Choosing Your Perfect Gym Shoe

alt="running gym shoe buyer's guide"

Whether you're just getting into the gym or looking to upgrade your current kicks, it's important to realize that not every athletic shoe is going to be best for every training situation. Just as monster truck tires don't belong on the race track and vice versa, you need the right equipment for right job.

Below is a guide that'll point out some of the defining characteristics of each category and help you find the perfect pair.

A Few Caveats

Now, before I give any recommendations, I think it's important to note a few of my opinions on athletic footwear:

1. Non-compressible soles are best for any lifting activity as they provide better stability and force transfer.

2. Having a heel height above forefoot height (heel rise) is unnecessary and I wish we could go back in time and prevent that fad from ever taking hold. There is a very limited number of situations where heel rise is desirable.

3. Highly padded soles lead to incorrect running mechanics. Children can run barefoot on the sidewalk without issue, but somehow adults can't without excessive pain. Even for athletic individuals.

4. Shoe comfort is directly related to how well it allows the foot to act naturally, not to how much you feel like you're walking on a mattress. Walking on an unstable surface is exhausting. Ever jog at the beach?

Okay, with that little spiel out of the way, let's breakdown the main categories of training shoes and some related options in each category.

Olympic Lifting Shoe

alt="olympic weightlifting shoes"

Invo-8 FastLift, Adidas Powerlift 2, Adidas Adipower, Adidas Drehkraft

Characteristics:  Olympic weightlifting shoes are purpose built with flat soles, an elevated heel, rigid midsole, and a secure fit. The flat soles provide stability, as they're made for lifting weights while standing more or less in one place. The rigid midsole is designed to not compress when lifting heavy weights (since the last thing you want to expend energy on is compressing some foam under your foot whilst pressing 150 kg over your head). The elevated heel height decreases the required ankle mobility to perform lifts in the low squat position.

Best For:  You guessed it, Olympic Weightlifting.

Not For:  Not the best option for any other kinds of training.

Minimalist Shoe

alt="minimalist shoes"

Vivobarefoot Stealth M, Vibram FiveFingers KSO EVO, Merrell Trail Glove 2, New Balance MX20v3

Characteristics: – These shoes are designed to simulate going barefoot, with the addition of abrasion resistance. They come with either a glove-like design or a roomy toe box. Individual toes allow the foot to grip naturally or a wide toe box allows toes to spread out when weight is applied to the foot – both designs improve balance. These shoes are almost always lightweight.

Best For:  Basically any recreational exercise, provided you take the time to learn proper running and exercise technique.

Not For:  Competition level athletes (i.e., Olympic/powerlifting).

Classic Sneaker

alt="classic sneakers"

Vans Authentic Lo Pro, Trentorn Nylite, Converse Jack Purcell, Converse Chuck Taylor

Characteristics:  This genre usually has a flat sole with little to no heel rise, and a non-compressible midsole. The uppers are usually canvas but are sometimes made of leather. This type of shoe tends to be a little on the weighty side, though this doesn't really matter given the types of training for which they're best suited (see below).

Best For:  Powerlifting and bodybuilding exercises. Often referred to as “the poor man's weightlifting shoe”.

Not For:  Extremely athletic plyometric (jumping) moves and running.

Retro Trainer

alt="retro trainers"

New Balance Classics, Onitsuka Tiger, Saucony Originals Bullet, Puma Rio Speed

Characteristics:  The running/training shoes of yesteryear. These shoes are generally lightly padded and very flexible versions of the running shoes common today. The soles have a simple, mildly aggressive, repeating pattern. The forefoot is usually wide, flexible, and minimally padded. The heel has a slight rise and a little padding. The uppers are commonly mesh, nylon, and/or suede. These are usually very lightweight.

Best For:  Bodybuilding, athletic training, and cardio. Great all-around choice.

Not For:  Olympic and powerlifting.

Modern Running Shoe

alt="running shoes"

Asics GT 2000, Brooks Adrenalin GTS 14, Saucony Cohesion 7New Balance M940V2

Characteristics:  Modern running shoes tend to be highly engineered. The soles have elaborate tread patterns, the midsoles are made of thick foam and the insoles are also padded. The insoles and midsoles are frequently designed to make up for biomechanics inefficiencies, such as over or underpronation (the foot rolling inward too much or not enough, respectively). The uppers are generally made of padding and mesh to allow for good breathability and comfort.

Best For:  Long distance running. I'm a firm believer that if your feet hurt while running barefoot, you're doing something wrong. With that being said, pushing the human body to run long distances may warrant the extra protection provided by this category. Just don't use excessive cushion as an excuse for poor technique.

Not For:  Lifting anything heavier than a water bottle. Unnecessary for the casual gym goer.

My personal choices

Heavy lifting:  I use classic sneakers for this task, specifically Converse Chuck Taylors. The non-compressible sole is great for power transfer and stability during squats, deadlifts, and pressing.

Bodybuilding and Light Cardio:  My retro trainers from Saucony fit the bill. They're comfy and flexible without being excessively padded.

You Might Also Like


  • Reply
    January 27, 2015 at 6:05 am

    On days that I do squats and deadlifts, I wear those vibram five fingers shoes. I fully realize that I look like a complete idiot, but out of all the shoes I’ve used before they feel the most comfortable. Highly recommend them for gripping the floor.

    Your site looks pretty kickass dude. Keep it up!

    • Reply
      January 27, 2015 at 2:36 pm

      Congratulations, you’re one of the few Vibram Five Finger wearers that recognizes their function is greater than their aesthetic value (which is zero). You’re absolutely right, they’re perfect for squats and deadlifts.

  • Reply
    February 9, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    After reading this post and some other sites as well, I found some new chucks on craigslist for $30. I have never worn them before and only use them at the gym right now. I do like them for the exercises I am currently doing. Thanks again for the info and keep up the good work!

    • Reply
      February 9, 2015 at 5:09 pm

      $30 for shoes that’ll last 5 years in the gym, not bad at all. They’re perfect for squats, deadlift, and overhead press. Enjoy!

  • Reply
    Chase Power
    March 24, 2015 at 1:57 pm

    Yeah, anytime I see a guy wearing chucks in the gym he is usually moving big weights. Its the staple powerlifting shoe and its functional as hell. Ill use OLY shoes (Romaleos) for squats but overall the high top chuck taylors are my go to as well

    • Reply
      March 24, 2015 at 5:06 pm

      It’s true. My chucks have been the catalyst for quite a few conversations. People see you wearing them and want to come talk to you about squats, haha.

  • Reply
    May 6, 2016 at 2:00 am

    Thx for sharing detailed info ! Would Chael Sanderson asics wrestling a shoes be fine for jump rope , dead lifts and squats ?

  • Reply
    June 5, 2016 at 3:28 am

    Nike Free 3.0 are my favorite gym shoes. I have also worn Chuck Taylors, but I like my Nikes a lot better. Nike positions Nike Free as a minimalist running shoe. According to Wikipedia “The numbering system indicates the cushioning of the shoe and follows a scale ranging from 0 (barefoot) to 10 (normal running shoe), i.e. Free 3.0 being the least cushioned model.”

    • Reply
      June 7, 2016 at 9:15 am

      Those are great shoes. I had a pair of the earlier model 5.0s in college for my cardio/fitness lab shoes. I might look into the 3.0s for some light jogging and sprinting.

    Leave a Reply

    About Me

    Casual Style 101

    Free style guide