Finding your balance
Watching the O-lifting meet this past weekend I noticed a wide variety of foot-ware. There were running shoes, cross trainers, O-lifting shoes, even a pair of wrestling shoes among others. One thing that became apparent as I watched was that their shoes affected their ability to balance during the lift (Granted, poor lifting mechanics is also a reason but, I'll explain). I noticed that the people wearing running shoes had the hardest time finding their balance. This balance issue became less and less as the shoes more closely resembled O-lifting shoes. What are the reasons for this? Well, to understand why we must first learn how the body senses its position.
The body contains sensory organs that tell it where it is in space and in relation to itself. They're known as proprioceptors, the major ones are muscle spindles, Golgi tendon organs and Pacinian Corpuscles.
Muscle spindles and the Golgi tendon organs are the primary sensory receptors in muscle tissue. They determine muscle length and signal tension in the muscle, respectively. They also sense how much and how fast the muscles are being stretched. The muscle spindle is a sensory organ found in most skeletal muscles. The spindle provides the main source of proprioceptive feedback and supplies the Central Nervous System with afferent (incoming) information, and also plays a reflexive role in the adjustment to disruptions. Golgi tendon organs are ideally suited to encode the forces developed by the contracting muscle fibres.
Pacinian corpuscles (PC) are the largest sensory corpuscles, are present in ligaments and joint capsules. PC are exquisitely sensitive RA mechanoreceptors that can signal the onset or cessation of compression or vibration transmitted to the body. Pacinian corpuscles fibers are exquisitely sensitive to mechanical stimulation. Thus, proprioceptive information from a joint exerts strong influences on the spinal locomotor Central Pattern Generator.
So, what does all this mean? Well, your body uses the information it receives from these proprioceptors to position your body appropriately. They give you a sense of self, how your foot relates to your leg, to your knee to your hips etc.. If you are unstable, your proprioceptors tell your body how to stabilize. This is an important part when lifting and finding your balance.
Running shoes have a large soft heel that “cushions” the foot while running. That's OK for running (or not depending on who you listen to but, that's a whole different topic) it's not good for lifting.
When your lifting the heel of the running shoe (and other athletic shoes) compresses making an unstable surface. You'll find your foot wobbling as your proprioceptors are searching for a stable position. Typically, the foot will rotate the weight to the outside of the heel and then forward to the toes where the sole of the shoe is thiner and your foot feels most stable.
We've all been told (repeatedly) that you want to keep your weight on your heels. This is for several reasons. First and foremost, not doing so can put your back in a vulnerable position where you could strain something, or worse. Secondly, you are stronger. When your weight is on your heels you are primarily using your hamstrings and gluts. While on your toes you engage your quads more which aren't nearly as strong and typically the weight isn't balanced properly causing unneeded stress on the muscles.
The foot needs a stable surface to push against, the harder the surface the better. O-lifting shoe have a heel made out of wood as well as lateral straps that further stabilize the foot. This makes it easier to stay on your heels and keeping the foot stable.
Now, this isn't an advertisement to buy O-lifting shoes. If you plan on lifting seriously then I say it's worth the investment if not, there are other options. You'll want your shoes to have a flat sole with little cushioning. This will help keep the foot from rolling forward putting the weight on the toes. Chuck Taylors are a popular choice but, you'll want to get the low top version because ankle mobility is important when lifting. Of course, another option and most economical is to go barefoot. Probably not advisable during a WOD but, in a controlled situation it can be an option.
Jeff Pillars, M.S. Exercise Physiology