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For this installment of the Powerlifting Competition Series, we’ll be talking about how to pick the right powerlifting federation for you, personally.
Powerlifting is all about numbers. Breaking one of the hallowed records of the sport represents the pinnacle of achievement for a Powerlifter. In sprinting, if you set the all-time mark for the 100m dash, you are the fastest to ever do it. In Powerlifting, if you set the all-time mark in the total for your weight class, well, that doesn’t tell us the whole story.
For those who don’t know the history, the sport of Powerlifting as we know it today was born thanks to
York Barbell and Bob Hoffman (the kingpin of American Olympic Weightlifting). During the late 60s to early 70s, bodybuilding began to rise rapidly in popularity. In an attempt to win some of the market share back, Hoffman, previously a staunch opponent of powerlifting, decided to endorse the sport.
York Barbell hosted the first “World Championships” of Powerlifting in 1971. After two of these contests, competitors grew increasingly frustrated by the non-standardized rule set. Seeking a resolution, representatives from a small handful of countries came together and, in 1972, they founded the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF).
To this day, the IPF is still by far the largest and most prestigious powerlifting federation in existence. The IPF is truly a global organization. More than one hundred countries host IPF-affiliate federations. In fact, the IPF successfully brought Powerlifting to the World Games in 2009. Powerlifters world wide were afforded an opportunity to win a gold medal as a result.
So, if the IPF is truly the original federation, and they host legitimate World Championships, why doesn’t everyone compete in their organization? Frankly, the short answer is drugs (the long answer includes quite a bit of politics thrown into the mix). In 1982, the IPF began implementing drug testing. Many lifters vehemently opposed the introduction of such a policy. However, the IPF refused to back down. As a result, Ernie Frantz and the great Larry Pacifico created the American Powerlifting Federation (APF). What was the selling point of the APF? No drug testing.
Unfortunately, and unfortunately is really not a strong enough word here, Frantz and Pacifico unwittingly started a trend amongst the powerlifting community. It went a little something like this… So, you don’t like the rules of the federation that runs things in your area? No problem. Just make up your own! As of today, there are literally dozens of “American” Powerlifting Federations.
How To Pick Your Federation
Of course, this raises the question, how exactly does one weed through the dozens of federations to arrive at the choice that is best for them? Ultimately, I don’t think it is as difficult to answer as it may seem at first. I’m going to broadly break Powerlifters into three categories: 1) recreational lifters, 2) competitive drug users, and 3) competitive drug free lifters.
Let’s address the first group: recreational lifters. First of all, if you’re a recreational lifter, how did you end up on this website? Have you noticed the title? No, just kidding. If you lift for fun and personal satisfaction, obviously, you should pick the federation which seems the most fun to you. If you’re both a complete novice and a recreational lifter, you should just lift in the federation that is closest to you. It doesn’t make a lick of difference. You’re not going to the contest to win or break records, anyways. Your focus should be on having a great first experience, meeting other competitors, and setting some personal records.
Addressing the other two groups becomes a bit more difficult. As mentioned earlier, the ultimate achievement in Powerlifting is breaking a world record. That said, understanding the context in which a world record was set can be incredibly important.
Many of the old, all-time records were set by lifters who: a) used drugs, b) were mandated to weigh-in two hours before the contest started, c) used a stiff ~29mm bar to deadlift, d) used 2m knee wraps and e) walked out all of their squats.
However, today, there exists federations which: a) allow drugs, b) mandate 24 hour weigh-ins, c) use flexible 27mm bars for the deadlift, d) allow 3 meter knee wraps, and e) make use of the monolift. Let’s address each item piece by piece.
First of all, drugs are par for the course when you’re talking world records — both then and now. Drugs have been a part of strength sports almost since their inception. They’re not going anywhere. Accept it.
24 hour weigh-ins are complete game changers, though. Some lifters are able to lose 20lbs of water weight and then regain all of it in the proceeding 24 hours after the weigh-in. In fact, former world record holder Matt Kroc went from 220 to 245 in a single day. For a two hour weigh-in, anything more than 5-7lbs of water loss risks dehydration and decreased performance on the platform.
What does this mean? Well, nowadays, lifters can essentially lift in a full weight class below where they would have been thirty years ago. They’re far bigger than the guys who set the original records because, in reality, they aren’t in the same weight class at all. When a guy who was allowed a 24 hour weigh-in breaks a record set on a 2 hour weigh-in, we can’t be sure who was really better.
As for deadlift bars, extra-long knee wraps, and monolifts, well, the combination of all of these factors can add anywhere from 50 to 100lbs+ to a lifter’s total. With enough weight, deadlift bars flex a few inches before they actually leave the floor. This essentially allows the lifter to skip the first few inches of the movement. For many, this adds between 10-50lbs to their deadlift. The 3m knee wraps allow for many more revolutions around the knees which directly translates to more weight lifted.
Let’s get this straight for just a second. Not only are modern lifters competing against the records of guys who weighed ~20lbs less than them, they’re also being spotted a 50-100lbs handicap as well. As you can see, these really aren’t apples to apples comparisons.
Realistically, if you want a chance to set all-time world records, you need to use drugs and pick a powerlifting federation which affords all the advantages above. In particular, the best powerlifting federation for this purpose is probably the SPF. Nearly all other raw federations mandate 2.5m wraps; the SPF allows 3m wraps.
Now of course there are federations that are both untested and more strict with their rule sets. For example, the USPA requires squats to be walked out, enforces strict depth, and only allows 2.5m knee wraps. I can’t decide anyone’s values for them, but, if you’re interested in world records, you shouldn’t be considering this type of federation because you’ll be forced to compete under a less advantageous set of conditions than your competitors who lift elsewhere.
What is the incentive? There are no record books for specific conditions; you will not find one record for the biggest walked out squat and a separate record for the biggest monolift squat. There is only one record: the biggest squat. In non-tested lifting, the endorsements, attention, and opportunities all go to the guys who post the biggest numbers. Why needlessly put yourself at a disadvantage versus your peer group by picking a harder federation to compete in? If winning comes first, it simply doesn’t make sense to willingly accept a competitive disadvantage. That said, from an ethical perspective, it can be difficult to support federations which don’t do a good job of enforcing the rules. Ultimately, the choice is yours.
All in all, I’d still recommend that many drug using competitors compete in the USPA for one single reason: the quality of the judging and competition is very high. You’ll always know your lifts are legit if they’re approved in the USPA. Additionally, the USPA, as of now, in the United States, has the greatest level of participation amongst lifters who use. In other words, you’ll actually find very strong competition at regional and national level events. In fact, most of the best lifters who use are now competing in the USPA. A chance to go to head to head against those lifters is its own incentive in its own right.
For non-tested lifters, there is one other consideration: monetary reward. Many federations, such as Sean Katterle’s Hardcore Powerlifting, have begun to offer cash prizes to the winners of their contests. In a sport where money is devastatingly hard to come by, perhaps it makes more sense to forego the record chase and chase dollar signs instead.
Drug Free Lifters
Whether or not a lifter should use drugs is well beyond the scope of this article. However, there does exist some solace for non-drug users. The IPF is currently the only federation in the entire world with a truly legitimate World Championship. Many non-tested organizations offer such events to their athletes, but absolutely none of these organizations have more than a hundred participating countries nor do they have tens of thousands of members. No other organization is even remotely close to earning their product’s entrance to a venue as honorable and magnificent as the World Games stage.
Frankly, the IPF has a reputation for being very strict. In many ways, their policies have been forged as a response to what they see as wrong with the modern state of the sport. Where non-tested lifting has increasingly slackened the rules, the IPF has increasingly tightened them. As such, in the IPF, you’re not only subject to in-meet drug tests, but also out of meet drug tests as well. The IPF employs very strict standards for squat depth, requires all squats to be walked out, doesn’t allow knee wraps for raw competitors, doesn’t use a deadlift bar, and all IPF competitions feature two hour weigh-ins.
In other words, if you compete in the IPF, you will be at a tremendous disadvantage compared to all of your buddies who lift elsewhere. Forget the drugs. All of the other aforementioned rules will likely cost you 50-100lbs+ off of your total. In fact, many drug-free lifters avoid the IPF for this very reason. There are federations which offer drug tested options that still allow for deadlift bars, longer weigh-ins, and other more favorable rules. If that is important to you, you may want to skip the IPF even as a drug-free lifter.
But, again, I’d strongly recommend competing in the IPF. Usually, these lifters are competing against a pool of people who use drugs. The cold hard truth is that, all else equal, a drug free lifter will get demolished by a guy who uses. Over the course of several years, it isn’t uncommon for drugs to boost performance by as much as 10-20% in the sport of powerlifting. Users will also be able to compete in much heavier weight classes than they’d be able to naturally as well. If you’re drug free, and you want to be competitive on a national or international level, you’ll need to find a tested organization.
You may lose quite a few pounds off of your total by choosing the IPF, but the trade-off is that you are afforded the opportunity to become a legitimate world champion. Will you lift as much as you could by competing in other federations? No, no you will not. Will you have thousands of competitors also competing under the same conditions as you? Yes, yes you will. If you actually win IPF World’s are you truly one of the best Powerlifters on the planet all things considered? Yes, yes you are.
As for me personally, I can’t imagine a more spine-tingling, hair-raising image than standing atop the podium, gold medal around my neck, with the red, white, and blue at my back.
Does it get any better than that?
In nearly all individual sports, the two highest possible honors are winning the World Championships (or a gold medal) and setting a World Record. Drug free lifters can’t realistically expect to break world records (in most cases). They can, however, compete in the one legitimate World Championship in Powerlifting: The IPF Raw Classic.
For drugged lifters, they may not have the opportunity to compete for a true world championship, but they do have a legitimate chance to set world records. Towards this end, I would probably recommend the SPF as they have the most favorable rule set for record breaking. If you’re a drugged lifter looking for the best national competition, the USPA has got to be your choice.
Regardless of which class you fall under, or which federation you ultimately pick, lift to win, my friend. Lift to win.
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