BEST shoes for deadlifting: A ONE horse race?

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Truth be told deadlifts are probably my all time favourite gym lift. As the heaviest lift for almost everyone it’s probably my ego that enjoys it…

Even putting the ego-mania to one side the deadlift is a fantastic exercise which recruits an absolute ton of muscle all through the body. All with the most natural range of motion of all: Simply picking something up from the floor.

I’m sure you love deadlifts too – but the real question is do you need deadlift shoes to improve your lift, and if so which are the best deadlift shoes available?

As ever the answer is complex.

BEST shoes for deadlifting: A ONE horse race?

At a glance…

  • The SABO Deadlift Shoe is the best deadlift trainer for most people
  • You can buy them from 9for9 in the UK which includes free shipping
  • Sumo deadlifters benefit from dedicated shoes more than conventional
  • Firm, flat soles are preferred
  • You can deadlift in squat shoes, but it may tip you forward a little

What are the BEST shoes for deadlifting?

Cutting to the chase – what are the best shoes to deadlift in? 

Quite simply – the SABO Deadlift shoe.

It meets and often exceeds the specs we look for in a shoe for deadlifting in, while being pretty affordable to boot. A few of the highlights are:

  • Thin sole (sub 5mm)
  • Sole is also completely flat with no raised heel
  • Metatarsal & ankle support straps
  • Patterned rubber sole provides maximum grip for Sumo lifters
  • Arch support
  • Range of colours available
SABO Deadlift Shoe: Simply the best
SABO Deadlift Shoe: Simply the best

So you can skip the rest and buy the best… Or read on to learn just what makes a great deadlifting shoe.

There are a number of places you can buy the SABO shoes including Amazon and Strength Shop, but at the time of writing 9for9 looks like the best value place to buy them in the UK as they offer free shipping on orders over £30.

Do I need deadlifting shoes?

Giving it to you straight – you don’t NEED deadlifting shoes. It is perfectly fine to deadlift in bare feet or training shoes which meet some of the criteria we will get to shortly.

You will however WANT deadlifting shoes.

If you are a sumo-deadlifter then shoes become MUCH MORE useful. The ‘spreading the floor’ stance when performing a sumo stance pull is prone to slippage, and deadlift shoes have soles DESIGNED to avoid this. 

Seriously, sumo lifters will want to pay extra attention.

So while not essential, shoes for deadlifting will increase your stability, traction and improve balance when performing the lift. These marginal gains could add pounds to your lift if you have everything else nailed.

What are the benefits of a deadlifting shoe?

With a tough construction (more on this later) including a sole designed SPECIFICALLY for heavy pulls form the floor, deadlift shoes bring some benefits to the table if you’re looking to gather the last few percent of improvements.

Deadlifting shoes improve stability with their super-firm, super-grippy soles. As noted above if going for the ultra-wide stance deadlift shoes will be an ally against your feet slipping.

Hub for your foot: Strap in with the support on the SABO
Hub for your foot: Strap in with the support on the SABO

Deadlift shoes also add support to your foot in three key areas – the mid-foot, the arch and the ankle. Again this improvement in support will be more tangible in a sumo pull where your feet are under more lateral pressure but even for us conventional deadlifters having mid-foot and arch support is AWESOME and really makes it feel like we’re cemented to the platform.

What to look for in a deadlifting shoe

Deadlifting in a raised heel vs flat

The great debate: should you deadlift in a flat shoe, or one with a raised heel? The answer is to do whatever makes you happy and feels best!

A few terms to be aware of:

  • Drop – this is the difference in shoe height from front to back. A shoe with a 10mm drop would have a heel 10mm higher than the toe.
  • Effective height – this one is important. You may have shoe with a drop of 10mm, but if the front of the shoe is 5mm high then the effective height is only 5mm. You will ‘feel’ the effective height

Having worn lifters extensively for deadlifting I ultimately switched back to a flat sole shoe. I’ve PR’d in both flats and raised heel squat shoes so one does not eclipse the other completely, but I feel the raised heel makes the lift feel harder (obviously this is subjective).

Most people will trend towards a flat soled shoe for serious deadlift work and therefore if buying a shoe today for deadlifting I would recommend a flat soled one. 

Sole construction

Pretty much every dedicated deadlift shoe will have a hard, flat(ish) sole. Being firm is crucial as any sponge or give will kill any trust in the shoe to provide the support we need. Compression is UNDESIRABLE in a lifting shoe.

There are three components to a lifting shoe sole:

  • Insole – this is inside the shoe and will usually be very firm, possibly with some arch support related curvature
  • Outsole – the grippy, bottom of the shoe. This is the part of the shoe sole that is exposed to the elements
  • Midsole – this is everything in between that is not visible unless you cut in to the shoe. In a standard trainer this would be various sponge layers or rubber. In a deadlifting shoe this is much, much harder given the design brief!

When analysing a shoe make sure that the sole material is grippy AF – we are looking for gummy rubber soles if we can. This is so important if you pull sumo. Consider your lifting environment as well – do you lift on a wooden platform for example? If so the sole material heads to the top of the list of things to look for to maximise purchase on the wood!

There are a few materials widely available:

  1. Slippers – these are for hygiene only if socks only are banned. The soles offer nothing in the way of support or additional grip.
  2. Rubber – most shoes will be rubber soled. The pattern design of the tread can help with grip with cuts around the balls of your feet helpful to add extra grip in the key area.
  3. Thermoplastic rubbers – these are a mix of plastic & rubber, resulting in a denser material than rubber.
  4. Polyurethane – this is basically a plastic finish and is super firm, but CAN lack grip depending on how its finished. Polyurethane is commonly found on heeled lifting shoes (such as the Nike Romaleos 3)
  5. EVA – this is a softer foam construction. It can feel firm enough in the hand, but under serious weight it will cave. This is undesirable. Interestingly Adidas moved to EVA from a traditional rubber sole in their Adidas Power Perfect line – a downgrade in my view.
  6. Wood – rock hard, potentially slippy. Not common these days.
Hard rubber sole with deadlift specific treat pattern
Hard rubber sole with deadlift specific treat pattern

Keep in mind anything else you’re going to do with the shoes on – for example a wooden soled shoe is no use if you’re planning to superset with lunges or something like that. Similarly a deadlift slipper won’t be an enjoyable partner if you’re doing calf raises.

This versatility in a shoe is something I quite like (probably why I’m fond of the Nike Romaleos 3 where others think they are ‘too crossfit’). Consider your priorities and use them to narrow down the choice.

Sole thickness

Another aspect of the sole construction to consider is the overall height of the shoe. If you have something like a SABO deadlift shoe is a 3-5mm heel height, this is distinctly closer to the ground than some of the thicker heeled Vans or Chuck style trainers which run to 10mm+. This additional height is added STRAIGHT to the ROM of the lift.

A thin sole therefore can be seen as more ROM efficient.

Ankle support

In conventional deadlifts we are pulling pretty much straight up and down ‘through’ our ankles. Sumo lifting requires some lateral strain as we attempt to ‘spread the floor’ with out feet. While the deadlift itself is quite a basic movement simply standing up (moving the ankle through dorsiflexion, to give it the medical term) there are nuances depending on your body shape and stance.

As it sounds we are basically trying to push our feet out wide, then use that as part of our drive to stand up the deadlift. Having ankle some kind of ankle support will help confidence in a sumo deadlift.

Will it add pounds to the bar? Directly – no. Indirectly – quite possibly. By strapping in you are locking your foot in to the shoe and therefore securing the grippy sole. Less slip = more grip!

Whether you benefit much from this ankle support is really down to your own lifting habits. Some love a deadlift slipper which contributes zero support – others like the full blown deadlift boot.

Inside angle on the SABO - mid-foot and ankle support straps
Inside angle on the SABO – mid-foot and ankle support straps

That said if I was buying a deadlifting shoe today it would have ankle support for sure. Why not go the whole hog if you have the budget and inclination to buy a speciality trainer? It’s pretty clear that the SABO deadlift shoe is pretty much the best option out there – so if you’re wanting the best shoe for deadlifting then you’re getting ankle support… Like it or not!

There won’t be many people though who would disagree with this though – metatarsal support is more useful than ankle support. It truly locks your foot in place by forcing your heel in to the heel cup and really does give that ‘locked down’ (sorry for those reading this in 2021….) feeling of confidence.

Mid-foot support

For me, the best thing about weight lifting shoes (heeled or not) is the feeling of support across the mid foot when fully tied and strapped up.

Most shoes accomplish this using a metatarsal strap as covered above (one which crosses over the foot pulling the heel of the foot back in to the heel cup). This feels great, but it also locks your foot in place in the shoe making the most of any other features it has (such as arch support built in to the insole).

The strap system can be made up of almost anything – most use a fabric strap secured by Velcro, with a plastic or metal loop. Of course metal is preferred for longevity, but I’ve never had an issue with either material.

A mid-foot strap is, for me, essential. I like the feeling of it. Many do great without it though lifting in Chuck’s or vans. I find if pulling Sumo in particular the strap adds to the feeling of security and grip.

I also like a bit of arch support. In fact, if you have read any of my other material on lifting shoes you will know one of the reasons I prefer the Nike Romaleos 3 over the revered Adidas Power Perfect 2’s is that the Rom’s come with great arch support (plus two different options by way of insoles).

Front on: SABO Deadlift Shoe
Front on: SABO Deadlift Shoe

Secondly the metatarsal strap on the Adidas did not pull the foot down enough for me. I found it was more ‘around the foot’ than locking it down.

Some people like to size down their lifting shoes. This is – in my experience – not essential. If you want a snug fitting shoe just go for a narrower style with metatarsal straps.

Construction material

As long as you stick to a premium product you should be satisfied with the construction of your shoe. As noted materials with little to no give are preferred – plastics, hard rubber, possibly even wood!

Definitely avoid running trainers or ‘Air Max’ style shoes with squishy soles.

Flanges (the plane has not got one…)

In a quest to add more bells and whistles, some manufacturers are adding flanges to their deadlift shoes. These are small fins that stick out around the sole basically.

They SHOULD add a little stability by widening your base.

In reality they add virtually nothing tangible. Fine to have if your preferred shoe comes with them – but definitely not something I would seek out.

What can go wrong if I wear the wrong shoes when deadlifting?

We are adaptable beings, us humans. If you suddenly wear the wrong shoe when deadlifting – the world will not implode. Do not fear!

I have worn raised heels weightlifting shoes for whole training cycles with no issues. At the moment I regularly pull conventional deadlifts in just my socks (shock!) and for accessory movements such as Romanian deadlifts I will often wear Metcon trainers as the weight is lighter and more about the ROM.

In my experience wearing raised heels when deadlifting will tip your balance forward and lift your hips upwards at the start. The good news is it will be easier to hold your back fairly neutral and generally just get in to this slightly tweaked position for most. The pull itself is a product of this – so the main thing to watch for is the barbell drifting forward of the mid-foot and pulling you off balance. You need to sit back in to the lift more.

Wearing spongey trainers is like lifting on a waterbed. It’s remarkable having lifted in proper shoes for so long, if I am messing around with friends in a power rack (all pre-CV19 of course) how unstable I feel if I keep on running trainers.

For me I found lifting in running shoes knocked a TON of weight off the bar and led to really bad knee cave (where knees collapse inwards towards each other.) Of course you may cope better than me – but why compromise if you don’t have to?

Sumo deadlifting is when specialist deadlift shoes come in to their own. Even in good quality sports socks I find the wide really difficult to do well without slipping. My foot slides around in the sock and twists it – what a mess! A proper shoe laced up and strapped in is a game changed.

Deadlifting in shoes vs barefoot: Fight!

The great debate – is it better to deadlift in barefoot, or in shoes? The answer is always speciality shoes. They are designed specifically for ONE lift and excel at it.

The real question is whether the incremental benefit is WORTH the expenditure of buying the shoes. For Sumo deadlifters I would say 100% go for it. For conventional lifters it is more nuanced.

Luckily the best deadlifting shoes (SABO deadlifting shoes) are surprisingly affordable – so the risk of wasting a lot money is reduced. I often pull conventional deadlifts in socks just out of laziness (don’t want to switch shoes!) 

One of the benefits of barefoot deadlifts is that you are closer to the ground. Luckily modern deadlift shoes negate this as much as they can with their ultra-thin soles (SABO is >5mm thick). This is not the case in non-deadlift shoes such as Vans or Chucks that are much thicker. 

One downside if pulling conventional deadlifts in bare feet is arch support. Barefoot obviously lacks anything under your foot at all and occasionally this can create some discomfort. I find this a rare occurrence however.

For Sumo lifters – as we have covered previously – barefoot deadlifts are much more slippery as we push sideways while lifting. A decent, hard rubber soled shoe will counter this.

Now for the kicker – a lot of gyms will NOT let you lift barefoot for hygiene reasons. This alone will push you in to a deadlifting shoe. Most competitions will have similar rules. If you lift competitively then you will KNOW it is in your best interests to practice with the same gear you compete in – therefore SHOES become a MUST.

So – is it better to deadlift in shoes or barefoot? It’s a personal choice ultimately – but competitive or Sumo lifters will generally do better lifting in deadlift shoes, while conventional recreational lifters have more choice.

Can I wear squat shoes for deadlifting?

Absolutely – you CAN wear squat shoes when deadlifting. The raised heel changes the angles around you ankle, knee and hip which will change the exercise – but it absolutely can be done.

Metcon vs Squat shoe: Can you deadlift in them?
Metcon vs Squat shoe: Can you deadlift in them?

I’ve pulled SEVERAL PR’s in squat shoes. I’ve pulled several without them too… Would I recommend them? It is entirely personal preference.

A raised heel does add some height to the lift – you need to lift that little bit higher. Will you notice a 0.75” heel difference though? Probably not. The aforementioned hip and ankle angle changes are more obvious when lifting.

For me the main thing when pulling in lifters was the balance – with the raised heel I was naturally tipping forward a little more, under threat of the bar drifting forward of my shin. I was having to queue myself to ‘sit back’ in to my lift.

So overall it is not that big of a deal whether you prefer flats or raised heels. There is immense carry over – so if you add weight to your flat-shoe deadlift then your heeled deadlift will go upwards too.

What I will say is deadlifting in squat shoes did make me more aware of my back angle – so fixing my hips nice and high and pulling the bar straight upwards. It was an exercise in form, compared to a flat footed deadlift which is a little more ‘grip and rip’. It could of course be a change in my attitude that is the issue, though!

Switching from squat shoes to flats can feel a little weird and almost like two different lifts initially – but after a few sets you will be up and running. 

My advice? Try them both out – go with whichever you prefer. If you find that going stale after a while, simply switch your footwear!

Can I wear regular trainers for deadlifting?

Again you absolutely CAN wear regular trainers when deadlifting. Is it optimal? Nope.

Deadlift shoes are designed to stand still – to hold you steady while you deadlift. Most trainers are designed to cushion your foot while you walk or run. 

The inherent difference is obvious – spongey cushion vs solid base. You are better off deadlifting barefoot than in running shoes. The lack of stability and support in a running trainer will hold you back.

Of course not all trainers are built equal – going back over the tenants of deadlift shoe construction above if the trainer has a really firm, thin and grippy sole you MIGHT be OK.

Personally I never pull a deadlift in trainers. I DO pull some accessory lifts in Nike Metcon though – so Romanian deadlifts, deficit deadlifts, etc. These are generally at a lighter weight and a much more controlled movement.

Conclusion

So now we know that the best shoes for deadlifting are made by SABO, and that they are comparatively MORE useful for those who pull deadlifts Sumo. In truth you will be fine in any hard, flat soled shoe – it is just that SABO make the best one!

And don’t forget your trusty squat shoes – a raised heel is a great way to add some variety to your lift and really focus the mind on your form.

Buy the SABO deadlift shoe at 9for9.