By: Barbell Logic Team
Deadlifting: Heels vs Flat shoes
Lifting shoes are the one piece of personal equipment you need to train safely and effectively. You can find access to bars, plates, and racks; you can train without a belt if you need to. But shoes are essential.
For convenience, we usually recommend that you deadlift in your lifting shoes. Most lifting environments require you to be shod, and you spent all this money on beautiful heeled shoes that you can’t wear anywhere else. So, why not use them for deadlifts as well as squats (and presses and even bench presses)?
Many people, and especially competitive lifters, deadlift in flat shoes or deadlift slippers. Many others prefer to chuck their kicks in the gym and deadlift in socks. If you are going to lift in your weightlifting shoes, you should probably know why and know your options.
Lifting shoes, what we sometimes call squat shoes, were developed first for the sport of weightlifting. Until about the 1970s, there weren’t many options for lifting shoes. Work shoes or boots and Chuck Taylors were the go-to shoes for competitive weightlifters. Lifters needed a shoe that was secure and had a non-compressible sole. All lifting that takes place while standing requires that you produce force against the ground on which you are standing. The force travels from the floor along with the segments of your body to the bar. Any compressible surfaces in that chain will absorb some power in their compression. Imagine, for example, standing on a trampoline-like surface and deadlifting; as you try to impart force to the barbell, you end up just pulling yourself down into the trampoline. Your standing surface must resist the force (ideally 100% of the force) that you produce, directing it toward the barbell.
A shoe is an artificial surface you place between your feet and the floor. Weightlifters understood that in a sport that depends on force production quickly and the efficient transfer of that force, your shoe represented a critical choice of equipment. Any compression in the shoe would mean lost force, less power, and possibly a failed lift.
They also realized that you could make a shoe that could improve competitive lifts. The bottom position of a clean is a front squat. As you may note in our front squat tutorial, this position requires an almost vertical torso, making it a challenging position to hold, especially when you are catching hundreds of pounds on your shoulders. If you watch a lifter from the side, you can observe an interesting concept: the lifter’s back angle, knee position, and ankle position are all connected. It is as if the weight of the barbell pins them into position, and they cannot change one of those angles without changing the others. In general, the more vertical the torso, the more forward the knees with a more acute angle of knee flexion), and the more acute the angle of the lifter’s ankle. Your knees won’t usually have a problem getting into this position. But your ankles might.
The bottom position of a clean challenges the extensibility of the lifters plantar flexion (think “toes down”). Connecting the hip bone to the leg bone to the ankle bone, someone realized that a slightly raised heel would remove some of the ankle flexibility requirement. And, because the slight heel also makes other types of squats more accessible and possibly more effective, weightlifting shoes became synonymous with squat shoes.
Every deadlift starts with the bar directly over the middle of the foot, limiting the angle of the shin and the degree of plantar flexion you can experience with the deadlift and negating any issues of ankle flexibility in the lift.
It doesn’t matter what kind of lift you are performing. If you are standing, you want a stable surface. Few shoes provide this better than a lifting shoe. In the deadlift, this is no different. Do not put a running shoe or other squishy, shock-absorbing piece of footwear between you and the floor; not an option.
A quality lifting shoe has an incompressible sole, a slight heel raise, and a metatarsal strap to keep your foot from sliding around in the shoe. Heel heights are usually about ½-¾ inches—and this height of heel suits most lifters.
There is a trade-off when you deadlift in heeled lifting shoes. Consider the woman who puts on high heels to go out. She’s now artificially taller. Though the heel on most lifting shoes is modest, it has the same effect. You are a little bit taller than you would be in your socks. If you are taller, then the distance you have to pull the bar is farther. More distance to pull the same weight means more work; more work takes more energy. So, arguably when you deadlift in lifting shoes with heels, you are giving yourself a slight handicap.
Also, you might consider the extra height to make the deadlift a slight deficit deadlift. A ½” heel is ¼ of the way to a deficit deadlift. Deficit deadlifts increase the range of motion and also challenge the lifter’s bottom position and the start of the deadlift.
There is a benefit, however, to the lifting shoe’s heel. The slightly raised heel puts your knee in a greater degree of flexion, adding a little bit of muscle mass to the lift. Added muscle mass may improve the overall training effect of the lift. Whether this is true for you is going to depend. Every lifter is built a little bit differently, and the changes you experience from adding a heel to your deadlift will be entirely up to you.
So what should you do? Our recommendation is to train enough to have an opinion validated by your own experience and personal preference. Start with lifting shoes. The design makes them safe and effective for each of the basic barbell lifts, and shoes will keep your feet covered and protected while you train. For a very long time, the only method of improving your lifts that you should care about is getting stronger and nailing your form. At some point, however, you will have enough reps under your belt that you will notice the difference half-an-inch makes.
Experienced lifters have to be self-experimenters with these kinds of changes. The worst thing you can do is try something new when you haven’t yet perfected your form. The next worst thing is to stick to one way of doing things without forming an opinion or preference of your own.