What Shoes Should I Wear to the Gym?

You’ve just signed up at Strong Tower, and here’s a question that’s probably on your mind: “What shoes should I wear for CrossFit?”

You have special shoes for running, baseball and soccer. So it’s logical that you’d have specific shoes for CrossFit training, which is sometimes called the Sport of Fitness.

Here’s a very general piece of advice before we get into specifics: You can do CrossFit in almost any athletic footwear. If you’re on a budget and you already have a pair of athletic shoes—running shoes, court shoes, basketball shoes, etc.—you can use them in a gym while you get started. Your coach will be especially thrilled if the shoes are clean.

Don’t let a lack of specific footwear keep you from training.

That said, you will see several types of shoes in CrossFit and functional training gyms. They all have a specific purpose, and we’ll go over all of them so you can decide what shoes you should wear for CrossFit.

WHAT SHOES SHOULD I WEAR FOR CROSSFIT?

You’ll see about five different types of shoes in CrossFit gyms. Here they are:

  • General athletic shoes
  • Specific CrossFit/functional training shoes
  • Minimalist shoes
  • Weightlifting shoes
  • Powerlifting shoes

You’ll also see a few other kinds—indoor soccer shoes, boxing/wrestling shoes—but they’re very rare. We’ll stick to the main categories and let you know the pros and cons of each type of shoe, as well as what people and workouts they’re suited to.  

GENERAL ATHLETIC SHOES

This is a very broad category. We’ll define it as any athletic shoes you have that are not 100 percent designed for a specific sport. That means no cleats, no special shoes that are hard to find, no hiking boots. Just the general shoes you see all over the wall at any sports store. Shoes in this category include running and walking shoes, court shoes (basketball/volleyball), “sneakers,” and cross trainers. You can use all of these shoes for CrossFit, but each has some drawbacks. Here’s a rundown:

RUNNING SHOES

Running shoes (non-minimalist variety) are designed with a lot of cushioning, and they’re meant to be used for forward movement. They usually have larger heels with lots of padding. You can use them for CrossFit, but we don’t recommend them.

Pros: They might be more comfortable in workouts that involve lots of running, and you could absolutely wear them to a CrossFit class that just involves running work. Running shoes are often very comfortable, too.

Cons: Running shoes are designed to “move you forward.” If you put a running shoe on the floor and push down on the toe, the heel pops up off the floor. That’s fine for running but not ideal for creating stability in squats, deadlifts and presses. For those movements, we want to be very stable, often with the weight distributed over the whole foot, not moving toward the toe.

Similarly, running shoes often don’t have side-to-side stability. Lateral movement was once not especially common in CrossFit, but more and more gyms are using it in training now, and you don’t want to turn an ankle. Flatter shoes are generally better than running shoes.

Finally, cushioning can be great for joints, but it absorbs force instead of transferring it. In CrossFit, we want to transfer force to objects, not lose it in cushioning.

BASKETBALL SHOES

Shoes for hoops are not common in CrossFit gyms, but they’ll do the job. They’re designed for traction, movement in all planes and support.

Pros: These shoes are often “high tops” that offer a lot of support for the ankle. They’re also relatively flat, which is great for stability.

Cons: The support comes at a price. Basketball shoes are usually heavier and bulkier, making them unsuited to long running workouts and gymnastics. Plus. the added ankle support usually comes at the expense of ankle mobility, greatly affecting your ability to squat. 

VOLLEYBALL/COURT SHOES

These shoes can be used in CrossFit workouts, but their gum or blown rubber soles are unsuited to outdoor running.

Pros: Court shoes are usually flat and quite light, making them great for gymnastics movements, lifting movements and agility. They also offer great traction inside a gym. In fact, some specific CrossFit shoes now look a lot like volleyball shoes. Court shoes also often supply forefoot cushioning, which might help in movements like skipping or box jumps.

Cons: Indoor court shoes often aren’t suited for outside training, and the rubber that provides traction inside breaks down more quickly outside. Similarly, courts shoes—especially volleyball shoes—often offer forefoot cushioning, which can make it tougher to find balance in movements like deadlifts and squats. Similar to running shoes, cushioning can absorb the force you want to put into a barbell.

SNEAKERS

We’ll use this category for “stylish” shoes or any shoes that have an athletic look but aren’t really designed for athletics. Can you use them? In a pinch, yes. But there are probably better options.

One specific note: any shoes with “rocker” bottoms are absolutely unsuited to CrossFit. We do not recommend you wear these shoes in the gym.

Pros: Sneakers look cool.

Cons: Sneakers are designed to look cool. That means they are not designed for athletic performance. Some sneakers can be used in the gym with no issues, but we recommend something else.

CROSS TRAINING SHOES

What shoes should I wear for CrossFit? Probably cross-training shoes.

These shoes are generally designed to accommodate lots of athletic movements: running, jumping, lifting, turning. They’re a blend of all the other types of specific shoes, just like CrossFit is a blend of athletic movements.

Pros: Cross-trainers are the Swiss Army Knife of the shoe world. You can use them for just about anything. They’re not as good for running as specific running shoes, but you can run in them. And so on.

Cons: Anything that’s general leaves something specific to be desired. Using the example above, cross-trainers might not provide the cushioning you like in running workouts. That said, there are all kinds of hybrids, and some are more suited to specific activities than others.

We’ll go over specific CrossFit cross trainers in the next section.

SPECIFIC CROSSFIT/FUNCTIONAL TRAINING SHOES

If you’re going to buy shoes, these are likely the shoes your should wear for CrossFit—at least general CrossFit workouts. We’ll get into specifics below.

New Balance, NoBull, Inov8 and many others make training shoes, but we’ll focus on the two that are most common: The Reebok Nano and the Nike MetCon.

REEBOK NANO

Reebok was formerly the official CrossFit apparel and footwear licensee. The relationship between the two companies started in 2011, and Reebok released the Nano that year. It was the first CrossFit shoe.

Reebok has released other training shoes bearing the delta symbol that characterizes its CrossFit line, but the Nano is the flagship footwear for functional training. And the shoe is now in its eleventh iteration. You’ll see Nano’s on many high level CrossFit athletes.

The Nano was designed to work for all the common movements in CrossFit: lifting, cardio activities including running, and gymnastics. It’s a relatively flat shoe that still allows you to run, though some people would prefer more cushioning for long runs. That said, the Nano is flat enough to deadlift or squat in, which isn’t true of runners.

Pros: The Nano is designed specifically for CrossFit, so it’s going to work for just about any general workout that involves several different movements. And they’re usually tough as nails. 

Cons: The price: They’re more expensive than some other training shoes. They’re no longer the official shoe of CrossFit, so there is a trend now towards NoBull. But if you’re old school, a rebel, or both, you don’t care much about that. 

NIKE METCON

This is Nike’s response to the Nano, and it’s the shoe Mat Fraser, Sara Sigmundsdottir and other top stars wear for CrossFit.

According to its manufacturer, it was created to help you “lift, sprint, climb and jump”—all the stuff you see in CrossFit. Nike just can’t say “CrossFit” without signing a deal with CrossFit Inc.

Pros: Another balanced trainer, the shoe was created for CrossFit activities, so it will work just fine in most workouts.

Cons: Same as the Nano: The price, and the fact that it’s a general shoe and won’t be perfect for some workouts that are very specific.

WEIGHTLIFTING SHOES

Weightlifting—the sport in which the snatch and clean and jerk are contested—requires maximal transfer of force and ankle mobility. Therefore, weightlifting shoes are very hard and usually have a significant heel.

The hard soles make the shoes perfect for transferring force—imagine standing on a piece of foam and picking up something heavy. You’d sink. So weightlifting shoes offer no “give” at all. Some have wooden heels that don’t compress at all.

The shoes are also a bit bulky, usually coming with straps across the mid-foot to prevent any movement of the foot inside the shoe. This is in anticipation of the large loads to be lifted and the need for stability.

The heel helps to make up for limited ankle range of motion and allows a lifter to sit more upright in the bottom of a squat. Want to know what it feels like? Try a squat in a pair of mens dress shoes or a set of low heels. They’ll improves your squat, though we recommend that people regularly stretch and mobilize to improve flexibility so they don’t “need” a shoe with a heel.

THE RIGHT TOOL AT THE RIGHT TIME

Because of these special features, weightlifting shoes are ideal for snatching and cleaning but not much else. You can’t run in them very well, for example.

But for workouts that only involve lifting, this specific type of shoe can help.

That said, great CrossFit lifters have done amazing things in Nanos and Metcons.

The shoes don’t make the lift for you.

Before CrossFit, weightlifting shoes were rare. Now you can find them everywhere.

Pros: These shoes improve squat mechanics if ankle mobility is lacking. That small change in the foundation of the squat can really help athletes with tight shoulders, as they can sit more upright with a bar overhead and don’t need as much shoulder flexion. They also transfer all force to the barbell, not into a shoe’s cushioning.

Cons: Clunky and unsuited for jumping, running, side-to-side movement or climbing.

POWERLIFTING SHOES

Powerlifting is often confused with weightlifting.

The niche sport of powerlifting comprises only the squat, deadlift and bench press. And specific powerlifting shoes are somewhat rare, though they exist. Reebok, with input from powerlifter Mark Bell, made a model for a time.

Shoes for the bench press aren’t particularly specific, but powerlifters get very detailed about the squat and deadlift.

Interestingly, many powerlifters swear by ultra-basic Chuck Taylor All-Stars because they’re flat and allow maximum transfer of power. No one wants to lift a heavy deadlift further than is necessary, so being low to the floor is a great idea. Minimalist shoes would work here, too. Some top lifters essentially wear ultra-thin slippers!

In the squat, many lifters wear Chucks, but some prefer weightlifting shoes with a heel. Others prefer work boots or boxing shoes. Again, no one wants cushioning when squatting heavy.

We don’t recommend you worry too much about powerlifting shoes when you start CrossFit. If you get into the extreme sport of powerlifting, or if you really love the deadlift, pick up a pair of Chuck’s for cheap and you’ll be wearing what some of the strongest lifters in the world wear. Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell has long been sworn by Chuck Taylors, and Simmons is one of the godfathers of strength training.

But again, the shoes don’t make the lift.

Pros: Powerlifting shoes have no cushioning so you can transfer power, and most are low to the ground for increased stability. Chucks are also cheap.

Cons: Specific powerlifting shoes are pretty rare, though Chucks are everywhere. Depending on what you choose, you might be in trouble if the workout contains other elements. For example, most people don’t want to run 5 kilometers in Chucks, and no one wants to run in weightlifting shoes.

 

WORK OUT A LOT? GET A FEW KINDS OF SHOES—IF YOU WANT TO!

As you set a routine and develop a habit, you can use the guide above to help you figure out what shoes you should wear for CrossFit.

And in the beginning, we recommend a cross-trainer simply because it’s the most versatile.

As you get further into training, you might want to pick up a pair of weightlifting shoes, and maybe a pair of Chuck Taylors. 

But you can do CrossFit in any footwear, so don’t stress.

Find a gym and get started.

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