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
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.
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).
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.
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
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.