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Training for Raw and Equipped Powerlifting

By Gary F. Zeolla

There are two basic ways to compete in the sport of powerlifting. The first is raw, which means without supportive gear. The second is equipped, which means utilizing supportive gear. My powerlifting book discusses at length what is meant my "supportive gear" and the various types involved. It also discusses how there are different definitions of "raw" and of "equipped." Those complexities are also discussed at length in my book. But for the purposes of this article, I will simply refer to these two broad categories.

When I started powerlifting again in 2003 I lifted equipped and did so until 2006. But then I went back and forth between raw and equipped lifting for the next two years, but then I had only been lifting raw since 2008. But at the beginning of 2010 I began to think about lifting equipped again.

My reason for doing so is that my last raw contest did not go well, and when Powerlifting USA magazine's "Top 100" chart came out, I knew my ranking would be very poor. As discussed in my book, those charts do not make a distinction between those who lift raw and those who lift equipped, so equipped lifters have a significant advantage. And sure enough when the list came out, after ranking in the Top 5 in squats when lifting equipped, I barely made the list for squats while lifting raw.

However, now that I had gotten used to lifting raw, I didn't want to stop doing so altogether, so I tried to think of a way to train and then compete both raw and equipped. This is something I actually warn against in my book. I recommend that to make best progress, you need to choose one type of powerlifting and stick with it. But despite my own recommendations, I figured I'd try anyways.

The plan did not work, but the reasons it didn't had more to do with my own unique health situation than anything else. With some minor tweaks, I think it would work for the average powerlifter. As such, I will explain in this article what I was thinking, why it didn't work for me, but might for others.

Initial Training Plan

My basic plan to train for both raw and equipped powerlifting was to in some way alternate of course the raw powerlifts and the equipped powerlifters, but also to alternate bottom end assistance work to aid the raw powerlifts and top end assistance work to aid the equipped lifts. I discuss what is meant by each of these types of assistance work with examples and descriptions thereof in my book.

My first thought was to use the "Four Week Rotation" I describe in my book, but in the following fashion:

Week 1: Bottom End Work
Week 2: Raw Powerlifts
Week 3: Top End Work
Week 4: Equipped Powerlifts

My thought was the bottom end work in Week 1 would prepare me for the raw powerlifts Week 2, then the top end work in Week 3 would prepare me for the equipped powerlifts Week 4.

But another option would be to rotate the weeks as follows:

Week 1: Bottom End Work
Week 2: Top End Work
Week 3: Raw Powerlifts
Week 4: Equipped Powerlifts

In this way, you would in essence be alternating bottom end work one week and top end work the next.

But at the time (January 2010), I was just recovering from a hamstring injury. As such, I thought it best to not do the equipped lifting initially as the extra weight would place more strain on the hamstring. I thus only used a three week rotation, skipping the fourth week. But on the second and third rotations the plan wasn't going well. I mainly ran into the problems I warn about in my book with such a plan; doing each lift only every 3-4 weeks is just not enough. You're not working each specific exercise often enough to get used to it. I especially felt very weak in the hole on raw squats and off of the chest on raw benches.

Then on the fourth rotation, in the hole on squats, I injured my adductor (inner thigh muscle), and that ended that plan. I think what happened was the top end assistance exercise I was doing was "weakening" my bottom end strength, so the strain in the hole was too much, and thus the injury. More on that specific exercise later. But those workouts are detailed at: Three Week Rotations I & II and Three Week Rotations III & IV.

But I will say, some lifters do find that a four week rotation works well. If this is you, then maybe one of the above formats would work for you to train for both raw and equipped powerlifting.

Second Training Plan

After the injury, I followed a twelve week "Alternate Weeks" routine (see Alternate Weeks Routine - Weeks 1-6 and Alternate Weeks Routine - Weeks 7-12). For that routine, I did all raw and bottom end work to rehab the injury. That went well, so I again thought of trying to train for raw and equipped lifting. This time, I figured I'd use the "Off-Season/ In-Season" routine described in my book. The main idea here is to do major assistance exercises instead of the powerlifts in the "off-season" then the actual powerlifts almost exclusively during the "in-season." For both seasons I would us an "Alternate Weeks" plan.

My basic plan was as follows:

Off-Season:
Week A: Bottom End Work
Week B: Top End Work

In-Season:
Week A: Raw Powerlifts
Week B: Equipped Powerlifts.

The reasoning here was similar to the above, the bottom end work in the off-season would prepare me for the raw powerlifts for the in-season, and similarly the top end work would prepare me for the equipped powerlifts.

The off-season training went well. I progressed in my weights throughout for both the bottom and top end work. However, benches seemed to be progressing slower than the other two lifts. For these off-season workouts, see Off-Season Training - Weeks 1-6 and Off-Season Training - Weeks 7-10.

Third Possible Plan

Before detailing how my planned "in-season" went, I want to present another possible plan that I didn't try but that some might find workable. For both of the above plans, I was doing one major exercise for each workout for 3-4 work sets. But another plan would be to do two major exercises, each for two work sets using an "Alternate Weeks" plan.

The basic format would be:
Week A: Raw Powerlifts and Top End Work
Week B: Equipped Powerlifts and Bottom End Work

In this way, you would be doing both bottom end and top end work every week. The down side would be that to do two major exercises in the same workout can be rather tough and time consuming. Week B could be especially difficult as equipped workouts are taxing and time-consuming as it is. But then after the equipped work, you would need to warm-up all over again to be sure you are warmed up for the bottom end work. It would thus make for a long and tiring workout. That is why I didn't try this plan as I knew it would be too much for me. But those younger and more energetic than me might be able to make it work.

Detailed and different possible "training formats' that could be used for each of these three basic training plans are given in my book.

New Gear

An important point to interject here is that during the "off-season" I was trying out new gear. I knew all of my old gear was, well, old and that there was now better gear available. I detail in Chapter 23 of my book my many "Gear Problems" over the years. I could add several pages to that chapter after my experiences this summer trying to find new gear.

Let's just say here that I thought I found a shirt that would work for me on the first try, but I ordered and returned several suits trying to find ones that fit correctly. Finally, just at the end of the summer, I had a new squat and deadlift suit I thought would work.

My In-Season Workouts

When I switched to the in-season, both raw and equipped squats went well. I felt strong in the hole on raw squats, and once I got used to the gear, my final set of equipped squats felt really good. And when I did raw squats the next week, I still felt strong in the hole, so I think alternating raw and equipped squats would have worked.

Benches, however, did not go so well. I felt rather weak on the raw benches the first week. Then I ran into problem with my new shirt for the equipped week. The neckline was too high and was cutting into my neck, so I had to switch to an old shirt. When I did, I felt rather unstable and wasn't able to bench near as much as I had hoped.

Raw deadlifts went okay, but equipped deadlifts not so much. The problem was, the suit did nothing. I was basically only able to lift the same weight equipped as raw. In fact, I felt like the suit was hampering the lift. I couldn't quite get down into position. Then when I got near the top of the lift, when the bar reached the bottom of the suit legs, it stalled, and I had to give it an extra "tug" to get it over the seams.

For more on the new gear I got and on my "off-season/ in-season" plan, see APT Apex Bench Press Shirt, Routine Review and Future Plans, and New Suits and Training/ Contest Plans. Since my planned "in-season" only lasted two weeks, I renamed it an "experiment." These workouts are posted at: Raw & Equipped Experiment - Weeks 1-2.

Chains and Bands

At this point it would be good to discuss the top end exercises I was doing and the effect I think they had on how my plan was progressing.

For the three week rotations I was doing reverse band squats. I think that is why I felt so weak in the hole on the raw squats. With reverse bands, the bar is being "lifted" in the hole, so there is little work being done by the muscles at that point. That is why I said above that I think my top end exercise hurt my raw squat and maybe even contributed to the injury. But then for my off-season I did chain squats. For those, the bar weight plus deloaded chain weight in the hole was about the same as what I did for raw squats for my first in-season workout. As such, the chain squats did not weaken the bottom of the lift. But then the weight of the loading chains was about the same as how much my gear added. As such, they helped prepare me for equipped squats.

For benches, for the three week rotations, I did band benches. For them, the bar weight is very low, so there is little weight to push off of the chest, hence why I felt weak on raw benches. For my off-season, I did reverse band benches. Like with squats, that also weakened my raw bench.

In addition, for both forms of band exercises, the bands help "hold" the bar in the groove, so your muscles don't have to. That is probably why I felt so unstable on equipped benches, as after doing those two assistance exercise I wasn't used to holding the bar in the groove myself. But with chains it is the exact opposite. The chains "destabilize" the bar, making it harder to hold steady. You thus have to use more musculature to keep the bar balanced.

For deadlifts for the three week rotation, I did chain deadlifts. And raw deadlifts is the only lift that went well at that time. I think the reason has to do with how I explain in my book to set the chains up. By laying them out to the sides, for the first rep you have to drag the chains across the floor, thus strengthening the pull off of the floor. Then as the chains load, you strengthen the top of the lift.

However, for my in-season, I did reverse band deadlifts. And again, the lift of the bands is too unnatural. I also especially noticed how the bands hold the bar in the groove. On a couple of reps I started to lose control of the bar, it going forward. Normally, that would have caused a missed rep. But the bands pulled the weight back into place. But that of course does not happen with either raw or equipped deadlifts.

Bottom line of this discussion is that I think chain work is valuable for both raw and equipped lifting if you set the chains up properly. "Properly" meaning on squats and benches the weight of the loading and deloading chains should be about equal to the difference between your raw and equipped lift. On deadlifts, the chains should be set up as described in my book. However, I now feel that band work is not helpful and even detrimental for both raw and equipped lifting. Of course, many would strongly disagree with me here and swear by the value of bands. But I doubt I will be using bands again in my training.

As such, my recommendation would be is that if you do want to try this plan, I would say chain work would be the best top end work to do. And even with only raw lifting, chain work might have some value to do from time to time.

But I should mention some say reverse bands should only be used only shortly before a contest to help the body get used to heavy loads. The idea here is similar to the "Walk Outs" and "Lift Ups" I describe on the Squat Assistance Exercises page. You load about 5-10% more than your best 1RM (one rep max) on the bar and then only do one rep. The bands will enable the greater weight to be used. This will get your body used to handling heavier weights and should be done in a power rack or with reliable spotters for safety reasons.

But personally, I find such "overload" exercises to be a waste of time. Handling extra heavy weights a week or two before a contest does not make the weights feel lighter at a contest. I think it is better to get the body used to handling heavier weights by doing the top end exercises described on the respective Powerlift Assistance Exercises pages.

Special Word on Deadlifts

The problem with gear doing little on deadlifts might be one potential problem with the plan laid out in this article. The basic idea of alternating bottom end and top end work and the raw and equipped powerlifts should work on squats and benches as raw and equipped squats and benches are considerably different lifts. However, with deadlifts, there simply is not much of a difference, so you would be in essence doing the same thing each week.

Moreover, even though the muscles are being supported by gear, with the extra weight on equipped squats and benches, the muscles are still receiving significant work. But with deadlifts, the muscles are being supported but without the added stress of extra weight, so in essence, they are not working as hard as with raw deadlifts. As such, doing equipped deadlifts could weaken your raw deadlift. I noticed this difference during the first week of raw lifting after my equipped week. Raw squats and benches went well but I felt weak on raw deadlifts.

As such, if you try this plan, you might want to only use it for squats and benches. For deadlifts, it would be best to just train raw, alternating deadlifts and a major assistance exercise. If you want to use a suit for a contest, add it for just the last workout or two beforehand. But even then, I would say the only reason to wear a suit is if you feel you need the protection it gives the hips and groin area. In that case, just get the least expensive suit you can find and one that fits snug but too tight.

The Unique Problems I Ran Into

That is the story for the average person. And I think with the alterations suggested, it might have worked. But it didn't for me for two reasons having to do with my unique health situation.

First, as I discuss in my book, using gear is very exhausting. That is the reason I stopped using it three years ago. With my fibromyalgia, the extra time and effort that gear adds to a workout was getting to be too much. But when I got the urge to use gear again, I was hoping I could find gear that would be effective but not too difficult to get on and off. And I did find gear that was reasonably easy to use, but it was still too much. I got increasingly exhausted with each equipped workout, so much so I had to take a few days off of training the next week to recover.

I also ran into another problem. I also suffer from what is best called multiple chemical sensitivities. This is basically severe allergies. I can be allergic to just about anything. When I used gear previously, it didn't bother me, but now, the new gear really caused me problems. Even after washing it a couple of times, it still bothered me. And that led to problems that would be too hard to describe here. But trust me when I say there simply is no way I could use gear on a regular basis. As such, unless my health situation somehow miraculously changes, I have no choice but to lift raw from now on. For the routine I switched to at this point, see All-Raw In-Season Training - Weeks 1-6.

Conclusion

I am very disappointed I wasn't able to continue what I started. The new squat suit seemed like it would have worked well, and the new bench shirt probably would have been great once I got it altered. And most of all, with the tweaks mentioned, I think my overall plan for training raw and equipped would have been successful. But as things turned out, I wasted a lot of time, money, and effort with my attempt to train for raw and equipped powerlifting. However, if someone can benefit from my experiences and successfully incorporate these ideas into your training, then maybe it wasn't all such a waste after all.

Finally, a lot of concepts touched on briefly in this article are discussed in detail in my powerlifting book, so check it out for further explanations.

Training for Raw and Equipped Powerlifting. Copyright 2010 by Gary F. Zeolla.

The above article first appeared in the free FitTips for One and All newsletter.
It was posted on this site September 25, 2010.

Powerlifting and Strength Training
Powerlifting and Strength Training: Training Routines and Program Design

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