In the past few articles we have discussed the basics of strength training, organizing your routine and how to perform the power lifts. Now we are going to start focusing more on powerlifting.

Powerlifting is a strength sport that tests your strength in the big three lifts- the Squat, the Bench Press and the Deadlift. You get three single attempts at each lift and the best successful result is taken. The lifter with the highest total wins. There are also competitions for just the Bench Press and more recently the Deadlift.

At this time there are basically two ways to compete in powerlifting. The first is unequipped or raw or classic powerlifting. It is essentially lifting without any special equipment. In the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF), which is the primary federation in India and globally, you are allowed to use knee sleeves/caps in the squat, wrist wraps in the bench press and a belt in all three. The second is equipped powerlifting, where you are allowed the use of special squat, bench and deadlift suits, and knee wraps and wrist wraps and a belt, all of which are designed to protect the lifter from injury and increase the weight lifted.

It is important that the lifter decide which category he or she wants to compete in, as this will heavily influence training methods, exercises used and technique. Lifters in both categories need some amount of raw strength, so it is recommended that the novice lifter compete in raw lifting, to build a foundation of strength and muscle. After one or two competitions, the lifter can either shift to equipped powerlifting or continue in raw powerlifting or compete in both, though the latter is not recommended. Equipped and unequipped powerlifting are essentially differant and therefore must be treated as such.

To understand why equipped lifting is differant one must first understand the nature of powerlifting equipment. The squat suit is essentially tight around the hips and back and compresses the entire torso. When the lifter descends the suit applys downward pressure on the thighs, providing additional force on the reboud. The bench shirt does the same, except for the shoulders, which it pushes upwards. Many people use the same squat suit for the deadlift, though of all the three, the deadlift is least effected by equipment, as there is no rebound and the gear essentially strengthens the rebound.

On a fundamental level powerlifting equipment protects certain muscles and aids greatly in the bottom of the movement. This allows master lifters and lifters with hip and shoulder injuries to extend their careers. A squat suit may add as much as 40-80kgs to the squat, the bench shirt the same to the bench press and 5-10kgs in the deadlift. However since the technique and muscles used are different, it takes time for such carryover to take place, anywhere from 6 months to 2 years. You cant just put the suit on and expect your numbers to magically jump.

There are three primary problems in equipped powerlifting-

  1. Powerlifting equipment is expensive and it takes time to find the perfect suit and fit it, which costs even more money.
  2. The pressure created by the suit is insane and it is very difficult to put on and take off the suit. The fatigue caused by equipped powerlifting is much greater than raw lifting.
  3. Equipped powerlifting is much more skill oriented as big carryovers only happen when the technical groove is perfect, otherwise all it does is squeeze the body. Due to this, many times a lifter with lesser raw strength but better skill with the suit may win.
Raw Squat vs Equipped Squat

In light of all of this I recommend that only those who are serious about powerlifting and want to
compete at the highest levels should take up equipped lifting. If you just want to have fun and move some big weights, unequipped powerlifting is much better. However make no mistake, globally and now in India as well, unequipped powerlifting is getting more and more competitive. It will not be long before the difficulty of competition becomes the same. Five years ago only amateurs competed in unequipped powerlifting, today there are even 1000kg unequipped totals and the number of people totalling 700kgs and more is steadily rising. It is simply a matter of time and maturity, as for the last four decades equipped powerlifting was the norm and therefore is more developed.

I have highlighted the primary technical and training differences between equipped and unequipped powerlifting in the table below.

In general equipped powerlifting requires more practice with the gear and a lot of assistance exercises to help push your base strength. In raw powerlifting the lifts themselves are the best builders and should be used for both skill practice, hypertrophy and strength. Remember both equipped and unequipped powerlifting are awesome and build stronger people in mind and body. So you cant go wrong, no matter which way you go.