Powerlifting: The Good, Bad and Ugly

The sport of powerlifting is awesome, except for all the not-so-awesome parts. Here are the pros and cons you need to know.

Back in the days when I was involved in Olympic-style weightlifting, I tended to view powerlifting with some disdain, which, by the way, is common in weightlifting circles. Weightlifters love to bag on their iron brothers for being fat simpletons who over-rely on high-tech supportive garb and who don’t have the technical skills necessary for “advanced” skills like the Olympic lifts.

Powerlifting deserves some of this reputation. A quick search on YouTube will pull up video after video of bloated 350-pound dudes quarter-squatting about 40% more than they could actually squat to parallel without all the multi-ply supersuits and wraps. However, judging the sport by these unfortunate examples is about as fair as judging the sport of weightlifting by looking at some of its obese super-heavyweight competitors. The truth is, powerlifting is going through some very positive changes lately, which I’ll discuss in a bit. For now though, I’d like to briefly share my personal experiences with the sport so that you have a bit of insight into my perspective.

I participated in my first raw competition in June of 2010 at the age of 50. Like many new competitors opt to do, I did a partial meet – in this case, I only competed in the deadlift event. One thing that’s really nice about powerlifting, especially for newbies, is that you can just do one or two events if you’d like. This way, you can get started with a minimum of stress and anxiety. I lifted well and met lots of nice folks. I was hooked. Since then, I’ve gone on to win the World Championships for my age/weight category in the 100% Raw Federation. As I write this, I’m gearing up for my next meet.

I confess that I’m not exactly cut out to be a powerlifter. In fact, during a recent discussion with my insurance agent where I mentioned that I was training for a competition, he blurted, “Oh, you do triathlons?” At 198 pounds, powerlifting would reward me dearly for being 5’7" as opposed to 6’1", but so be it. I’d also be better off being 24 rather than 54, but guess what? I’ve decided to compete on my own terms.

Sure, my lifts would skyrocket if I brought my bodyweight up to 250 or so, but so would my waistline, and I’m not down with that. I’m using competitive powerlifting to test myself at my current height and weight, not to do whatever it takes to add a few pounds to my total. Keep this in mind as I transition to the less-appealing aspects of powerlifting.

The Ugly

I’m often asked why powerlifting isn’t in the Olympics. Honestly, the list is so long I don’t know where to start. First of all, powerlifting is known to cast a blind eye to performance-enhancing drug use. I’m personally fine with that by the way, but the IOC isn’t. This problem could certainly be resolved of course, but compared to most other sports, powerlifting would demand a high level of scrutiny, and every time a new record was broken there’d be renewed suspicion and controversy.

A few decades ago when the sport of weightlifting instituted much more rigorous drug testing, the IOC proactively recalibrated all the weight classes, because if they didn’t it’d be starkly obvious that there would be a sudden and significant down-tick in all the state, National, and World records due to the fact that the sport was now (largely) drug-free. Since the old weight classes no longer existed, observers would be less able to compare the new, lower results to the older records.

Another problem that affects powerlifting’s potential admission onto the Olympic roster – as well as its appeal to much of the general public and potential newbies to the sport – is the widespread and highly variable use of what lifters call support gear: specially-designed suits, shirts, briefs, belts, and wraps that collectively might improve a lifter’s otherwise unaided lifts by as much as 50%. As just one example, the current World record for an “equipped” bench press is now over 1100 pounds. Here’s a video of Tiny Meeker benching 1102 pounds:

In contrast to this, the current World record for a “raw” bench press, to the best of my knowledge, is a 722-pound effort by Eric Spoto. That’s a 380-pound difference. While many equipped lifters love to argue that “athletes in all sports are helped by technological advancements such as fiberglass poles in pole vaulting or high-tech swimsuits in swimming”, this is a bit of a skewed comparison. After all, when fiberglass poles were introduced, athletes didn’t suddenly start vaulting 75 feet!

So while I’m all in favor of technology, when you need two buddies to help get into your lifting suit, or when a bench shirt provides so much support that you need at least 300 on the bar to even be able to row it down to your chest, the sport becomes easy prey to a lot of legitimate questions.

The Bad

The main obstacle to powerlifting’s admission into the Olympics has nothing to do with drugs or high-tech underwear. The problem is, unlike Olympic sports like track & field and gymnastics (and weightlifting of course), powerlifting has no one single governing body. Instead, powerlifting has literally dozens of “federations” which all have different rules and regulations. While many of these differences are slight, others are very significant. So before powerlifting can even think about Olympic glory, it’ll need to reorganize itself into a single governing body. Sounds like a nearly impossible task, but in 1980 Tae Kwon Do was admitted into Olympic competition by the IOC after its various federations had a pow-wow and made a unified pitch to the AAU. So it can be done, but at the present time it certainly seems a long ways off.

Of more practical interest to prospective new lifters, the current array of lifting federations means that choices must be made. This not only increases confusion, it also leads to continuous arguments and bad blood between lifters of the various feds.

The Good

As I hinted at, there have been lots of positive developments in the sport, and the one I’m most excited about is the rapidly increasing popularity of raw lifting. Now, since there are numerous federations, there are also numerous definitions of what “raw” means. Sometimes it allows for knee wraps for example, sometimes it doesn’t. Same goes for other supportive garb. In the fed I usually lift in, competitors are allowed to wear a 4-inch lifting belt and wrist wraps, but nothing else. Other feds also allow knee sleeves or wraps, but none of the raw federations (or raw divisions within other feds) allow suits, bench shirts, or support briefs. For both lifters and spectators, the recent explosion of raw powerlifting means less expense, less hassle (you can dress yourself for starters), and a more honest display of an athlete’s true strength.

Perhaps even more exciting is the emergence of a crop of new lifting stars who are pushing the boundaries of powerlifting like never before. Lifters like Dan Green (2084-pound raw total at 242 pounds), Mike Tuchscherer (817 raw deadlift), Eric Spoto (722-pound raw bench press), and Andrey Malanichev (1014-pound raw squat). Not only do these and other top raw lifters put up mind-boggling numbers, for the most part they also display chiseled physiques that even top bodybuilders would respect.

All of this put together means that as a prospective newbie to the sport, there are guys out there you can look up to and emulate – not only for what they can do, but also for what they look like. For spectators, you can more easily identify with and respect the lifter’s accomplishments, because you know their strength is the product of hard work as opposed to supersonic underwear and bench shirts that enable you to bench more than you can deadlift.

Bonus: The Great!

When I decided to get involved in powerlifting, there were a lot of things I saw that left a bad taste in my mouth. I saw lots of guys I didn’t wanna look like, lifting technique that I found embarrassing, tell-tale signs of rampant drug use, and dirty politics to spare. Despite this, I found the primal nature of raw powerlifting really appealing. I love the idea of continuously bettering myself – not competing with others per se, but with my previous best accomplishments. So I made a decision: rather than focusing on the negatives I saw in the sport, I decided to be the change I wanted to see. In other words, I decided to do it on my own terms.

As a quick example, the reason that a lot of powerlifters are fat is because they simply don’t care, or because they mistakenly think they need to “carb up” the night before and the day of every meet, thinking they need to “replenish their glycogen” for the 9 totals reps they’ll do in competition. Then, after the meet, they’ll pig out at a local buffet to “recover.” Add to all this that most lifters tend to take a week off from training before and after each meet, and before you know it you have a recipe for bodycomp disaster.

But I don’t need to follow that rulebook, right? Powerlifting is a fantastic sport, as long as you make it work for you, rather than vice versa. Personally, I have other athletic goals aside from maximal strength, so I use powerlifting as a way to test myself, meet like-minded people, and have an occasional fun weekend away.

If you’ve never competed, I can’t recommend it highly enough. In fact, I promise it’ll be the best thing you ever did for your lifting progress. If you’re still on the fence about the idea, or need some help figuring out how to get started, leave me a comment below.