It is one of the first questions many people ask when they start powerlifting:
“What are the best shoes for squatting? Should I squat in heeled or flat shoes?”
For most people, a flat soled shoe will be optimal as it allows the most stable connection between the foot and the floor. But for those who may have the following issues, you may find a heeled shoe to be better suited for your individual needs:
- Lack of ankle mobility
- Longer femur length
- Above average height
- Narrower stance width
- High bar squatter
- Shallow pelvis
Each one of these variables is fairly complex though, and just taking one of these and saying that means you should squat in heels is a bit preemptive.
So Instead of jumping to conclusions, let’s really dive into all the factors that relate to shoe choice and how you can make sure to choose the footwear that will optimize your form and maximize your strength in the squat!
My Recommendation: Flats vs. Heeled Shoe For Squatting
I would recommend for most beginners to first learn to the squat in a flat shoe. This is because you’ll have more of a stable connection between your feet and the ground. However, as you become more experienced, you can make a more informed decision on whether your individual mechanics would benefit from a heeled squat shoe.
The following are my reccomendations for both heeled and flat shoes for squatting:
- Chuck Taylors: These are the most common flat shoe worn by powerlifters, mostly because they’re the cheapest option. Some sumo deadlifters have said they don’t have the best traction, but they’re adequate for most deadlifters.
- Asics Wrestling Shoe: The Asics wrestling shoe will have a flat sole, but has better traction than chucks. So if you’re a wide stance squatter this might be a better option for you.
- Deadlift Slippers: Any type of deadlift slipper will make you feel like you’re lifting barefoot. So if you want to minimize the distance entirely between your foot and the floor this is your best choice.
- Nike Romaleos: These are a great choice for people with wider feet. The shoe feels a bit heavy to wear, but that’s good because you’ll feel a sense of stability when heavy back squatting.
- Adidas Powerlift: These are a great choice for people with narrower feet. They have the same construction and design as the Romaleos. Exact same price point too.
Let’s dive into the background on why some people prefer flat or heeled shoes.
Background of Flat vs. Heel Shoes While Squatting
The foot is an integral part of the squat, as the stability and rooting of the foot play a large role in the stability of the knee and hips as well. The more we disconnect the foot from the floor, the more we tend to lose that control.
The demand for heeled shoes originated from the need for high levels of ankle dorsiflexion in Olympic weightlifting. This means how much the ankle can flex upward.
Catching a snatch at the very bottom of a squat requires most lifters to go well past their ankle dorsiflexion range of motion, so heeled shoes were created to allow for the added range of motion that was needed.
With the rise of raw powerlifting, heeled shoes have gained traction in the sport due to the different mechanics required in most raw lifters’ squats versus equipped.
This started mainly from the crossover of Olympic weightlifting shoes being used by powerlifters, but now with increasing demand, there are heeled shoes also dedicated to being powerlifting specific (like the Nike Romaleos and Adidas Powerlift).
6 Variables That Determine Shoe Choice For Squatting
In a perfect world everyone would be able to squat in flat soled shoes.
But since we are all different in our leverages, structure, and mechanics the need for heeled shoes exists.
What are these variables?
Let’s break down each of these further so you know what shoes best suits your individual needs.
Takeaway: The more restriction at the ankle, the harder it will be for the lifter to squat deep, and the more benefit they will benefit from heeled shoes.
The first and foremost factor is ankle mobility because as we go down this list of different variables and anatomical differences, every single one leads back to the ankle’s dorsiflexion demands in some way.
If we all had incredibly mobile ankles there would be no need for heeled shoes. But unfortunately, we are not all lucky enough to have been blessed with that gift.
What does a heeled shoe have to do with ankles?
A heeled shoe places us in a slight degree of plantarflexion as we stand neutral. This means that the heel is higher than the toe when standing normally.
So for example (not perfectly accurate numbers), rather than going from a 90 degree angle at the ankle to 60 degrees at the bottom of the squat in flat soled shoes, we can now go from 105 degrees to 75 degrees in heeled shoes. Or maybe we still need to achieve 60 degrees but flats were restricting our movement, so with a heeled shoe we can now travel from 105 degrees to 60 degrees and achieve that extra 15 degrees range of motion.
In other words…
The heeled shoe increases the ability for greater degrees of ankle flexion, which in return allows you to go through a greater range of motion in the squat without being restricted.
You need to decide whether you’re restricted at the ankle because of structural limitations or tissue restrictions.
A structural lack of ankle mobility means at your passive end range of motion, where the bone is hitting bone, you physically cannot dorsiflex your ankle any further.
This could be your anatomical build (you were just born that way), possibly an injury that occurred that created this structural limitation, or maybe you actually have decent ankle mobility but other factors like the ones that will be listed below require you to have the need for an excessive range of motion.
On the other hand, many of us are restricted by tissue flexibility.
Most often, when this is the situation, people go right to heeled shoes as an easy fix, rather than taking the time to work on their ankle mobility.
We actually have a good breakdown of what to do in regards to increasing ankle mobility in another article 9 Tips To Squat Deeper + Advice From Pro Powerlifters,. In point #2 of this article, we break down multiple mobility drills to improve these tissue limitations, as well as a test to determine if you are lacking ankle mobility.
So to summarize, if you have some type of structural limitation with ankle mobility that restricts your squat, heeled shoes can be a great tool to aid in this issue. If you have tissue restrictions that are creating ankle mobility issues though, first try to improve your ankle mobility before giving heeled shoes a try.
Takeaway: The greater the distance of the femur (upper leg bone), the more the lifter will benefit from heeled shoes.
As discussed, one of the major differences between lifters is the degree required for ankle flexion in their squat.
And, this is in large part determined by femur length.
This is especially the case when comparing femur to tibia length (lower leg bone).
The longer our femur is in comparison to the tibia, the greater degree of ankle dorsiflexion that will be required.
Let’s break this down even further…
When we squat our goal is the maintain our center of gravity over our midfoot.
To do so we must have certain degrees of hip and knee flexion to reach depth based our own biomechanics.
When we have longer femurs, especially in relation to our tibia, this requires a greater degree of our femur to be in front of and behind our midfoot. This position will require greater amounts of ankle dorsiflexion. However, based on our torso length, it could also require a larger degree of hip flexion. And based on our shoe choice, we can shift the degrees of ankle dorsiflexion vs. hip flexion that is required.
If you wear flat soled shoes with long femurs and tight ankles, then either 1 of 2 things will happen.
You will either compensate by going through greater degrees of hip flexion (lean forward too much), or you will cave and pronate at the ankles losing position and stability at the foot (have your ankles leave the floor).
This is where the benefit of heeled shoes come in.
Heeled shoes allow a lifter the added range of motion at the ankles so that they can maintain a more upright posture than if they squatted in flats. This applies to anyone, but even more so to longer femurs powerlifters.
To summarize, if you have long femurs, especially in relation to your tibias and torso, you very well could benefit from a heeled shoe. This will help aid in the demands that your natural biomechanics place on ankle dorsiflexion.
Takeaway: The taller the lifter, the more they will benefit from heeled shoes.
Biomechanics of the squat are more about the relation of your body segment lengths compared to each other rather than your overall height.
But if I can take some experiential data as a coach, I find that tall lifters typically just have really long legs.
Obviously their legs will be longer if they are tall, but I am also talking in relation to the rest of their body.
Like I said, this is not a fact, but if I take all of the tall lifters I have coached, almost every single one of them benefitted from a heeled shoe. There definitely will be exceptions to this rule, but if a tall lifter has long legs in comparison to their torso, they will most likely have greater demands for ankle flexion as mentioned above.
And maybe what I am getting at even more is that a tall lifter who has long femurs, short tibias, and a short torso typically sees more negative effects of these mechanics due to the distance they must travel in a squat. The longer the distance, the more that can go wrong at any certain degree of flexion.
So when a taller lifter fits into the factors mentioned above and below, the extent of their need for a heeled shoe seems to be magnified.
And as a coach, I tend to bias more to the recommendation of a heeled shoe for my taller lifters due to this.
Takeaway: wide stance squatters will benefit from flat shoes, whereas narrow stance squatters will benefit from heeled shoes. .
Look back to the “old school” days of powerlifting and you will see lifter after lifter on the platform wearing Chuck Taylors.
There are many reasons for this, but one of the main being the popularization of the wide stance squat, or even ultra wide stance squat.
The wider someone squats, the less demand on ankle dorsiflexion. On the opposite end though, the closer your squat stance is the greater demand on ankle dorisflexion.
There is another variable we need to add to this though, and that is foot angle.
Typically the wider someone’s stance is, the more angled out their feet are and vice versa. This plays a big role in how heel height affects your lift.
Just like with the sumo deadlift and the issues many see with maintaining their balance from a high angle of toes out, the same occurs during the squat and is exacerbated even more by the heel lift.
This is probably even more so the reason you see wider stance squatters preferring flat soled shoes. The lack of stability that comes from a wide stance, toe angled out squat in heeled shoes creates a high difficulty of balance.
So what this means for shoe choice is most likely wide stance squatters will benefit from flat soled shoes and closer stance squatters may gravitate more towards a heeled shoe, based on all the other factors as well.
Low Bar vs. High Bar
Takeaway: High bar squatters will benefit more from heeled shoes.
The placement of the bar on squats, low bar vs. high bar, changes the degree of knee flexion and ankle dorsiflexion required.
While low bar usually tends to be the preference of powerlifters, there are still those that prefer high bar, and this choice also affects these lifter’s shoe preference.
High bar squatting tends to induce a more upright torso, knee flexion dominant squat, which means the knee must extend further forward and requires greater degrees of ankle flexion. And while this is more a stereotype than fact, usually you won’t see a wide stance high bar squatter, as they usually will be squatting with a moderate to close stance.
So adding these variables together, high bar squatters tend to benefit from a heeled shoe. Whereas those who choose low bar could go either way depending on the other factors that have been covered.
Takeaway: Lifters who have a shallow pelvis will benefit from heeled shoes.
Last but not least, and probably the hardest to diagnose, is how someone’s hip anatomy plays into shoe choice.
Those with fairly a shallow pelvis will have issues achieving high degrees of hip flexion.
Take this test to see what your range of motion is at the hip joint:
Those who typically have a shallow pelvis at first believe they just have poor hip mobility, but with further diagnosis from a professional they end up finding out that their current full range of motion is bone on bone. Structurally that is the extent to which they can flex at the hips.
So how does this relate back to shoe choice?
If you have low degrees of structural hip flexion that will naturally mean you need to have higher degrees of knee flexion in the squat, resulting then in a higher degree of ankle flexion.
As mentioned, this is a very tough one to diagnose and usually isn’t nearly as common as the above factors, but it is no doubt a variable in play for some. So if you find you do have a shallow pelvis, then heeled shoes can be of benefit in allowing for more ankle range of motion.
Technical Issues That Occur From The Wrong Shoe Choice
We’ve now covered the factors at play when deciding which shoe will work best for your individual needs.
But what are the technical signs that maybe you are in the wrong shoe?
Technical Issues Stemming From A High Heeled Shoe
I’ll start off with what I see most commonly, and that is someone who chooses a heeled shoe when it is not needed..
A small amount of my lifter (about 10%) use a 20mm effective heel height shoe, while the vast majority use 15.5mm.
I find time and time again that lifters using excessively high heels (20mm) push forward in their squat pattern. The higher a heel the more it naturally angles your body forward, so it’s to no surprise that it may cause more forward motion in the squat and bar path.
The main issue I see though is that powerlifters tend to rely a lot on the passive end ranges of motion.
What passive end range of motion means is either the point at which bone hits bone or the end range of tissue flexibility based on mobility. We do not do nearly as well when we try to change direction during our active range of motion, which is the range of motion where our musculature is fully in control of stabilizing our joints.
During a squat, we tend to gravitate towards a pattern that allows us to find that passive end range of motion, whether that be at the hips, knees or ankles. Higher heels increase the degree to which that passive end range occurs at the ankles. So when we reach that same bottom position where we are used to stopping at the passive end range of ankle flexion, we now find ourselves shifting forward due to the excessively high heel. This shift occurs so we can find that same end range.
Now combine that with the factors mentioned before with balance and the center of gravity, and we now have a recipe for a forward push in the squat.
So how can you tell if this is you?
If you are using a higher heeled shoe and consistently find that your squat and bar path shifts forward at the bottom and you have no signs of ankle pronation, heels rising, or your arch collapsing, there is a good chance the heel you are using is actually too high for you.
Technical Issues Stemming From A Flat Soled Shoe
If flat soled shoes is not the best choice a particular lifter, the main thing you will see is pronation of the ankle, the arch collapsing, and possibly even the heel rising off the ground slightly. What this means is the lifter has maxed out the degree of ankle dorsiflexion they can achieve, so they now have to rely on unwanted movement within the foot and ankle to achieve that range of motion.
This same issue could then result in instability at the knee and hip. It is very common for someone to show signs of knee valgus (knees caving inward). These lifters would start doing abduction work to strengthen the hips when in reality it is stemming from the feet and ankles.
Another common misdiagnosis is working on hip stability or bracing to correct a hip shift when the hip shift is being caused by asymmetries in ankle dorsiflexion where one side specifically is collapsing.
Sometimes to fix the issue of flat soled shoes a lifter may start to gravitate to an overly hip dominant squat, which could be a fix. But as a coach I would prefer to maximize their potential in the best movement pattern possible rather than to adopt suboptimal patterns that works around the issue. This is when a heeled shoe could be a potential fix rather than continuing in this altered movement.
How To Decide Which Shoe Is Best For You
For most lifters, I would start will a flat soled shoe, or even barefoot.
There are three reasons for this.
First, flat shoes give us an initial baseline if lifters can squat in flats or not.
If they can and none of the above issues are present, we have no need to discuss anything further. Flat soled shoes will probably be the best fit for them as it allows a better connection with the floor.
Second, if we do find that some of these issues are present, we can see to what degree.
While there is no definitive answer to this, I will say in general the more factors from above that are present, the more of a heel lift they possibly need. If they have long femurs, squat narrow, use a high bar position, and has tested positive for shallow hips, then I would likely recommend a higher heel.
However, if they are only showcasing 1 or 2 of these variables, I will still recommend a higher heel, but perhaps a shorter heel first.
Remember, the higher the heel the more disconnected we are from the floor, so only under more extreme circumstances will I immediately jump to a higher heel.
Third, heeled powerlifting shoes are pricey.
If possible, the best case scenario, if you are debating buying a pair of heeled shoes, is to first find a friend who has a pair you can try. If this isn’t an option, I would start with a shorter heel shoe as that is where most powerlifters tend to land on the spectrum for heel height.
The shoes you choose can make a major influence on your squat.
All force that is produced in a squat must travel first through the foot, so the shoe you wear makes a large impact on everything up the chain.
My biggest word of advice is to make an informed decision and not just make a purchase because that is what “X” lifter wears. You are the only one who squats like you, so choose the shoe that will optimize your form and maximize your strength!