Raw versus equipped: the bloody war of the millennium


Did you like the title? If you are reading this line, either you liked it, hated it or you have no idea what this is all about but since it talks about blood and the millennium, you figured it could be fun.

There’s a smaller chance that you share my sense of humor and suspected it was nonsensical.

It is.

If you are not a powerlifter, here is a quick introduction to the subject: powelifting is a non-olympic weight lifting sport. It is a game in which the athlete who lifts the heaviest weight in his or her bodyweight, gender and age category wins. There are three disciplines (lifts) that must be executed in consecutive rounds (full power) or as single-lift events: the squat, the bench press and the deadlift. All the lifts involve an Olympic bar loaded with standardized disks.

As with many other sports, personal equipments were gradually introduced for training and competition. There are lifting belts, special shoes and elastic bands that are wrapped around the wrist and the knee joint (wrist and knee wraps). Finally there is “support gear”: bench shirts, squat and deadlift suits, support briefs and erector shirts.

As technology for manufacturing support gear evolved, a great variety of these appeared in the market. If originally they were (allegedly) developed for the protection of joints, these highly techonological support gear items are designed today to provide the highest carry-over (additional weight lifting strength).

Additional layers of fabric were added and, to comply with the rules of federations that did not allow more than one ply, special materials were developed that would provide the highest possible carry-over with only one layer (as the manufacturer claims, “multi-ply power with a single ply gear”).

The controversy over if this is good or evil started early. These moral claims are very boring to some of us, but, believe me (if you are not familiar with this), arguments more often than not become heated, get out of control, degenerate into insults and lead nowhere.

It gets better: not satisfied with bickering over the moral status of equipment or its use, people started arguing if different gear items were intrinsically good or evil. So, in this new and hardly logical form of argument, single ply would be good – multi-ply, evil.

Zealots of non-equipped lifting argued that theirs would be the expression of “pure strength”. Which makes me wonder what equipped lifting would be classified as. “Impure”? “Dirty”?

Other expressions are “real strength” (and the other would be what, “unreal”? “False”? “Imaginary”?), “human strength” (and the other?…), etc.

So powerlifting was divided into these two forms of relationship with gear: with and without. Unequipped lifting became known as “raw” powerlifting. Surprisingly, the other is not cooked or baked. Equipped powerlifting is not known as such because the further bickering between the adepts of single, double and multi-ply gear created a much more complex system of classification.

Let’s go into the arguments. Those who defend that unequipped lifting is the best or, worse than that, the only “true” form of powerlifting, claim that the carry-over provided by gear results in a false expression of human strength. As much as I try to be sympathetic towards all, and neutral in the conflict, I fail to understand this. “False”? In which sense? Gear is not invisible. Everybody knows the lift was done by an athlete who was using gear. The weight is entered into results sheets as such. Physiologically, the strength exerted by the athlete inside the gear was as real as the strength he or she would exert if naked. More weight is lifted by a geared versus a non-geared athlete, the same athlete, because the gear allows certain mechanical critical limits to be pushed. The geared movement is completely different from the unequipped movement for the same lift. Since each gear item affects different joint limitations, the tension curve along the whole lift is altered.

Does that make it anything except “different”? I don’t see how.

Then a second discussion emerged concerning non-equipped lifting. How raw is raw? Is a lift to be considered raw only if executed with nothing else except underwear? Or a bathing suit? They didn’t think so. A non-supportive lifting suit and t-shirt? That sounded good. But wait, what about “safety equipment”? That sounded good, too. So lifting belts and wrist wraps were admitted by most “raw” powerlifting meet organizers. At some point somebody asked: “what about knee wraps? They are as much safety equipment as wrist wraps. Both are made of the same material and are wrapped around a vulnerable joint”. Some reacted strongly to this: “this is NOT real raw! Knee wraps provide huge carry-over!” So there is “raw with wraps” (knee wraps) and “raw with no wraps”. They needed a shorter name, so they became “classic raw” (no wraps) and “modern raw” (with wraps). Adepts of each bicker against each other just like previously unequipped lifting adepts reacted against equipped lifting adepts.

Both attack equipped lifting not only for the illogical reasons listed above (the pureness argument) but also because “gear is easy”. That’s not true: it takes years to master the technique needed for proper use of gear and to take the highest carry-over from it.

Let’s take a look at the equipped lifting defenders. They obviously developed a set of arguments to justify the superiority of their choice. They found a pretty noble one: safety. Gear would protect vulnerable joints. Therefore, it would be the only reasonable form of powerlifting, the one that doesn’t expose vulnerable human beings to injury and allows for an improved athletic longevity.

This is actually not very true: geared lifting makes it possible to lift much heavier loads and produces injuries in unprotected joints that would not be as taxed if the lift were unequipped. One example is the elbow during geared bench press.

Another interesting argument is that it brings money into the sport. What money? Name one powerlifter who became rich through powerlifting. Just one. Right: there isn’t any. Whatever meager sponsorship excellent athletes receive will only minimize their expenses with the sport.

Finally, there is the argument that gear makes powerlifting “more attractive” and would be the only way to make it popular. Let’s face it: this is simply wishful thinking. Gear has been around for decades, yet the public that comes to watch powerlifting meets remains the same: ridiculously small. The reason for this is that except for us, who love and understand its complexity, powerlifting is boring. Lay people don’t have the necessary tools to appreciate relative strength, to understand the difference between loads or the magnitude of a given attempt.

From lifts done by a totally naked lifter (in his or her garage gym, of course) to those done with a three ply canvas leviathan suit plus 2.5m knee wraps plus support briefs, everything is powerlifting. All the possible combinations of gear use from one to the other extreme are legitimate forms of executing this incredible, fascinating and complex art known as powerlifting.

A few years ago I wrote an article about the importance of raw powerlifting to developing countries, given the high costs of purchasing equipment, which is only manufactured in certain industrialized countries. Raw zealots were very angry with me, accusing me of diminishing their “true form” of powerlifting by associating it with the higher accessibility to poor lifters from peripheral countries.

So get angry with me again: I’ve been a raw lifter for two years already. I hold many world records in the open division in different federations (“classic” and “modern” raw: I don’t care, I just follow the rules). I also hold one historical all time record in the “modern” raw squat. When asked why I don’t lift equipped, I reply that the practical answer is that I trained alone until very recently and I still don’t have a team big enough to even consider training equipped. I am sure I will be accused of diminishing raw lifting by associating its practice with the lack of structure for equipped lifting.

Guess what? I LOVE IT. If given the chance to lift equipped again, I don’t think I would right now. I have too many things to learn unequipped, to improve, records to break and technical information to produce about it.

Will I ever get back to equipment? I don’t know. I might. I still keep my Super Duper Phenom. It is historical: the first really small SDP produced by Inzer. I love it.

I love powerlifting, in all its expressions. I respect them all. There is nothing wrong with the sport or with any of its manifestations.

The only problem with powerlifting are the powerlifters (and their leaders and organizations) who insist in their petty politics and power games. This bickering about equipped versus unequipped, single versus multi-ply and all the other arguments in this class of dispute are nothing but power games.

If you like powerlifting, just lift. Any way you want or can. Any way that makes you feel good. It will never bring you money. It will never give you fame or visibility except among a minuscule community of other lifters. So, why bother satisfying anyone else but yourself?


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