It’s Not The Shoes

I’ve got opinions and I also happen to have a blog, so you’re going to hear about some of them from time to time. Today I want to talk about the gear – including lifting shoes and anything with a corporate logo on it. I implore you to avoid the pitfall of fetishism; the attribution of mystical qualities to inanimate objects.

On Deadlift Habits

Last time we talked about this in the blog, Eric referenced a video of Benedikt Magnusson setting a World Record Deadlift in his sock feet. Here’s another giant lift of his: 1015 pounds (that’s 461kg in real numbers) from a meet in Texas. Now, go watch this video. Then consider these three points and go watch it again:
1) His back is quite flat. I see worse rounding every day we do DLs, and I harp on you about it.
2) He is in fact wearing sock feet. It’s not the shoes – and I’d suggest it’s not the belt, either.
3) He sets the weights back down. He doesn’t drop them, he controls them back to the ground.

As an aside: I know some of you feel bad when you can’t lift more weight because I am all over you for keeping your back flat and not lifting the weight one vertebrae at a time. I know you grumble when you don’t PR your DL because I won’t let you lift like an asshole. Trust me – or at least trust Benedikt here – and know that doing it with good form will keep you uninjured and will result in building greater strength over the long run.

As another aside: I know you just deadlifted a huge amount. I don’t need to feel the ground shake when you drop the bar to know you just hoisted a PR. Next time, try exercising the full extent of your Range of Motion by maintaining your grip through the full eccentric component of the lift; in other words, try to keep ahold of that bar and set it down gently.

These are good habits for you to develop. They result in building greater back strength, avoiding injury, increasing grip strength, and generally being a stronger and more healthy individual. One day maybe you can be big and strong like Benedikt, but I’d rather you balance out some of that strength with an ability to (for example) scratch your own back.

But let’s get back to the gear. It’s not magic. I am here to offer you the idea that it may not even be helping you. It may be getting in the way of you realizing what you have to work on.

Your inov-8s do not make you versatile. Your Skinz do not make you tougher. You may PR your squat in new lifting shoes, but they do not make you stronger. You may PR a pullup workout with a new set of gloves, but they are not making your grip any stronger and they are not helping make you a better athlete. Any performance enhancing gear is just taking you – exactly as you are – and adding a few extra percentage points to today’s WOD “score” while not in fact making you stronger or better.

Your lifting shoes do not fix your squat errors, they mask them. What, you say?

On Elevated Heels

Let’s talk mechanics for a moment. What is the theory behind an oly lifting shoe?
1) Firm flat sole that doesn’t squish. Feet and ground usually have this in common.
2) Elevated heel.

Why the elevated heel? Many years ago as weightlifting technique for oly lifters went from from the split to the squat style, lifters realized that it was really hard to get to the rock bottom of a squat – to get as low as possible under the bar, while keeping the chest upright, back tight, and weight solidly in the heels. You hear us refer to this all the time at CFF as a “Good Squat”, and we work on you to perfect this a little bit every day.

Competitive lifters (back then, and somewhat now) want to get as low and as stable as possible, right away. Increasing joint mobility as a means to facilitate lifting bigger weights just wasn’t on their list back when the squat snatch was innovated. So, lifters sought shoes with higher heels so that they could squat down and maintain balance. The problem is that built up heels were – and are – a poor substitute for hamstring shortness, knee and hip mobility and, especially, ankle mobility. So now, lifters work hard on all that mobility to get as deep as they can… and then when it’s competition time, they wear the shoes to get just that much deeper and more stable.

For the athlete in training (and this means you and me), lifting shoes with heels cannot make up for an overall lack of mobility in shoulders and hips, but they can mask the problem for a while and let you lift a bit heavier while still having bad flexibility. One could argue that this allows your body to generate a more powerful neuroendocrine response and grow stronger faster, but I say that’s just a shortcut that sacrifices mobility for size at best, and pure rationalization for a fear of chronic inflexibility at worst.

The most holistic answer is to get more flexible and to get stronger, until you are flexible and strong enough to lift really heavy weights properly without a heel lift. The best way to do that is to train hard, through a full range of motion, and leave the heel lift in your closet until you’re going for the Gold Medal in London.

On Weaknesses, Ego, Logos, and Reality

Are you here to hide from your weaknesses? I submit to you that CrossFit Fenway is the place where we come to spend one hour getting intimately acquainted with our weaknesses. We spend that hour getting comfortable with being uncomfortable – we make friends with our weaknesses and smother them with acceptance while at the same time we strive through the exercises that we know will strengthen them out of existence one day.

For me, personally, I’d rather face the weakness. I’d rather keep stretching my wretchedly tight hamstrings until they get longer. I’ll keep squatting in my bare feet until my ankles go where they need to go for me to get all the way down and up under load, every time. I’ll get stronger and more flexible doing it. It will suck, and I will set aside my ego that cries “I could lift more in my oly shoes” and just keep squatting… because this is training time. Not sexy time, not ego time – this is the time when I will train and become stronger, faster, better. Twelve months from now no one will care what shoes or logos I wore for the past year, especially not me… but more than a few of y’all will be pretty damn impressed if I can increase my 1RM Press by 30kg in that time span. Myself included.

One day in the future, I may be strong enough to compete in the CrossFit Games, or at an Olympic Lifting meet. Once I’m there, I’ll have a choice to make: is it time to go for the max? Is this the time when I embrace ego and go for every advantage to get the competitive best on this one day? Maybe so. That’s what a competition is about, after all. That’s probably the right time for the gear.

You’ll see all the athletes at the Games wearing tons of gear, trying for their absolute max and reaching for every edge to get there. That gear will be covered in logos that beckon to the consumer inside all of us. I am here to tell you that those logos will do nothing for you. The logos you wear convey no fetishistic power that you allows you to absorb some reflected glory any more than getting a chinese character tattoo would make me deep, mystic, or inscrutable. It just looks silly.

Now, if I like a company and support the world that they are creating with their resources and endeavors, I’ll go ahead and wear a logo – without thinking anyone’s fooled into thinking I’m a better athlete for it. I do have Operation Phoenix charity shirts, and a few CrossFit Fenway shirts. (I think they’re good people doing good things in the world, but I’m biased.)

Ultimately though, you don’t need the gear to look like a CrossFitter; we are CrossFitters already by virtue of our choices and determination. I don’t need to logos to earn credibility; I will gain credibility with the reality of having a bigger clean and jerk. Until I am in the Games, most of the gear just gets in the way of my training.

  4 comments for “It’s Not The Shoes

  1. Erin Kate
    July 26, 2011 at 9:59 am

    Great article JT! I feel a lot better about the fact that some of the stuff I wear to the gym I’ve had since 7th grade. Have a great time in CA and good luck to everyone!

    • JT
      July 26, 2011 at 2:57 pm

      That’s the best kind of gear. Thanks!

  2. Troy Angrignon
    October 2, 2011 at 2:21 am

    Holy cow is this article ever overdue in this community. Thanks.

  3. Andy
    October 23, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    Right on the mark. Only thing I’d really say is that the meet isn’t the best place to try shoes or a belt for the first time. At some point, if you plan on getting serious, you will need to train like you compete, with whatever gear you will use there… But I think I get the essence of what you are saying. Especially understanding that many of us will never compete, and can always be improving without the help or masking qualities this stuff may provide. Good stuff man!

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