Strength sports have grown greatly in the last few years for a number of reasons. Social media followers readily flock to pages featuring unique hobbies with compelling visuals. And, love it or hate it, the popularity of Crossfit has taught masses to respect the barbell again, making it a gateway drug for other competitive avenues. Given a relatively low barrier to entry and an abundance of meets, it’s no surprise that Powerlifting has captured the lion’s share of these competitive converts.
Despite my frequent criticism, I don’t hate powerlifting. I’ve been working the Big 3 since I was 13. The smell of chalk, metal, and old rubber mats brings back a flood of nostalgia that is only rivaled by an episode of “I Love the 90’s”. I remember waking up early on a Saturday as a kid so I could watch an ESPN 2 recap of the Mountaineer Cup that featured Beau Moore and Brian Siders. This was the first time I felt a sense of awe about what the human body was capable of achieving. And it was the first thing that came along after high school football ended that gave me a reason to compete again.
See, competition is the root of all of this; the reason I train, coach, and criticize. I push all of my members towards it. Competitive preparation increases accountability, adds direction to training, demonstrates consistency... the list goes on. The ease of accessibility and low technical barrier of Powerlifting makes it a great introduction to competition for beginning lifters.
However, this same ease of accessibilty has led to a type of competitive inflation; participation in the sport is now a watered down experience, sapped of the value it had before. Standards are steadily dropping and it kills me to see so many meets with no meaningful competitive experiences to be found. For the sake of the athlete and the spectator, some shit needs to change.
Here’s a short list that I would immediately implement via Executive Order the day I become Overseer of the Earth.
1 - Stop Giving a Trophy to Everyone
The awards ceremony at a powerlifting meet is one of the most tedious and redundant things you will ever experience. Literally thousands of divisions are covered for a meet that may have had 200 lifters. This goes above and beyond the ‘participation trophies’ that birthed a generation of Millenials: these medals all say First Place!
Let’s look at the breakdown for all divisions in USPA:
-Raw, Classic Raw, Single Ply, and Multiply Divisions = 4 Divisions
-22 weight classes (12 for men, 10 for women) for each division = 88 Divisions
-Multiple age groups (4 junior, the open, and 9 masters) which apply to each of the above = 1,232 Divisions
-The option of Full Power, Bench Only, and Deadlift Only, which applies to each of the above = 3,696 Divisions
Newer and less serious lifters, the Instagram warriors, are surely more likely to return knowing that a shiny plastic trophy is all but guaranteed, but where is the value in that? The serious lifter who isn’t satisfied with pats on the back for bullshit efforts is left out in the cold, looking for some avenue of meaningful engagement. Any entity that struggles so hard to remove the aspect of competition from the activity not only does a disservice to those participating, but lowers itself from the classification of ‘sport’ to a mere spectacle.
What grates me is witnessing young lifters who spent months prepping, who bring out their friends and family, and leave it all out on the platform, only to realize they took gold in an entirely empty division. After watching a dozen young lifters stand on a podium, smiling awkwardly with no one to their left or right, it becomes apparent that maybe there is something wrong with the structure of the sport.
2 - Reduce the Number of Weight Classes
The silly number of weight classes is solely a business move. Strongman, regrettably, is making this same move, adding dozens of ‘sub-divisions’ to their LW-MW-HW divisions so nobody has to be pitted against anyone bigger or scarier. The reality looks like this:
lifters who advertise themselves as competition-oriented will actively avoid competition if they think they will not do well.
Those who are not novices will compete in novice divisions (you know who you fucking are). Wrapped squatters will suddenly don sleeves if a better lifter shows up on the roster. And if there is no easy lateral move to make, they will drop out all-together. From a business standpoint, the fix for this is simply more divisions.
And aside from the business standpoint, the obsession with weight classes is directly counter to what powerlifting is: a sport that favors more muscle mass. Instead of focusing on filling out their frame and adding raw base strength, newer lifter immediately think about how they can drop 3 classes to somehow game the system.
Strength favors size, just like marathons do not. Would anybody follow the Olympics if they were made to watch multiple 100 meter sprint trials for 12 different weight classes?? Throwing, running, swimming, jumping….. think of how many world champions are left undiscovered because these sports don’t seek to reward people who are not at an optimal weight for performance. Establishing the strongest man between 123lb and 132lb is like finding the fastest man between 275lb and 308lb: no one cares.
Anyways, at the upper competitive echelon, it’s more about leverages, neural efficiency, and insertion points than absolute body mass. Would anybody be in favor of divisions by height or limb length? Since size is a perceived advantage, why don’t we segregate lifters by strength, since that is the main advantage! I think I know the answer to that. So let’s accept that the point is to get a leg up on your opponent so we can stop obsessing about body weight.
3 - Stop Mixing Divisions in Flights
This is logistically necessary with the insane number classes there are and the resulting few people in each one, but damn is it confusing. My first USPA meet I took gold and was congratulated by the coach of another lifter in my division. “We were chasing you all day but you got it!”. I was flattered, but had no idea who the guy was. All day I lifted in a flight with the same lifters, and neither myself nor the crowd could have told you which lifters I was competing against. Between the guys in wraps or sleeves, the juniors and masters, the bench/dead only guys, and those just outside of my weight class, I said fuck it and focused on my attempts.
A reduction in the number of divisions would result in flights that are entirely composed of lifters competing directly against each other, not in parallel divisions. Or if you insist on the silly number of divisions, have competing lifters follow each other directly. This would greatly increase the competitive component for the lifters and make the crowd aware of what the hell is going on, which would mean a better experience for both.
4 - Make Sure Everyone Is Aware of What’s Going On
Meets are typically hosted by an MC, an attempt to make the most non-spectator friendly sport in the world slightly more palatable to the family members who got suckered in to spending their weekend watching 9 hours of the same 3 movements. It typically falls short, however, since the MC can’t be heard over the backdrop of music that persists the entire meet; too quiet to gas up the lifters but too loud to understand what the hell he’s saying. Think of the mumbling DJ at Showgirls as he lowers the volume to “Cherry Pie” just long enough to introduce Chastity, the future dental assistant with a heart of gold.
It should be a priority to make sure the crowd and athletes know what’s at stake with each lift. What’s the significance of each attempt? How does it change the standings? How far ahead or behind is each lifter? Create some goddamn drama! Leave the music in the lifter’s headphones, get an MC who can annunciate, and make sure the crowd knows that this is a competition.
5 - Bag the Bench Press
Benching is stupid. Fight me.
Bench Pressing is my best lift, so I’m not biased here. The fact is that there are no set of rules that can keep the bench press from being bastardized into some anthropomorphic atrocity that exploits leverages as opposed to measuring strength. The best at this (those like me, with long bendy torsos and short upper arms) are capable of reducing the motion of the bar down to several inches! This is a direct incentive for the rest of humanity to not compete in powerlifting, since your average gym enthusiast can’t relate to what in the hell that feat is actually supposed to measure. When a first time viewer hoping to witness a feat of strength is instead met with an over-arched, belly bounced bench, the reaction is never, “neat!”.
And oh, yeah. Benching is the most uninspired feat of strength ever constructed. Maybe it’s because watching the bar move through a short straight line engenders no sense of finesse or skill. Or maybe it’s because you can only see the tops of the lifter’s heads. I don’t know, it’s just boring as shit to watch.
The standing overhead press is, hands down, a more meaningful feat of upper body strength and, coming from years of strongman competitions, I can tell you is a great crowd pleaser. Substituting a Push Press or other overhead variation would also add an element of symmetry to the contest: 3 lifts done to test the whole body, each standing on your own two feet. It would bridge the gap between Powerlifting, Oly Lifting, and Strongman: all push, pull, and squat, but only Powerlifters bench. An overhead substitution would give a huge incentive for athletes to cross over from one sport to the other and may actually convince your grandparents in the crowd to stay awake until the deadlift.
6 - Get Some Consistent Judging
At our last meet, one of our lifters had what was the biggest female deadlift of the meet. It was turned down because she “lowered it to the ground too fast”. Mind you, no such rule governing speed of descent exists in that federation’s handbook. It just says the bar “must be lowered under control”. Way to leave no room for interpretation.
One judge red-lighted one of our girl’s benches. It went to her chest, paused until the press command was given, and was returned evenly to lockout where she waited for the rack command. What was the red light for? “Multiple things”, the judge said, smugly. I would’ve settled for one, dick.
Another judge responded to a separate inquiry with this gem: “What’s the difference between a ball and a strike? The umpire.” That should tell you everything you need to know.
This was our third year at this specific meet, and the third time petty calls began to leave a bad taste in our mouths. There’s a point where we all started to wonder why we were paying $100+ a pop every year to have 70 year old judges evaluate our lifts like we were competing in Interpretive Dance. This isn’t rocket science; wait for the commands, get depth on your squat, pause your bench, and don’t hitch your pull. Why anything else is being discussed in the Crossfit Level 1….. err….. I mean USPA Weekend Coaching Certification… is beyond me.
7 - Stop With the Silly Rules
Seriously, I don’t know who decided that this much time should be dedicated to sock length and underwear selection, but they need to find a new fucking hobby. I watched a record get turned down because the lifter was wearing boxer briefs. I personally got shit because my deadlift socks were touching my sleeves. When I folded them down, I was given a warning again because they ‘must be scrunched, not folded’. The suspension I just hit didn’t like that.
Endless pages are dedicated to the exact length and thickness of knee sleeves and lifting belts. Can anyone tell me why Yellowjackets are banned but SBDs are not? The list of ‘approved equipment’ looks like little more than a tool to blackmail equipment manufacturers into paying out to get their goods on that list.
All this crap seems like nothing more than a petty bid to legitimize a 3 lift exhibition as a real sport. I guess that they feel by increasing mindless bureaucratic bullshit people will take it more seriously. In the meantime, the consumer….. I mean lifter….. is beginning to weigh travel and meet expenses against the desire to be subject to this nonsense.
8 - Get Rid of the Singlet
The only good argument for a singlet is that it makes it marginally easier to gauge squat depth than if the lifter came out in basketball shorts and a baggy T-shirt. The Hardcore Powerlifting Fed a few years back allowed lifters to wear a tucked in t-shirt and shorts of a reasonable size. Coincidentally, they also had limited weight classes, card girls holding each attempt in big black letters, showmanship in the form of a competent announcer, and prize money. They didn’t appear to have any issues. In fact, they featured a 700lb bench from Eric Spoto, Benny Magnussons’s 1015 deadlift, and appearances from monsters like Robert Wilkerson and Henry Thomason. This was a competition.
I know how much these new hipster lifters like playing dress up (see the abundance of superhero or kitten themed singlets), but singlets are annoying and unnecessary, and unnecessary things deserve to be mocked.
9 - ‘Classic’ Raw Isn’t a Thing
I wrote a lot about shrinking divisions, and the stuck-up ‘Raw’ category is the first one that needs to go. Wraps have been around since powerlifting has been a thing, and only in the last few years have lifters become so entitled as to think their lifting preferences should be reflected in an entirely separate division. This is so ass backwards; set the rules and make the lifters rise to the occasion. If you don’t like wraps, fine, wear your sleeves that do the exact same thing(just worse) and accept that you gave up weight on the bar to your competition.
It might make sense if Raw lifters were made to come out in a loin cloth and string-toed sandals and squat like the Greeks did, but between lifting shoes, knee sleeves, wrist wraps, and a lifting belt, Raw lifters are still pretty goddamn equipped. Make one set of rules and let the lifters figure it out.
10 - Get Rid of Sumo
YES. GIVE ME YOUR TEARS.
Sumo is synonymous with annoying deadlift setups, and this is the biggest sin of all. Twisting the feet into the ground like you’re opening a jar of peanut butter with your feet. Shoving the arms out in front of you like a zombie. Repeatedly taking loud obnoxious breaths like Tina Belcher during a panic attack. It all begs for validation for a subpar lift, as if extraneous technical crap is what ends up on the score card. It pleads for attention. It’s pointless. And it's fucking annoying.
Funny how the biggest deadlifts in the world take place at the Deadlift World Championships every year: every lift done conventional and every one done without this pretentious theater.
I really want to just say ‘sumo is gay’ and leave it at that, but there is actually a concrete reason why I want to see this banned. Simply put, it is a different lift than a conventional pull, the way a decline bench is different than flat.
Bending over at the waist to pick something off of the ground is a unique (and, dare I say, sacred) test of lower body strength. When a lifter with a special set of leverages is allowed to take their feet out as wide as they please, modeling a knee and hip angle that represents an above-the-knee rack pull for the rest of Creation, the crowd is exposed to something different. This is similar to the exploitation that goes on with bench pressing: super high arches and a bar path that finishes at the navel allows for something completely different than the original lift was intended to be.
My criticism is based on an assumption that powerlifting should contest feats of strength, not feats of leverage. There is a point where you can’t regulate leverage advantages (like with Vince Anello or Lamar Gant); some people will always have the magic proportions no matter what the rules. But some steps should be taken to limit an opportunist from exploiting it further so the crowd isn’t left thinking, “What the fuck did I just watch?”.
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