Powerlifting has 3 big debates – squat depth, drugs and supportive equipment. The last one is what I want to discuss today. What follows is a quick and dirty history around powerlifting equipment as I know it, and where it is today. It’s not meant to be comprehensive, but to give a better idea as to what it is, how it works and why it’s not “cheating”.
EDIT: 1,400 words later, and “quick and dirty” should read “tedious and boring”
Let’s start with an analogy before looking at equipment on a lift by lift basis… Imagine you’re at a race track. You want to learn how to drive a car around a track and there’s 2 dudes there. One’s a Touring Car driver, he’s got awesome skills in his saloon car, perhaps a bit rough and ready but he can get around the track a hell of a lot faster than most. The other guy’s an F1 driver. He’s a master of taking the absolute limits of technology and extracting ever last little drop of speed and power out of it.
Both guys , in either car, are going to kill it, they’ll be better than any average Joe off the street trying to do the same. But chances are, the F1 driver got where he is thanks to superior skill and a greater understanding of the dynamics of racing. The progression through the ranks tends to be the same, but due to an innate skill, facilities and the right people, the F1 driver ends up in the big leagues. The Touring Car driver will be fast in both, but the F1 driver will have the edge, one that only comes through pushing the absolute boundaries of performance.
Equipped powerlifting is Formula 1 (I guarantee that statement will pop up on a forum somewhere in the world and I’ll get lynched for it, but alas, you can’t please all the people all the time).
What originally started out as a safety mechanism, a means of injury prevention, rapidly escalated into the search for bigger and better equipment, and more efficient training systems to optimize their use. I better plough on before I get myself into more trouble… So here’s how it all comes together on the platform.
SQUAT SUITS & KNEE WRAPS
There’s two main pieces of supportive equipment used when you’re squatting – a squat suit, which looks like a wresting single but is made out of thick polyester or canvas. And knee wraps – 2m to 3m lengths of stretchy fabric made from a ton of different cotton blends (you could add squat briefs into the mix here too, but they’re effectively a squat suit without the straps, and are worn underneath a squat suit to provide additional support so I’ll say no more).
Ploughing on, the function of a squat suit is that it makes it really bloody hard to get down to below parallel, and the energy you store by stretching and manipulating the fabric and groove of the suit to do that is stored up on the eccentric, and gives you a big kick up the arse (pretty much literally) on the way up. Generally speaking, for all powerlifting equipment, tighter = better (or more weight at least, aka “carryover”). How tight is tight?? Well it takes me over 45 minutes to get into a new squat suit, and that’s with big strong men trying to cram me into it. A new bench shirt can turn your arms blue and hands numb. So when I say tight, I mean TIGHT.
Getting the most of out of these suits requires you to sit back and load them up, which is why box squatting is such a popular training method to increase your equipped squat. Maximizing carryover requires absolutely phenomenal upper back and core strength as the weights being used are so far in excess of what you could otherwise handle. I’ve had training cycles where I’ve only targeted thaose areas specifically and seen great improvements as result. Everyone has access to the same equipment, but the best guys are the ones spotting their weakness and making it stronger.
Knee wraps are fairly simple. You pull the “bandages” (as the old timers refer to them) as tight as possible, as many times as possible, around your knee. Different wraps have different properties, but generally they give you an additional “bounce” out of the bottom.
How much extra will all this give you?? Like the F1 driver above, it depends on your skill level. Sometimes as low as 20kg, sometimes as much as 150+kg if you’re REALLY good.
The original “blast” bench shirt pictured on the left was designed to protect lifters shoulders. Typically made of heavy duty poly and cut ever so slighty tighter than a normal t-shirt across the chest, it provided just enough support to save achy shoulders….
…and then the powerlifting equivalent of the arms race started. Material got thicker, the cut of the chest plate got smaller and numbers got bigger as training methods advanced.
While the training of equipped squatting at least resembles that of its raw cousin, equipped bench training is a completely different beast entirely. To the extent where your raw bench numbers can start to go down as the equipped numbers climb, purely because you’re specializing in totally different areas (chest and shoulders for a raw lifter, triceps and back for an equipped).
I genuinely consider the two almost different lifts entirely at this point. In numbers terms, what’ll equipment give you?? 5kg to 150kg+ for the really good guys. Shirted benching is one of the most technical things you’ll ever to in the gym (outside of maybe snatching). The tighter the shirt and thicker the material, the smaller and smaller the margin for error gets. If the bar doesn’t follow the most precise of paths (and it’s not a straight line) on the way down, it’s either going to go into free fall and crush your ribs or smash your face. The more skillful guys can handle tighter shirts and thicker material while still getting the largest usable amount of carryover out of them, like how an F1 driver extracts every last split second out of the technology he has.
And finally we come to deadlifting… There’s not much to say here really. Deadlift suits work pretty much the same way as squat suits, except there’s less potential to load them up because there’s no eccentric component at the beginning of the lift. As a result, the carryover is substantially less than either of the previous 2 lifts. Maybe 5-50kg. I should note, due to the dynamics of the lift and ability to load up more, guys who pull sumo style will typically get up towards the higher end of the spectrum.
One thing I’ve stayed away from, for the sake of brevity and because it would only confuse matters, are things like adjustable straps on squat suits, scoop neck and open back bench shirts, and the multiply/single ply thing. Suffice to say, start to add those things in and you get even more support, the lifting becomes even more technical, and the risk of absolutely smashing yourself becomes greater.
I hope you’ve a better understanding of what powerlifting equipment is, how it’s used and some of the variations in a training cycle that are necessary to maximize your carryover. As horrible as exploding bloody noses from the pressure build up in your head are while squatting, or burst blood vessels in your eyeball and face are when benching, it’s bloody good fun (ba-dum) and something anyone interested in competing should probably at least experience (and yes, both of those things have happened me).
I’ve MASSIVE amounts of respect for raw lifters. It’s not easy, it’s bloody hard work and I respect any man, woman or child who gets onto the platform. Any true lifter would say the same, but this article was about equipment, and generally speaking, the best guys in the world remain that way whether they lift equipped or raw.
…and finally let me give a shout out to all of my training partners through the years, and especially to Ger Smith. Without those guys, getting good at equipped lifting would not have been possible. Powerlifting is an individual sport, but without the backing of a team you’re not going to get anywhere.
If anyone wants to talk further about anything mentioned here, get some insight into the specifics of the training, or just call me a jerk, please leave a comment or get in touch.
Until next time, stay strong.