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How to Fix Powerlifting?

by Mark Rippetoe | September 25, 2019

You ask. Because it's broken, you know. Has been for a while. When world records can be established by moving a bar approximately one inch, when a guy can drop 30 pounds to make weight 24 hours before a meet, gain it all back, and then compete in the lighter weight class when he actually weighs 2 classes up, when a squat that is clearly 7 inches above parallel gets applauded for “Beautiful depth!”, your sport is broken. It has become a Circus. And a boring one at that – try staying excited, or even awake, while watching 60 bench presses in a row.

I have said on many occasions that I don't really care about powerlifting. I remember back about 1995 reading a meet report in Powerlifting USA, the journal of the sport for decades, about a guy who bombed out of a meet because he could not get a 675 bench down low enough to touch his chest. That day, I decided that if equipment was at this level of development and that had he touched his chest this thing would have been called a Bench Press for total, other things were more interesting to me.

Olympic lifting has not gone down the same road to the Circus. They removed a problem lift in 1972, shortening the duration of the meet and thereby asking less from their spectators. They have never permitted supportive gear other than a belt and knee wraps, and they have been conscientious about judging standards. They don't play death metal at 130 db during the meet, like you do at a dive bar, and they don't have announcers who yell and scream and behave as though the meet is, in fact, a Circus. Olympic weightlifting remains in the Olympics, while powerlifting dreams about that which cannot occur. Roller Derby will be in the Olympics before powerlifting.

I lifted competitively for 11 years, back in the 70s and 80s. I was never very good, but I was deadly serious about giving it the best shot I had, considering my shitty genetics and a lack of direct coaching by anyone but myself. I squatted 622, benched 396 in a T-shirt, and deadlifted 633, all done incorrectly relative to what I know now, and as a 220 when I should have been 242. I was dumb as a day-old iguana, but even I was not as dumb as the rules in powerlifting and the way they are applied. There are several problems. I have some suggestions. Some of you will disagree. You have my permission.

The Squat

Back in the 70s, Paul Jordan had a big wreck on the platform with 760 at the Worlds in Australia. He subsequently starred on the intro to ABC's Wide World of Sports for decades, scaring the hell out of generations of potential lifters who thought they had to squat that deep in a meet. So a bunch of them got together and invented federations where you don't have to squat to any particular depth at all, so they didn't have to be scared any more and everybody could just have fun.

As far as I know, all these Recreational Federations – the ones that exist to give you a place to squat twice your deadlift, bench more than your deadlift, and to make the federation money – have a squat depth rule (it's a full time job keeping track of the 50 or so operating in the US, so I might not be aware of the rules of all of them) that places legal depth at the top of the hip crease below the top of the patella. Anyone with an internet connection and functioning eyeballs knows that most federations either do not enforce their depth rules at all, or do not enforce them for their buddies. And do not insult our intelligence by denying it. For example, how exactly do you get a red light for depth in the IPA? Rules exist for the comparison of efforts, to standardize the performance of a movement, so that individual competitors can be judged against a standard for the lift first and then the weight lifted second. When depth is not judged, the weight on the bar matters more than the standard, because there is no standard. 

The use of the “monolift” – a racking device that allows the squat to be performed without the need to lift the bar out of the rack, walk it back out of the rack, get set up, squat the bar, walk it back in, and set it back down in the rack under control – has also altered the squat quite a bit. If all you have to do is extend your knees enough to clear the bar from the monolift hooks, unlock your knees to get down to seven inches above parallel, and re-extend your knees just enough that the rack operator can swing the hooks back under the bar, then yeah, you can use heavier weights.

But there is more to the squat than a partial knee and hip extension: the demonstration of control of the bar through walk-out, setup, squat, and walk-in is an important part of why the squat is hard, and why a good squatter is more than just a good partial-knee-and-hip extender. The traditional approach to the squat makes better sense in terms of the display of strength.

My suggestion would be that all federations prohibit the monolift, throw out their squat records, and start enforcing the depth rule. I also suggest that you do not validate this nonsense by competing in the Recreational Federations that do not judge depth. It is truly unfortunate that the ADFPA (USAPL) is the only American federation currently judging depth in the walked-out squat, and therefore the only federation participating in a legitimate World Championships, when all they have ever really wanted to do is keep you from using steroids.

The Bench

Where to start? The bench press has so damn many problems, it amazes me that it's still a contest lift. One of my lifters got a three (3)-second pause signal at a regional meet last week! So let's start with the pause rule.

I have never understood why we pause the bench press on the chest until the head judge decides it's motionless when we don't pause the squat. Seems rather arbitrary to me, especially since we can bench more with a touch-and-go, and since the bench press shirt (the one that didn't let him get 675 down to his chest) was also intended to allow us to bench more weight. Why don't we just touch-and-go without a shirt, and learn how to judge the touch-and-go to prevent a heave? A touch-and-go is safer because only one person's judgement is involved in the movement (which seems logical since only one person gets credit for the lift), and the lifter doesn't have to worry about timing the lift differently at the meet.

Why does the head judge participate in the bench press but not in the squat? Nobody has suggested an “Up” signal in the squat, apparently in recognition of the Chaos it would cause on the platform, but a “Press” signal for the bench is just fine, for no apparent reason at all. If you want to permit a stretch reflex in the squat but prevent one in the bench, fine, I suppose, but there is no logical reason for the difference. The touch-and-go should have been the rule from the start of the sport, because it's a natural part of the motion, like the rebound in the squat.

When the head judge participates in the lift, variability is unavoidable. I have seen on several occasions the head judge give a big lifter benching a big weight his “Press” signal before the bar even got down to the chest. In this case, what do the side judges do – judge the lift or the signal? In addition to the aforementioned 3-second pause, this is a very good reason to either eliminate the pause altogether, or to at least tell the head judge to shut up and let the lifter just follow the pause rule, and then judge the lift as executed. That way, the head judge simply judges, and the lifter simply executes the lift according to the rules – and the side judges are not forced to decide between the head judge's illegal pause or the lifter's legal performance.

The verbal “Rack” command is equally unnecessary. Make a rule about racking the bar after establishing control at the top, teach the rule, remind about the rule in the pre-meet Rules Clinic, and judge it, thus removing the potential for human judges to do silly human things. The same is true of the “Squat” and “Rack” command in the squat and the “Down” command in the deadlift – they are completely unnecessary, and they introduce the possibility of a person other than the lifter affecting the execution of the lift according to the rules.

Another problem with the bench press is the grip-width rule. The bar in the IPF, all federations that feed to the IPF Worlds, and every national federation I am aware of has an established grip width limit of 80cm, or about 32 inches. The bar is marked with a score in the knurl at this dimension, and at least part of your hand must cover this mark on the bar.

wide limit grip on the bench press

In other words, a 100-pound female lifter and a 365-pound male lifter have the same grip-width rule to follow. The effective length of the body's segments can be manipulated by changing the angle, and this affects the ROM of the movement of those segments – the  wide grip used in the snatch is a good example of reducing the ROM of the pull by creating artificially-short arms. Narrow shoulders and short arms on a light female and enormous wide shoulders and much longer arms on a superheavyweight male produce very different ROMs between lockout and the chest if both grip the bar at the same width mark. Anybody with eyeballs and the internet can see the effects of this. Try to explain to your grandma, who came to watch you lift today, how the little woman moving the bar a couple of inches without bending her elbows is doing the same thing as the very large man moving the bar 18 inches. If we're going to have weight classes, this should be addressed.

My suggestion is to 1.) eliminate the pause rule to require a touch-and-go bench without a heave or a sink into the chest, 2.) eliminate all verbal judging commands on all three lifts, and 3.) establish a rule about grip width based on making the lift more uniform across the wight classes. This involves the lifter taking a grip no wider than that which produces vertical forearms when the bar contacts the chest, which the judges can plainly see – obviously something you show up at the meet prepared to do, having trained with the rules. This returns some semblance of uniformity to the execution of the bench press across the weight classes, making performances and records legitimately comparable. This will not be popular with the judges, at least not at first, because people don't like to give up control. But it will become popular with the lifters very quickly, because it eliminates the problems inherent in this ridiculous way of doing the bench press.

The Deadlift

The sumo-stance deadlift should have been stopped the Monday after the first meet afflicted with it.  The IPF should have convened a Technical Rules Committee meeting and established the deadlift as “being performed with the hands gripping the bar outside the legs.” The sumo stance is just a clever way to exploit a rule that should have been corrected when it became obviously necessary. The sumo stance uses the segment length/angle trick to shorten the effective length of the legs, and therefore the ROM of the deadlift, making it easier. By doing so, it also brings the hips closer to the bar and produces a more open knee and hip angle at the start of the pull, improving the mechanics of the pull.

sumo deadlift wide stance to decrease ROM

I would use the word “artificially” with regard to these improvements in ROM and mechanics, but all rules are arbitrary by definition, so the argument could be made that requiring conventional deadlift technique is also arbitrary. Here is the problem: a very short person can obtain enough advantage with a plate-to-plate sumo stance that the deadlift becomes for that lifter little more than a shrug of a couple of inches. If everybody pulls with hands outside the legs, some continuity between the lightest and heaviest weight classes is maintained, which is important if you want a weight-class sport.

I suggest that the rule be changed to define the legal grip as outside the legs where the hands grip the bar, and that records set with a sumo stance be vacated. This will not be popular with anybody. Not at all. 

Spotters

Things have gotten a bit out of hand. A long time ago, Bill Starr told me that there should be no spotters – it would make attempt selection more honest. I think he was kidding. But he was right: people do stupid things if you mitigate the consequences for them. If a lifter eats enough gorilla juice to think he can rely on the spotters to catch a 60kg PR on his 3rd attempt, he just might try the damn thing.

The presence of 5 spotters around a big squat is a problem anyway, in that one of them is bound to touch the lifter, and that occasionally one of them does more than just touch the lifter – both you and I have seen videos of the center spotter with both his hands in contact with the lifter under the arms. He will say he didn't help, and we will say, “How do we know that? Your arms were on the man's torso all the way down and up!”

I suggest that the squat should be spotted by 2 people, that 3 spotters are fine if the lifter wants a center spot, but it must never be spotted by more than 4 people, and that the meet director decides when 4 spotters are on the platform, with input from the lifter's coach. This means that the meet must provide people who can actually spot a heavy squat, and that school children cannot be spotters. In the absence of the Monolift, 4 spotters are enough to ensure the safety of the lifter if there's an accident, and more than that are likely to compound the accident. Furthermore, any squat touched by a spotter – either the bar or the lifter's body – is red lights under any circumstances. It may not be the lifter's fault, but it will provide an enormous incentive for the spotters to not get sloppy if they know the lifter will blame them for the red light. This is already the rule in most federations, but it is apparently not taken seriously.

The bench should be protected by safety pins or arms incorporated into the equipment, and should be the responsibility of the meet director. Spotters cannot react in time to save a dropped bar – it's physically impossible, and enough people have been hurt badly on the bench because of this. A center hand-off and one spotter on each end of the bar (with instructions not to touch the bar unless there is a loss of control) is sufficient to get it back into the rack. And the thumbless grip should immediately be made illegal.

And suddenly, the deadlift needs a spotter standing right behind the lifter, hands almost in contact with his back? What could go wrong there? I see videos of people passing out on the internet. This has never happened in my gym, and I suspect that an incorrect valsalva is the problem, even though it's not a huge problem. But if it saves the life of one child, I guess we'd better get used to the idea. It would be better to learn to not pass out, since most people manage this pretty well.

Equipment

Suit-and-wraps powerlifting is dying. It needs to hurry up. It is a vestige of the equipment manufacturers' control over the various federations, and has always been about sales and inflated totals. Lifters know this, and that is why “Raw” meets are so much more popular these days. It's harder to get hurt with a weight you can actually squat and bench press that it is with a weight you can't even get below parallel or down to your chest because of your Kevlar/stainless steel outfit. Make it illegal, so your totals can be taken seriously.

And the 8-foot 27mm deadlift bar is more of the same – it is designed to flex under a load. If the middle of the bar can be pulled 3 inches before the plates clear the floor, you are doing a rack pull. The same bar should be used for all 3 lifts. Like Ed Coan did it.

Not really an equipment issue, but the Women's division is handicapped by the archaic 2.5 kg-increments rule. Olympic lifting moved to the 1kg Rule when the women's division was added, allowing more precise attempt selection given the peculiarities of women's neuromuscular efficiency. Women cannot select optimum increments for first, second, and third attempt bench presses if they have to take a 2.5 kg jump between attempts, because for most women 3kg is all that separates a limit single from a set of 5. The squat and the deadlift are less seriously impacted, but a tough second attempt might well indicate a 1kg jump for third attempt, to maximize total in a tightly competitive weight class. And it helps everybody in the meet dial in just the right attempts based on the warmups. The 1kg Rule should be immediately adopted for powerlifting, and loading charts should be updated (you can borrow them from the Olympic lifters).

Drug Testing

This is going to get me in serious trouble, but fuck it – you either prohibit all drugs, or you don't prohibit drugs. And by all drugs I mean all of them: blood pressure medicine, aspirin, Tylenol, Maalox, caffeine, steroids, psych meds, insulin, smelling salts – all of them. They are all artificial, they all provide a benefit, and they are all “cheating” if you do better on them than off them.

Let's separate the Drug-Free Men from the drug-free boys, shall we? If you want to have yourselves an American Drug Free Powerlifting Association, don't half-ass the thing by making arbitrary judgements about which drugs are good and which are bad. Rational people can disagree about good and bad, you know. Such nuanced evaluation is inherently inconsistent, subject to internal politics, impossible to enforce, and ultimately pointless. Just ban everything except food and water, and rest comfortably in your moral superiority.

Weigh-in

I know a guy who made weight at 165, having weighed 203 about 10 days out from the meet. He made his first attempt squat and then spent the rest of the meet on an IV. If I have to explain to you why this is dangerous, you wouldn't understand the explanation. If you want to kill yourself, go ahead. But there's a bigger problem.

It has to do with the definitions of words. Wikipedia is your friend:

“Weight classes are divisions of competition used to match competitors against others of their own size.”

This doesn't seem like a controversial definition of the term. Weight classes allow people of all heights to compete against other people of similar physical capacity, so that more people have the opportunity to win in a competition. At the elite levels of the sport, weight classes are in fact height classes, with most of the competitors at the Worlds within a couple of inches of each other throughout the weight class. And if you want a weight-class sport, you have to decide what it means to be in a weight class.

If you have a 2-hour weigh-in, this isn't a serious problem, although it quite possible to gain 5 pounds between weigh-in and your first attempt. But lots of the Recreational Federations feature a 24-hour weigh-in – I know, it amazes me too! – which allows a 190-pound lifter who knows how to cut weight to weigh in Friday at 10:00am and gain back 15-20 pounds or more before the meet starts at 10:00am Saturday. This is farcical. A rule that is specifically designed to allow you to lift outside the weight class should indicate the opinion of that federation on rules in general.

My suggestion is the weigh-out. After your last deadlift, you go straight to the scale. In days of yore, a lifter who broke a world record went from the platform to the scale, to make sure he was in the actual weight class in which the record was set. It would not have occurred to anybody that you should be allowed to either break a record or win a meet in a weight class you were not actually in. A weigh-out places the responsibility squarely in the lap of the lifter, and at a Nationals or Worlds, you should be disqualified if you weigh out in a class different than the one you entered and qualified in.

So you see, I really do care about powerlifting, in the same way I'd care about an aunt who has disowned me. I love her, but what can I do? I really think the sport is important, but there are so many problems and so many factions and so many vested interests that will never agree about these things that for most people powerlifting will never be anything more than a recreational sport, like bowling. I wish this wasn't true.


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