The Best and Worst Shoes for Gym Training

Nov 30, 2023

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Over the last seven years, Off The Mountain has seen a wide variety of footwear in the gym. Tennis shoes, running shoes, no shoes, five-finger shoes, sandals, Crocs, cushy shoes, winter boots, zero-drop shoes—if you can name it, someone has trained in it here. 

Shoe selection does matter, and the best shoe for you will depend on several factors. Before we discuss the options, let me say this upfront: the worst possible shoes for gym training are running shoes. Their squishy soles are great for the repetitive impact of running but make it harder for you to balance and generate force under load. 

So what shoes should you consider using and why?: 

1. Trainers

For general workouts, trainers from NOBULL and the Nike Metcon series are ideal. They’re flat-soled and stiff, which provides a stable base for heavy lifts and quick feedback between your feet and the ground. Most have 4-8 mm of drop, meaning your heels will be slightly higher than your toes, putting you in a good position for most lifts and most types of training. 

2. Weightlifting Shoes 

These are excellent for squatting, lunging, and Olympic lifts, especially if you have stiff ankles and tend to fold from the waist when squatting heavy. They are built with a massive wedge that lifts your heels 21-23 mm off the ground, putting your trunk, hips, knees, and ankles at optimal angles for supporting a heavy load and generating high rates of force. A word of caution: don’t use weightlifting shoes for deadlifts—they shift your weight from your heels to the balls of your feet when you need to be concentrating weight in your heels.  

3. Barefoot

There are good reasons to go barefoot or wear barefoot-style shoes for “accessory lifts” like lunges, goblet squats, and step ups. Doing so will force your foot muscles to provide support  that they would otherwise outsource to your shoes. Barefoot training can also progress single-leg movements, like the single-leg Romanian deadlift (RDL), without adding more weight. Just remember: do not run barefoot unless you’ve spent years developing the foot strength and control to do it safely (a subject for another time).  

Bottom Line: Use trainers for gym training and running shoes for running. If your ankle mobility or femur length impede your squat depth, invest in a pair of weightlifting shoes. Try going barefoot on accessory lifts, and eventually deadlifts, to develop better communication between your foot tissue and nervous system.