For whatever reason, I’ve recently seen a rise in my friends (on both sides of the sport) commenting on how equipped powerlifting isn’t real lifting, or conversely, raw lifters have no appreciation for equipped lifting.

Having been both a raw, and now, relatively new equipped lifter, I can confidently say: Guys! They are two essentially different sports and there is definitively a place in the sporting world for both of them. Yes, the core concepts are the same, but its the little details that make a big difference in each. Don’t get me wrong, I have a huge appreciation for both raw and equipped lifting but there are certainly concessions to be made from both communities.

The Merits of Equipped Powerlifting

To my raw lifting friends, I used to say, “I’ll never try equipped lifting.” or “Shirted bench seems insane to me, why would you put your life in jeopardy over a piece of canvas?”, but the truth of the matter is, equipped lifting is hard. Really hard. When I started, I used to think that training raw was tiring until I finished my first supra-maximal squat session. That shit is soul crushing. But it is also so damn fun. Blasting a huge equipped squat is about as satisfying as sinking a hole-in-one in golf or spiking the ball on an opponent in volleyball. I’m a bit of an anomaly in the equipped world, being that I train alone, so the handling and wrapping yourself bit is also something that took me by surprise. I never thought my forearms would actually be sore from wrapping my knees until I started equipped lifting. Maybe I’m a masochist, but I never thought I’d actually enjoy the pain and satisfaction of peeling off a skin tight squat suit and the bruising that comes with suit-bite until I started equipped lifting. Oh and before I started equipped lifting, I always wondered how all the single-ply lifters I knew stayed relatively injury free. Yeah, that’s because even with 120% of your raw max in your hands / on your back the equipment protects your joints. This is so much the case that “bulletproof” is a term I’d throw around pretty easily when wearing equipment.

Joe Cappellino at 2016 USA Powerlifting Open Nationals, bar weight is 460kg.

So, with all that being said, raw lifters: if you want to knock single-ply (or even multi-ply) consider that this is where powerlifting came from. Our origins are in equipped lifting. Secondly, the equipment adds multiple levels of complexity to training and competition. It’s very uncommon for somebody to just throw on a suit/shirt and 100-200lbs over their max on any lift and expect to instantly do well. It requires YEARS of training in some cases to learn the equipment and perfect the craft like anything else. And by ‘learn the equipment’, I really do mean just that. Equipped lifting is, unsurprisingly, largely about how you work in the equipment.

Natalie Hanson at 2016 USA Powerlifting Open Nationals, bar weight is 155kg.

One obvious, yet often overlooked, major difference from raw lifting to equipped is just how much benchpress matters in powerlifting. In equipped lifting, bench represents nearly a full third of your total or more depending on your particular strengths and weaknesses. It’s not uncommon for an exceptional bencher to bench more than their deadlift. This just isn’t the case in raw lifting even remotely (with James Strickland being a notable exception).

Finally, if you are a raw lifter feeling broken or beaten up, I’d recommend trying some equipment (even if all that means is knee wraps). If nothing else, it’s something to consider. The additional support may allow you to continue training pain free.

Raw Lifting is Helping to Grow Both Sides

To my equipped friends: I think the biggest concession to make here is that raw lifting is here to stay and, thanks to the popularity of CrossFit, has drawn a tremendous number of people into the sport. I’d also point out that, contrary to the beliefs of some, equipped lifting isn’t dying either. The best years are yet to come. With athletes like Blaine Sumner, Natalie Hanson, Ian Bell, and many others keeping the sport alive and pushing the envelope of what the human body is capable of, I think we’re in good hands. Going back to the point about how equipment truly protects the lifter in a lot of cases, I’d say that’s the biggest selling point (for me at least). Bottom line, handle our raw friends with kid gloves. We’re certainly not going to win them all over, nor should we try, but educating them tactfully on how a squat suit or a bench shirt doesn’t just lift itself is probably the best course of action.

Dave Ricks at the 2016 IPF World Championships, open world record squat of 310kg.

Equipped lifting isn’t better or worse than raw lifting, it’s just different. When people ask me what my raw numbers are at this point, I almost say, “I don’t really know (or care)” because those aren’t my goals and it’s pretty difficult to say exactly just how much carryover anbody gets from equipment. It’s not the same for every lifter. Also, it’s probably obvious that there is some crossover between the two, but if not trained for, I wouldn’t expect a full time equipped lifter to outperform a full time raw lifter in a raw competition just the same as in the reverse situation. Specificity is critical, i.e. train for what you want to be good at.