Whether you bodybuild, Olympic lift or crossfit, chances are you own, or have at least considered owning, a pair of weightlifting shoes. These days, weightlifting shoes are becoming something of a fashion accessory for the avid gym goer, a way of colourfully distinguishing oneself in the weightroom and adding a couple more pounds to their squats.
But where did these bizarre shoes with high heels come from? How have they evolved over the past century and what do we know about their history? In today’s blogpost, we’re going to discuss one of the relatively unexplored elements of the weightroom. Having previously examined the history of foam rollers and swiss balls on this site, it seems only fair to look at footwear.
So perhaps unsurprisingly given their name, WEIGHTLIFTING shoes were, and continue to be, influenced by the sport of weightlifting. Specifically how weightlifters move underneath the barbell and how they position their “kinematic links” (the trunk, thigh and shin) before lifting the barbell. Such factors have been important ever since the International Weightlifting Federation’s decision in 1929 to test strength in the press, the snatch and the clean & jerk.
The press, one of the most primal strength lifts around, is a relatively straightforward test of strength. A simple, albeit difficult, lift that can be contrasted with the snatch and the clean & jerk, both of which are explosive lifts. Thus while it didn’t really matter what shoes you wore in the press, those worn in the explosive lifts either helped or hindered you and when you’re training for gold, these things matter quite a bit!
Indeed, the early methods of snatching or cleaning the bar revealed some of the difficulties associated with these lifts. Whereas the press could be completed mainly with shoulder and arm strength, with minimal knee bend, the explosive lifts required a descent underneath the bar to raise it from the ground. The heavier the weight, the further the lifter dropped under the bar. The lower one dropped under the bar, the less height was needed to lift the weight, and hence the more one could lift weight. One early method of achieving advantageous descents was the ‘splot method’ pictured below. This involved shifting one foot forward in a straight line from its starting position and likewise the other foot rearward thereby lowering the lifter into a quarter squat position. While somewhat ungainly, the ‘splot’ method allowed the lifter to rack up heavier weights than those who slightly bended their knees and asymmetrically shifted their feet (one pointed forward & the other to the side).
At this point the footwear mattered little as evidenced by the shoes of many lifters from the 1920s to 1950s who tended to wear sneakers or boxing shoes.
The 1960s would see the emergence of ‘splitters’ such as Americans John Davis and Norbert Schemansky, Soviet Rudolf Plukfelder and Pole Ireneusz Palinski. Reinventing the weightlifting wheel, such men demonstrated that it was possible to descend even further beneath the barbell by adopting the deep split position shown below.
Rudolph Plukfelder attempting to snatch with the ‘deep split’ position. Note the position of the shins and heels in the picture.
As more and more lifters began adopting the split position, it became apparent that run-of-the-mill sneakers would no longer do. Soon weightlifters realized that shoes with raised heels were needed to permit the back foot to flex so that the heel could be raised while at the same time allowing the ankle joint of the front foot to bend. Boxing shoes or sneakers were no longer appropriate as they inhibited the movement of the ankle joint thereby restricting the ability of the lifter to tilt their shin forward.
Splitters or Squatters?
Importantly, the deep split position was not the only technique garnering attention during this period, as the squat technique helped to transform the weightlifting shoe forever. Popularized by American brothers, Pete and Jim George, the squat technique soon debuted on weightlifting platforms around the world. This had a significant impact regarding weightlifting shoes.
Jim George in Action
We’re all most likely familiar with the squat style clean or snatch whereby, the weightlifter literally squats underneath and receives the barbell at the chest for the clean or overhead for the snatch. Allowing lifters to move significant amounts of weight, the squat style presented just one problem in that it was imperative that heels remained on the floor in the deep squat position. If the heels rose when the lifter was underneath the bar, an embarrassing and potentially dangerous fall often occurred.
This meant that weightlifting shoes with a raised heel were more important for the squat style of lifting than the “deep split” method previously mentioned. This was because a shoe with a raised heel allowed lifters to retain a reasonably vertical trunk position while bending the knees and tilting the shins forward. Lifters cottoned on to this quite quickly and the following decades would see a series of shoes grace the lifting platform.
The Evolution of the Weightlifting Shoe
Owing to the demands of split and squat methods mentioned above, Olympic weightlifters from the middle of the twentieth-century began to experiment with boxing shoes and work boots on the platform. Both of which proved to be troublesome. The boxing shoe provided little in the way of a raised heel and the lacing of such shoes often-restricted ankle mobility. The work boot was equally problematic. Although providing a raised heel, which improved ankle mobility and facilitated the squat style of lifting, work boots also extended up the shin, thereby restricting ankle mobility. Furthermore they were heavy and stiff, two words you don’t normally associate with Olympic weightlifting. Interestingly it was the Soviet lifters who seemed to have paved the way for new types of weightlifting shoes when they decided to nail raised heels to the leather soles of their shoes with nails.
A Soviet Inspired boot courtesy of Risto Sports
Remarkably despite the fact that the Soviet model of leather soles and nailed heels of predisposed lifters to slip and/or otherwise slide on the wood surface of the weightlifting platform, such shoes proved popular in the weightlifting community. Although undoubtedly an important on work boots or boxing shoes, the Soviet shoes were not the Holy Grail the Olympic community had been waiting for. Nevertheless, perhaps owing to the fact that Soviet lifters oftentimes dominated weightlifting events during the 60s and 70s, the Soviet style shoe initially proved popular with lifters, albeit with some slight modifications. As decades progressed their was a tendency for lifters to leave their shoes unlaced around the shin, thereby allowing greater mobility for their ankles. This decision would have ramifications for lifters’ footwear.
Not just the Russians…
Importantly, Soviet shoes were not the boots in style at the time as the 1960s saw the emergence of York, Puma, Karhu and Tiger weightlifting boots, all inspired by the Soviet design. While such shoes did prove popular, from the late 1960s onwards Adidas weightlifting shoes were the Western answer to the footwear conundrum. Initially inspired by the Soviet model of high tops and rubber soles, Adidas gained a significant advantage in the 1970s when Tommy Kono, one of the era’s most successful Olympic lifters, began working with Adidas to design suitable weightlifting shoes. Remarkably Andrew Charniga Jr.’s website has a first hand account from Kono on this collaboration
Back in either 1970 or 1971… I was given a couple of kids” bikes (my daughter and son) and a pair of shoes. It was Adidas’ first try at copying the Finn’s Karhu lifting shoes.
I noted that the strap was too high on the shoes and it restricted the ankle movement. I wrote to the Adidas firm with a drawing to go with it to correct it. They wrote back an appreciative letter and followed up by sending me another pair of their shoes with the straps lower but not low enough. Anyway, when I wrote another letter explaining it was much improved but still not correct, they phoned me and asked if I might drop over to their factory outside Nurnberg.
One Saturday morning I was free so I drove to their factory with both pairs of shoes. The staff at the factory were extremely nice to me, showed me around, and I had lunch with Mr. Adi Dassler. I left the two pairs of shoes with them with a promise from them that they will correct it and send me a new pair that should be to my satisfaction. And, in parting they gave me a check for $200.00 (in Deutsch mark) for my time. This was totally unexpected but extremely professional of them. As the National Coach (of West Germany), I wanted to be certain that I could help the sport from every angle.
A Kono inspired Adidas shoe
Goodbye High Tops
The 1970s would see both Adidas and Soviet style weightlifting shoes abandon their high top designs in favour of lower cuts. This allowed much greater ankle mobility and reflected the concerns of both coaches and weightlifters about the high tops’ safety. Since then, numerous companies have designed weightlifting shoes for an ever expanding market. Despite the number of shoes available, the majority follow the designs created in the 70s. Namely, high heels and low cuts.
‘Why Weightlifting Shoes?, Sportivnypress: http://www.sportivnypress.com/documents/SUB_37.html
‘The Feet’, Iron Mind: http://www.ironmind.com/articles/jim-schmitz-on-the-lifts/The-Feet/
‘Custom Made Russian Style Weightlifting Boot’, Ristosports: http://www.ristosports.com/weightlifting-shoes/custom-made-russian-style-weightlifting-boot/
Magee, David J., et al. Athletic and Sport Issues in Musculoskeletal Rehabilitation (Elsevier Health Sciences, 2010), Chapter 16.