About two months ago, I retired from pro multi-ply powerlifting.
I stepped on a meet platform for the first time in January of 1997 for a local bench meet. By 1999, I was competing regularly in full single-ply meets. Like most lifters of that generation, I started off raw, then almost automatically transitioned to single-ply gear, which at the time was by far the most heavily populated version of the sport. Raw really hadn't emerged as a major category in the sport yet. I transitioned to multi-ply in 2000 and stayed in it for the next 20 years.
Fast forward to today, the majority of the sport is raw, with single-ply somewhere in the middle and multi-ply a distant third.
For lifters of my generation, the shift to raw was difficult to navigate. When raw really started taking off near the end of the '00s, we were faced with the decision to either jump from the sinking ship and trade our canvas suits in for knee sleeves or stay the course.
Some jumped ship, many more retired, and a few of us hung on.
For the next ten years, I watched the sport I love become smaller, and increasingly marginalized. Multi-ply was totally ignored by the new powerlifting companies popping up everywhere, and the occasional big multi-ply lift that made it to social media was eviscerated almost as soon as the "share" button was hit.
I'll be honest, it wasn't looking good for a while, but I stayed with it, if only because I didn't know what to do with myself. I'd be lying if I said I never questioned staying in gear, but retirement has given me the ability to look back on my career in its totality, and in retrospect, I'm glad I stayed. I think I've gained something from the experience that I would have missed out on if I had jumped ship too early.
For most of my 23 years in the sport, I've tried to be mindful of whatever reputation I've had in the sport. And in an effort to try and represent my sport positively, I've tried to stay out of the whole "Raw vs. Gear" debate/argument/pissing match. I never really saw much point in getting into what is essentially an argument over personal preference, and I figured if I really wanted to help people succeed in this sport, the best course of action was to remain neutral and support all versions of the sport, however I could.
I'm gonna come clean here. I purposely made the beginning of this article sound like it was gonna be another boring reminiscence about the old days from another washed-up old meathead. While I AM, in fact, a washed-up old meathead, I'm not gonna subject you to a bunch of "back in my day" bullshit. The reason I started this article off boring as fuck was to shake off the casual lifters and speak directly to YOU. If you've made it this far, I'm gonna assume you're at least somewhat interested in gear, and instead of playing the middle as I've always done, I'm gonna give you the truth.
Multi-ply powerlifting is better than raw.
Not saying this to be shocking or controversial here. If I were looking for cheap hits, I would have called this article "Blah Blah Blah Westside." What I want to say isn't for everyone, but it's something I feel strongly about.
Please note, I'm not comparing the sports based on the executions of the lifts themselves, because then they'd be tied with every other sport. In terms of the sport itself, multi-ply powerlifting is no better or worse than raw powerlifting, football, or bowling, in that you're just executing a series of actions to score points within the rules.
But when you look a little deeper, over a longer period of time, and you see the effect a sport has on its participants, the difference becomes clearer. Geared powerlifting is harder. Much harder. Now please don't take this to mean that raw powerlifters don't work hard, especially at the top. ALL high-level strength athletes are extraordinarily hard workers.
But the difference is that what makes raw powerlifting great is also what makes geared lifting better. Raw powerlifting is inclusive. Almost anyone can do it, and almost anyone does. While I would argue that mastering the power lifts isn't easy, almost anyone can perform them well enough to make it through a meet. In my opinion, it's one of the best participation sports out there, and whenever someone tells me they are considering trying powerlifting, I steer them towards raw almost every time.
Multi-ply, however, is a totally different animal.
For starters, the equipment is expensive, and finding the right size (a process that never fucking ends) is difficult. Advanced gear can take up to two months before it's broken in enough to even be usable. I don't even want to get into alterations and repairs.
The workouts take forever. Three hours is about the minimum for a full gear squat workout. In a large crew with strong lifters, five to six hours is very common.
Misses are a motherfucker. Not only does the gear make executing the lifts far more difficult, but it also tends to make things go sideways really, really fast if you do happen to fuck up (which you will, constantly). As I'm writing this, I really can't believe we didn't see more deaths during the "shirt wars" of the early '00s. People used to watch that shit for the dumps like watching NASCAR for the crashes.
Powerlifting equipment fucking hurts even when everything is going well. Squatting in a suit eats into your upper thighs, crushes your nuts (if you happen to have them) and the extreme pressure makes passing out in the hole common. And there's nothing better than taking a full 20 minutes to get all your shit on then realizing you need to piss. Bench shirts cut the shit out of your triceps, and the pressure from the collar against your chest feels like being crushed under a car. I have so much nerve damage in my chest from the constant pressure that my pecs have basically atrophied away to nothing. Deadlift suits aren't all that bad except for the feeling of the world's worst wedgie when you try to bend down to get your hands on the bar.
Learning the equipment is extremely frustrating, and it never ends. Lifters who don't understand gear will often complain that the gear is doing the work for you. I fucking wish. Most of the time, it feels like the shit is trying to kill you. Simply executing a maximal effort lift in multi-ply gear requires an extraordinary level of strength, skill, and courage that few sports can match.
With weight cuts in the mix, you have another layer of unpredictability because the stuff never fits quite the same way after a big cut. You can easily show up at a meet stronger than you've ever been, only to bomb because you couldn't find the groove.
The rest of the sport will mock you at just about every opportunity they get. If you make a big lift, "the gear did it for you." Miss one, and "a good carpenter never blames his tool." The rest of the fitness community will ignore you entirely. You'll learn humility early and often.
But the biggest difference is the crew.
What made raw take off in the first place is the Internet. Tools like eBooks, YouTube, and online coaching have made it easier than ever to train on your own, either at home or in a commercial gym. And since most people's first exposure to powerlifting now takes place on the Internet, they tend to see the version that most easily translates to an audience. Hence, the explosion of raw.
But if you want to lift in gear, you're gonna have to find (or build) yourself a crew. There's just no other way to do it. And that's when shit gets intense. Because now you'll be surrounded by people just as fucked up as you, and you'll feel more at home than you ever imagined a sport could make you feel. Have you ever felt like powerlifting just seems to mean more to you than it does to everyone else? It's almost like everyone else is just having fun with their sport, but for you, it's more, and it's difficult to find training partners who can match your level of dedication?
That won't be a problem in multi-ply. Here, you will be surrounded by people willing to die for this shit. Who do you find more motivating to train around, lifters who'd rather restrict their potential for some abstract sense of morality, or a bunch of fucking lunatics who'll do whatever the fuck it takes to put another pound on their total? Back in the old days, just competing in powerlifting at all made you an anomaly, but those days are long gone, and you're far more likely to meet Diane from accounting in your gym's squat rack than Big Gary from the morning crew.
You'll lose count of how many times you'll have saved a training partner's life while spotting. You'll lose track of how many times they've saved yours. You'll meet people you'd probably never say two words to out in the street, but in the gym, they'll become family. You'll understand what it means to be a part of something bigger than yourself. You'll learn to give and receive trust.
Outside of the gym, people might or might not "get" you, if they even care to try. But in multi-ply, people you barely know will give you the shirt off their backs, and you'll get 200 pounds out of it.
I am not by any means saying that this is not present in raw powerlifting, but it certainly isn't universal. In multi-ply, this kind of crew is a requirement, not an option. And it's this environment, combined with the pain and frustration of multi-ply lifting itself that will bring on the change you're looking for.
I said earlier that people get into gear because they want to see what they can lift without any restriction. But that's not what keeps them there. In the last few years of my career, as I was contemplating how I'd like to end it, it started to occur to me why I got into (and stayed with) the whole thing in the first place. Spoiler Alert: It had nothing to do with how much I could squat. I thought about writing what my reasons were, but there's no point as it's unique to me. But if you're still reading, It's time to admit that you know that it's not really about how much you can squat either.
Raw powerlifting is fucking awesome, and if your primary interest is in lifting weights itself, then by all means, go raw. You'll have access to way more meets, the competition is far deeper, and the top level of the sport gets far more attention.
But you know deep down that it isn't just about lifting weights and it never was. You don't train so that you can do well in meets. You do the meets to give yourself an excuse to train. The meets are fun, but you're trying to get to something much more important. Maybe you want to learn something about yourself or conquer some flaw or fear so deep you don't even let yourself think about it. Maybe you've just never really been tested in life and want to find out what you're really made of.
I'm not saying you can't find this in raw lifting, or any other sport for that matter. What I'm saying is that you WILL find it in multi-ply. It's brutal, frustrating, and one of the greatest highs you'll ever experience. You'll learn what you're really made of and what your tolerances are. I didn't retire from multi-ply powerlifting because I stopped loving it, or lost interest. I retired because I knew I was at the point where my body could no longer accommodate the demands I was placing on it, and it would have broken my fucking heart to do this at anything less than 100 percent.
Retiring wasn't easy, but I was able to do it without regrets because I can look back on my career and know that I looked under every fucking stone I could to push my numbers up, and then some. I retired knowing that my numbers, for better or worse, represent my absolute best effort under the best possible conditions.
And if you can't yet say the same, maybe there's one more stone you need to look under.