An Argument for Arch Support

by Tyler Perkins | August 31, 2022

drawing of transverse arch lateral longitudinal arch medial longitudinal arch in the human foot

Articles have already been written and videos have been made discussing the benefits, and the need, for lifting shoes and why you should already have a pair. But for those of us stupid enough to venture into the comments sections, you will have noticed that there still seems to be some lingering confusion and mystery surrounding the human arch, arch support, orthotics, “supportive” shoes, and whether any of this is relevant or necessary to the strength trainee. So, hopefully some of that is cleared up for you below.

Arch Anatomy

Our feet contain several arches: 1.) the transverse arch, which essentially runs over the top of the foot and may be thought of as the arch that creates your foot's instep, 2.) the medial longitudinal arch and 3.) the lateral longitudinal arch, which run from back to front (longitudinally), on the inside (medial) and outside (lateral) of your feet. The medial longitudinal arch is, for the sake of argument, the only arch the general public is even aware exists, it is the one you and I mean when we say “arch,” it is the one most shoes and orthotics attempt to address, and it is the one that we are going to be primarily concerned with today. This is not to say the other arches of the foot do not play a critical role in our foot's anatomy and function but for the purposes of this article “arch” will be referring only to the medial longitudinal arch.

The arch is shaped primarily by four major bones: the calcaneus (heel bone), the talus and navicular (which sit underneath the ankle) and the cuneiform (just forward of the others), but of course the metatarsals and phalanges play a role as well. The arch is supported by the ligament insertions of a series of muscles from the lower leg (which I will spare you the listing of here, but are easy enough to search.) Other ligaments of the foot also tie the arch together, such as the short and long plantar ligaments, plantar calcaneonavicular, the plantar aponeurosis (which you can feel if you pull the toes back on one of your feet and feel for the round “band” running in the center of your foot from your heel to your forefoot), as well as the intrinsic muscles of the foot.

When this system is functioning optimally, this collection of small bones held together by an overlapping web of ligaments, small muscles, and connective tissues possess an extraordinary ability to flex, spring back, and conform to the surface upon which it is placed. It also happens to work extraordinarily well for us as shock absorbers when we walk, run, jump, or do just about anything on our feet. However, as with most biological organisms, each person's genetics, accumulation of injuries, age, etc., all have a habit of skewing us away from optimal, which presents us with just one more thing to overcome.

Flexible Arches

Pes planus, flat-footed, collapsed arch, flexible arch – are all the same thing for our purposes today. Being truly flat-footed means that the entirety of your arch is flush with the ground. This is fairly rare and most people who claim to be flat footed are in fact not. As with most things in life there is a gradient which we all fall somewhere within. Barring any trauma or injury, truly flat-footed people and those with arches trending towards flatter received this proclivity from their mom or dad – its hereditary. The structure of their arch is simply more flexible than those with higher, more rigid arches.

When a more flexible arch is loaded, the structure cannot as effectively maintain the arch shape and it flattens out. In doing so, it elongates and causes the foot to rotate medially (often colloquially referred to as "over-pronation"). Because our feet are the start of our kinetic chain from the floor up, what seems to be only a minor disturbance in the force actually causes a host of alterations that your skeleton must make in order to compensate for this collapse.

Try a quick experiment: Put your feet flat on the ground and stand up normally, keeping the soles of your feet as flat on the floor as possible. Roll one of your arches into the ground and try to flatten it as much as you can. Now, with the same foot, still staying flat on the ground, roll your arch up and out as high as you can. Now do this back and forth a few times and observe what happens to your ankle and lower leg.

Assuming you have done this experiment correctly, you will have noticed that your ankle collapsed and “pushed in” medially and that your leg rotated inward as you flattened your arch, and that your ankle went back over your foot and your leg rotated back out as you pulled your arch up. The inward leg rotation caused by the collapsing arch puts strain on the knees which then have to compensate, causing changes to the femur, the hips, and so on. Now, imagine a barbell loaded with a few hundred extra pounds on your back and you can start to understand the problem.

Aside from putting the lifter's skeleton in a mechanically less-efficient situation, it also puts the lifter's joints in a more compromised position, putting unnecessary strain in unnecessary places, specifically your ankles, knees, and hips.

While proper lifting form will weed out many of these issues, managing your arch flexion under a heavy load should be the least of your worries, wearing an orthotic arch support (insert) with a rigid, structured, prominent arch profile designed to hold your arch into a more neutral position will prevent the arch from collapsing at all. It will keep your ankles over your feet and everything else more aligned to help prevent unnecessary wear and tear on your body.

Rigid Arches

Pes cavus, high arches, rigid, less-flexible arches, again, are all the same thing, and everybody's arches fall somewhere on the arch spectrum. Far fewer people have extremely high, rigid arches than low, flexible arches, but it can still present a couple of issues for the lifter. A person with an extremely high, inflexible arch experiences little or no elasticity within the arch when it is loaded. While at first glance you might be thinking “Sweet, problem solved!”, this can cause the foot to supinate, requiring the person to walk or stand on the outside edge of the foot, and the foot will then be forced to bear any load almost exclusively on the extreme ends of the heel and forefoot and, if they are lucky, a sliver of the lateral portion of their foot. This foot will be extremely inefficient at absorbing impact and at the extremes, can once again cause skeletal compensations elsewhere.

Feet with high arches are not good at flexing, the fascia is shorter and obviously less flexible and unable to “give” much under a load. This becomes a problem when this foot is presented with a load heavy enough to force the arch to elongate anyway, stretching the shortened, inflexible ligaments and connective tissue beyond their comfortable limits, causing painful inflammation or rupture. An extremely common form of this is known as “plantar fasciitis”.

Again, simply wearing an insert to help support that arch can be a very effective means of preventing the arch from flexing and causing pain or injury down the road.

Shoes, Inserts or Both?

Most people assume that because they have a lifting shoe or any other shoe for that matter that has “support” or “stability” that this shoe will somehow actively contour and support the arch within the shoe. This is not true.

The straps on proper lifting shoes that run over the top of the shoe do a great job of securing the foot over the shoe's sole and preventing shifting and foot movement over the shoe platform. It does have a minor effect on the arch when a collapsing arch and ankle are trying to “push over” the medial edge of the sole but it does not necessarily prevent the arch from flattening out in the first place or within the shoe – in other words, it does not address the cause.

Additionally, with few exceptions, no shoes, including lifting shoes, have true built-in arches for a couple of reasons. The most obvious being that everybody's arches are different heights and lengths and require unique levels of adjustment, and manufacturing a random arch profile into a shoe would greatly reduce comfort and usability for a huge percentage of people. So, most shoe companies manufacture their shoes with cheap, nifty little “sock liners” that are designed to pull out of the shoe and be replaced with an arch that fits your specific needs if desired.

Do another experiment: Go find the most “supportive” and “stable” shoe that you own (probably your lifting shoes if you have them). Now remove the sock liner that comes with it. Note that the sock liner is thin, flexible and utterly useless for anything considered arch support. Now feel around the inside of the shoe and observe one more thing. It is entirely flat. No arch support at all, certainly nothing that could physically act on the arch within the shoe. It is worth mentioning that people are occasionally tricked into believing they feel an arch built into some shoes. What they are generally feeling is simply the shape of a midsole that is designed to extend up into the space of the arch (usually for aesthetic reasons) but because this is usually a thin, soft piece of foam rubber that can be manipulated with your thumb, it obviously cannot be considered “supportive” in any way. That is where the insert comes in.

To be clear, I am not advising $800 custom orthotics from the podiatrist that your insurance doesn't cover, just to lift in. In fact, there are many great over-the-counter options for firm, truly supportive arch inserts that cost roughly $60 and are available in various arch profiles that allow you to tailor it to your foot. To be very clear, I am also NOT recommending or suggesting soft, squishy, gel-filled, pillow topped, or anything sold by Dr. Scholls. A quality, supportive, functional insert must be constructed with a hard, usually plastic or carbon fiber shank that cups the heel and contours the arch. This will build and maintain the arch shape within the shoe and prevent arch collapse or elongation during training by giving the arch a rigid structure to sit on. This insert coupled with a compatible shoe will be extremely effective.

However, if a person with a collapsing arch, for example, were to take their nice, new, structured insert and place them into a soft, squishy shoe and attempt to squat in that setup, the soft sole of the shoe would compress medially as the lifter's arch collapsed and the ankle pushed the shoe inward. Because the insert is resting on and following the direction of the soft surface on which it sits, the insert will move in the same direction as the collapsing shoe sole, reducing its ability to contact and manipulate the foot, thus losing the orthotic value of the insert. Which is why the arch support should be fit into a lifting shoe that will provide a solid bed for the insert to rest level on. In this configuration it can most efficiently do its job of supporting the arch of the foot.

Arch supports have the additional benefit of filling the void or any “empty space” inside of the shoe created by the arch of the foot. Think of it as bringing the ground up to meet your foot, rather than the other way around. This provides more surface area of the foot to be in contact with “the ground” and helps to more evenly spread the load over the entire foot, rather than just the heel and forefoot.


Any time arch support is brought up it is inevitable that a handful of individuals will attempt to dismiss arch support with a host of criticism such as “they aren't natural”, “they will weaken your foot”, “they’re uncomfortable” and so on. So, let's address these quickly.

Inserts are unnatural. As has previously been discussed elsewhere, nothing we are doing today is natural, so get over it. Eating a carnivorous diet of farm raised beef, running barefoot on cement sidewalks and doing muscle-ups outside on a children's playground does not get you any closer to your paleolithic ancestral roots anyway, nor would you want it to. Sorry. Utilizing modern tools to help us continue to train and add weight to the bar more effectively and efficiently is a good thing.

Arch supports make your feet weaker. We all know that supportive equipment makes the immediate area being supported weaker, that is why every 400-pound professional lifter alive with a 1000-pound deadlift has a skeletal, 12-inch waist. In fact, from continuous training with a supportive lifting belt, they often are not able to stand erect due to the 4-inch ring of extreme muscle atrophy the belt causes around the entire circumference of their midsection... Sounds kind of stupid, doesn’t it? Clearly that is untrue, but that is the logic inherent in the criticism. What happens to a person's body – even with an arch support – when they take their squat from nothing to something? We all know that everything gets stronger, that includes the feet – you know, the things that 100% of the incrementally increasing weight is being supported on. Read Rip's article about the belt and extrapolate from there: The Belt and the Deadlift.

Inserts are uncomfortable. If an insert, which is essentially just a small, sloping piece of plastic is so uncomfortable that it is causing excruciating pain so incredibly intense that the thing is totally unwearable, you either have the wrong insert, you are simply a gigantic pussy and you aren’t training anyway, or you have a preexisting acute foot injury that you need to address immediately – those are the only possibilities. But because that is not the case, and it actually just feels “weird” or “different” or like “there is a thing” in your shoe, get over it, wear the thing a little while and you will forget all about it. Furthermore, a lot of the goings on in the gym are uncomfortable: wearing a tight, multi-ply leather belt is fairly uncomfortable, so is putting several hundred pounds of iron on a small diameter steel bar and having that mash into your back several times per week. But you do it anyway, don't you?

A pair of lifting shoes and a quality insert that fits your arch can make a great addition to your training, can resolve many issues you may currently be experiencing, and mitigate issues that may otherwise pop up in the future. Hopefully this has paved the way to demystify the arch and arch support. So, go get a set, try them out, and good luck.

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