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Health & Fitness The shoes you work out in are affecting your health and performance

It’s one of the strongest and most complex structures in human anatomy, an engineering marvel that’s home to 26 bones, 33 joints and more than a hundred muscles, tendons and ligaments. Little mind is paid toward this appendage, this despite the fact that it forms the very foundation that keeps us upright and mobile. I’m speaking, of course, about the foot.

Much like the late, great Rodney Dangerfield, our feet get no respect. Lifters of all stripes will stretch their hamstrings, roll out their glutes and backs, fine-tune their scapula with resistance bands – but rarely, if ever, do you see someone priming their paws before a workout. When it’s time to work out, we cram them into whatever shoes we can afford with nary a thought toward health or performance. After all, shoes are shoes, right?

If all you’re concerned with is protecting your soles from jagged shards of glass and keeping your little piggies dry, then yes, shoes are indeed shoes. If, however, you care about things such as lifting in a pain-free manner and increasing your quality of movement in general, you need to pay more attention to your choices in weight-room footwear.

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Whether you’re squatting a barbell, throwing a punch or swinging a baseball bat, the force behind these movements comes from the ground up, channelled through the body via the feet. This is why I shudder every time I see someone bench-press with their legs casually extended, or worse, with their feet elevated off the floor. Even though it’s ostensibly an upper-body exercise, your legs play an important role in bench-pressing. If all you’re relying on is your arms and chest to move that weight, you’re limiting your potential progress and putting yourself at risk of an injury.

Due to the societal quest for comfort above all else, modern shoes have transformed into pillows for our feet, with the majority of the cushioning found in the heel. This can be helpful if you’re a nurse or a bartender – someone who’s on their feet for most of the day – or if you’re a distance runner and need to mitigate some of that ground-force impact for the sake of your knees.

But that soft, wedge-heeled support is the exact opposite of what you want in a lifting shoe. In fact, everything that makes running shoes suitable for the road is what makes them awful for lifting. Let’s say you’re about to deadlift. How are you supposed to push through the floor with maximum force if you’re standing on two inches of cushy foam? You’ll never get the barbell off the floor with enough speed to allow for a max-effort lift.

The same principle applies to squats; however, here, the consequences are more dire. Most non-lifting shoes have thick heels that slope down to the floor. This shifts your weight forward, to the toes. The deeper you sink into that squat, the more your weight shifts forward. Add a barbell to this mix and it won’t be long until you’re one of those poor misguided souls who says squatting is bad for your knees, when really it’s your beat-up Brooks that are to blame.

So what, then, should we wear on our feet when lifting weights? This is one of the few easy answers in this business, and thankfully the solutions don’t have to cost a whole lot. Generally speaking, you want a shoe that offers a wide toe box and a flat, flexible sole that sticks to the floor. Some arch support is fine and may even be necessary, but the less structure to the shoe the better. Remember those hundred-plus moving parts in each of your feet? They need training, too! If they’re constantly being supported by artificial means, they’ll never get stronger.

Kick it old school

Classic skate shoes such as Vans, Airwalks and Chuck Taylors are perfect for lifting. The flat soles allow you to really feel the floor beneath your feet, plus the sticky rubber material helps keep you firmly planted. They’re built tough, too. If your feet and knees are healthy, these are the shoes for you.

Kick it super old school

Who says you even need to wear shoes at all? Okay, chances are your big-box gym has specific rules about footwear in the weight room. Follow those rules! But for those who train in private facilities or at home, lose the shoes all together, at least on lower-body exercises (you can keep your socks on if you’d like). Many experienced lifters are surprised at how hard a standard split squat becomes when it’s performed without shoes.

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Take it to the new school

For those in need of some extra cushioning and/or structure, Nike’s Metcon Trainers and Reebok’s Crossfit line are designed specifically for weight-room workouts. They offer a tactile floor-foot connection with just enough support in the heels and arches. If all you want is a sort of second skin for your feet, the New Balance Minimus and the Xero Prio (my personal favourite) are about as destructured and bare bones as you can get.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA.

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