by Carl Raghavan, SSC Starting Strength
I hear this question all the time – as if it’s somehow sacrilegious to deadlift in Olympic lifting shoes. Often, the outraged dude in question will follow up with a snort, “There are no elite powerlifters that deadlift in weightlifting shoes! Name one!”
Excellent point, outraged dude. Except for the fact that I am not a powerlifter. I realize this may come as a surprise, because when speaking to the average lay person, the term I commonly use to describe what I do at the gym is “powerlifting.” Why? Because it’s in the approximate ballpark and reasonably comprehensible, and I don’t want a two-hour conversation about Starting Strength with every person who sees me squat. Generally speaking, the hoi-polloi don’t know the difference anyway. They look at my physique and the way I train, and they see a typical powerlifter. But I would like to set the record straight, here and now – drumroll please! I am not a powerlifter. I am a strengthlifter.
What’s the difference, you ask? Powerlifting is a sport consisting of three lifts: the squat, bench, and deadlift. Strength training is the pursuit of general strength. We train to get strong, and strength isn’t specific. We don’t necessarily focus on preparing for a powerlifting meet – although we could. Our focus is on getting as strong as possible, and we train accordingly. A powerlifting meet is an event where you have three attempts to squat, three to bench, and finally three to deadlift, your best of each comprising your total. For a lift to be considered successful, you need two out of three white lights from the three judges observing your lifts – and believe me when I say that what constitutes a squat, bench and deadlift vary wildly from federation to federation.
Powerlifting is a sport governed by a set of arbitrary rules determined by the various federations. Strength training, per se, is not. However, my training is built specifically around the Starting Strength method, and this method prescribes certain principles of technique that are different from those typically seen at powerlifting meets. Reflecting this difference, we have meets of our own, with our own arbitrary rules. Funnily enough, they’re called strengthlifting meets. How fitting. These are very different than powerlifting meets. For starters, the competition lifts in a strengthlifting meet are the squat, overhead press, and conventional deadlift. Let me break down in more detail what sets the two sports of powerlifting and strengthlifting apart.
Squat depth: The hip crease of the lifter squatting is below the top of the patella, not parallel or 6 inches above, or whenever your buddy decides to yell, “Beautiful depth!” Only one powerlifting federation reliably judges squat depth now. And us.
Bench press vs overhead press: At a strengthlifting meet, the overhead press is the upper body lift tested, not the bench press. The press has the longest kinetic chain of all the main barbell strength lifts (squat, press, deadlift, and bench). There is a compelling argument to be made that because of this, the press is a better choice for total body strength than the bench. It involves all of your joints from your hands straight down to your feet, challenging your balance, stability and accuracy in a way that the bench cannot: the bench press kinetic chain starts at the hand and finishes at the bench under the shoulder, before the load dissipates into the bench and then the floor. For this reason, unlike in powerlifting, we contest the press at meets.
We do, of course, train the bench. It’s the heaviest upper-body lift, so it adds tremendous value as a cornerstone strength movement. But we train it differently than powerlifters. Usually we bench a hand-width wider than our press, at a width where the elbows, forearms and wrists are all in a straight vertical line at the point of bar contact on the chest. This means we train a longer range of motion – not 2 inches.
Conventional deadlift: We also only perform conventional deadlifts – like some (but not all) powerlifters. We don’t sumo, because the sumo deadlift doesn’t utilize the maximum possible muscle mass. It works a shorter range of motion, which therefore decreases its impact on overall strength. And as I said above, we are pursuing strength – not powerlifting trophies. A side note: good sumo deadlifters train conventional as well, but conventional deadlifters don’t need to sumo. Why is that? Because sumo pullers eventually need to improve their general strength, and the best exercise for overall deadlift strength is the conventional version.
No commands from the judges: At strengthlifting meets, there are no commands issued during competition lifts. No judges screaming at you, telling you when to squat or press or put the barbell down. Instead, they quietly observe you perform the lifts, and after you rack the bar or put it on the floor you find out whether you executed it successfully according to the technical rules. The lifter, not the judge, is responsible for the correct execution of the lift – the judges merely decide what happened.
The weigh-out: Here’s the kicker, the rule that separates the men from the boys – the powerlifters and the strengthlifters. At meets, we are weighed after our final deadlift attempt. It’s called a “weigh-out.” In other words, you’re judged against lifters in the weight category you fall into on meet day, not the one you were in a few days earlier. Some powerlifting competitions have a weigh-in 2 hours, 24 hours, or even 48 hours in advance. The weigh-out restores meaning to the definition of “weight class.”
Now, if you know anything about cutting weight, you know that you can drop a ton of it and then quickly blow back up by 20-30lbs, or maybe even more, so that by the actual day of the meet you’re much heavier. That means these events don’t actually tell you who’s the strongest powerlifter in the weight class that day; they tell you who best understands how to cut weight and not die. I don’t want to see people frantically sweating to make weight, I want to see the biggest squats, benches and deadlifts within the actual weight class on meet day. In a performance-driven event like lifting, I want the strongest person – the person who’s trained the hardest, recovered the best and programmed the most intelligently – to be victorious within the actual weight class they weigh at the actual meet, not within a class he may have been in at some point in the past. Not the guy who’s all about manipulating water, salts, and Lasix.
“Strength” versus “power”: Strictly speaking, the squat, bench, and deadlift are not power lifts – they are lifts that display strength. The Olympic lifts are the real power lifts that depend on displaying strength explosively, the textbook definition of power. So the term “powerlifting” is a misnomer. Oh well, too late to unfuck that mess. This is why we prefer the term “strengthlifting” and title our meets accordingly.
Anyway, all of this is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t care what kind of shoes elite powerlifters wear. Frankly, all we really have in common is that we both use barbells. I’m not trying to pull for an elite powerlifting meet. I just want a strong squat, press, deadlift and bench press. I would also like to be good at chin ups, power cleans and even power snatches. Powerlifters don’t usually train those movement patterns. It’s not part of their sport, but most of them don’t understand that their training would be better if they used them.
Moreover, what elite powerlifters do is even less relevant when it comes to my clients: 99 percent of my clientele pull 1 to 3 times per week and add 5lbs to their deadlift each time. That’s it. They’re not looking to compete in the IPF, they just want to pull a set of 5, get stronger, go home, and keep living the rest of their lives.
A lot of the myths around deadlifting and footwear are drawn from the example of a few genetically gifted individuals. For instance: Andy Bolton, from the UK, was the first guy to deadlift 1,000lbs. Did you know that on his very first day of training, he walked into the gym, said he’d like to try some deadlifts, then with no technique or programming just did a rep and added a plate, did a rep and added a plate, until he pulled 600lbs? The first time he ever deadlifted.
For context, 600lbs is my lifetime goal, and I’ve been lifting for well over a decade. Andy started with a 600lb pull. So his training doesn’t really apply to you or me. Those people are freaks. They didn’t have to struggle through mediocrity; they were already great the moment they stepped through the gym doors. This is why I don’t care whether Andy Bolton deadlifts in Converse, or in bare feet, or while dangling a kettlebell from his nuts. Andy Bolton is not my client base, and I’m afraid if you’re reading this, you are not in his category either. Sorry.
Conventional bro-science wisdom has it that flat or low-heeled shoes are “better” for deadlifts, because your foot is closer to the floor and the floor is stable (unlike your bare feet). This makes it that much easier to lock out the barbell. At least, this is the assumption. I’m not sure it’s borne out by my experience. As I get closer to pulling 600lbs off the floor, I have been flip-flopping about what shoes I think are suitable. I have tried several types over the years, but I always come back to deadlifting in my Olympic lifting shoes, because I find them the most stable. They fit well, and they compress my feet into a tight package that interacts more stably with the floor than an uncompressed foot in a sloppy shoe.
And I have tried lots of different options. I’ve used deadlift slippers for most of my competitions, and Converses occasionally to be cool. I have cut off the heel of a cheap pair of weightlifting shoes, and even pulled in just my stinky socks. All of these had drawbacks, so the conclusion I keep coming back to is that Olympic lifting shoes are the best all-around option – including for deadlifts. Here are a few gripes I have had with all the aforementioned shoes.
Deadlift slippers are obviously not much of a shoe. They’re more like a ballet slipper, frankly. Whenever I watch someone deadlift in slippers, I see a lot of ankles collapsing at the bottom of the pull and toes lifting up at the top of the deadlift. This unnecessary movement causes a massive power leak between the lifter and the barbell. You might as well wear flip-flops or kick them off like you’re coming to deadlift straight from the beach.
Socks are basically no better than deadlift slippers for support, and you’re more likely to slip and fall over like Larry Wheels did (quite funny – I would suggest watching that). At least deadlift slippers have a thin layer of rubber underneath for grip. Deadlifting usually occurs in a gym, on a platform where your feet are in contact with a wooden surface. Easy slipping territory. Don’t be that guy.
Converse All Stars/Chuck Taylors have been a staple of powerlifting apparel for years. Chuck Taylors were originally made for basketball (although I would ask if anyone reading this has ever played basketball in them – when you wake up the next day, you will realize that Converses are in fact not great for that). In my humble opinion, Converses are about as useful to powerlifting as an elevator in a ground-floor strip mall. The material breaks apart like a wet paper bag, and while battle-worn Chucks may appeal to the powerlifter hoping to look extra hardcore, I can assure you these fancy moccasins do nothing but peel numbers off your total.
I know, I know. Louie Simmons likes to say, “Don’t have $100 shoes and a 10 cent squat.” But cussing weightlifting shoes is rich coming from him, when Westside are the poster boys for quarter box squats. Converses are bad for deadlifts for the same reason they’re bad for squats: they provide no real support. Not to mention that Chuck Taylors are designed for someone who has French baguettes for feet, as the toe box is extremely narrow and hence lacks stability. (Speaking of wide toe boxes: weightlifting-shoe brands to look out for are Do-win, Reebok and Nike. Adidas are cheap, but also have a narrow profile similar to Converses.)
Olympic lifting shoes with the soles cut off: The process here is pretty simple. You buy an Olympic weightlifting shoe and go to your local cobbler to get the heel completely removed, and then they add a solid flat sole to replace it. I found these actually worked pretty well, because they had the medial strap and the arch support of a weightlifting shoe, but also a flat sole. Well, kinda flat: the downside is that the toe spring – the curve in the sole at the ball of the foot that keeps the toes on the ground in front of the heel – may leave the toes up in the air if the heel is shaved off.
And anyway, there’s enough lifting equipment to remember already, without adding yet another piece of kit to your gym bag. The bare essentials are plenty: belt, weightlifting shoes, spare T-shirt and shorts. On top of those, most people will usually bring some combination of wrist wraps, knees sleeves, lifting straps, long socks, chalk and – for OCD types – a tripod for their iPhone. One pair of shoes to squat and pull in is enough. Especially if you travel a lot, like me, and do meets internationally. Luggage space is a huge factor, particularly as I like to travel light. As in, one backpack.
All of which brings us back to Olympic lifting shoes. Yes, they have a heel, but remember they’re also raised at the front, so the net effect is actually more like the height you see at the mid-foot point. Subtract the front from the back and that equals the “net heel” of the shoe. So the heel isn’t quite as high as it may initially appear. The increased thickness under your mid-foot is maybe 1 cm. It’s really not going to mess with your deadlift that much. In fact, I think wearing deadlifting flats or low-profile shoes on meet day is more psychological than anything. Personally, I have pulled similar weights in flats and in heels. My mind sometimes gets the better of my judgement, but when I take a dispassionate look at my numbers, I can’t reasonably conclude that weightlifting shoes inhibit my pull. My deadlifting errors do that all by themselves! No need for this workman to blame his tools – I can manage to fuck up a deadlift all by myself.
If you’re a genetically gifted elite lifter, you can wear whatever the hell you want. It probably won’t hold you back. And if you’re competing in a particular sport, like powerlifting, wear whatever the rules dictate. But if you’re interested in training for strength, there is no good reason to panic about whether squat shoes are messing up your deadlift. They almost certainly are not the problem. This is why I tell my clients just to stick to the one pair of shoes – they’re not pulling elite numbers. They don’t need special-snowflake treatment. Nor do I. So I’m going to deadlift in my weightlifting shoes. I find them the most stable, and it doesn’t seem to be affecting my numbers. Maybe you should give weightlifting shoes a try – you may be pleasantly surprised.