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Unfortunately knee pain is something most of us who like to try and stay fit will encounter at some point in our lives. The good news is it doesn’t need to put and end to our training, BUT it is very important to understand the causes so you can cure and then avoid it recurring.
This blog post is based on my personal experience as an amateur weight lifter and does not constitute medical advice. If you have serious concerns then you should escalate these to your physician.
At a glance…
- Wearing the wrong shoes when lifting weights can trigger knee pain
- Having your knees move side to side (including collapsing inwards) when lifting has triggered knee pain for me personally
- Squat shoes provide a solid base to lift on and allow us to focus more on knee-control to reduce risk
- You don’t HAVE to have a heeled squat shoe, simply one with a very firm sole to prevent it caving in when lifting. Some people prefer flat soles.
Can shoes give you knee pain in the gym?
Squat shoes will make you move slightly differently compared to lifting in bare feet, regular trainers or traditional flat soles shoes like those from Vans or Chuck Taylor. This slight change in movement pattern can trigger knee pain in some people – and cure it for others!
So what causes knee pain?
There are a ton of variables when dealing with aches and pains. In my experience as a generally healthy individual knee pain is typically triggered by form degradation. I am not obsessed with seeking out the perfect form for a lift, but over a set if your form changes from what you USUALLY do then this can put different pressures on your body.
First tip: Take it easy when you START wearing shoes to lift!
It’s pretty common to get aches and pains if you introduce a novel stimulus to your training – so going form flats to heeled shoes at working weights can trigger pain due to the different mechanics required to lift with a heel. Similarly going from low to high bar can alter where you ‘feel’ a squat working.
In short, if you introduce something NEW then knock the weight back for a few sessions and build back up to where you were to give your body time to adapt to the movement.
The dangers of knee slide
Don’t worry I don’t mean knee sliding as in wedding style – I am talking about knees moving from side to side under load. When lifting our knees are strong through the vertical plane – so folding up and down. They are NOT so strong at dealing with heavy loads when travelling laterally. In my experience when I have had an onset of knee pain it has invariably been triggered by this side to side movement when squatting. Try and keep your knees tracking in the direction your toes are pointing to avoid this – as weights increase your body will try and crumple your knees in otherwise!
How do weightlifting shoes influence the pain?
Think about this: Running shoes have a soft sole – some literally have a bubble of air built in to them – to aid comfort and minimise impact when RUNNING. Weightlifting shoes have a solid sole – often made with hard plastic or even wood – to provide STABILITY when standing still. Two different shoes with different purposes.
Now think about trying to squat a barbell while standing on a mattress compared to in the gym – the lack of stability means we are bracing differently and dealing with side to side movements. Running shoes are like the bed – comfortable, but not as stable for our needs.
Weightlifting shoes provide a solid base to lift from, minimising the opportunity for lateral movement in the knees and therefore mitigating one knee-pain risk. Of course you can still have poor form when wearing squat shoes, but at least the connection to the floor is solid!
Heeled vs flat shoes: Which is better?
Focusing specifically on the impact on knee pain – there is little difference between a flat shoe such as a Chuck Taylor on Vans and a heeled show such as Nike Romaleos. Both offer a rigid base to lift from. In most cases a lifting show will have a slightly FIRMER sole, but for the majority of lifters the difference will be negligible in practice.
While the BASE of a flat and a heeled shoe may not explicitly impact your knees, a raised heel CAN help you get deeper when squatting – it certainly helps me do so. This isn’t directly linked to my knees but having more confidence in my form as I get to the bottom of the movement lets me cue myself to reduce knee slide.
Do squat shoes HELP with knee pain?
Yes – squatting in a weightlifting shoe OR decent hard soled flat shoe will help with knee pain compared to a soft soled running shoe. I personally felt a difference immediately after changing as the solid base felt far more stable than a running shoe.
The choice between a flat or a heeled shoe is more personal and relates LESS to knee pain and MORE to your body geometry and squat form so it’s out of scope of this post. As noted I enjoy squatting in a heeled shoe and have hit my all-time squat PB’s with a small heel.
Healing and recovering
When I’ve experienced pain I have generally backed off workouts that are heavy on the area (such as squats) and allowed my body to recover until the pain dulls. After that I slowly work back up again exposing myself to weight gradually.
Something to consider when assessing your own knee pain are any sudden changes you have made – e.g. a widened stance, adding squat shoes suddenly, new bar position, different rep schemes, etc. all of which might be clues to the source. For example if you’ve just bough a set of heeled shoes for the first time and thrown them on for a PR attemp your body may have a few aches and pains as the muscles are worked SLIGHTLY differently.
When shoes AREN’T the cause…
As I mentioned at the start footwear has been the route of my knee pain historically, but there can be other factors at play such as osteoarthritis, patellar tendinitis, previous injuries or other factors personal to your body and training history. If you are unsure or need more support you should consult your local doctor – this post does not constitute medical advice.
To summarise knee pain can be caused by various issues, but historically I have found lifting in inappropriate footwear a contributer to my own problems in the past (which passed quickly thankfully). Having a firm sole under you when lifting allows you to almost forget about stability and focus on the rest of your body mechanics under load – namely keeping your knees under control!