This is an excerpt from Powerlifting by Dan Austin & Bryan Mann.
Training With Gear
At some point during your training cycle you may decide to add lifting gear such as knee wraps, groove briefs, a power belt, power suit, bench shirt, and wrist wraps. This gear could be used only for training. As the meet gets closer, start to use the gear you plan to use in competition.
The debate about training with gear always arises, unless you are a raw lifter, in which case you never add gear. There is the school of thought that you want to train without gear to get as strong as possible so that when you add gear, you get a bigger total. The contrary school of thought says that you want to train in gear as much as possible so that you can learn the gear and get used to handling bigger weights. Neither is necessarily wrong. However, there is middle ground. You should get as strong as possible while lifting raw and you should learn the gear so you can be most effective with it.
Athletics arose from the ancient Greeks during times of peace. They gathered in Athens every few years to have the Olympics. Soldiers would train and get together to see who had the superior army. Games were held to see who could run the fastest and thus deliver the most damage on impact with the sprints, who could do the most damage from afar with war weapons such as a spear or heavy ball (shot) or a discus. There were competitions to see whose messengers could get great distances of 26.2 miles (42.16 km) the quickest. Fast-forwarding to modern track, two jumping events exist for height: the high jump and the pole vault. The pole vaulter jumps as high as possible by learning the timing and position of his equipment in addition to being able to run as fast as possible and jump as high as possible. If he were to worry only about jumping with the pole, he wouldn't be able to run as fast to gain momentum or jump as high by his own power to help transfer that momentum with the pole. Likewise, if the pole vaulter did all plyometric and speed work and nothing with the pole, he would not be able to perform on meet day because his timing would be thrown off. The pole vaulter does work with the pole, performs plyometrics without the pole, and executes simple running speed work drills.
Powerlifters need to perform gear work to understand how to use their gear, but they also need to get strong in general. They must do some gear work so they can perform on meet day, but must also improve raw strength at the same time. If one is done and not the other, the lifter will be out of balance and unable to perform come meet day. If both are achieved, the sky is the limit for growth potential and making personal records on meet day.
The question of what gear to add and when is tricky. Each federation has different gear rules. Every person has his own system. Basically add briefs first, knee wraps second, suit bottoms third, and throw the straps on the suit last. Essentially you increase in intensity with your gear as you would in training. In the days of single-ply lifting with groove briefs, lifters would commonly start adding briefs at 80 to 85 percent, knee wraps at 85 to 90 percent, suit bottoms at 90 percent, and full suit at 90 to 95 percent. One prevailing theory for the addition of gear was to hold off from using it as long as possible. That way when you add on the gear, the weight feels lighter.
The bench press and deadlift are both a little bit different than the squat, as there is much less gear. For the bench press, a shirt day is a shirt day. You throw the shirt on, get it set properly, and do the weights for that day. The only additional gear beyond the bench shirt is wrist wraps and a belt to hold the shirt down. Without a belt, the shirt is allowed to ride up higher onto the neck, allowing a lighter weight to touch. As more weight gets added, the shirt eventually needs to be held in place; this is when the belt is added. On the contrary, some lifters like to have the shirt seated and fit exactly as it would for every repetition. For those lifters, the belt comes on as soon as the shirt does, and the distance the bar travels is what varies from set to set. The more weight on the bar, the closer to the chest it comes.
The deadlift is like the bench press in that very little gear is involved. Some actually prefer to deadlift with a belt only if they can't find a suit that works properly for the deadlift. Obviously, if no gear is used, there is no worry about the addition of gear. If gear is used, it should be used only in a manner that allows the lifter to repeat his form. For instance, if a weight is too light and the lifter has to round his back or force his knees in an unusual direction when compared to other heavier weights, then he should not add the suit.
Experienced trainees are always trying to get into the tightest gear possible. The tighter the gear, the more assistance it gives, and the higher total you can expect. People who can stand tight gear and force their form throughout the movement will receive more assistance from their gear and receive the benefit of the higher total.
However, the flipside is, Can you stand the tightness of the gear? Does it keep the sport from being enjoyable? While the goal of powerlifting is to lift the biggest possible weights, you should have fun when you do it. If your main goal is to set a personal record and continually improve your own total, then a reliance on tight gear is unnecessary, especially if you don't like the feeling.
Over the years, you will have to deal with other powerlifters who try to get you to use smaller and tighter gear, attempting to sell you on the point that tighter gear could give your body an advantage on the platform. However, gear can be so tight that your focus is no longer on trying to be in the moment of making a successful lift. Instead, it is on the pain caused by the tight-fitting gear. When the gear becomes too tight, you can no longer focus on being right there. You have to focus on forcing your form and blocking out the pain. Using the tighter gear can cause you to lose your focus and actually cause your total to drop. Choose lifting gear that is not so loose you get nothing out of it but not so super tight that it alters your form and technique. Choose gear that is comfortable and will help you get the most out of your lifting.
Regardless of how tight the gear is, you must always force your form. Make sure that you are forcing the gear around your body and through your technique, not allowing a tight shirt to round your shoulders forward and cause your head to come up off the bench. If this happens, either you are not forcing your form or you are not strong enough for that shirt. Likewise, tight straps on a squat suit could force the shoulders to round forward and lose the form you have practiced in training. Forcing your form and forcing the gear to go where you want it ultimately will give you the most out of your gear. You will receive more rebound effect since you are stretching the gear more greatly.
You must be strong enough raw to handle tighter gear. A good way to know if gear is too tight is if you are not able to force your form. If after a few sessions you are not able to force your form, you must work on getting stronger raw. It may not be the strength of certain muscle groups that prevents using tighter gear. For instance, on the bench press, the pecs and the triceps may be strong enough to press the weight in the shirt, but the lats and the upper back are not strong enough to keep you in position; you roll forward in the shirt and are not able to maximize your strength. In a this situation, you may be better off in a bigger shirt because forcing the form will allow more rebound and more weight pressed out of the bottom. Remember the old adage that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link? It is especially true with equipment. You may have made some muscles so strong that you can lock out tremendous weights, but you can't get them to touch because you've neglected other muscle groups.
The great thing about powerlifting is that it is an individual sport. If you focus on bettering yourself both physically and mentally, it doesn't matter if you are getting more out of a tighter shirt. You are working to beat yourself.
The average career for an experienced powerlifter is 3 years. Often this is due to frustration about placing in meets. You'll never have Jason (Jay) Fry's bench press or Donnie Thompson's squat or Andy Bolton's deadlift, so why try? This is a wrong focus. The focus needs to be internal, to learn to push through your own plateaus and reach the highest peaks that you can. If you compare yourself to others, you always come up short. Look within to conquer your own struggles, both external and internal, and powerlifting can be a great focus to enable you to push yourself to greater heights.
Read more from Powerlifting by Dan Austin and Bryan Mann.