The following article is an excerpt from my upcoming first book Practical Powerlifting.
Powerlifting stems from weightlifting; weightlifting as a sport stemmed from old strongmen who would perform a mix of lifting feats in front of crowds which over time began to become formalised and morphed into a competitive sport. Weightlifting as a sport first appeared in the Olympics in 1896. The first male weightlifting world champion was crowned 5 years prior to this in 1891. Weightlifting currently consists of two competitive lifts namely the snatch and the clean and jerk. Before this there were three competitive lifts that were included in Olympic competition the third event was the clean and press, this was removed from competition in 1972 due to difficulties in judging the technique being used and some concerns over the safety of the athletes.*
In weightlifting competitions, it wasn’t uncommon for the inclusion of what was known as the odd lifts which included the likes of the squat, deadlift, bench press, one arm snatch and a whole host of other feats of strength. During the 1950s and 1960s, the popularity of bodybuilding and the strength lifts used in its training (Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift) started to become more popular in countries such as Australia, Great Britain and the United States of America. In Great Britain there was a competition series known as the Strength Series which consisted of Curl, Bench Press and The Squat these competitions started in the 1950s.**
In America, the first unofficial nationals were held in 1964, Australia following suit holding their first national championships in 1965 and Great Britain had their first national powerlifting competition in 1966. The first international powerlifting meets were held between France and Great Britain in 1968 and 1969. In 1970 8 British lifters travelled to the United States of America for their first international competition between the two countries. This lead to Bob Hoffman of the York Barbell company financing and hosting the first world powerlifting championships in 1971 where the only lifters to take part where again lifters from the UK and the USA.**
This 1972 world championships which were held in America again (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania) however with more international competitors still hugely dominated by American lifters out of the 80 participants, 55 were American. At the end of the 1972 world championship delegates from all the countries involved met to found an organisation to formalise and look after powerlifting on the international stage. The organisation they founded was the international powerlifting federation which would later become known as the IPF. The IPF held their first world championships in 1973 which were held again in Harrisburg.**
The first ever female world championships were held in 1980 in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA. Drug testing was first introduced into the sport in the 1982 world Championship which was held in Berlin. This introduction would ultimately start some of the splinterings that would go on to define the sport in later decades into the modern form we know today.**
During the 1980s a number of new powerlifting federations began to pop up with the most notable being world drug-free Powerlifting Federation (WDFPF), world Powerlifting Congress (WPC) and the World Powerlifting Organisation (WPO). This split in federations would also lead to a diversification in the rules and categories allowed in powerlifting. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, equipment manufacturers such as Titan or Inzer began to produce supportive lifting singlets. These singlets eventually morphed into the squat and deadlift suits that are widely available today. The first bench shirt was brought to the market in 1983 when John Inzer (founder of Inzer Advanced Designs) started to produce tight polyester shirts designed to support the delts and chest of the wearer. The original claims were that they reduced the chance of injury but also helped the lifter get the bar off their chest.***
The use of knee wraps, squat suits, bench shirts and deadlift suits were commonplace in pretty much all powerlifting competition until the arrival of the “Raw” category. The first every “Raw” competition was held by the Aperture Athletic Union in America in 1994 where only the use of a weightlifting belt was permitted. The split in equipped lifting and unequipped lifting would continue to develop throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s where some federations would offer Raw or Unequipped championships. The first international “Raw” championship was hosted in 2008 by RUM (Raw Unity Meet) and invitational event designed to allow all the best-unsupported lifters to compete in an international competition. The ground swell in unequipped lifting at national level lead to the IPF finally holding their first ever international raw competition in 2012 known as the International Classic World Cup. This would later be known as the Classic world championships.****
In parallel to what was happening in the raw/classic divisions of the sports advances in the equipment were being made by equipment manufactures creating more complex and supportive squat suits, deadlift suits and bench shirts. The IPF eventually went on to adopt only single ply materials for their supportive equipment this means they are only allowed to have 1 layer of fabric. Other federations began to adopt what was known as multi-ply equipment these come in double ply, multi ply or unlimited equipment where lifters can use briefs, denim fabrics and whatever is available to them.
Federations such as the Southern Powerlifting Federation in the United States where pretty much a free for all when it came to drug use and equipment. These federations were seen as the preserve of the elite lifters in the United States during the late 1990s and early 2000s.
During the early stages if the internet websites like t-nation began to become popular this was a vehicle for writers such as Louie Simmons and Dave Tate to begin to get their information out to the masses. Westside and Louie Simmons dominated the early years of the internet when it came to information and powerlifting. This platform lead, to the increase in Louie’s renown and fame which in turn helped to greatly raise the profile of untested and unlimited powerlifting competition as the main representation of the sport in most people’s minds during this period. This swell in popularity ultimately allowed writers and lifters such as David Tate and Jim Wendler to create their brands and found their hugely successful equipment manufacturing and information businesses.
The rise in popularity in classic and unequipped lifting in the late 2000s and early 2010s allowed for a different kind of lifter and writer to come to the forefront. Websites and coaches such as Chad Wesley Smith (Juggernaut training systems) and Greg Nuckols (strength theory) who wrote more on the science of training in a more even-handed less hyperbolic manner and produced articles aimed at the unequipped and drug-free lifters.
This brings us roughly to the present day where there are widely the main subsets of powerlifting namely tested or untested with their various rule sets.
Drug-Free / Tested – Unequipped (classic) and Single ply.
Non-Tested – Multiply/unlimited ply, Double-ply, Single Ply, Raw (with knee wraps) and Raw (without knee wraps).
Which powerlifting subset/federation you choose to compete in is normally the one your training partners or coach competes in however if you want to know fully where you wish to take your lifting and why it’s important to understand where the sport has been in the past so you can make an informed decision about where and why you want to take your lifting in the future.
* Wikipedia 2017, Olympic weightlifting
** International Powerlifting Federation 2017, The history of powerlifting.
***Muscle mag fitness, 2017
****Wikipedia 2017, Powerlifting.