The Great Divide
Powerlifters divide themselves up into two classes of lifters; raw lifters and equipped lifters. What is the difference? Which one is best for you? Why should you care? Is it cheating? If you’re actually looking for information and not another internet flame war on some iron junkie forum, you’ve come to the right place!
The difference between raw lifting and equipped lifting isn’t necessarily just the use of equipment. Raw lifters can, and do, use some amount of equipment. Obviously, they wear shoes, socks, a singlet, sometimes a belt, sometimes wrist wraps, and sometimes knee wraps. The “sometimes” vary from one powerlifting federation to another. Similarly, opinions vary from lifter to lifter on what should qualify as “raw” or “equipped.”
Equipped lifting, or assisted lifting, in my opinion, should be classified as such. If the equipment assists in the action of the lift, then it is supportive equipment and belongs in an equipped division. However, wrist wraps are an exception to that rule. Wrist wraps don’t actually help someone bench more, they just help the tiny wrist joint not flop around like a wind sock in Chicago. Belts are usually allowed in raw divisions. Technically, the belt helps the legs transfer force from the ground onto the bar. Without a belt, the lifter loses the ability to efficiently push/pull the bar because they need to expend energy keeping the spine in a powerful position. Unlike wrist wraps, belts can give a trained lifter at least an extra 50 lbs on a squat or deadlift. If we’re being purists, belts technically aren’t raw (but I wear a belt and compete raw, so we’ll let this one lie). Knee sleeves are sometimes allowed in “raw” divisions, but these also provide a hefty amount of support that can add another 50 lbs to a lift. Some federations include a raw and a raw with wraps division to distinguish between “pure raw” and the gray area between raw and equipped that involves knee wraps.
What is Equipped Lifting?
That brings us to equipped lifting. Like any sport, the sport of powerlifting advances and evolves, in part, due to advances in technology and equipment. Shoes are a great example. We have all sorts of shoes. Not just in powerlifting – in running, basketball, soccer, and pretty much every sport that’s not swimming. The shoe is specifically designed to facilitate whatever helps that athlete be more successful at their sport. Powerlifting follows suit with … suits. And shirts. And undies. Yep, underwear.
Squat and deadlift suits, bench and erector shirts, and briefs come in single or multi-ply. What kind of toilet paper do you have at home? Is it single or double ply? It’s pretty much the same deal with powerlifting equipment – a single or multiple layer(s) of high tensile fabric that has only slightly more give than concrete. Equipped powerlifting competitions divide up the two into different divisions, as one provides much more support than the other – in case you didn’t already know that from wiping your ass. After training with equipment, a lifter can gain several hundred additional pounds to their lifts.
This type of equipment is basically like wearing a suit made of spring steel but MORE uncomfortable. Seriously. For those of you that don’t know, equipped lifting hurts. The phrase “fits like a glove” does not apply. Suits and shirts are not just form fitted, they are like an additional layer of skin. If they’re loose and comfy, they don’t work. They’re literally like you’ve been vacuum-sealed into a springy burlap sack, the material is coarse, and it’s not forgiving.
However, if the lifter is not experienced with gear, they likely won’t gain more than a few pounds on a lift, if they gain anything at all. It’s more likely that the novice equipped lifter will miss all of their lifts than pull off an incredible feat of strength. Lifting equipped is a specialized skill. Like throwing a curveball. If it’s your first time on the mound, there’s a better chance you’ll look like President Bush than Randy Johnson.
Which is More of a Sport?
This brings us an opportunity to answer 2 questions. Is raw lifting or equipped lifting more of a “sport?” Remember that I compete raw when you read this… Since nobody who is not lifting for sport is going to lift equipped more than once for a good Instagram video and because it is a specialized skill, equipped lifting is more of a sport. Raw lifting is something that is done for sports. Like running (which I hate). As much as it pains me to make that association, that’s the fact of the matter.
Is equipped lifting cheating? No. This is something puny, envious upper-bodybuilders whine about in the gym when they see someone stronger than them doing anything that might help build strength. They say the same thing about arching the back in a bench press. Sorry, that’s just good lifting technique. It’s part of what defines powerlifting as a sport, and it has nothing to do with your insecurities.
What’s best for you?
Now for the meat of the discussion. What’s best for you? Well, that’s not for me to decide. If you are considering going to the dark side, keep these things in mind. How many people does it take to put on a bench shirt? No, this is not the beginning to a bad joke. The answer is 3. One to wear it, and two to shimmy it down the lifters body. So if you don’t have at least a good pair of training partners, equipped probably isn’t a good idea. If you don’t like having your skin all chewed up, equipped might not be for you. If you don’t want to shell out a few hundred bucks for the gear, raw is your buddy. If you don’t want to learn a more specialized approach to training, keep going raw. There’s really only one reason to go equipped, and that is to lift the most weight!