The Squat is a very technical lift and there are a lot of different components to consider when looking to improve our Squat performance. One aspect in particular that many people consider is whether to Squat in flat shoes or heeled shoes.
But which type of shoe should you wear?
Determining whether to Squat in flat or heeled shoes comes down to four key factors:
- Anatomy & Leverages – Your femur, tibia, and torso lengths are perhaps the biggest factor that will influence your shoe choice.
- Flexibility – The amount of flexion you have in your joints will play a big factor in determining the most appropriate shoe, particularly your ankle and hip flexion.
- Squat Style – Your Squat style will also have a role to play. Whether you are a high bar Squatter or a low bar Squatter, wide stance, or narrow stance.
- Goals – Whether you’re looking to move as much weight as possible or specifically targeting quad development, your shoe choice can help shift the emphasis.
In this article, we’ll look at these 4 key factors in detail to help you determine whether flat shoes or heeled shoes are best for your Squat.
Before delving into the 4 key factors, lets first do a bit of housekeeping on the fundamentals of a good Squat.
Our first consideration is bar path, we want the bar to move straight up and down with the center of gravity over our midfoot.
There may be some freak Squatters out there for whom this isn’t true, but I would say for the majority this is what we must aim for.
We also want to reach at least parallel depth, that is our hip crease must pass the top of our knee. In IPF rules, if we don’t at least manage to achieve this it is considered a ‘no lift’ and doesn’t count.
Of course, depending on your goals you may not need to go this deep, such as rehabilitation for example, but for this article, I will assume you are someone who is involved in a Strength Sport such as Powerlifting or Olympic Weightlifting.
A lot of this article will be based around reaching parallel depth, but the content is still relevant for any Squat depth, so even if you Squat deep, the same guidelines apply.
For more detail on Squat Fundamentals, the Squat University is an excellent resource.
Flat Shoes Vs Heeled Shoes
Firstly, it’s important to understand what the differences are between a flat shoe and a heeled shoe.
Flat Shoes are pretty much every shoe you see day to day, the heel and the forefoot or toe generally sit at the same or close to the same height from the ground.
Examples of flat shoes that you would typically see in a Weight Training environment are Converse All Stars, Sabo Deadlift Shoes as well as Wrestling Shoes such as the Otomix Stingray.
You can check out my reviews of each of these shoes below:
A heeled shoe is typically a more specialist shoe such as a Weightlifting Shoe. Some good examples of Weightlifting Shoes are the Reebok Legacy Lifters, Adidas Adipowers, and the Nike Romaleos.
As the name suggests, a heeled shoe such as a Weightlifting Shoe has a raised heel, typically 0.75″ higher than the forefoot/toe.
For a detailed breakdown of what makes a Weightlifting shoe what it is, you can check out my article: “What Are Weightlifting Shoes?“.
Whether you will benefit from a raised heeled shoe or not will depend on a few factors, the first of which is your anatomy and leverages.
Anatomy and Leverages
Every lifter is different, and although some general rules apply across the board when Squatting, some cues and techniques may work perfectly for some but also will not be appropriate for others.
A lot of this comes down to our anatomy and leverages, namely our Tibia, Femur, and Torso lengths, let’s look at these in detail to understand their influence.
In the above picture, we have a basic diagram of a person Squatting, let’s call him Scott (Scott, Squat, get it!?).
The red line represents the bar path, with the top being where the barbell is sitting, going vertically down to Scott’s midfoot.
The heel of his foot connects to his Tibia, traveling up to his knee, connecting to his Femur, to his hip, and finally to his Torso.
In general, if we have sufficient hip and ankle mobility, chances are we won’t need a heeled shoe and a flat shoe will do just fine.
There are a few points to take note of:
- Scott’s height off the ground.
- The angle of Scott’s Torso relative to his Femur.
- The moment arm, or distance, of the knee relative to the bar.
- The moment arm, or distance, of the hip relative to the bar.
Let’s change the lengths of these body parts to see how it influences Scott’s Squat. We won’t change the ankle flexion, for now, to keep things simple.
In the above picture, we’ve changed the length of Scott’s Tibia, making it both short and long.
Notice that with a longer tibia, Scott is a lot higher off the ground, he doesn’t need to close the angle of his back as much so can maintain a relatively vertical position. The moment arm of his knees and hips are reasonably similar, so Scott would probably get a good balance of quad and posterior activation to complete the Squat.
Conversely, with a shorter Tibia, Scott needs to get a lot lower and lean more forward to achieve parallel depth, he also has to push his hips further back, increasing the moment and putting more stress on his lower back. Scott would likely use a lot more of his posterior chain to complete the lift and very little of his quads.
Now, let’s change Scott’s Femur length.
With a short Femur, Scott can maintain a more vertical Torso, reducing the moment arm at his hip joint. The moment arm at his knee joint will be dictated by his ankle flexion and Tibia length.
With a long Femur, Scott becomes quite mechanically disadvantaged, he has to push his hips very far back to achieve depth and his Torso is placed at a very acute angle.
Finally, let’s change Scott’s Torso length.
A short Torso produces a similar effect to a long Femur, this requires Scott to push his hips back to hit depth and will require good hip flexion.
A longer Torso takes some shearing stress away from Scott’s back by allowing a more vertical position.
The moment arm in both cases is about the same, but the reduced angle of the longer Torso will largely be beneficial to Scott.
Good Squat Leverages vs Bad Squat Leverages
So taking this to extremes, we find that if Scott had a particularly long Torso and Tibia with a short Femur, he is at a distinct advantage when it comes to the Squat and would not need a heeled shoe such as a Weightlifting Shoe.
If Scott was unlucky and had a short Torso and Tibia with a long Femur, in this example it would be impossible for him to achieve depth and maintain a vertical bar path.
In this case, Scott would either need to improve his ankle flexion to allow him to bring his knees further forward and/or invest in a Weightlifting Shoe.
Obviously, this is an extreme example, but by raising his heel whilst keeping all other factors the same, Scott can now keep the bar path in one vertical plane and is even able to open up the angle between his hips and torso slightly, allowing him to now be able to complete a Squat with correct form.
The video below from exerciseprofessional.com is a great visual example of everything discussed above.
Leading on from anatomy and how our proportions affect our squat, we also have to consider our flexibility and overall mobility of our joints, particularly our ankles and hips. We could be blessed with the best proportions, but if we have ankle flexion issues for example, we will never be able to achieve good Squat form.
Let’s bring Scott back to look at this further.
In this example, Scott’s flexibility allows him to bend his ankles to a 65° angle on the left and a 45° angle on the right.
If Scott can only bend his ankles to 65°, he has to compensate by pushing his hips back and closing off the angle of his Torso, ultimately putting extra stress on his lower back.
In the first instance, Scott would perhaps want to look at improving his ankle dorsiflexion. I go over several exercises that will improve ankle dorsiflexion in my article “Ankle Strengthening Exercises“.
However, if this is the limit that Scott can achieve, then a heeled shoe will help him immeasurably, as shown below.
Here we can see that, by raising his heel, Scott can achieve a similar Squat structure as he would if he had more ankle dorsiflexion.
It’s a pretty similar story when looking at hip flexibility.
If Scott doesn’t have the flexibility he needs here he will likely compensate in several ways. If he has enough ankle flexibility, he might get away with it, however, in a lot of instances, this will normally develop into back rounding issues or the elusive butt wink.
If hip flexibility is your issue, I wouldn’t recommend a change of shoes to solve this. For most people these days, its likely that anterior pelvic tilt is to blame from years of sedentary lifestyles. This is usually very easily fixed and has much further benefits than just your Squat.
Check out these exercises on healthline.com, which should go a long way to correcting this issue.
In general, if we have sufficient hip and ankle mobility, chances are we won’t need a heeled shoe and a flat shoe will do just fine.
If we have some mobility restrictions in the ankle joint, a heeled Weightlifting Shoe is worth considering.
A Weightlifting Shoe may help with hip mobility issues, however, my recommendation is to try and fix the issue first rather than to use heeled shoes as a crutch.
The 3rd factor that will determine whether you should wear flats or heels is your overall Squat style.
Lifters will generally fall into two categories, high bar or low bar Squatters, that is they will either have the barbell located on their traps or further down their back over their scapula.
Lifters will then be further broken down into a narrow or wide stance.
Its not a hard and fast rule, but in most cases, high bar Squatters will have a narrow stance, whereas low bar Squatters will have a wider stance and usually a Weightlifting Shoe will work for the former while a flat shoe will work best for the latter.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both and some degree of trial and error will usually be required to determine which is right for you.
I’ve written a guide to help determine your ideal Squat style, which you can read here.
Once you know what your preferred Squat Style is, it should then make it easier to determine which type of shoe would be most suitable using the below table.
Finally, once you’ve considered all of the above, your last consideration will be what you’re actually looking to achieve when you Squat.
Are you looking to lift the most weight possible? Are you specifically looking to develop your Quads? It’s important to understand why you’re Squatting in the first place and what you’re looking to get out of it before you decide what type of shoe is right.
I’m relatively lucky and my proportions are fairly average whilst also having decent flexibility, so I can Squat either high bar/low bar, narrow/wide all fairly comfortably. As a result, I often alternate my Squat style and hence my shoe choice depending on what I’m trying to achieve during that given training block.
As an example, I am much stronger in a low bar/wide stance, so if I’m specifically training with improving my overall Squat strength in mind, I’ll wear flat shoes to accommodate this and shift the emphasis over to my stronger posterior chain.
However, when I’m looking to focus mainly on my Quad strength, I will shift to a high bar/narrow stance and wear Weightlifting Shoes to close the moment arm at my hips/back and put the emphasis more on my Quads.
As you can see, there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to shoe choice for the Squat. Determining whether a flat or a heeled shoe is right for you, will largely come down to the four factors explained above.
The biggest factor will always be your anatomy and leverages of your Torso, Femur, and Tibia relative to each other. Some lifters will be lucky and be able to choose which shoe is right for them or even alternate as they see fit. Others will be dealt a bad hand and their anatomy might mean that physically, it will be impossible for them to Squat efficiently without a heeled shoe.
Similarly, ankle flexion will play a big role, and injuries or joint structure might prevent some from achieving enough flexion to Squat in flats.
Squat stance also plays a part. Generally speaking, the wider your stance, the less likely you are to benefit from heeled shoes such as Weightlifting Shoes.
Bar position will be a consideration to some degree but this tends to follow stance width quite linearly so the two usually go hand in hand.
And finally, you need to be clear what you are looking to achieve from your Squat before deciding whether to go with flats or heels. There’s no point in spending your hard-earned cash on a good pair of Weightlifting Shoes if you haven’t even thought about why you want them.
So before you invest in a heeled shoe, ask yourself the following questions:
- Does my anatomy place me in a compromised position?
- Do I have ankle flexibility issues that a heeled shoe would solve?
- Does my Squat style lend itself to a heeled shoe?
- What are my goals for the Squat and would a heeled shoe help me achieve them?
If your answer is yes to any of these, chances are a heeled shoe such as a Weightlifting shoe will be a good investment for you. Otherwise, you are better off sticking with flat shoes!