Powerlifting is both one of the most popular and one of the most obscure sports in America. It’s also not for everyone. Although a lot of us played around with some version of the three power lifts in middle or high school, most people are unfamiliar with the esoteric rules and guidelines governing sanctioned competition. If you’re considering trying your hand at powerlifting competitively, there are strong arguments for doing unsanctioned aka backyard meets for your first time out. Here’s my take based upon my own experience and talking to three respected veterans of the sport of powerlifting, Steve Denison, president of United States Powerlifting Association, Stephen Parkhurst, President World United Amateur Powerlifting-USA and Tee “Skinny Man” Meyers who competed in WNPF, USPF, USAPL, APA with a 710lb squat/ 400lb bench/ 761lb deadlift at a bodyweight of 187lbs drug free and promotes meets under the banner of the Python Power League.
You’re Probably A Hobbyist
That’s just what it sounds like. You’re not a top twenty lifter trying to move up in the rankings to secure a sponsorship and chasing established records. You’re just looking to test yourself and see how you handle competition conditions. I followed this exact route when I started out, first doing a bench only meet under Son Light Power, then a couple of Push/Pull meets with Python Power League before doing the USAPL Powerlifting For Pups full meet.
Since then I’ve competed in Southern Powerlifting Federation and USA Powerlifting meets and I’m training for my first USPA meet.
Despite being a novice without a coach at the Powerlifting For Pups meet, I arrived knowing the rules and what to expect. I didn’t get any red lights for technique and I had a clear notion of how to call my attempts both of which are areas where new lifters stumble.
Learning The Rules
There’s a world of difference between doing partial squats in gym shorts at the local Y and performing that same lift to competition depth, while wearing something that exposes all of your bulges to a room full of strangers and being scrutinized by three unsmiling people. “You train for years and months and get to the meet and bomb out; everybody doesn’t have a good coach. The guys in the gym are giving you advice; they don’t know what they’re doing. You don’t know they told you wrong until you get to the meet,” said Meyers.
“They’re a great introduction for a lot of people getting into the sport,” said Denison. “I ran a non-sanctioned high school meet in Bakersfield, CA for about six years, 2002-2008 and it worked great. And I didn’t want to sanction it. We ran it once a year and we had 180 kids, 10-15 high schools and it worked wonderful but it was just a way to introduce the sport.
Unsanctioned meets get flack for sloppy judging and doing away with some rules to make it simpler. I’ve seen meets sponsored by the local high school football team with squats high enough to make your balls think they’re going base jumping. I’ve also watched benchers at local gym bench press meets try to crack their sternums as they bounce and heave their way to victory. But that doesn’t apply to every unsanctioned meet. If you want a true picture of what competition conditions would be like in a sanctioned meet minus the need for all of the specialized gear you’ll have to do some homework.
“Though the event the WUAP-USA will be promoting later in April, is not sanctioned, it will be far from a sloppy backyard event,” Parkhurst said. “Athletes can expect all the professionalism and safety of our WUAP-USA sanctioned events. The only real differences in this event from a sanctioned event will be: you don’t need to wear a singlet and you don’t have to wait for a press call. Sloppy, unsafe actions by athletes will still not be allowed.”
Meyers said that he enforces the rules strictly at his meets because his objective is to teach lifters about the sport of powerlifting.
“There were certain people who wanted to see if I was obeying the rules. They didn’t complain that the squats weren’t deep enough or there wasn’t a pause on the bench. It wasn’t a complaint about the execution of the lifts,” he said.
No Rankings But Also Less Drama, Lower Cost And A Chance To Help Others
Powerlifting has drama. That squat was high, that press call was fast, he didn’t lock out his knees. That squat should have counted but the judges red lighted her because they don’t like her. There’s no need to deal with that your first time out. It’s unlikely to happen but why chance it? Plus there are many unsanctioned meets that exist to raise money for a good cause. So you can lift in a lower pressure environment and do some good at the same time.
“There was a meet that’s been run for years, the Red Brick Bench Press meet in Buffalo, NY and all of the money was sent to military families in western NY. There was a sanctioned part of that event and an unsanctioned part of that event. And some people would only do that once a year and they didn’t want to set any records,” said Denison, “They’re just lifting for themselves and to help support the event. They may not want to do anything other than that. And if they did a USPA American or state record then they had to be in the sanctioned part.”
Even if a first timer decides to only get the bare minimum needed to compete raw he’s looking at a fair amount of money. “It’s $70-$80 to enter, the membership card is $40 or $50. You’ve got to have a singlet or you’ve got to have a suit,” Meyers said. If they choose to add knee sleeves, a belt and wrist wraps the cost climbs higher. Add in special shoes whether they be the much beloved Chuck Taylors or a set of Adidas Powerlifts and you’re talking $300 or more.
That’s a pretty big investment for your first time trying a sport that you may end up deciding to no longer pursue. Don’t think that’s possible? It is. Travis Mash, YouTuber Omar Isuf and World Highland Games Champion Matt Vincent all competed in powerlifting and ultimately decided to focus their efforts elsewhere. Powerlifting isn’t for everyone. Imagine buying all of that gear, bombing out and deciding to hang it up. What if you made the same decision after one or two meets? You’re still stuck with all of that gear. Maybe you can sell it to someone else, maybe not. When was the last time you bought a used singlet on Craigslist or Ebay? I don’t know about you but I’m not keen on spending my Saturday walking around in some stranger’s evaporated farts and dried out ball sweat.
But Won’t It Hurt Attendance At Established Meets?
By now, some of the experienced powerlifters may be protesting because with the state of powerlifting being what it is, there’s a fear that unsanctioned meets take away from the sport. We are talking about a sport that lists more than thirty federations all with their own national champions and records? And what about inconsistent judging allowing bad lifts to pollute the rankings? I don’t think either of those is likely to happen. First, Powerlifting Watch said back in 2008 that they’re only counting the results from specific high level unsanctioned events like Raw Unity. As for taking away from attendance at sanctioned events, Denison said event attendance is higher than ever.
“Our meets are all filling up; in fact all federations are filling up! I find out that a lot of federations are just maxing out all of the time like as soon as they announce they’re practically filling up so the demand is out there. People want to lift heavy weights and they want to challenge themselves and so really don’t have to do much other than get on social media and let people know about it,” Denison said. “It’s Instagram, Facebook, people are on there and they’re finding out because they’re on there, their friends are telling them about it. A lot of the exposure from social media has driven the sport to the level that it is today,” he said.
In fact, doing an unsanctioned meet, especially one run with the oversight of an established federation can actually increase the general public’s knowledge of powerlifting. Meyers says that unsanctioned meets are a sort of JV or feeder program for sanctioned competitions.
“In reality, I’m helping the other federations. Because a lot of people will come up and learn the basics of powerlifting and the next thing you know they’re in big meets. I basically advertise for them; I tell them about the other meets, that’s why we have the Python Power League Facebook page,” Meyers said.
Parkhurst agrees have a similar outlook. “The WUAP-USA chose to promote an unsanctioned meet for a number of reasons, Parkhurst said. “First and foremost, I wanted to do something for the Joliet, Illinois area to encourage the sport of powerlifting,” he said. “Second, I wanted to do a simple contest, which would attract not only powerlifters, but expose any athlete to the sport of powerlifting.”
Don’t Fool Yourself
As a lifter in an unsanctioned meet you can have fun and learn about the sport but ultimately you’ve got to realize that you’re still not doing the same thing you see your heroes do on YouTube. Your lifts probably won’t count on Powerlifting Watch which is still the gold standard for ranking and you can’t call yourself world champion because you got first place out of both the lifters in your weight class at a YMCA charity meet in Acworth, GA.
“It is as much the promoter as it is the athlete to educate themselves. Athletes who lift in unsanctioned event must be responsible to know they are lifting in events that do not represent the true sport of powerlifting. In turn, the promoters must make sure the athletes understand that a backyard gym meet is exactly that”, Parkhurst said.
After doing a couple of meets all three men I spoke to agreed that an athlete who is serious about progressing in the sport should seek out more formal opportunities to compete.
“You notice when people start doing meets in other federations you don’t hear me say, “Why’d they leave us?” No! I want them to go on to bigger and better things,” said Meyers.
“If you’ve never tried the USPA definitely check out the USPA at uspa.net, look under member resources and check out our events and come see for yourself if this is something you want to do. We’d love to have you out” Denison said.
Parkhurst goes a step further, saying he doesn’t mind if an athlete starts in his unsanctioned meet and chooses to compete in other federation’s sanctioned events. “This is the USA and we are all free to compete and support everyone we want. I encourage all lifters to compete where they are most comfortable and to cross federation lines to experience all that powerlifting has to offer” he said.
Where To Start?
Powerlifting Watch lists tons of meets every month sanctioned and unsanctioned. All you have to do is go there, put in the time frame you’d like to compete in, the location and specify a federation or choose unsanctioned. Let’s say you want to do a sanctioned meet but don’t have your singlet or other equipment yet. There’s nothing to say you couldn’t sign up for a sanctioned meet that’s three months away and do an unsanctioned one this weekend just to see how it feels.
John Greaves III writes everywhere that will return his nagging emails. He is the founder of https://garagegymlife.net/ and has authored two fiction books involving powerlifting which aren’t boring but are available on Amazon.com. John earned a Combat Action Ribbon the old-fashioned way in Operation Iraqi Freedom II and taught hundreds of motivated Devil Dogs how to punch, kick, stab and strangle as a Marine Corps Martial Arts Instructor and flew home from the 2001 International Kickboxing Federation National Championships angry because he only got a silver medal. Now he’s learning the way of squat, bench and deadlift as a competitor in the Masters Division on the Gogginsforce team. John is constantly seeking out interesting people who have rejected an average life in favor of building an extraordinary legacy. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .