What do weightlifting shoes do?
Weightlifting shoes have a non-compressible sole and a raised heel. The non-compressible sole means that when you push through the floor with a weight in your hands or on your back, the soles of the shoe won't absorb and disperse any of the force, making your movement more stable since you don't have to correct your balance or foot pressure against a soft or cushioned surface. Squatting and deadlifting will feel more stable with your feet pushing against a stable surface into a stable floor, and force transfer in all lifts but especially the snatch, clean, and jerk will be more complete with no cushion between your feet and the platform.
The raised heel reduces the demand on ankle flexibility in squatting, as well. Ankle flexibility requirements increase from back squat, to front squat, to overhead squat (or snatch), in that order. Allowing the shins to tilt forward in the squat more allows the back to stay more upright. If the shins stay more vertical, the lifter's back must lean forward more in order to keep the bar over the foot and thus keep the lifter balanced. While some backwards hip movement and forward lean is normal in any squat, it can be detrimental if it is excessive, and in movements which have a higher demand on an upright torso, it may inhibit how well the lifts can be performed or if they can be performed at all. A stable, raised heel improves these situations by starting the lifter with a little ankle extension in a standing, upright position. This means the ankle has farther to move before being restricted by the lifter's maximum ankle dorsiflexion, allowing the lifter's shins to tilt forward more than they would with a flat shoe.
Almost everyone feels more stable in weightlifting shoes. Most shoes were designed with walking in mind, so in addition to the major differences like the sole material and the heel to toe drop, weightlifting shoes will reduce some aspects of foot movement like side-to-side flexibility to keep your feet planted. Some people will notice a greater improvement in how lifts move and feel than others, but they are generally beneficial in at least some ways to most people. Their benefits will be less noticeable in slow lifts like squatting and deadlifting, and more obvious in faster lifts like the snatch and clean and jerk. If your ankle flexibility is very good, and you wear minimalist type shoes with very little cushion, the difference will probably not be dramatic. But if you're used to softer training shoes, or you have less ankle dorsiflexion, they will have a more noticeable effect.
Weightlifting shoes won't immediately add pounds to your lifts. It's possible you may even lift slightly less with weightlifting shoes the first time you wear them, because it will take a session or two to get used to the balance of lifting on a raised heel. But because they almost universally improve lifting mechanics and squat positions, using them will make getting stronger easier. As you get stronger, the margin of error for executing good lifts gets smaller, and weightlifting shoes help a lot in reducing things that can go wrong in a lift like body position and shifting too far one way or the other with foot balance, like when you lean too far forward in a squat.
If you commit a consistent 3-4 days a week to lifting, you want to get as strong as you can in barbell lifting, or you intend on competing in a barbell sport, weightlifting shoes are a smart investment.
The main concern with any shoe is of course, how do they fit? It is generally felt that Do-Wins and Romaleos are a better fit for wider feet, whereas Adidas tends to run a little narrow. Also, when choosing a shoe size, it's generally recommended to go off your dress shoe size rather than a sneaker or athletic shoe size. With that in mind, we'll go over the major shoes available today.
The cheapest ones, which aren't necessarily bad, probably come from Adidas and Do-Win. You can get a pair of Adidas Powerlift 2.0s for $60-70 or Do-Wins for about $100. Reebok and Inov8 also have some cheaper models, but won't have the value of the Powerlift 2.0s which have the same functionality, or the sturdiness of the Do-Wins, which are a Nike Romaleo clone (we'll talk about the Romaleos in a second). Between these two budget shoes, as a weightlifting coach, I'd recommend the Do-Wins as they are a sturdy design and have a standard .75" heel vs. the Powerlift's .60". The Powerlifts also use a rubber-like sole which isn't soft, but the edges of the shoe do compress which don't make it a perfect weightlifting shoe.
The modern designs are the Adidas Adipower 3s and the Nike Romaleo 2s. These can be found for as cheap as $130 during certain times on sites like Eastbay.com but are around $150-190 depending on vendor and various holiday or coupon specials. They are pretty expensive but are durable and will last quite some time. The Romaleos are sturdier, heavier, and stiffer. The Adidas are lighter, more flexible in the forefoot, but not cheaply made by any means. As an owner of both, the differences are not significant with regards to executing movements like the squat, snatch, clean and jerk, etc. and don't effect lifting either way, unless you're especially picky about how your shoes should feel. The Romaleos are a very heavy-duty design with a metal loop ring for the tarsal strap and the synthetic material itself being very tough, and mine show very little wear after nearly a year of heavy use. The shoes were meant to train hard in and withstand a lot of punishment. The Adipowers have less heavy-duty aspects but seem sturdy enough to last if taken care of.
It's actually possible to find some stores which sell Adidas Powerlifts in-person, vs. online, if you want to try them on. Various Adidas outlets and even some sporting goods stores like Academy may have some shoes to look at.
Brent is the weightlifting coach at Dallas Strength and Conditioning. He has competed at USAW Nationals in 2015 and has been active in competition since 2006.