This is another of those potentially boring articles based on reason, as opposed to passion. Beliefs concerning the superiority of one form of lifting over the other have been addressed by various authors. The idea that raw lifting is a return to the roots of the sport has been debunked, as historians of the sport and old time lifters have come forth with documented evidence about the use of many different devices that provided carry-over to the lifts. The thesis about the increased protection gear would offer to lifters was equally shown to be false.
In this article, we will address different situations in which lifting raw or equipped is a matter of health, more than choice.
- What does supportive gear actually do?
By supportive gear, we mean the knee wrap, the squat/deadlift suit and the bench shirt. We both believe the belt and the wrist wrap should be included in this class, as well. However, if we define, as we do, supportive gear as the personal items a lifter may use that will change kinesiological aspects of the lift because the forces incident and torques at certain joints are altered, then there is not enough evidence to claim the belt and the wrist wrap produce that. The result of such kinesiological changes is a carry-over (additional net strength output) that varies according to many variables (type of gear, lifter skill on equipment use, lifter bodyweight, etc).
The wrist wrap certainly provides stability on the bench press. If we consider that stability is a major influence over mechanic efficiency, then the wrist wrap may be indirectly considered a supportive gear.
Research into belt carry-over is inconclusive and mostly not done under competitive powerlifting context.
- The bench shirt
The bench shirt, or, rather, the many different types of bench shirt, provide a variable net carry-over that is actually the result of a much greater effect on the liftoff from the chest, on the transition from the eccentric to concentric phase, and minor advantage when the bar has crossed the sticking point.
In other words, the actual strength the lifter exerts to accomplish the lift is greater on the lockout.
Most younger benchers will choose to lift raw, equipped and what type of equipment according to their experience with (or without) it. Some simply like raw, others rationalize it as better or purer manifestations of strength. In the end, it boils down to how the lifter feels.
What if a lifter wants to lift raw, but, due to his biomechanical specificities and/or previous injuries, cannot choose that? Is there such a case?
And what about the opposite: a lifter likes gear, has a real chance to hit some significant number on geared benching but for health reasons raw is the safe choice? Does that exist?
Both cases are real and happening right now.
The first case happened an unknown number of times. Recently, though, we had the opportunity to follow the case of one specific male, tall lifter with long arms and a history of previous injuries taking place whenever he lifted raw. One of the previous injuries resulted in shoulder surgery. Having completely recovered from that surgery, the lifter prepared for his first meet, which he chose to do raw. There, he suffered an almost complete tear of the pectoralis major. He was turned down by two surgeons, who misdiagnosed the injury as a total tear at the muscle tendinous junction. He finally got one physician, who observed the tendon was still attached, to perform the surgery and is recovering well.
It is his opinion and ours, too, that his is a typical case in which equipment is not a matter of personal enjoyment anymore: it is equipped or nothing. Due to his long arms and wide bi-acromial distance, the stress involving the shoulder region during the lowest phase of the lift, particularly the end of the eccentric phase, is too much for his joints.
Would it be too much were he a young tall, long limbs, lifter? Possibly. But he is 60 years old and has been lifting for more than two decades. As athletes spend a long time competing, even if they are chronologically young, they accumulate the results of many years of healed (or chronified) injuries. As people age, athletes or not, their ability to recover decreases.
The other two cases are actually the opposite of the first: two lifters, one male and one female, short arms, years of equipped lifting at high performance level. The damage to the cartilage, on both cases, became critical. In the case of the female lifter, a series of critical elbow injuries made it worse. The last injury, an accident during a meet warmup, resulted in a more extensive cartilage damage. While the male lifter is chronologically younger (40 years old), he has been in the Iron Game much longer than the female lifter, at 52 years old.
The resulting option, for both, was similar: equipped lifting would mean a weight 40-60% heavier than their highest raw bench press. It requires training at supra-physiological weights for the injured joint year round. It is the only way to have good control of the equipment. Raw lifting allows them not only to remain competitive at very high levels, but to use a variety of training strategies that allows them to conduct their preparation “around” the injury.
- The knee wraps
Just like the elbows, and even more, knee cartilage will slowly undergo damage and erosion, whether the person is a lifter or not. Lifters usually “feel their knees” much later. We like to think that it is because we are healthier. Probably it just means that the mechanism protecting the bones from painful and inflammatory friction is deposition of fibroblasts in the damaged area in a more organized manner. If the joint is constantly recruited into a flexion-extension movement, fibroblasts will align themselves accordingly. The result is that the lifter will take a long time to, or not “feel his knees” ever.
Some lifters will, though. Usually they are older lifters – not only chronologically older, but athletically older, meaning they have competed for many years. During all those years, the accumulated damage finally may have manifested itself in the form of pain and discomfort. Since the knee wrap largely attenuates the forces incident over the knee joint structures, that lifter may be relieved from soreness by lifting geared.
There is a very large number of lifters in this category. One specific female lifter recently had a hard choice to make, illustrating our point: the meet was raw only, not allowing the use of knee wraps. Being over 60 years old and a high performance athlete (therefore, manipulating heavy weights), raw lifting causes her discomfort and pain. It may not be a choice involving what she likes best anymore, but that which will allow her to remain in the Game.
- The belt
The number of people advocating for beltless lifting is small, so that it is hardly an issue when discussing “raw X equipped”. But since we are at it, why not?
In spite of the fact that there is no published evidence documenting the carry-over effect of the powerlifting belt for the squat and the deadlift (more to the squat than the deadlift), it is a consensus among lifters that it does. This is the whole point of beltless maximal lifting being “interesting”: it is harder.
Much of the evidence is indirect, although there is evidence that the belt will allow for greater acceleration when lifting, which may indicate greater peak power output. (1) A belt can also increase intra-abdominal pressure and decrease recruitment of the lower back when lifting. (2) This is most noticeable at weights greater than 90% intensity. So by allowing an athlete to squat with a more vertical torso, there is less strain on the lower back and greater power production from the legs. A definite advantage for those who learn to properly use a belt.
However, are all lifters eligible for this? We think not. Although it is a good training practice to avoid the powerlifting belt in lower intensities so that the proper activation of core muscles becomes automated, at higher intensities it is safer to use the belt.
Again we highlight the case of older athletes – athletically and/or chronologically older. In their case, it would not be the best choice to lift without the assistance of a belt. There are always spinal issues and other joint issues that may be chronically or, worse, acutely affected by the lack of a belt.
- The wrist wraps
The wrist wraps do not provide carry-over, sensu stricto. It firmly stabilized the wrist against extension, flexion and lateral movements. It is critical on the bench press, where, under maximal and sub-maximal weights the wrists become unstable and tend to flex and extend involuntarily. Such instability and, worse, the forced extension some lifters allow due to their form, eventually may cause nerve impingement problems.
Most elbow nerve impingement problems originate on the wrist.
Therefore, the use of a wrist wrap should not be a question of taste: it is a protective equipment. Bench presses at high intensities will eventually be harmful to the wrist (and elbow) if the joint is unprotected from unnecessary movement.
We hope to have illustrated situations, in powerlifting, where the choice of equipment (or not using it) is a health choice, more than taste or ideology. People have health issues. Lifters grow old – athletically and chronologically. Both athletic and chronological aging result in irreversible conditions. Ironically, it is frequently at the age the lifter is at his technical prime.
Luckily, in powerlifting there is a choice. Older or chronically injured lifters may remain on the game lifting at the equipment class appropriate for their condition.
Sometimes a fresh look at a boringly repeated and politicized debate is productive. It deviates our look from a place of quarrel, intolerance and emotion to one where rational choices are on the table. We believe this is the case of equipment use in powerlifting according to the cases (highly prevalent) we presented.
- The effects of a weight belt on trunk and leg muscle activity and joint kinematics during the squat exercise. Zink AJ1, Whiting WC, Vincent WJ, McLaine AJ. J Strength Cond Res. 2001 May;15(2):235-40. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11710410
- The effectiveness of weight-belts during the squat exercise. Lander JE1, Simonton RL, Giacobbe JK. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1990 Feb;22(1):117-2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2304406
- The effectiveness of weight-belts during multiple repetitions of the squat exercise. Lander JE1, Hundley JR, Simonton RL. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1992 May;24(5):603-9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1533266