If you were to walk into a CrossFit gym for the first time, it would not take long to notice the wide array of (often colorful) footwear adorning the feet of members crushing front squat clusters or racing through burpee box jumps. Anyone can spot a pair of generic gym shoes, but what about those loud, boxy-looking shoes the woman wrestling with snatches on the wooden platform is wearing? Or those American flag shoes with the delta on the side the dude wheeling through the last round of Cindy is wearing?
The primary reason you are likely to see so many different styles of shoes at a CrossFit gym is simple: CrossFit is an inclusive fitness and lifestyle methodology that brings together functional aspects of many other specialized fitness disciplines and sports. Performing the often highly technical movements for which those sports are identified may be achieved more safely and efficiently by the structure and fit of an athlete’s shoes. As an example, runners sprinting on a clay track may gain better traction with the ground by wearing track “spikes”.
Admittedly, I have an Achilles heel for acquiring different types of shoes, especially when it comes to my training. Although I am a fan—probably an understatement—of athletic gear, in general, I am not an expert in footwear or anatomy, so please keep that in mind as we explore the different styles of shoes you are likely to encounter at a CrossFit gym, as well as the appropriate situations for which each should be worn. What follows are my personal opinions and reasoned suggestions, based on my own experiences as both an athlete and coach.
Before we discuss the relative merits and suggested uses of shoes that pervade the CrossFit scene, let us begin with a brief overview of the several styles of shoes you may observe on the feet of members working out at a CrossFit affiliate.
Because of the growth of CrossFit over the last decade, “trainers”—or “CrossFit shoes”—will likely be the most prevalent style at any box. The Reebok Nano, Nike Metcon, and Nobull Trainers series fall into this category, as well as their mutations, such as the Reebok Grace and Speed TRs, Nike Metcon DSX Fly-knit, etc. These are athletic shoes with a slight heel-to-toe drop and a structurally supportive boot. (They are mainly low-top shoes, but some companies have produced trainers of the “high-top” variety, and their appeal is primarily aesthetic, as opposed to functional.)
CrossFit operates as a fitness program that incorporates elements of multiple strength sports, like weightlifting and powerlifting. Accordingly, you are very likely to come across “weightlifting shoes—or “lifters”—at the gym (especially if your local affiliate doubles as or shares space with a barbell club). Amongst others, the most common will be the Nike Romaleos series, Adidas Adipower and Powerlift series, Reebok Lifter (Plus) and Legacy Lifter series, and Asics, Do-Win, etc. What make these shoes unique are their raised heels, which set the foot at a noticeable decline from the heel to the toe. Similar to the trainers, these shoes are flat, but they are also your heaviest shoes, with structural integrity and support being the priorities.
Running Shoes and Generic Gym Shoes
Of course, just as with any gym, “running shoes”, “tennis shoes”, and “gym shoes” (in the generic sense) are quite common. Unlike the other styles mentioned above, though, the shoes in this category often possess cushioned soles that drop slightly from the heel to the midfoot, but also incline or round upwards again towards the toe. Conceptually, the shape vaguely resembles the rounded keel of a boat’s hull.
Minimalist Flats and Fashion Sneakers
“Minimalist flats” and “fashion sneakers”, such as Converse Chuck Taylors and Vans, may also show up at your CrossFit affiliate, and these can be useful for certain strength movements like deadlifting and low-bar back squatting. More often than not, these shoes are flat without any heel-to-toe drop (or rise), and they lack the same structural integrity that other gym shoes provide.
Having introduced the common styles of gym shoes, let us now discuss the when/where/why concerning their respective uses. The following suggestions are applicable for the training structure and programming curriculum found while participating in a CrossFit class, a program that commences with a warmup, followed by a strength/skill segment, and concludes with a condition oriented workout (your “WOD”—workout of the day).
Regarding the warmup, keep things simple and stick to your trainers, running shoes, or generic gym shoes. The warmup at the very beginning of a CrossFit class is usually more general, requiring no specialized shoes, and it presents a great opportunity for athletes to work within their bodies’ current mobility limitations and ranges of motion without assistive equipment. Exceptions to this broad rule would include accommodating an injury, acclimating to a new pair of specialized shoes (weightlifting shoes can be very awkward for those who have never worn them and may require some breaking in—consider using the class warm-up to do so), or saving time in preparation for the strength/skill segment of class.
Moving onto the strength/skill portion of a CrossFit class, shoe selection should come down to the type of movement(s) the program calls for, and the volume and intensity of the work to be performed.
Gymnastics and Endurance Work
When gymnastics, bodyweight, and/or other endurance movements are involved, stick to your trainers, running shoes, or generic gym shoes. As it happens, trainers were precisely engineered to meet the diverse demands of the CrossFit training methodology, and that certainly includes the assorted bodyweight movements (that may not even utilize contact between your feet and the surface—i.e. pullups) and endurance work, like rowing on the Concept2 or cycling on any of the excruciatingly wicked bike derivatives. If, for one reason or another, you experience discomfort in your feet, legs, hips, and/or lower back from jumping or running with flat trainers, then replace them with running shoes, especially where high reps have been assigned.
Now, contrary to most gymnastics and traditional endurance movements, many of the weightlifting and powerlifting movements covered during a CrossFit class’s strength and skill portion are substantially impacted by our feet. To clarify, performing these compound weight training movements as safely and properly as possible requires athletes to assume complex postures and allocate weight in specifically coordinated sequences throughout the body on a dime—all of which is directly impacted by the manner and angles at which your feet are planted on the ground.
Before I dive more deeply into shoe selection with respect to weight training, I want to re-emphasize that CrossFit trainers (whatever the brand) were designed with these movements in mind, and the vast majority of members and athletes at CrossFit boxes will find their daily fitness needs comfortably facilitated by investing in a basic pair of trainers. In other words, this is NOT a sales pitch or call to arm yourselves with the latest in strength or weight training footwear. Furthermore, those athletes who specialize exclusively within those strength disciplines will make shoe selection choices to meet the demand so their specific sport, which may not be aligned with those of the general CrossFit athlete or gym member.
Moreover, it is worth mentioning that the slang term “lifters” can be misleading when it comes to identifying the appropriate sport-specific styles of shoe we will address in the next section of the article. Just because the program at a CrossFit gym calls for some variant of “lifting”, you should not blindly assume that your “lifters” are appropriate. There are numerous “lifting” disciplines: weightlifting and powerlifting, among others, and the movements and motor mechanics required to meet the standards of each sport differ. Therefore, your choice in footwear with respect to either may necessarily vary.
Weight Training: “Weightlifting”
Training for the sport of weightlifting, a.k.a. “olympic weightlifting” or “oly” in the CrossFit world, includes performance of the competition lifts: snatch and clean & jerk, as well as high-bar olympic style back squatting, other squat variants (front, OH, etc.), “pulls”, and specific forms of deadlifts. Weightlifting shoes (“lifters”) were designed precisely to accommodate the postural demands of these compound movements. The raised heel and heavy/firm structural support provided by weightlifting shoes improve angles at the athlete’s ankles, knees, hips, etc., which permit the athlete to perform the various lifts with a more upright torso, allowing him or her to allocate and redistribute the weight more efficiently, effectively, and safely throughout the lifts. These angles also increase the depth at which athletes can safely perform squatting movements while maintaining core stability and muscle tension throughout the feet, legs, and torso.
Accordingly, when the strength/skill part of a CrossFit class involves snatches, cleans, jerks, squats, or pulls, I recommend using weightlifting shoes 60-70% of the time, or at least when weights are heavy and/or reps are high. Especially in a comprehensive sport like CrossFit, shoes should be an assistive tool, but not a crutch. They are not a permanent solution to chronic mobility and coordination deficiencies, and all athletes should challenge themselves to continue working on such things.
I, therefore, caution moderation with respect to using weightlifting shoes in CrossFit classes. If the class is working on squats at light weights, doing strict military presses or push presses, snatch or clean deadlifts, pulls, or doing “power” movements (i.e. “power” cleans or hang “power” snatches, etc.), keep your trainers on and work on maintaining good form/technique and activating the right muscles without relying on your shoes. Be aware that using weightlifting shoes may require a small adjustment period, as well, so save them initially for a session where weights are lighter or more moderate.
Weight Training: “Powerlifting”
My suggested approach to shoes in regards to powerlifting movements, however, is much different. Powerlifting includes bench pressing, back squatting—low-bar, primarily, and deadlifting—conventional and sumo styles with assorted grips. I think it is safe to establish, for our purposes, that shoes will have little impact on our ability to bench press from a static position on our backs. You may find powerlifters wearing belts and powerlifting shoes to assist with angles and core engagement, but at a CrossFit affiliate, such is unnecessary and beyond the scope of our discussion.
Moving on to deadlifting, then, we find that shoe selection can be important. Even though the types of deadlifts are many (on the powerlifting stage, at least), there is one important commonality that separates deadlifting from performing the olympic lifts (snatch and clean & jerk) from the ground, or from performing “pulls” and clean/snatch deadlifts. That factor is the objective of the lift itself: move the most weight from the ground to a lock-out finishing position at the hips; whereas, the olympic lifts require the weight to be transferred from a position below complete hip extension (i.e. the “power position”) to the shoulders or above the head in a lock-out finishing position—many times after coming out of a deep squat. The raised heel of a weightlifting shoe specifically assists athletes in achieving these pre-hip extension positions AND in recovering from the demands of an extremely deep front or overhead squat. However, the raised heel of a weightlifting shoe does not necessarily make it easier for the athlete to move heavy weight to the hips from the ground.
With respect to deadlifting, on the other hand, you want to maximize the amount of tension—and, thereby, force—your body can apply to the barbell from the ground up, all the while minimizing the distance the weighted barbell has to travel to the hips. Tension behind the legs is more efficiently generated the closer the heel is to being flat on the ground (increasing the “stretch”), and the distance the barbell has to travel to the hips is simultaneously reduced, even if only by a centimeter or two, or fractions thereof. Both of these mechanical advantages are inhibited by a shoe that increases the gap between the heel and sole of the foot with the ground. Consequently, it is my recommendation that when performing deadlifts during the strength/skill portion of a CrossFit class, athletes should stick to the use of trainers or other flat shoes. In fact, many powerlifters opt to deadlift in bare feet or special deadlift “slippers” that look sort of like ballet shoes and merely provide a source of grip/friction with the ground.
Although squat depth is a major factor in weightlifting, the depth required to meet the standards and functions of a powerlifting squat is much shallower. The back squat, itself, is a competition lift in the sport of powerlifting and requires an athlete only to breach “parallel” (hip joint must pass just below the top of the knee cap). Great for developing raw strength, this style of squatting does not translate as effectively to the olympic lifts, which often require athletes to receive the loaded barbell while descending into deep squats at extreme ranges of motion. It is, therefore, not unusual to find competitive powerlifters squatting in flats (i.e. Converse Chuck Taylors, Vans, etc.) or powerlifting shoes, such as the Adidas Powerlift series—which possess raised heels, but only to a fraction of the height utilized by the Adidas Adipower series or many of the other weightlifting shoes on the market.
Tying this into the above discussion regarding deadlifting, I am just providing some background as to why you may come across or own a pair of specialized shoes with the term “powerlift” in the model name: 1) it is to differentiate them structurally from weightlifting shoes; and 2) it does NOT mean that you should use them to perform all powerlifting movements. Even more simply put, do not wear your weightlifting or powerlifting shoes to perform conventional or sumo style powerlifting deadlifts; instead, use flat shoes or trainers.
Finally, let us talk about the WOD part of class—the [metabolic] conditioning workout that often comes at the end of your CrossFit class and the form most competition workouts take (including those in the CrossFit Open, which is now upon us). Such workouts are commonly characterized by more than one movement and formatted to elicit various types of metabolic, respiratory, and cardio responses. Even if these workouts incorporate weightlifting or powerlifting movements like those referred to explicitly in the preceding paragraphs, or others, such as wall balls and kettlebell swings, such elements are usually combined with basic or intricate gymnastics and/or cardio intensive elements. Speed and agility will have a major impact on your performance, and same can be hampered by the use of heavy weightlifting shoes. Because you don’t want to be racing through a quarter-mile run or one hundred double-unders in astronaut kicks—lifters—keep it simple and wear your trainers, or generic gym shoes.
In addition to occasionally wearing your trainers or standard gym shoes during squats/snatches/cleans to work on mastering positions and improving mobility, comfort during WODs a significant reason to avoid relying exclusively on specialized shoes during strength/skill segments of class. If lifters become a crutch for cleans, then performing even a high volume of light cleans while wearing trainers in a WOD may lead to failed reps, poor positioning, and/or injury, and may dramatically impact your workout for the worse. A foreseeable exception to this general rule is when the WOD includes a 1-rep max attempt or is made up entirely of weightlifting elements.
Specialized shoes can be a productive and useful tool in a CrossFit gym when performing functional movements and those training elements from various fitness disciplines. Especially where mobility is lacking, shoes like weightlifting shoes may alleviate strain, improve positioning, and enhance experience and performance when used appropriately. Such footwear may, accordingly, be a worthy investment. That said, the uses for same are not without limitations, and generally speaking, no one needs to spend their next paycheck or holiday gift money on the latest training and/or weightlifting shoes. A structurally sound pair of trainers or generic gym shoes will be sufficient.
After all, a tenant of CrossFit is being prepared to confront random tasks, both inside and outside of the gym. You will not always have the chance to use certain equipment you may otherwise have available to you. Don’t become as slave to your shoes or equipment. What is more, do not just wear your shoes blindly, simply because you have them. Always feel free to ask a coach if you are unsure. Again, the suggestions contained herein have been mine, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the CrossFit Mischief owners and staff, or even those of the other CrossFit affiliates throughout the world. I am not an expert on athletic footwear (merely a fan), and the above was developed through my own experiences and independent research.