Squatting is an interesting exercise. It is one of the best ways to develop lower body strength, but there are a ton of people that cannot get into the right positions.
I would love for everyone to squat but squatting is not for everyone.
It also is one of the most complicated exercises out there. Sure, you can tell clients to keep their chest up and push their knees out until your blue in the face. It may never click.
One common area that needs to be addressed is the ankles.
The ankle is a mobile joint that should have a good range of motion. Unfortunately, shoes with a lot of heel lift take away from this.
The restriction is dorsiflexion of the ankle which occurs when the toes are pulled towards the shin of the lower leg. Shoes with a heel lift, high tops, and tape jobs all take away from this action.
When it comes time to squat, the above modifications in sport start to rear their ugly head. Limitations in ankle range of motion will lead to poor squats.
Another way that we limit our range of motion through the ankle is by wearing the wrong shoes. Shoes that have poor support or cut off the ankles will cause the ankle to become stable instead of mobile.
Stable ankles will not produce good squat patterns.
Below I will outline the most common types of footwear for squatting and the pros/cons of each.
Traditional Running Shoes
This is probably the worst option for squatting. These shoes typically have a heel lift and no support laterally.
In an attempt to make running easier, shoes have become more cushioned. This is disastrous to squatting because the instability causes the ankle to be a stabilizer.
When the ankle becomes stable, the squat pattern is completely affected all the way up the chain. The knees will lose stability, the hips will lose mobility, and the low back/pelvis will lose stability.
These are common characteristics of squats that do not reach depth and torsos coming too far forward.
Avoid these shoes for lower body strength movements.
Minimalist shoes have a minimal heel lift and attempt to replicate the barefoot feeling.
There is still some cushion but it is not as much as a regular running shoe.
Having the smaller heel lift allows squatters to get the range of motion that they need and sit into the squat. Unfortunately, the instability issues still occur.
The ankles will still tend to cave since the shoes lack adequate lateral support.
These types of shoes can be great for anyone that combines multiple types of training. Performing sprints, running, jump rope, etc. in the same session as strength work make these shoes more versatile than regular running shoes.
The old school approach uses Chuck Taylor’s for lower body strength movements.
These shoes are flat and have pretty good lateral support. They provide a great platform for the feet and allow good movement throughout the body.
Chucks are cost effective and you can even find knockoffs that get the job done.
Running, jumping, or any other plyometric movement in Chucks is not advised. Use these when training purely for strength and change for other exercises.
Olympic lifting shoes
These might be some of the best shoes for achieving full depth squats.
Olympic lifting shoes have a giant heel lift and a wooden heel to maximize stability.
This is the best platform possible for a shoe.
They are not my favorite choice for the general public and athletes, though. When Olympic lifting shoes are used as a “band aid” for a poor squat pattern we are just training around poor movement. We have not addressed the problem.
Now take this dysfunctional movement and apply it to a different even or exercise. The performance will suffer and risk of injury goes up.
I will always prefer to remove the limitation before compensating for it.
Those that can compete in their sport with the shoes on should by all means use them. If it is part of the equipment then take advantage of them.
Everyone else would be better served to improve ankle mobility and only use them sparingly if at all.
With that said, Olympic lifting shoes have a good place for front squats. Since the front squat is more quad dominant, the heel lift helps the pattern.
This is my favorite option for the everyday person that likes to lift or athletes training for sport.
The heel lift is exactly zero and stability is maximized since the foot is in direct contact with the ground.
Having people take their shoes off to squat and deadlift usually improves the pattern instantly.
They are able to sit back further, sit lower into the squat, and drive through their heels on the way up. The ankles are not limited and allowed to move through their full range of motion.
The downsides include that going barefoot means one has to be extremely careful not to drop a weight on their foot. Socks do not protect against 45 pounds of steel.
It is also not advised to run, jump, etc. without shoes on. The impact will be too great.
In short I prefer barefoot when we are talking about only performing the actual lifts. Chucks can help when we need some kind of protection or if gym rules do not allow shoeless exercises.
Someone who uses Olympic lifting shoes and other shoes with a heel lift needs to address their ankle range of motion. If this is not taken care of then there can be problems that move up to the knee and hip. Maintain good dorsiflexion before masking the initial problem.
Let’s save the minimalist shoes for those that may have to run immediately after a set of squats and Olympic shoes for those that will benefit most from them.