The Reason I Left Powerlifting

By Mary Douglass
January 28, 2007

My enthusiasm for powerlifting was dampened in 2005 at German Nationals, in my third year of competitive powerlifting, after I had to give up second place to a girl whom I could out-deadlift by 70 lbs as a raw lifter. I had so far believed powerlifting to be all about strength and technique. Even though the girl who beat me in that meet was far stronger on the bench press than I was, we were about equally strong in the (raw) squat, and my deadlift would have more than made up for the difference on the bench. So assuming both she and I had a good day, I would have ended up with the higher total in a raw competition. Unfortunately there were no raw competitions in Germany at that time, so the outcome of a raw competition can only be surmised based on raw personal records done in training.

So how was this girl able to beat me on the total, even though I had a really good day and set PR’s in the squat and deadlift? I can definitely say that it wasn’t due to her superior lifting technique (which I was able to observe both live and later on the documentary video). Rather, she had mastered the “art of getting the most out of the lifting equipment”, as supporters of equipped lifting like to phrase it.

Some will offer the argument that you can’t place a squat suit under the rack and make it squat all by itself. This is often offered as a logical proof that it is indeed the lifter who is lifting the weight with his own strength, no matter what he is wearing, and very much in spite of the fact that he can’t walk up three steps in his suit and knee wraps to get onto the lifting platform.

Another popular argument is: “Other sports have equipment, too”. However, powerlifters have to allow the question of why other sports that involve the use of equipment have made it to the status of Olympic sports, and powerlifting hasn’t. I read in the (now discontinued) science-based “Pure Power Magazine” that this is because powerlifting equipment offers a mechanical advantage to the lifter, which is unacceptable to the International Olympic Committee.

Notwithstanding all the skill that is said to be required for the use of powerlifting equipment, I squatted 45 lbs more than my raw personal record during the second training session wearing a (cheap and oversized) squat suit. When I got a new bench shirt, I was able to add 20 lbs to my bench press after a few workouts in the shirt. This kind of near instant increase does not make me an exception by any means; it is the average added poundage that most people can expect. I didn’t need to develop any new skills to enjoy these gains.

There is also a correlation between this added poundage and the size of the equipment worn, since the rebound qualities of the equipment’s stiff material are intensified as the lifter squeezes him-/herself into increasingly smaller suit and bench shirt sizes (usually with the assistance of at least one, but often two or three helpers). I paid for this performance boost not only with hundreds of dollars, but also with bruises and skin abrasions where the equipment material cut into my skin. I (as well as numerous other lifters I have seen) have permanent scars in the armpit area from wearing a bench shirt, even though I did not even go down to the recommended size for my body weight, but stayed first two, and later one size above that size.

After the disappointing third place at the 2005 German Championships, I came to two realizations:

  1. If I had spent more money on smaller (i.e. tighter) suits and shirts, and if I had been willing to endure even more extreme bruises and skin cuts, I could (most likely) have exceeded my raw strength even further and beaten the second-placed girl who had worked harder than me to “master the art of getting the most out of the lifting equipment”.
  2. My hope/notion that the stronger raw lifter would get the better place in competition in spite of powerlifting equipment had proven to be wrong, which also meant that my desired training approach of mostly striving to improve my raw numbers and raw lifting technique (while ignoring the existence of powerlifting equipment until a few weeks before a meet) would not earn me the kind of recognition (place) in powerlifting that I felt I deserved based on my strength, in spite of the fact that powerlifting is supposed to be a strength sport.

These realizations diametrically clashed with my idea of who I wanted to be as an athlete, and how I wanted to train. I did not want to deal with more skin and tissue injuries from even smaller equipment, and I had no intention of wrapping my arms and legs into trash bags (like the girl who beat me) so that I could be squeezed into even smaller suits and shirts. Furthermore, I had no interest in focusing my training on the use of powerlifting equipment and the training paraphernalia which have blossomed along with its invention (e.g. boards, bands and chains), because this training approach did not help me improve my raw numbers (which I perceive as most reliable proof of “true strength”).

In an attempt to reconcile my feelings about equipment with the real (powerlifting) world, I spent a year trying out competing unequipped in equipped meets, which are the only ones available in Germany if you’re looking for anything as high or higher than state level. Though I enjoyed the absence of the equipment stress, I could not help asking myself why I was still spending time and money on “competing”, when it was clear that I was now only lifting for myself. All that was left for me was to set PR’s in an unfortunately non-existent raw division, as I stood no chance of beating equipped lifters without adding the 150+ lbs to my total which I would only be able to do with equipment. Curiously enough, I was also asked by some fellow lifters why I was going for a “bad” (i.e. unequipped) instead of a “good” (i.e. equipped) competition result.

Because my competitive powerlifting career taught me the disappointing lesson that the lifter’s strength and technique, which I had originally imagined to be so pivotal to an athlete’s success in powerlifting, may not be as important as the strength of the equipment fabric and the technique of putting it on, I decided to learn a new sport at age 29 and took up weightlifting in the summer of 2006. Now, just half a year later, I can already say that it’s the best decision I ever made.

When I started weightlifting, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to compete, but actually I started competing after only three months. To me, weightlifting training is more challenging than powerlifting training, and I enjoy having to concentrate so hard on my technique. And there’s one more thing I love about weightlifting: In weightlifting, a physically weaker lifter can beat a stronger lifter, but it will be due to superior lifting technique instead of a superior piece of equipment fabric!

This is the true reason why I left powerlifting.

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