When it comes to finding a workout shoe, the standard running shoe is generally highest on the versatility list, and can usually be safely used for a variety of activities like resistance training, cardio, spinning, and hiking. Even basketball shoes can be used in more places than just the court. But there are tons of different shoe types out there that may (or may not be) right for you, depending on your activities, your posture, and even your training goals.

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Popular Active Footwear Options & How to Know Which One is Right For You

Weightlifting Shoes

Compared to most other shoes, weightlifting shoes are stiff, flat, and have built-up heels. This helps you stay steadier on your feet while performing the two main weightlifting movements (snatch and clean & jerk) and their variations, which are notoriously dynamic, explosive, and technical. Weightlifting shoes are also designed to help you achieve a deeper and more anatomically correct squat since the raised heel makes it easier to dorsiflex (the movement your ankle does when your foot moves closer to your shin). They do tend to shift your weight forward and can be pretty clunky for most anything other than what they are designed to do.

Good for: weightlifting, rowing, most squatting and lunging movements
Not so good for: plyometrics, deadlifting, running

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Zero Drop Shoes

Zero drop shoes are your most basic type of minimalist shoe (offering even less support than minimalist-style sneakers). This type of footwear has a completely flat and relatively sturdy sole (think Vans or Converse). Because they lack a lot of support, they may be hard to tolerate in people with severe arches and/or foot problems. That said, many physical therapists and other healthcare professionals note that shoes with built-up soles (like running or toning shoes) can put a lot of wonky strain on the hips, knees, and ankles. Gradually increasing your wear time and tolerance to zero drop shoes may actually improve your foot, leg, and spine health by helping to normalize your body mechanics. Plus, wearing shoes like Chuck Taylors offers your feet much more protection from gym hazards (e.g., dropping things on your foot, stubbing your toes, or stepping/slipping on something) than going barefoot alone.

Good for: deadlifts, upper body workouts
Not so good for: Olympic weightlifting, plyometrics, running or hiking, and squatting

Going Barefoot

Ah, walking around as nature intended. While many of us wouldn’t want to walk around barefoot everywhere (and likely are prohibited from doing so), barefoot walking actually offers a lot of health benefits. This can include things like better balance, better proprioception, and improved ankle strength/stability. Like zero drop shoes, walking barefoot can also minimize the amount of unusual strain placed on your spine, pelvis, and knees. A word of caution: if you have high arches and/or have a history of foot/lower leg pain, or if you rarely walk without shoes, then ease into the barefoot lifestyle.

Good for: yoga, Pilates, kickboxing and other martial arts, beach volleyball, walking on sand or grass
Not so good for: most things in the gym or outside, running (at least without being properly trained on the barefoot running technique)

The Oddballs: Wrap Shoes, Toning Shoes & Toe Shoes

Wrap shoes (like the Furoshiki shoes from apparel company Vibram) have a sole but no laces. Instead, they have fabric that wraps around your foot and attaches via velcro. Toe shoes (also from Vibram) are sort of like gloves for your feet, with individual compartments for each toe and is reported by some to be virtually the same as going barefoot, without having to worry about stepping on something sharp or icky. Toning shoes (made popular by Sketchers) have rounded soles that allegedly help “tone” your legs and glutes. Our advice in general? Proceed with caution. These unusual shoes may offer some benefits, but the potential risk for acute or chronic injury may not be worth it in the long run.

Got a favorite pair of gym shoes in your bag? Let us know about ’em by sharing in the comments below!

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