by Marty Gallagher
Even after we lost the TV contract, powerlifting still rolled on strong. With ever-increasing momentum the unified sport garnered and gathered more and more respect – true athletes recognized and understood that pure powerlifting was the truest test of pure strength: a prestigious place in the pantheon of strength modes: no single mode or method trumped powerlifting as the ultimate strength system – flawed as the sport might be. Mike Lambert was full of passion back in those golden days, and it came through in his informative retellings:
“The greatest demonstration of bench pressing in the history of the sport (written in 1986) occurred when Mike MacDonald sweated himself down to 181 pounds and opened with a 473-pound bench press – a world record on his 1st attempt. He then jumped to another world record on his 2nd attempt, a success with 488. He then became the first 181 pounder to break the 500 pound barrier with his successful 3rd attempt bench press of 501. Mike capped an already perfect bench press day with a successful 4th attempt with 512. Four attempts, four world records. How do you top that?
Rick Weil nearly matched MacDonald’s feat (done a decade later) when in December of 1985 the 180 pound Weil bench pressed 512 on his opener. He set his first world record with a 540 pound 2nd attempt, Rick followed with a 545 3rd attempt for his second WR. He finally hit a 551 4th attempt success, three world records on four attempts. Ironically Weil’s lightest bench press, his opener of 512, equaled Mac’s once unassailable world record best. Weil commenced, literally, from where MacDonald left off.”
When there was a lone federation nationally and a lone federation internationally, powerlifting thrived. The judging was uniform and strict and everyone was getting better and prospering – and then we opened the Pandora’s Box of performance enhancing drugs. The once happy, prosperous, powerful and unified sport of powerlifting splintered, shattered, exploded into a thousand pieces as competing federations arose, each taking a differing stance on drugs, drug use and drug testing. At the one extreme were the anti-drug faction and at the other extreme were the steroid apologists. Each faction immediately set up organizations. The USPF attempted to stake out a middle ground by instituting competition drug testing. The testing was deemed insufficient for the anti-drug faction and way too much by the pro-steroid faction. Monies previously used to fund US teams traveling to world championships were now diverted to lawyers defending the organization from lawsuits arising out of drug testing. Rebel organizations sprang up from within other rebel organizations and with the each new federation powerlifting became weaker and more diluted.
I wrote in an article decades ago, “Powerlifting as a craft will never die … proper squats, bench pressing and deadlifting have incredible athletic applicability and for these reasons the lifts themselves will live on in perpetuity – the sport, with its innumerable splinter factions, ridiculous supportive gear (what % of a lift is attributable to the man and what % to the gear?) could well kill itself.” That prophecy came to pass: powerlifting self-immolated, set itself on fire, it became the sports embodiment of the biblical Tower of Babel. When the lone organization disintegrated, like ancient Rome, the Dark Ages descended on powerlifting.
In 2012 Mike Lambert threw in the towel. As it turns out, he may have just missed what appears to be a potential powerlifting rebirth, a resurrection that is occurring on a grass-roots level. For some strange and apparently inexplicable reason, powerlifting of a certain type, the so-called “raw” powerlifting – powerlifting that disallows supportive lifting gear (other than a weightlifting belt) – is experiencing an unexpected explosion in participatory popularity. Events that two years ago might have attracted 25 lifters are now attracting 150+ lifters; regional and national level events are cutting off raw entries at 350 to 400 lifters. This explosion appears to be nationwide and worldwide. USAPL competitions in every region are packed to capacity. Why this completely unexpected explosion in powerlifting popularity? The surge in lifters has nothing to do with any genius promotional ideas arising from within the powerlifting establishment; they are left scratching their heads, as clueless and surprised by this recent turn of events as the rest of us.
There is a veritable stampede of new lifters looking to compete in the classical three-lift power format. And they want to do it raw, i.e. without knee wraps, without a squat suit or a bench shirt – and no need for the expensive Monolift device that eliminates the walkout phase required of a classically-performed squat. It is as if some mysterious fitness oracle whispered into the ears of tens of thousands of trainees, “Hey! You people should train for and then enter a powerlifting competition!” And the mind-numbed robots then did exactly what they were told by the oracle. One illustrative example: at a recent power competition in my neighborhood, Columbia, Maryland, an upscale community and hardly a strength hotbed, the local promoter cut entries off at 100. He filled up his quota within 30 days. He then turned away another 100 lifters that had waited too long to sign up.
This particular competition catered to both raw (no gear) and geared divisions. Of the 100 entrants, 83 were raw and 17 were geared. This disproportional imbalance appears consistent on a nationwide basis. On the national level, big raw meets are routinely drawing upwards of 400 lifters. Because of this new influx of interest in raw lifting, organizations are rethinking their approach towards the sport. The rumor mill has it that the IPF, the International Powerlifting Federation, is seriously considering dropping geared lifting all together and jumping on the raw bandwagon. If the popularity trend continues it will spell the rebirth, the revitalization of a fabulous sport: fabulous when practiced in its purest, most pristine and precise way. Strict judging and no gear means we will once again be able to compare lifts, one to another, federation to federation. With an infusion of participants, powerlifting could become viable again: in our era of cable TV there is no reason why a well-run national or world championship of raw lifters could not draw excellent ratings. Seeing gigantic musclemen handling gigantic poundage in pristine fashion is always exciting. It is a fantastic turn of events when national organizations conducting national championships are cutting off entrants at 400.
If the powers-that-be are smart, they will take the time and trouble to trace this newfound popularity back to its source. Is there a lone endorser so powerful and influential that tens of thousands heed their advice? Perhaps power’s popularity is traceable to a combination of unrelated events. It would be wise to find out and if possible, bottle it.
Let us not fumble this opportunity.
Marty Gallagher has been a national and world champion masters powerlifter and is widely considered one of the best writers in the iron game. Since 1978 he has written over 1000 articles published in a dozen publications. He has authored more than 100 articles for Muscle & Fitness magazine and produced 230 weekly live online columns for the Washington Post. Gallagher has coached some of the biggest names in powerlifting and witnessed some of the greatest strength feats of the last half century. If you like his style pick up a copy of his masterwork, The Purposeful Primitive.