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Definitions of “Raw” in Powerlifting

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By Gary F. Zeolla

Many powerlifters wear a squat suit and bench shirt in training and in competition. A squat suit basically looks like a wrestler’s singlet, while a bench shirt looks somewhat like a short sleeve T-shirt. However, both are made of very strong and thick material, using polyester, denim, or canvas. Briefs are also sometimes worn under the squat suit. These look somewhat like boxer shorts, except they come up much higher on the torso, and again, are made of much stronger material. The suit, briefs, and shirt are also usually fitted so that they fit very tight. It can sometimes take one or two helpers for a lifter to get the gear on and off.

Originally, the purpose of the suit was to protect the hips and of the shirt to protect the shoulders. However, the gear has evolved to the point now that they can significantly add to the amount of weight a lifter can lift. Some report getting as much as 100-200 pounds or more out of a good suit or shirt (although this writer only gets about 50 pounds out of my suit and briefs together and about 30 pounds out of my shirt).

But whatever the exact added poundage, it is for this reason that there is much controversy over their use in the powerlifting community. So there is now a growing “raw” movement in the sport. The term “raw” refers to not wearing a suit, briefs, or shirt. There are a couple of raw powerlifting federations, and some federations have a raw division separate from their geared division. However, there are debates among raw lifters as to whether a belt and wraps should be worn by raw lifters.

A power belt is similar to a standard weightlifting belt seen in many gyms, except it is 4” all the way around and is 1/2” thick. Its purpose should be rather obvious, to protect the low back. Wrist wraps and knee wraps look somewhat like “Ace bandages” except they are made of much stronger elastic material. The wrist wraps vary from 12-36” and knee wraps are either 2.0 meter or 2.5 meters long. Their purposes should again be obvious, to protect the wrists and knees, respectively. Knee sleeves are simply the type of knee supporters that one can by at a drug store. A belt and wraps do add somewhat to the amount that can be lifted, as will be discussed shortly.

With that background, I "lurking" a powerlifting forum and reading a rather heated debate in on what it means to lift “raw.” I didn’t want to contribute there since things were getting too nasty for my tastes. So I instead I posted some thoughts in the forum I normally participate in, Weight Trainer's United, since things are much more civil there. Below is my post.

From what I can tell, there are five possible definitions of “raw”

1. No supportive gear whatsoever

2. A belt

3. A belt and wrist wraps

4. A belt, wrist wraps, and knee sleeves

5. A belt, wrist wraps, and knee wraps

In my workout logs, when I say a lift is done raw, I usually mean it by definition #1. But as far as I know, every raw federation or raw division within a federation allows a belt. But 100% Raw Powerlifting, Anti-Drug Athletes United (ADAU), and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) only allow a belt.

The International Powerlifting Association (IPA) and American Drug Free Powerlifting Federation (ADFPF) allow a belt and wrist wraps in its raw division. The “Raw Unity” contest that was held in Florida on January 26, 2008 allowed a belt, wrist wraps, and knee sleeves. The National Association of Strength Athletes (NASA), American Powerlifting Association (APA), Hardcore Powerlifting, and World Natural Powerlifting Federation (WNPF) allow a belt, wrist wraps, and 2.0 meter knee wraps. So it would seem that any one of these definitions is valid.

Now it might be helpful if powerlifting were to come up with a different word to describe each of these levels of gear. And I guess the biggest difference would between knee wraps vs. no knee wraps. Some have suggested using “raw” for without wraps and “unequipped” for with wraps but no suit or shirt. That might help to clear up some of the confusion. In fact, NASA uses the term "unequipped" for its belt and wraps division.

However, I would say there is still less of a difference between any of these types of raw lifting than there is between any of them and lifting with a suit and shirt. So frankly, I think the raw advocates should quit fighting amongst themselves and band together.

As for myself, when I first started thinking about competing again five years ago, I was looking for a federation which allowed a belt and wraps but no suit or shirt. My reason for doing so is that I remembered all too well from my college powerlifting days how much of a pain it was squeezing into a squat suit. Bench shirts weren’t around back then, but I figured they’d be just as much of a pain.

On the other hand, I always wore knee wraps and wrist wraps back in college, and I was very leery about doing max squats without knee wraps, and max benches without wrist wraps. So if the above federations that now allow belt and wraps had done so back then, and I had found one of them, it would have saved me a whole lot of hassles, problems, and money that I’ve wasted on gear over the last five years.

As for using knee sleeves instead of knee wraps, that might be a good comprise between those who believe “raw” should mean no wraps and those who believe knee wraps should be allowed. Knee sleeves would provide some protection for those who are leery about doing max squats without wraps but without adding much of anything to the lift poundage.

However, I tried knee sleeves in a squat workout recently. They’re better than nothing, but not really good enough for squats. I like wearing them on DLs, where they give enough support without getting in the way. But for squats, I would prefer to wear knee wraps.

I’ve found that good pair of 2.0 meter knee wraps add about 20-25 pounds to the squat. In my opinion, that is not enough added poundage to eliminate them given the benefits they provide. And it is a far cry for the 100-200 pounds or more than some get out of their squat suits.

Meanwhile, wrist wraps are purely protective, adding nothing to the bench. So I’ve always found it kind of silly not to allow them.

So for me, when it comes to competition, I would prefer for “raw” to mean with a belt, wrist wraps, and knee wraps. I think that combination would provide protection to the lifter without significantly adding to the poundage being lifted.

Quality belts, wrist wraps, knee wraps,
and knee sleeves can be obtained at
APT Inc.

Definitions of “Raw” in Powerlifting. Copyright 2008 by Gary F. Zeolla.

The above message was posted on this site on February 1. 2008.

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