For someone who is a firm believer in the barefoot movement I sure do own a lot of of shoes! I own ski boots, crack climbing shoes, bouldering shoes, running shoes, minimalist shoes, lifting shoes, hiking boots, sandals, and some causal shoes. For me, shoes are a tool or piece of equipment and should be chosen based on what best serves my needs, and sometimes that is no shoes.
I’m not going to get into all the types of athletic shoes right now. For now, lets focus on what to wear to the gym. Just about every major shoe brand has a gym or cross training shoe now and they can vary greatly from a more minimalist shoe to a lifting shoe to a running shoe. You don’t need to have a separate shoe for the gym but hopefully by the end of this post you will be able to choose the best training shoe for your needs.
Our natural feet are a great option for the gym! Our feet have plenty of traction, and will provide a lot of control and feedback when moving and lifting. Plus the gym is clean, soft and temperature controlled so we don’t really need shoes to protect us from weather or sharp things. That being said, sometimes we can benefit from a little extra traction, comfort, or protection. Plus some people just like shoes!
When choosing a gym shoe you will want to consider a few elements from traction to stiffness to shape.
Out sole: The out sole is the outside bottom of the shoe and is a large part of what will set a gym shoe apart from other athletic shoes like a running or hiking shoe. Since gyms have solid flat surfaces, a flat out sole with small lugs will be best and provide the most traction and stability. Plus the smaller lugs will track less dirt inside when we do take short runs outside the gym. Please leave your trail shoes for the trail 🙂 .
Stability and Stiffness: What you choose here is really based on personal preference and the activities you do more. I prefer a more minimalist shoes that is super flexible and let my feet do all the stabilizing. A lifter oriented shoe is going to be pretty stiff with arch support and a heel cup to keep your foot from flexing or collapsing while lifting. I usually recommend training with the lowest amount of stability that is comfortable to you so your feet can maximize from the training benefits too. A shoe that is more flexible will be better for things like running, jumping, and agility where a stiffer shoe will be more supportive when lifting.
Heel to Toe Drop: The heel to toe drop is a big part of the barefoot movement. Your average athletic shoe has an 8-10 mm heel to toe drop forcing your weight into your toes. While a lifted heel is helpful in some movements like squatting (lifter shoes have even larger heel to toe drops), it is actually detrimental in many other movements. Research has also found that spending too much time in lifted heels will lead to shortened calf muscles and an anterior pelvic tilt often leading to lower back pain. So for the gym, and in casual life, we recommend moving toward a 0 mm heal to toe drop. Luckily you can now find all sorts of shoes with a zero or minimal drip (4-6 mm). This may take adjusting to – read more about this transition in our barefoot post.
Cushion: This one is another personal preference one. In general the more cushion you have in the shoe the less feedback your feet will have often making it harder to find balance. Plus, too much cushion actually absorbs some of the force you are exerting making it harder to lift things. Most lifting and cross training shoes will have less cushion then running shoes. You can also get minimalist shoes with no added cushion.
Shape: This is another part of the shoe that has really come to light in the barefoot movement. We simply have been handicapping our toes by shoving them into little shoes. We need our toes for stability, agility and strength! Luckily more shoes are starting to offer wider toe boxes. Your toes should not be squished in your gym shoes. Another aspect of the shape will be curvature. A gym shoe will usually be pretty flat for a more stable lifting surface where a running shoe will have more curve for more natural flexing when running. Choose the shape that will benefit the activity you do more.
Any shoe or no shoe will do for the gym, but before you default to your running shoes you many want to look into a shoe with a flatter sole and less cushion. When I wear shoes in the gym you will usually find me in my Vivobarefoot Primus or Sanuk slippers.
Some other shoes that fit our suggested specifications (this is by no means exhaustive) include:
Minimalist: Merrill Vapor Glove, Innov8 Bare, Xero shoes, Vivobarefoot Primus
Cross Trainiers: No Bull Trainers, Innov8 F-lite, Nike Metcon, Reebox Nano, Under Armor Tribase