There is so much confusion and, unfortunately, controversy surrounding equipped vs. raw powerlifting so I feel like now is a good time to write about it. First, I’ll start with a background of both and then I’ll get into my thoughts on the divide, for whatever those are worth. Let me begin by saying that, save for 1 USA Powerlifting Bench Press Nationals, I have only ever competed raw. But that is simply due to my infancy in the sport – I have every intention of competing in both raw and equipped beginning in 2015.
People ask all the time, “what exactly is ‘gear’?” In my world (USA Powerlifting and the International Powerlifting Federation), it is single-ply (think about that really cheap toilet paper that you probably/hopefully never buy – but not that thin) polyester with really strong stitching on the seams. The tendency of equipment is to return to its starting place, so a squat or deadlift suit (looks like a singlet to an untrained eye) wants to return to standing upright. A bench shirt has sleeves down to the elbow that want to return to extension (locked out).
Equipped powerlifting is also called “geared” powerlifting or just simply put: powerlifting. From the inception of the competitive side of the sport, the goal was to lift as much weight as possible and that did not specify whether or not assistive gear/equipment could be used. There is a common misconception about gear, from those who have never used it, that all it does is add Lbs to your lifts. For example, if I am a woman who squats 250 raw, all I have to do is put on a squat suit and knee wraps (only used for squat), and squat 350 just like that. Perhaps there are instances where this happens, but it is highly unlikely. Equipment protects body parts that are susceptible to wear-and-tear/injury due to routine heavy lifting, tight gear can be painful (but just surficial pain, i.e. bruises), and equipped powerlifting is an entirely different animal than raw powerlifting… It takes persistence and tolerance to become a good equipped lifter. In the equipped lifting world, raw powerlifting is training. A lifter who is training for an equipped competition starts their cycle training raw and then eventually gets into their equipment a few weeks out from the meet.
In 2008, USA Powerlifting started to recognize raw powerlifting as its own division. This is when the masses started becoming attracted to the sport (myself included, in 2012). It is easier to show up and lift at a raw powerlifting meet than an equipped meet, and incredibly easier to train for one. When I competed in my first two raw powerlifting meets, I was an avid CrossFitter… I didn’t do anything outside of my ordinary CF training besides take a couple of days off before the meet and I came away successful, setting 3 Junior American Records in my 2nd meet. As long as a lifter understands the commands, range of motion standards, and the very basics of attempt selection they will likely have success. Raw training can be done alone with minimal trouble (equipped training depends a lot on training partners to help get in the gear, wrap knees, spot, etc). Raw powerlifting allows lifters to wear a belt, knee sleeves* (as opposed to wraps; more on this later), and wrist wraps. Instead of the suits that are worn in equipped powerlifting, raw lifters wear singlets made of spandex-like material that don’t provide support*. One of the great things about raw powerlifting is that it eliminates many variables. It is very easy to directly compare the strength of lifter A to lifter B (without gear of varying manufacturers/tightness/structure), and that is attractive to lifters and spectators alike.
As I discussed in the introduction, when powerlifting was in its early years there were little to no restrictions on assistive equipment. People began putting tennis balls behind their knees or wrapping them with tight ace bandages, wearing denim around the hips, and squeezing into tight shirts. This is when smart entrepreneurs invented the first generation of squat suits, wraps, bench shirts, etc. and the sport didn’t really look back until 2008, when a raw division was introduced. It tends to come full-circle, though. Fast forward to today, 6 years into the life of competitive raw powerlifting and many competitors are spending big bucks on the top-notch knee sleeves. What makes a knee sleeve top-notch? Thicker neoprene than ever before. That paired with a size (or two?) tighter than recommended, and you got yourself carry-over. Additionally, manufacturers are reportedly having to reinforce singlets (you know, the ones that don’t provide support) because some have found the benefit to squeezing into a couple sizes smaller. But forget about the regular old singlet, it is being speculated that there will soon be neoprene singlets on the market. Neoprene singlets/suits will likely be comparable to the Inzer Z-suit, which was the first mass-produced single-ply squat suit. And there you have it – full circle. Whether or not the purpose of neoprene everything and tight [raw] equipment is for protection or carry-over frankly does not matter to me, as I am just making observations about this interesting and heated dynamic.
The purpose of my post is not to pick sides, as I have tried to stay as unbiased as possible. It is to educate those who don’t really understand and to voice my belief that the two divisions can coexist happily if we would just let them – we are all on the same team in the USAPL/IPF. If you think you have an opinion about one being superior to the other, please step back and think about it objectively. What puzzles me most is I do not understand why there would ever be animosity within one federation. Both groups of people (raw and equipped) love to squat, bench, and deadlift – together the two divisions could spread our passion for this great sport to the entire world and maybe even get the IPF into the Olympics!