Use of Equipment in Powerlifting
Copyright, L.J. Maile, Ph.D.
Thanks to Peter Thorne, Inzer Advance Designs and Pete Alaniz, Titan Support Systems for suggestions and manufacturer recommendations on use of their companies' products, and to Alex Galant for input on content.
Powerlifting competition is becoming increasingly technical, and one of the primary factors in this is the use of equipment designed specifically for the powerlifts. The development of equipment technology parallels that seen in other sports. Just as pole-vaulters have transitioned from bamboo poles, to aluminum, to composite poles, powerlifters have gone from no special equipment to the use of well-designed costumes that both decrease the possibility of injury and increase the amount of weight the lifter can use. Equipment development has included the use of ace bandages from medicine, tight t-shirts, and a variety of different materials, such as polyester weaves, denim, canvas, and even Kevlar (TM). While different powerlifting organizations' equipment rules vary, the aims are the same: to safeguard the lifter as he or she performs heavier and heavier lifts.
International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) standards and USA Powerlifting (USAPL) rules define acceptable lifting suits as being made of a single layer of polyester, with seams for construction and strength. Wrist and knee wraps are of defined material and length. Shirts are defined both by material type and construction. Lifters are now required to wear some type of shoe that is designed for athletic competition. Equipment used in those events which are organized under IPF Technical Rules must use not only equipment that meets IPF specifications, technically, but lifters must use gear from manufacturers that have paid registration fees to the IPF and items used must be on the approved list. This is available at: http://www.powerlifting-ipf.com/. (Please click on the "approved list" tab in the contents).
There is a great deal of confusion as to the most effective ways to employ powerlifting equipment, its care, and how find the best fit. The suggestions below may assist in these matters.
What does equipment do:
There has been a great deal of discussion as to both the value of powerlifting equipment and its effects. Perhaps it is worth looking at both of those issues briefly.
The first, and probably, foremost effect of use of properly fitting equipment is that you can handle more weight. There are probably several reasons for this. A tight suit, or shirt will ease your descent with the weight, and will rebound you upward in the squat and bench press. While you don't descend with weight in the deadlift, you will still get assistance in standing erect if you descend in control and start quickly enough. There seems to be a natural rebound period for gear that is similar to that of muscle and connective tissue. That is, if you descend quickly, the suit will augment the natural reflexes of you body in stretching and rebounding.
Some lifters gain a larger advantage through use of gear. I have discussed this with a number of Eastern European champions. It is interesting that when comparing their raw strength with that of our champions, we are comparable. Some of our lifters exceed them in unequipped strength, but lift significantly less than they do in gear. In short, we don't adequately utilize our equipment. Despite the fact that we have both better access to equipment manufactures and have the resources to both replace or alter our gear, we are often lose out when compared to our less fortunate competitors on the platform. So what's their secret? --If you can get it on it fits! Eastern European lifters wear much tighter gear than we do, in terms of suits, shirts, and knee wraps. It often takes two, or sometimes three coaches to get a Russian lifter into his or her suit. Two coaches are required to wrap a lifter. If a suit is not tight enough as it comes from the factory, it is very common to see it modified by the lifter until it is. Many suits, and bench shirts seen in international competition have multiple alterations. The suits and shirts are tightened as they loosen up, and as the lifter loses size dieting.
In addition to the Eastern Europeans, the Japanese teams are famous for how well fitted and well altered their equipment is, especially bench press shirts. Japanese equipment is often hand-altered and sewn at a competition with the equipment then resubmitted to the referees for approval.
Equipment can also be used to compensate for natural weaknesses in technique and in specific areas of the lift. For example, if a lifter has a natural tendency to bend forward at the waist when squatting, a properly fitting suit can lock him/her into a more straight position. A shorter back panel and tighter shoulder lock-in will assist with this. If a lifter is weaker in the hips a shorter torso or tighter hips on the suit may help.
If he or she is weaker in one portion of the bench press, this can be compensated for by adjusting the angle of the sleeves relative to the plane of the body. A lifter with less shoulder strength will benefit from arms that are more parallel to the floor when held out. Weaker triceps can be compensated for by adjusting the sleeves closer in to the body.
Different types of gear are designed with different principles in mind. Some suits are to help more in the bottom of a squat, while others provide stretch and rebound qualities that are more linear. The very stiff suit designs tend to provide the best support near the maximum stretch point, but less (as they are relatively looser) at the start and end of the lift. These pieces of equipment maximize the body's rebound, but may provide little rebound on their own. These suits and shirts tend to increase the possibility that the lifter will make form errors. They may bounce the lifter "out of the groove" so they may be better suited for the experienced lifter. They also require more practice to get used to. The suit that is both tighter and provides more stretch begins to stretch from the point of initiation of the lift. While there is less possibility that the lifter will get thrown out of his or her position, they may not provide the same degree of support at the most difficult point of the lift. Some lifters favor different stretch properties depending on the speed with which they execute lifts. No clear consensus seems to exist as to which one is better for which general style. However, t is clear that tighter, and better fitting equipment would benefit most lifters.
One consideration that exists among elite U.S. and foreign lifters is that most equipment in its original configuration has a finite useful life beyond which either new gear is necessary or modifications must be made to return maximum performance characteristics to the gear. In the U.S., we have equipment manufacturers who will work with lifters to modify their gear. For modest fees, you can send your gear back to the factory and have it adjusted, or you can order it with variances from "stock" the first time. You may also experiment with your own modifications. Several considerations must be kept in mind:
1. Any modifications must be on the original seams of the suit or shirt;
Purchasing gear: Manufacturer's contact numbers:
2. Pleats (the part that sticks out when you tighten a seam) may not be sewn down. It may be either inside or outside, but must be a loose flap;
3. Modifications to one part of the suit may compromise its original design strengths. If you use a suit with a harness system, you may weaken the harness. If you use a suit that works on the principle of continuous stretch, you may make "flat spots" in it's stretch properties.
4. Seams may be reinforced after modifications, but the reinforcements may not exceed IPF specifications, i.e. seams must not exceed 3 cm, be more than 3 layers, or differ from the original design;
5. Strengthening one part of a piece of equipment may make it more prone to failure somewhere else. It is not uncommon to "blow" the neck of a modified shirt. The neck seam may have to be reinforced as well. The neck seams of the two most popular shirts are already three layers thick, so your options are limited.
6. Care must be taken to have seams done in such a way as not to damage the integrity of the material. Many foreign lifters hand sew their modifications because a machine may cut threads and make the suit likely to blow. A ball point needle will help with this, but they require a heavier sewing machine to be able to pierce the material.
7. Finally, modification of the equipment on your own will probably void the manufacturer's guarantee. If you "explode" the suit or shirt, the next one is on you.
First things first: You may reach the U.S. equipment manufacturers at the following numbers:
Crain's Muscle World: (800) 272-0051
Inzer Advance Designs: (800) 222-6897
Titan Support Systems: (800) 627-3145
All will assist you in selecting the appropriate size and type of gear.
Purchasing gear II: Selecting your first suit and shirt:
Most manufacturers have entry level suits, shirts and wraps. You can expect to pay in the area of $50 for a suit, $20 for a pair of wraps, and $40 - 50 for shirt. The entry level gear, while having a lower performance profile, is more comfortable and last longer than the higher performance equipment. Your first gear should last long enough acquaint you with the necessary form modifications you will need to make, and will provide you significant protection from injury. You may be able to use it for several meets, or you may want to upgrade sooner. One approach that will save you money is to use your equipment for one meet and then modify it for the next meet. You can then upgrade for your third competition. This is the approach I follow with my lifters who are just beginning. More advanced competitors go through several pieces of equipment per cycle and many alterations.
Make no mistake. The better gear, and the better it fits, the better you will be able to perform. If you continue to wear you equipment after it gets "tired" you will be at a significant disadvantage.
IPF rules are very specific about the equipment you can use. Manufacturers are licensed to provide gear that may be used on an IPF platform. However, they also make more "heavy duty" equipment that is not approved for IPF and USAPL competition. If you think you may compete in a competition under USAPL and IPF rules, it is to your advantage to remain consistent in that type of equipment. Changing to suits, shirts, etc. that provide more support will only decrease your performance at some point as you switch back and forth between the different types of equipment approved by various federations.
How much will it cost?
When compared to other sports, such as hockey, powerlifting equipment, even at the most elite levels is not very expensive. Whereas you can spend $1000 annually for hockey skates, pads, etc., you can get by for significantly less than that. Among Alaska Iron Maidens team members the most particular lifters go through up to 20 suits and shirts, together, each year. But most get by with two suits and shirts per year, plus another $100 to $150 for modifications. That is less than $500 if you buy carefully. Significant, but not prohibitive if you budget for it.
"Hand me down down" gear:
Can you use "hand me down gear?" Certainly, especially at the beginning, but one of the most significant mistakes that lifters make, in my opinion, is to share gear back and forth. Unless you are built exactly like each other, one of you will suffer when the gear accomodates to a specific body shape. But for new lifters, a tight fit is not essential. Rather, they should gain experience in equipment, and pass downs are a good way to do this. There is one caution, though: Never, never try a new (to you) piece of equipment at the competition, or even just before the competition. While it may seem that more support is better, the cost in terms of form problems may actually decrease your performance. You might even bomb. Get used to your equipment so that you're wearing it and it's not wearing you.
Care of Gear:
All of the U.S. manufacturers recommend regular laundering of equipment. Mild soap will remove the perspiration and body oil. If this is not done, you shorten the lift of the equipment. Washing gear also makes it return to close to it's original size and shape. Most lifters wash and machine dry suits and shirts prior to competition to "tighten" it. This should not be considered a substitute for altering the size or repurchasing when you get smaller (or larger) or the equipment stretches. You should also consider that equipment checked in for use in competition must be clean, at least reasonable so. You may have your gear rejected if it is dirty or stained even if it meets the other criteria.
Care of knee wraps is somewhat different than that for suits and shirts, for at least two reasons. First, a wrap does not contact body areas that sweat as heavily, so don't need to be cleaned as frequently; and, wraps contain elastic material that will deteriorate with repeated washing. So, it is not recommended that you wash wraps as frequently as your other equipment, but only as necessary to keep it sanitary and to allow it to be approved in equipment check. Finally, wraps should be stored loosely folded or wrapped. If stretched for extended periods of time, they will remain longer than originally designed. If the length exceeds that allowed in the rules, i.e. 2 meters, you will have to cut them to have them approved.
How often and when to use equipment:
Polling lifters and coaches suggest that there are different approaches to this. Most U.S. lifters phase gradually into their equipment, going from looser to tighter during the cycle for a given meet. Eastern Europeans train in gear year 'round. There are benefits to both systems. On the one hand, if you are an experienced lifter, training without equipment will allow you to build your raw strength. If you are not, however, you must not only adjust to heavier weight during the cycle, but you will have to make form adjustments. Veteran lifters are used to this, while the novice may not be, and the result may be a "broken cycle." The down side of continuous use of gear may be that your body will tire of handling heavier weights constantly; you may be more prone to injury or overtraining as a result.
There are two compromises for lifters:
1. Use loose equipment for at least one set for squat, bench, deadlift in the off season. That way, you get the opportunity to practice the form necessary in gear year round. It remains fresh and you perform naturally when the cycle starts.
2. Use no equipment during the foundation training cycle (except for wraps and belts), use loose equipment during the pre-meet cycle, use medium tight to tight equipment during the first 4-8 weeks of the peaking cycle, and tight/very tight equipment the last 4-6 weeks.
Equipment has become a vital and integral part of success on the platform. To have optimum success as a competitor you need to keep your equipment in god shape and, even more important, make sure it has the best fit possible. Looking at other, major sports shows that the best athletes use equipment to their best advantage. There is a lesson to be learned watching them.