Footwear for Strength Training Part 2: Product Reviews

One of our first blog posts was on recommended footwear for strength training.  It has been a couple years since that came out, so it is a good time for an update including product reviews on a few new shoes.

The 2014 article stated that the footwear chosen for strength training should have three main features:

  1. It should be non-compressive
  2. It should be zero-drop, or at least close to it*.
  3. It should be relatively thin soled.

The first and third items above do not need much explanation.  The idea of a zero-drop may be unfamiliar to some, so it warrants a quick explanation.  For many lifts done in the gym such as deadlifts or kettlebell swings, it is important to have the heel firmly planted on the ground and the weight of the body balanced over the mid-arch or heel (rather than the forefoot).  Many athletic shoes have a heel that is higher than the forefoot, effectively giving the shoe a “drop” and directing the athlete more towards the toes.  This is not a bad thing if the chosen activity has lots of running, cutting or jumping, however it makes it hard to “root into the heels” for lifting purposes.  For the weight room, a shoe with equal heel and forefoot heights is suggested, thus a “zero drop” from heel to toe.  I have used shoes with up to a 3mm drop and had good success with those, however anything higher typically disrupts balance.  One important note is that if the shoe intended for use in weightlifting (often incorrectly called “Olympic Lifting”) or otherwise for lots of barbell squats or front squats, it is a good idea to invest in a solid pair of weightlifting shoes such as the Nike Romaleos or Adidas Adipower.

One other item to consider is that of the toe-box of the shoe.  Ideally the shoe should allow the toes to spread wide with space between them.  Unfortunately many shoes are quite narrow in the front, resulting in squishing the toes together.  This can lead to issues such as the arch of the foot collapsing, which can then lead into valgus collapse of the knee and other problems.  When trying on training shoes, be sure there is “wiggle room” for the toes, not only up and down but also side-to-side.

Next, I want to review a few pairs of shoes I personally own and discuss pros and cons to each.  I have listed them in order of my most to least recommended.

Inov-8 Bare-XF 210

innovate

These have been my go-to training shoes for the past several years.  They have held up extremely well, and I got over two years out of a single pair even as my daily training shoe.  The shoes meet all the criteria noted above, and are one of the thinnest and lightest shoes on the market.  I use these shoes for everything except barbell front and back squats (for which I have a pair of Romaleos).  In addition to being zero drop and non-compressive, they are only 3mm thick, which give me great feel for the ground and adds no appreciable height to deadlifts.  Due to the thin sole, it is easy for me to feel if I have let my balance shift to an undesirable position, or as a coach, I can see it on my lifters more easily.  This pair is also flexible enough to do some foot & ankle stretching in, which is rare for most training shoes.

Overall, this is an outstanding pair of strength training shoes that are perfect for deadlifts, presses, all the hardstyle kettlebell movements, and various accessory movements such as lunges.

VivoBarefoot Primus

vivo

These are a brand new pair from Vivo that debuted less than a month ago.  Mine just arrived yesterday, and I haven’t taken them off yet!  This shoe is the closest thing to the Inov-8 model (above) that I have found.  They remind me of the Inov-8 Bare-XF in every way, except that the Vivos do not have an insole, which gives even more ground feel.  Just like the Inov-8 pair above, these are also a flexible shoe that allow for some stretching of the feet and ankle even while being worn.

Just like the ones above these are an outstanding pair of strength training shoes that are perfect for deadlifts, presses, all the hardstyle kettlebell movements etc.  I can not comment yet on durability/longevity since they are brand new, but my initial impression is that they are well made and will have good life to them.

In my opinion, the Inov-8 above and these Vivos are largely interchangeable.  The fit is similar and the features are nearly identical.  Both are excellent choices for strength training.  The only thing I can say about the Inov-8 is that I KNOW they are durable because I have had them for years, as opposed to the Vivos which are brand new (but feel well made).  Basically, you just need to decide which you like the aesthetics of and go with that one!

Nike Free Trainer 1.0

nike free

Nike came out with this model with the tagline “chalk for your feet” and marketed it as a gym shoe for lifters.  This is one of Nike’s first zero-drop shoes, with most of their previous “training shoes” being geared more towards team sports (running, jumping, cutting) rather than lifting.  It is super exciting that Nike is really getting into the strength training culture and building products designed to support it.

While, in my opinion, these are Nike’s best general strength training shoe, to me this first release from them does not fit what I’m looking for quite as well as the Inov-8 and Vivo models discussed above.  My two suggestions for Nike to improve are 1) the insole and 2) the outsole.  The insole is fairly thick and overly cushioned to be ideal for strength training.  Obviously the buyer could just take the insole out, but it would be nice to have the default insole be a little thinner and more sturdy .  The cushioning provides notably less ground feel compared to the models above, and also creates unwanted instability when performing heavy lifts.    See the side-by-side pictures of the insoles compared to the Inov-8 for an idea on thickness.  Note that the blue part of the Nike insole is the actual height of the insole, compared to the Inov-8 is curved at the edges so the actual thickness of it is at most half of what is pictured.

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The outsole has some room to improve in the sense that it is significantly more stiff than the two models above.  While wearing the Inov-8 or Vivo models, when I curl my toes in or arch my foot hard, the shoe tracks my foot and follows me.  This gives great stability and feel for the ground.  The Nikes have a stiffer sole that is not as responsive to movement of the foot, and again does not offer quite as good of “ground feel” as a slightly more pliable sole would.

Don’t get me wrong, these are definitely the best strength training shoe Nike has come out with (not including the Romaleos), and I do think they would do a nice job in the weight room.  I bet when Nike comes out with a version 2.0 they’ll make some adjustments and have a really outstanding shoe for lifting.

Nike MetCon

Release-Reminder-Nike-Metcon-1-3

I got one of the earliest versions of the MetCon when they were first released.  I think it is important to point out that contrary to popular belief, the MetCon is not designed to be a strength training shoe.  With that said, I know a ton of people do wear the MetCons for their lifting, so I figured I would offer what I view to be the pros and cons of using them for training.  Before I get into it, please keep in mind one of my favorite sayings, “Don’t blame a fork for being a bad spoon.”  What I mean by that is that while I do not suggest the MetCon as a strength training shoe, that is because it is not DESIGNED to be a strength training shoe – however, I do think they are a great product for what they are designed for.

With regard to strength training specifically, the MetCons do not meet my ideal shoe in any of the three primary criteria – they are too compressive for my liking, they feel like they have too much drop from heel to toe, and most notably they cause the foot to sit substantially higher off the ground than any of the three models above.  Out of all four models reviewed, these definitely have the worst ground feel.

So, if they’re not good for strength training, then what are they good for?  What I’ve told people is that if I got dropped into an action movie where I had to fight, shoot guns, run, jump, climb, lift etc all in one shoe, these would be my first choice.  In particular if there was going to be a lot of running or jumping involved in the activity, the MetCons offer significantly better foot protection than any of the three shoes above.  I would say that these are a “pretty good” shoe for many things, just not an “excellent” shoe for strength training.  In my opinion, this is exactly what they were designed for anyway: the person who likes to workout and be ready for anything (including surprises) the coach throws at them, as opposed to a planned and periodized strength program.   With that said, they could definitely work as a strength training shoe in a situation like traveling where it is too cumbersome to haul around multiple pairs.  For example, someone who is flying does not want to bring Nike Romaleos for squats, Vivo Primus for deadlifts and kettlebells, and a third pair of shoes for running, and instead it is more reasonable to have the MetCons as the “swiss army knife” shoe that will cover all bases.

The only real knock I have on this original version of the MetCon is their (lack of) durability.  I primarily wore these while coaching (only used these to lift in a handful of times), yet they are already falling apart enough that I recently got rid of them.   Please see the attached pictures for the tear between the interior lining and exterior shell, as well as a spot near the right foot pinky toe that is almost worn completely through (despite only being worn indoors and to coach in, almost no actual training/lifting).   Again, my pair is one of the earliest versions of the shoe, and they are now on the version 2.0, so there is a good chance that these issues have already been addressed and improved.

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I hope you have found this information helpful!  Please feel free to share with friends who you think would find it beneficial! – Tony Gracia Head Coach and Co-Founder

The Push Press I Heels Up or Heels Down

A popular exercise in many gyms is the push press (PP). At Industrial Strength we use barbells or kettlebells to execute the drill, but dumbbells, sandbags or other specialty equipment can be used as well. For those unfamiliar with the exercise, the cliff notes version is to hold a weight in the rack position (so the weight is near the collar bones), to dip at the knees and use some leg power to then help shove the weight overhead, and receive it with straight arms above the head. It is a fantastic builder of upper body strength, and also teaches the upper and lower bodies to work in a coordinated fashion.

One thing to keep in mind is that there are two different styles of push pressing, each with their own benefits. This article will outline the purpose of each version.

The lift can essentially be broken down into four parts: 1) Rack position; 2) Dip; 3) Drive; 4) Lockout. Positions 1, 2, and 4 should look the same regardless of which style is used. It is position #3, or more accurately the “drive phase” that will change depending on which style of the lift is performed. The big difference is whether the heels are kept firmly planted on the ground, or if the heels are allowed to lift off the floor during the drive.

Why would a lifter choose one versus the other? The heels down version will “feel” more like a standard military press. Spending some time training with a heels down PP can allow the lifter to gain confidence with a given weight, and eventually work towards a strict military press with it. This is a strategy often employed by those striving for a new PR on the kettlebell military press, since the jumps between sizes are large and this version allows the lifter to get a feel for the new, heavier weight. The heels down PP is also a solid choice when lifting odd objects or specialty bars that may be harder to stabilize, such as axles or logs.

The heels up PP typically allows the lifter to get more drive from the legs, thus get more weight overhead compared to the heels down PP. This version is typically used by weightlifters (“Olympic lifters”) and other barbell junkies who just want to get the most weight overhead. It definitely offers better carry-over to the jerk, which is why weightlifters will primarily use this version. One important note with this version is that even though the heels will come off the ground momentarily during the drive phase, they must return back to the floor immediately. A common error would be to stay up on the toes and try to press to lockout from there, which is not nearly as stable (or strong) as returning the heels back down and pressing from a flat foot.

To summarize, the heels down PP is a great option if the goal is to get confidence and carry over to military pressing that weight, or if the object being lifted is hard to stabilize such as a log or an axle. On the other hand, the heels up PP allows more weight to be lifted (especially with a barbell) and has better carry over to jerks.

Both versions of the lift are awesome, and the discussions should not be about which one is better. The important thing is to identify why the lift is being performed, and to select and use the appropriate variation based on the goals.  – Tony Gracia  // Co-Founder and Head Coach

Benefits of Unilateral Training – Part 2

In Part 1 of the article I highlighted a handful of the many benefits of unilateral training, and why it can be beneficial to include it in your training program.  In this second part I will discuss a few exercises including technique pointers and which ones to try first if you are new to unilateral training.

First, a general piece of advice that is applicable to all of these exercises.  I encourage you to use a tempo and load that allows you to perform all the drills with excellent control.  Do not prioritize speed or weight lifted over control – that defeats the purpose!  Additionally, I always encourage these to be performed in either bare feet or minimalist footwear to help develop the muscles in your feet and ankles, along with improving their proprioception.

Secondly, the following exercises are listed in order of where to start if you are new to unilateral training.  If you have ample experience you may be able to move right to some of the more challenging ones.

1) Split squat

The basic split squat, performed with both feet on a level surface, is a great starting point for your unilateral training.  If you lack experience with this, I would suggest starting here.  The primary reason I suggest starting with this is because both feet are on the floor at all times, minimizing the balance and stability demands – in other words, it lets you ease into it.

To perform the exercise, use a hip width stance with one leg in front of the other (a “split” stance).  You want to use a stance that when you squat down you can touch your back knee to the floor while keeping your front foot completely flat on the floor, and your back straight and mostly upright.  To clarify, you will be on the toes of the back leg, but the entire front foot needs to be flat on the floor.  Additionally, you want your front knee positioned in line with and above your foot – if you stand with your feet too far apart, your knee will be behind your ankle, which is not as desirable.

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2) Step up onto a box or bench

This is a great introduction to truly single leg training because it requires less balance than some of the more advanced drills, and it is also scalable both as far as range of motion and weight lifted.  It is a great “next step” after getting proficient at the basic split squat above.

To perform the drill you’ll need a sturdy box or bench.  Start with a height that allows you to perform the drill with confidence and good balance, and as you get better increase the height.  Eventually a good goal is to have your knee joint be higher than your hip joint in the starting position.

When stepping up onto the bench, try to use the front leg (the one on the bench) as much as possible, and let the rear leg contribute as little as possible to the effort.  This will probably be hard at first, and you’ll want to “spring” off the toes of your back foot to help propel you up.  While this is normal at first, do not let yourself get into a habit of doing this!  Stay disciplined and remember you are trying to train the front leg – make it do the work!  Just like in the spilt squat drill the front foot needs to be flat on the bench and the knee needs to track the toes.  Do your best to keep a strong core and tall posture – try to minimize “sway” in your torso as you move up and down, and be sure to not let your chest drop and shoulders cave in.

As a progression, first select a height you can do with good form but is somewhat challenging.  As you get better at it, you can choose to either increase the height or add more weight.  I generally prefer increasing range of motion over adding weight, since the priority is to get better at controlling your body.  However, if you think adding two extra inches of height may be more than you can handle, try doing some extra weight at the same height for a couple weeks before then moving to a higher box.  Eventually you want to use a box tall enough that your knee is at or above hip height in the starting position.

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3) Traveling lunges

There are many different types of lunges, all of which have their time and place in training.  From time to time we’ll do step-back lunges, step-forward lunges, sliding lunges on a furniture slider, and also do our lunges laterally.  To keep things simple, let’s just go over traveling lunges, which is the version where you start at one end of the room and do your lunges across the floor towards the other side of the room.

There are a lot of similarities here to the basic split squat, but now we have the increased difficulty of balancing and stabilizing through both a gait pattern and landing.  While the two exercises may look similar, make no mistake that these are significantly more demanding than the basic split squat, and should not be taken for granted.

Start by assuming tall posture and a hip width stance.  Take a stride similar in length to where you do your split squats, and as you land take care to keep your knees tracking your toes, your front foot flat on the floor, and your posture tall.  Dip down to allow your back knee to touch the floor without slouching or swaying your torso in any direction – your back should be nearly vertical at all times, and should be straight with a tight core throughout.  Once your knee has gently touched the floor, stride right into your next lunge on the other side.  For added difficulty, you can elect to pause and balance on one leg between each lunge, and bring the airborne knee up high to your chest.  This version forces you to really own the movement and display solid control.

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4) Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats (RFESS)

This exercise, more than just about anything else in my repertoire, is one that my trainees love to hate.  The balance demands are fairly high, the range of motion is fairly big, and yet you can also lift heavy enough weights to make it all around miserable … in all the right ways.

For this one you’ll need a weight bench or something similar.  Begin by standing with the backs of your legs touching the bench.  Take a large step out (bigger than your normal stride) and get your front foot set in place.  Next, put the foot of your rear leg up onto the bench in such a way that the TOP of the foot is on the bench, NOT the ball of your foot.  From there, with one foot on the floor and one on the bench, perform the same split squat technique as in #1 above.  The range of motion will be bigger than with the basic split squat, so expect a big stretch in the back leg.  One technique point on this exercise is that there should always be a straight line from the knee of the rear leg, through the hips and through the shoulders.  If the knee does not line up with the hip and shoulder, you probably need to adjust your distance from the bench.

Once you get the hang of these, they can be loaded very heavy and build amazing strength.  An ambitious, but achievable, goal is to perform 3-5 reps per leg with half your bodyweight in each hand (or use a barbell equaling your bodyweight).  Needless to say, you’ll need to take lots of time to build up to this, so don’t be in a rush and do something silly.

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5) Single Leg Deadlift (SLDL)

The SLDL is a wonderful exercise to train the hip hinging motion while also including balance, stability and proprioception into the movement.  The balance demands are greater on this exercise than any of the preceding ones, yet if you have enough experience and skill you can lift heavy weights with it.  In fact, there are people out there who can SLDL over 300 lbs with textbook technique!

The exercise is usually initiated by starting fully upright with your feet together.  The leg you are going to balance on should have a slight bend to the knee, and the other leg should be as straight as possible.  While maintaining a neutral spine, you will hinge at the hip of the plant leg and reach your airborne leg behind you, trying to touch your heel to the wall.  Continue to descend down until a) you lose your balance, b) you cannot maintain a neutral spine, or c) you reach a horizontal position with your airborne leg and torso.  From there, drive through the plant leg, in particular by squeezing the glut, and return to the starting position.

A couple important points to consider on this are: 1) You should never let your spine move into flexion.  This is a common problem when people are overly concerned about reaching down to a certain height, rather than the quality of the movement.  2) Your hips should be level at all times.  When you are hinging, do not let the hip of the airborne leg twist up towards the sky.  One good cue is to have the toe of the airborne leg point directly down to the floor at all times – if it starts pointing to the side you are probably twisting your hips.

This exercise can be performed with no weights at all, or you can load it up heavy as long as your have proper experience and good technique.  If you choose to use weights, you can load it contralaterally (this is my favorite way, meaning if your left leg is your plant leg, then the weight will be in your right hand), you can load it ipsilaterally (I don’t use this often, but would be with your left leg being the plant leg and the weight being in your left hand), or you can use a pair of weights or barbell held in both hands.

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OK, so there is a starting point for your unilateral training!  There are many other exercises not discussed here, such as pistol squats, airborne lunges and others that many people use with great success.  Based on your experience level, select an exercise to start with – either off this list, or choose a different one – and try to make some progress.  As you gain experience, either keep progressing the exercise or add complexity/challenge by moving to a more advanced one.  As with all of your training, take your time and don’t rush it – you should really feel like you “own” one movement before moving onto the next one.  Enjoy!

The Benefits of Unilateral Training – Part 1

Unilateral training, or essentially training on one leg at a time, is a great way to complement the bilateral (two legged) training you already do.  It offers an array of benefits across the spectrum of health to performance.  Regardless of whether your goals are general health, sports performance, or competitive strength training, just about everyone can benefit from including some unilateral work into their training plan.

If you are unfamiliar with the terms, “bilateral” refers to exercises where both legs are being used and are both performing the same task.  Exercises like squats, deadlifts, cleans, snatches, front squats and two-handed kettlebell swings are examples of bilateral movements.  When we use the term “unilateral” it refers to exercises where one leg is doing all of (or the majority of) the work, or that the legs are doing different tasks within the drill.  Some examples of unilateral exercises would be lunges, step ups, rear foot elevated split squats (RFESS for short), single leg deadlifts (SLDL) and pistol squats.  Every now and then you hear these terms used for upper body exercises as well, but without a qualifier it is pretty safe to assume they are referring to lower body.

Bilateral exercises, when used wisely, are great for building muscle and developing strength and power.  At Industrial Strength we include them in almost all of our training programs in one fashion or another.  However, we also see the value in training unilaterally, and using those drills to fill the gaps left by their two-legged counterparts.  Here are a few reasons why we like unilateral training:

  • Balance

Whether you are training for general health or sports performance, balance is an important consideration.  This could range from minimizing the risk of an injury due to a slip-and-fall, all the way to having the balance to counter an opponent’s throw in a grappling match and reversing it with a throw of your own.

  • Alignment and stability

Unilateral training is more “self limiting” than bilateral due to the balance and stability demands.  For example, a common problem in a squat is to have the knees collapse inwards (aka “valgus collapse”).  When this happens, the lifter can usually still finish the lift, just with less than optimal technique that may take its toll on the knees.  If you tried to do most unilateral exercises (such as a lunge) with that same valgus collapse, you probably couldn’t complete the rep and might even fall over.  So, in order to actually perform a unilateral exercise, your joint alignment and stability needs to be reasonably good.  If you develop this well enough, it will likely carry over into better positioning in your bilateral lifts too.

  • Back sparing

Your lower back can only take so much volume of squats and deadlifts before it starts to get irritated.  How much it can take depends on the individual based on training experience, strength levels, functional mobility, exercise technique, core stability and some other things.  One way to keep training the hips and legs without asking too much from the lower back is with unilateral training.   In exercises like RFESS, lunges and step ups the legs can be trained hard while keeping the back more upright compared to deadlifts or bilateral squats.  Additionally, you can use ample weight to challenge your legs, but it will be only a fraction of what your back can tolerate.  If you normally squat 200×5, you could work up to single leg squatting 100×5, which would effectively be about the same weight on your leg, but now your back is only supporting half the load.  If you have a touchy lower back but still want to strength train, this benefit is something that should not be overlooked.

  • Functional strength and power

Most athletic movements are performed off one leg at a time – sprinting, cutting, many types of jumps and bounds – they are all performed from a unilateral stance.  By including some unilateral strength & power training in your program, you can help to bridge the gap between the bilateral strength built with squats and deadlifts with the specific movements of your sport or activity.

  • Increased range of motion

Many people are not mobile enough to squat below parallel with good technique (parallel meaning the crease of the hip is lower than the top of the knee).  However, many of these people can achieve parallel depth or even lower in exercises like step ups, lunges and RFESS.  When trained on a regular basis, this should result in improved mobility, strength and joint function at new-found ranges of motion.

  • Reducing asymmetries

This one may sound obvious, but most people are more proficient moving on their dominant leg than their non-dominant one.  By including unilateral training, it can help reduce the gap between the two legs, thus offering more balanced movement.  This is also crucial if you’ve ever experienced a notable injury on one side, since that will often impact movement even after it is healed.  Training each leg individually will help get things straightened out and get you moving in a good direction.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article, where I will share a few of my favorite unilateral exercises and explain where to start with them.

And as always, thanks for your time!

-Tony Gracia, Head Coach

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