Early this month I had the pleasure (?) of helping a friend of mine at his local powerlifting meet. Over the months he had squatted, benched and deadlifted with a remarkable intensity and focus. When the time came for the big day, I was honoured that he asked me to come along. Admittedly, I didn’t know what to expect.
Despite training for over a decade at this point, a time that has included powerlifting programmes, my knowledge of the sport was largely confined to big athletes lifting even bigger things. The powerlifting meet changed that. At least somewhat. Still big athletes and big things but now there were elastic singlets, knee wraps and in the warm up benching shirts. What I thought to be a simple sport (in theory, not in execution) was anything but.
Competitors discussed the relative merits of heel height in their lifting shoes, the importance of tight weightlifting belts and which squat suit provided the best bang for their buck. When the time came for my friend’s first squat, I had to peel him into, and then later, out of, his own squat suit. Moral of the story? Always ask what exactly is entailed when you agree to help someone!
In any case the experience rekindled my interest in the history of powerlifting, specifically all its bells and whistles. In today’s post, we’re going to discuss the emergence of weightlifting belts, shoes, squat suits and bench shirts to determine what emerged, when and why.
A Brief History of US Powerlifting
In the interests of time, space and my own laziness, we’re going to confine ourselves primarily to the American context. This does not mean that powerlifting emerged first in the US but rather that the sources are a hell of a lot easier to access for this stressed out PhD student. Okay? Okay!
As detailed previously on this site, powerlifting as a recognised competitive sport as opposed to a circus variety, emerged in the United States in the 1940s, owing in part to the persistence of Peary Rader, an iron game legend. From the 1940s, moves towards a more competitive and formalised competition were tentative. Numerous lifts were tried and discarded as local meets largely set their own rules. Things changed however in 1964 when York Barbell’s Bob Hoffman sanctioned a national powerlifting meet for lifters across the country.
Though unofficial, from the stand point of record taking, it marked a line in the sand. The following year the American Amateur Union officially sanctioned the US’s first powerlifting meet to the delight of the 47 lifters competing. In a fascinating and highly recommended article from Iron Game History, Jan Todd, Dominic Morais, and Ben Pollack (all of whom it’s safe to say know a little something something about powerlifting) noted the fact that these early meets were characterised by sparse lifting equipment. Some lifters used belts or wrestling singlets, others wore loafers! It was fairly casual from an attire sense.
The history of weightlifting belts and shoes has been covered elsewhere on this site. For belts see here, and shoes, here. Thus, we’ll turn our attention primarily on the squat suits and bench shirts now so ubiquitous with the sport.
Within just three years of the first official powerlifting meet, lifters were already engaging in the dark arts of number manipulating. According to Ken Leistner, by 1968, lifters were cutting tennis balls in half and placing them behind their knees during the squat, in an effort to help bounce them (see what I did there?) out of the hole. Such tricks were hidden and and secured with Ace bandages, one of the few pieces of equipment that was sanctioned.
Other simply pushed the boundaries of the bandages. In essence only one bandage was allowed per leg without a specified length limit. To circumvent this, lifters would sew two bands together to make longer wraps.
The most egregious and to my mind funniest incident came in 1968 when the Californian Tom Overholzer reportedly wrapped his torso with bedsheets, covered the sheets with a layer of Ace band- ages, and then put on his singlet prior to his first squat attempt. The first powerlifting suit thus has claims in plain old bedsheets! Returning to Ken Leistner we learn that despite the judges protestations, Overholzer was allowed to continue. There was nothing in the rulebook preventing his ingenious idea. From the Iron Game article we learn that Overholzer’s bed sheets were apparently so tight that the powerlifter struggled to move around the platform. Practical strength at its best…
While Overholzer’s antics led to a prolonged debate amongst the powerlifting community about the limits of equipment, it is important to note that he wasn’t the only individual bending the rules. According to Leistner, many lifters would take a tight pair of jeans and cut them into jean shorts, worn underneath their singlet. Some even resorted to two or more pairs, all incredibly tight, in an effort to aid their squatting numbers.
Having weighed up a series of jean short references from Arrested Development, Scrubs and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, I feel the following clip is perhaps the most appropriate.
I’m far prouder of this reference then I care to admit.
Soon jean shorts extended into rudimentary powerlifting suits. Between 1973 and 1974, the powerlifter Larry Pacifico began to think about replicating Overholzer’s ideas, albeit without the bed sheets. To that end he contacted Spanjian Sportswear, a company known primarily for its wrestling singlets about creating suits made of a heavier fabric that would be cut high on the legs. Playing around with the prototypes, Pacifico found that he could add 30 to 40 pounds on his maximum squats solely with the suits. In the days before internet shopping, Pacifico was forced to sell the suits at individual powerlifting meets. Word spread and people began to take interest.
Interestingly the market soon became populated with the exact same product. In 1976, George Zangas cut a deal with Spanjian which granted him exclusive rights to the suits that Pacifico had essentially designed. Unlike Pacifico who bought the suits in batches at irregular times, Zangas promised regular, bulk orders. Rather than drive their prices into the ground competing with one another, Zangas and Pacifico soon made a deal. Pacifico and Zangas under ‘Marathon.’ The suits continued to sell at meets, as well as through dedicated powerlifting magazines. As the sport grew in popularity, so did the number of manufacturers. Indeed a cursory search for squat suits online reveals several dozen manufacturers.
Of course squat suits are not the only pieces of attire worn by powerlifters these days. Bench suits are equally as popular. Unlike the squat suits however, the bench suit has its origins, it seems, in the fashion industry.
In 1983 John Inzer, whose company still produce bench suits, designed and marketed what is widely believed to be the first suit designed for the bench press. Made of a heavy fabric, which barely stretched, Inzer knew he was onto a winner when his prototypes added several pounds to his one rep max. The key then was to market it.
You can imagine his surprise, shock and one suspects horror at learning that his design had already been patented. Not by another powerlifter mind you but rather by a New York Fashion designer! The designer in question, Gabriele Knecht had patented a piece of clothing with armholes placed slightly forward of the body’s midline, a design deemed far too similar to Inzer’s powerlifting suit by the powers that be. Luckily for Inzer, he was able to purchase Knecht’s patent rights thereby preventing any other company from producing bench shirts with the iconic forward sleeve design. According to the Iron Game History article cited earlier, Inzer managed to hold an effective monopoly on the bench suit market until he patent’s expiry. A point that perhaps explains his company’s high status in the Iron lifting game.
Regardless of the business politics, the first advertisement for the bench suit came in Powerlifting USA in February 1980. Sold by J’s Gym in Statesboro, Geor-gia, the ad claimed the shirt was “Worn at World Championships,” and “Makes for Increased Bench.” Customers didn’t need to hear any more. The suits’ popularity quickly increased.
Firstly, yes that subtitle is a pun. Secondly I think it’s clear that although powerlifting is relatively simple in design, albeit not execution, the history of powerlifting gear demonstrates the lengths that people will go to in order to increase their numbers. While some use gear to protect or guard against old injuries, the majority seem drawn to it as a means of enhancing their meet totals.
It is interesting to note that the birth of US powerlifting as an official sport largely coincides with the influx of anabolic steroids within the USA. Gear in both senses of the word has allowed lifters of both sexes to push the boundaries of what was thought possible in the sport. That the first Raw powerlifting (a.k.a. no equipment) meet was held in the US in 1996 suggests that not everyone has been happy with the sport’s developments.
Though cited earlier, this blogpost is effectively a synopsis of the information provided in Todd, J., Morais, D. G., Pollack, B., & Todd, T. ‘Shifting Gear: A Historical Analysis of the Use of Supportive Apparel in Powerlifting, Iron Game History, November/December (2015), pp. 37-56. Found here.