Why Weightlifting Shoes?
Written by: Bud Charniga
It is common knowledge that an athlete’s apparel varies according to the sport. This is especially true for shoes.
So, it should come as no surprise that there is a special shoe made for weightlifting. The weightlifting shoe is rather unique in the world of sports because it features a raised heel. The form of the shoe has evolved over the 100+ years of international weightlifting competitions. Today the form of the top model of weightlifting shoe is in harmony with its function in the modern competition program.
The history of the design and the function of the modern weightlifting shoe is traceable in the history of the evolution of the technique of the weightlifting exercises.
Two fundamental elements of weightlifting technique have had the greatest impact for the creation of a specialized weightlifting shoe. Ultimately, they were the driving forces behind the evolution in the design of the footwear:
1) the method by which the weightlifter moved his body under barbell;
2) the disposition of the weightlifter’s trunk, thigh and shin in the starting posture to lift the barbell.
The evolution of the “descent” under the barbell is connected with the effort to lower the trunk as far as possible. The ability to descend lower translated into bigger weights lifted in the snatch and the clean and jerk, i.e., the lower the “descent” under the barbell, the less height needed to lift the weight, the bigger the weight one could lift.
The weightlifter’s search for a low stable, positioning of the body under the barbell for the snatch and the clean and jerk meant bending the knee, ankle, and hip joints as much as possible in order to effectively lower the trunk as far as possible.
The “split” method involved shifting one foot forward in a straight line from its starting position and likewise the other foot rearward.
For instance, in the split style, the shin of the front foot typically would remain vertical in the lowest position; this helped maintain balance and kept the trunk in a vertical position. Lifters of the 20s and 40s and into the 50s wore sneakers. Many wore boxing shoes. Of the three main joints involved in lowering the weightlifter’s body (the ankle, knee, and hip), most of the bend in the split style came from the knee and hip joints.
The appearance in the international arena of “splitters” John Davis (USA), Norbert Schemansky (USA), Rudolf Plukfelder (USSR) and Ireneusz Palinski (POL) demonstrated to the weightlifting world it was possible to lower the body to as maximum as possible by means of the “deep “split” position under the barbell. The lifter accomplished this by noticeably bending the ankle joint of the leg placed forward. This requires tilting the shin forward significantly away from the vertical. The lifter could descend lower under the barbell.
However, it was difficult to rest the front foot flat on the floor with the shin tilted way forward. The higher heels of the Soviet shoes of this time permited this low position which would be precarious at best if attempted in sneakers or boxing shoes.
Another innovation in weightlifting technique of the late 40s and early 50s helped to transform the weightlifting shoe forever. This was the squat style.
A weightlifting shoe with a raised heel was actually more important for the squat style of lifting than it was for the “deep split” style, i.e., the area of balance is smaller in the squat position. A shoe with a raised heel allows the weightlifter to squat down with a reasonably vertical disposition of the trunk which requires fully bending the knees and tilting the shins forward.
In the early years of the evolution of weightlifting technique from the split to the squat style, the significance of joint mobility as a means to facilitate lifting bigger weights was not as accepted it as it is today. So, lifters sought shoes with higher heels (more than 2.5 cm) so that they could squat down and maintain balance. However, the built up heels were a poor substitute for knee and hip mobility and, especially, ankle mobility.
As the technique of descending under the barbell evolved, weightlifters continued to search for more effective techniques of lifting the barbell as high as possible.
However, lifters and coaches eventually came to the realization (with some assistance from a new sports scientist, the biomechanist) to lift the biggest weights you need to fully utilize the potential of the muscles of the lower extremities. The knees had to bend to a greater degree in the starting position of the pull phase of the snatch and the clean. This of course meant the shins should tilt forward with the bending of the knees, which, in turn, “pushed” the barbell forward away from the lifter in the starting position.
By beginning the lifts with more bending of the lower extremities, the best weightlifters could realize fully the strength of the body’s strongest muscles to lift the biggest weights. This “lower” starting position mechanically offered more possibilities. Some Asian lifters popularized a method of lifting which involved placing the heels together so that they could bend and, consequently, use their legs even more. It was known as the “frog style.”
Fully utilizing the strength of the legs allowed the lifter to keep the arms straight for as long as possible before bringing these muscles into play during the lifts. The weightlifter was able to lift bigger weights than ever before with the combination of greater lifting efficiency from the strongest muscles and the ability to descend lower and more efficiently than ever before.
The first specialized shoes for weightlifting incorporated two features found in the types of shoes weightlifters tried when there were no specialized shoes for weightlifting, a “high top” and a heel. The raised heel was designed for ankle mobility and (flat footed) balance, and, the perceived necessity of “supporting” the ankle joint with a “high top” carried over into the design of the first specialized weightlifting shoes.
Eventually the “high top” design was displaced by the modern “low cut” shoe. The designers of the “low cut” made no effort to “artificially” support ankle movement. Anyways, lifters had long since quit lacing the high top models past the ankle joint.
The Soviet made shoes with “leather heels, soles and nails” were ultimately displaced with the introduction of wood heels and crepe soles. The Soviet design was not just flawed but dangerous. The use of resin on the sole of the shoes by the weightlifter, especially before stepping onto the competition platform, in all probability was due to the propensity for weightlifters to slip and slide (especially while scissoring the legs under the barbell) in their Soviet made weightlifting shoes.
Without question, the principal attraction to the Soviet style shoes within the weightlifting community had virtually everything to do with the fact the Soviets were the best lifters; the best lifters wore those shoes, and this had nothing to do with any advantages offered by its design.
Adidas of Germany has been the world’s only true designer/manufacturer of weightlifting shoes for more than 40 years. The evolution of the Adidas design reflects some of the Soviet influence. The early Adidas models featured a “high top” and their roots in sneakers, i.e., the shoes had rubber soles with very low heels. Furthermore, over the years Adidas has spent considerable the time and effort to work hand in hand with the weightlifters and coaches to develop and improve the design of the shoe.
The modern weightlifting shoe, designed without leather soles, nails fastening the heels to the shoe and no artificial “laced support” of the ankle joint, allows the foot and ankle joint to bend and straighten without artificial restraint, along with the knee and hip joint. And, despite this “lack of support” from the shoes and arguably the greatest stress placed on the ankle joints and the fifty two bones which make up the feet in all of sport, injuries to the weightlifter’s ankle joints and feet are rare.
The search for a shoe for weightlifting and the ultimate design of a specialized shoe which emerged can be traced to the gradual evolution of weightlifting technique and the accompanying gradual realization among weightlifters, coaches, sport scientists, and shoe manufacturers that the body’s strongest muscles are in the lower extremities. These joints need to bend and straighten freely and through as large an amplitude as possible in order to fully realize the potential of the human body to lift maximum weights in weightlifting.