In the beginning there was just powerlifting and everyone did whatever they could to get an advantage. In the late 70s there were guys wrapping tennis balls behind their knees to get more rebound, and guys wearing tight denim shorts under their singlets to get any extra pound they could – it’s 100% about lifting the most weight, right? Eventually it got out of hand and rules about lifters’ attire were created.
Marathon quickly came out with a singlet made of stiffer material that would protect the lifter’s hips and let them squat a few more pounds. Frantz and Inzer followed with supporting shirts out of the same polyester material.
The gear kept evolving. More supportive gear was created and lifters started figuring out how to get more support out of that. Eventually the techniques used started to change to allow the more supportive gear – wider stance for squats and tucking the elbows while bench pressing. By the early 2000s there was a significant amount of technique needed to be competitive. In those days raw lifting was the amateur division, the best of the best all competed in gear so that’s where the party was.
I fully credit the Lilliebridge family and a few other monsters in the early 2000s who stayed raw and paved the way for the huge numbers of raw lifters we have now. They were some of the first guys to really treat the raw division seriously back then. This trend kept up through today when raw lifting is taken just as seriously as geared by most serious competitors and has huge numbers of amateurs coming in because of the accessibility of raw lifting. Powerlifting seriously as a raw competitor doesn’t require a huge team or years of technical work. You can be a world-beater in the raw world training in your basement at your convenience.
Both divisions require technical skill and brute strength but the skills and strengths are different. The biggest misconceptions are that geared doesn’t require strength or raw doesn’t require technique.
Like equipment classes in drag racing, equipped lifters only compete with equipped lifters and raw only with raw. Those divisions allow people to compete however they feel is the most fun.
The evolution of the sport that we’re seeing now is that guys in both divisions are learning that training both ways will benefit them. Raw guys using bench assistance devices, briefs, wraps, etc… allows them to get used to heavier weights and train with a higher percentage more often. Geared guys are realizing that there’s good reason to build a raw base and maintain it and that it can be fun to compete both ways.
I prefer the challenge of geared lifting, personally. I’ve competed raw and still do every so often, but I like the technical aspects of geared competition. I’d definitely encourage every lifter to go out and compete a few times in both divisions just to test yourself. Who knows, once you get past all the online blowhard rhetoric it might actually be fun.