass and stiffness. Who would have thought?!
Now that the dust has settled, we’ve landed somewhere in the middle. Popular shoes today are certainly minimalist when compared to the leading shoes 10 years ago, but still a far cry from simulating a true barefoot experience.
However, do you know what competing powerlifters are usually lifting in?
Take a look at the deadlift. You drive through the heel and power through with your hips. And so ideally, you don’t have anything between your heel and the floor. This is why some of the real big lifters will be seen wearing socks, slippers or nothing at all, on their feet that is.
A Chuck Taylor was more or less one of the first minimalist shoes. Indeed, they may be a wee bit heavy, but there’s no arch support and the whole sole is relatively flat and thin. Because of these attributes, I’ll always have a soft spot for the good old Converse Chuck Taylors.
The old and beat up Converse shoes you see at the top of this blog post are mine. And it’s the wear and tear that make them so great. I deadlift in them and sometimes squat. I’ve done this for years now and don’t think I’ll change anytime soon.
Some of the new minimalist shoes are awesome looking, I admit. But really, what do we need to lift something heavy?
Have you ever seen some of the old images of Muscle Beach or Arnold lifting at Gold’s Gym? There are a lot of big dudes walking around barefoot and lifting heavy things. Now it isn’t wise to extrapolate a group of genetically blessed men to the general population, but it should serve as a wake up call that as humans, all that we really need for physical fitness is our body.
We don’t need fancy gimmicks with brand names on the sides.
However, good luck finding a gym that will let you walk around barefoot. And you may want to have a disinfection plan ready to go too.
Of course the elephant in the room is that you need to be very careful not to drop anything on your feet! But then again, unless you’re wearing steel tipped work boots, anything you drop on your feet is going to hurt! An 80-lb dumbbell will do some damage, my friend.
Wrap up: what shoes should you wear in the gym?
So, what shoes should you wear in the gym? If you have healthy feet and your body’s biomechanics are pretty solid, I would encourage you to start looking at training in minimalist shoes when you’re in the weightroom. Check with a healthcare professional and see if you’re a good candidate to begin strengthening your feet with the minimalist approach.
My bias is this: I feel that aspiring to train in a ‘barefoot’ manner — whether it’s truly barefoot or in minimalist shoes – is a goal is worth pursuing. You can strengthen all the cool little muscles in your feet and encourage good cooperation with the muscles and joints further up your kinetic chain.
My aim with this blog post was to get you thinking about the shoes you wear to the gym and why. Maybe there’s a better option than what you’re wearing right now.
Or maybe you have a clinical issue that demands an orthotic. That’s perfectly fine, you may have already found your ideal shoe.
The research on whether people can build up an arch by wearing minimalist shoes, thereby negating the need for a shoe with support, is still a bit divided. So it’s important for you to do your own research and make an informed decision on what type of shoe you wear to the gym.