Past being comfortable, a lot of us don’t give much thought to what we’re wearing in the gym. This is a big mistake. Yes, comfort is important, but it’s far from the only thing and certainly not the most important in my book. This article is mostly geared towards those involved in barbell training since that is what I specialize in and is where I can offer the best advice. Even if you don’t train with a barbell I encourage you to keep reading. You might still find some of this useful.
Footwear is arguably the single most important item. It’s your contact to the surface with which you’re almost constantly interfacing. Not all shoes are created equally. This is important to understand, as the type of shoe you’re wearing can have a drastic influence on the safe and effective execution of a movement.
Squats, deadlifts, pressing, and Olympic-style movements benefit from a shoe with a hard, dense sole - one that permits hard to hard contact between the body and the lifting surface. Hard to hard contact allows for a more efficient transfer of energy to the barbell or whatever implement you so happen to be lifting. If I asked you to perform a squat while standing on a mattress you would look at me like I just stepped on your gold fish. Think about this the next time you go to squat in a running shoe. Not your gold fish, but squatting on a mattress. Not only is energy absorbed through the cushy surface, but there is also an element of instability added to the equation.
My hierarchy of footwear for your basic barbell/strength movements is:
Weightlifting shoes with a raised heel approximately .5- .75”
Minimalist running shoes with a very thin sole such as the New Balance Minimus
The caveat to this is if you are performing the Olympic lifts or any lift that requires you to jump, land, and absorb the force of the weight, you should NOT perform them barefoot or in Vibrams. Probably not in a minimalist shoe either. The dynamic impact forces on the ankles and knees can be quite high, and this could open you up to an injury. This is just my opinion and a word of caution.
If you want to run, walk, bike, do Pilates or TRX in running shoes, go right ahead. I’ve used all 5 types of footwear for barbell training at some point and can honestly say the weightlifting shoes are by far the BEST for this. Duh, right? After all, they’re weightlifting shoes. The dense sole provides stability and maximum energy transfer. During squats and pulls the raised heel slightly inclines the shins, which increases knee flexion and thus, quad recruitment. The cool and stylish Velcro straps aid in securing the foot to the shoe for improved stability. When I can convince a person to invest in a pair they don’t regret it. And an investment is exactly what they are. You don’t need the $180 pair either. A simple pair in the $80 range will suit just fine and will last years. Check these out, http://www.roguefitness.com/shoes/
All other shoes are a compromise in some way. Chucks are inexpensive and many lifters have used them with great success. You just aren’t going to get the security from a Chuck that you can with a lifting shoe. The sole is flat and fairly dense, but not as dense as the lifting shoe. Some people prefer the flat sole over the raised heel. That’s a personal preference that should be made after using both types of shoe.
The New Balance Minimus and other similar shoes have a very thin sole and can be secured to the foot pretty well. They may not be a bad choice if you like doing more Crossfit-type training where you don’t have time to change out shoes. Rouge actually makes a series of cross-training shoes for this purpose. I’ve never used them myself so I don’t have much of an opinion there. From my observations of people who do use them, their functionality seems to be skewed more to the non-weightlifting activities. I could be wrong, though.
Going barefoot caries with it a significant risk of injury and infection. When I say barefoot this also includes the use of socks. The gym is a harsh environment and not a place where you want unprotected feet. Gym floors are also petri dishes. I’ve never asked a client to go completely barefoot, but I have had them perform squats and deadlifts in socks at times. This usually occurs if the client has horrible shoes for performing the movement. In these cases I’ll have them remove their shoes right before the set and they immediately put them back on after the set is completed.
Socks should be the typical cotton athletic type. Shin or knee length is preferred for most movements that require a person to pull a bar or implement from the floor. Just don’t wear dress socks or anything slick. The longer length socks are helpful in keeping the bars knurling from cutting your shins open. Nobody wants your blood on the bar. Most people will either consciously or subconsciously allow the bar to drift away from their shins as a way to protect them. This is a case of good intension, poor execution. We HAVE to keep the bar close to the body so you either need to get over it or wear longer socks. Oh, you can also use shin sleeves, but long socks have more uses. Like when you go to the beach.
Pants and shorts should fit loose enough to not restrict movement. Shorts with legs long enough to fall below the knees can pose a problem when squatting. The leg of the shorts can be caught on the knee and this tightness causes the lifter to stop the decent prematurely. Sweat pants should be loose enough to allow the pant leg to slip over the knee. I’ve never seen a problem occur with a person wearing yoga pants or leggings.
Cotton is your best option for shirts. The fabric absorbs moisture and provides enough friction to help a barbell stay in place when doing front or back squats. Cotton/polyester blends are ok, but I would suggest staying in the 60/40 split of cotton to polyester. Hoodies are fine for everything except back squats. The hood gets in the way of bar placement. Why would you want a bulky unorganized mass of fabric between your body and possibly hundreds of pounds? Tank tops and moisture wicking shirts are horrible for these kinds of lifts. They’re slippery and that’s probably the last thing you want when you have a loaded bar on your back; maybe with the exception of a tiger being let loose in the gym. Don’t let all the YouTube videos of lean shirtless bros mislead you. Sweaty skin and barbells is dangerous. Don’t hurt yourself for vanity.
I think that pretty much covers the bases. I’m not going to speak about sports bras since I have zero experience in that department. If there are any ladies who have something to add on that subject please leave a comment.
At the end of the day you have to keep safety and performance at the front of your brain, not fashion. Your training could be suffering from a simple wardrobe mistake.
About the Author:
Scott Acosta is a USA Powerlifting Coach, Westside Barbell Strength Coach, ACSM Personal Trainer, 3-time attendee of the Starting Strength Seminar, and competitive raw powerlifter.
Scott’s best competition lifts are a 518 lb. squat, 385 lb. bench press, and 606 lb. deadlift in the 231 lb. men’s open weight class.