Coach Ken Wheeler | "Powerlifting 101: what division should I compete in?"

Powerlifting 101: what division should I compete in?

Today’s blog topic is more information from a seminar I presented awhile ago on Powerlifting Basics. I hope this will be helpful. 

If you are a student of the game, you know that one of the attractive things (for some people) about powerlifting now, as compared to then, is the seemingly endless numbers of divisions to choose from. “Back in the day” (sorry, very worn out cliché but it fits), your option was to choose a weight class and compete... period. Yes, there were master’s divisions based on age, but these days you also have a myriad of other things to consider and it is not uncommon for a lifter to win 2-3 first place awards simply because of all the divisions they chose to enter. Let’s take a look at “divisions”. 

First up, gender: Although the face of all sports is changing, your two choices in powerifting are male or female. Basically you lift in the same division as the restroom you use. (And yes, I have an opinion about how this is being addressed in our sport, but this is not the place for that discussion. Send me a note if you want to chat.)

Next, but not always an easy or obvious decision as it would seem, age division: the largest category of lifters is the “open” division. This division is for any and all-comers, no matter what your age or ability/ranking. If you want to go against an “open” field, jump in that pool. However, if you want to fine-tune your choice, there are also divisions for: teens (13-18); juniors (20-23); sub-master (36-40…this division should be eliminated, imo); and masters 40+ (every five years is grouped into an age-group. Ex. 40-44). 

So, if you wish, you may enter your actual age group, but you could also enter the open division as well, or instead. “But wait…” as they say on the late-night infomercials…”that’s not all!”

You may also choose divisions based upon supportive gear. Over the decades powerlifting has gone full circle from no gear existing, to the extreme end of the spectrum (what many of us referred to as “extreme” powerlifting) where multiple forms of supportive gear are allowed. For the sake of brevity I am only going to list the divisions by name, not by details. Please refer to the USPA rule book regarding specifics for each division. The divisions regarding supportive gear are: Raw; Classic Raw; Single-ply; and my favorite, Multi-ply. 

This can really get a bit convoluted at this point because according to the rules a lifter can actually lift in any of the geared categories and choose to NOT use any supportive gear at all! For example, you might notice that a record is attainable in the “single-ply” division of your weight class, BUT you do not own any single-ply gear. No worries, just because it’s the single-ply division does NOT mean you have to wear a single-ply singlet.

So why have the division if you do not have to wear the gear? Because the rule is for “allowance” of the gear to be used if you want to use it, not for forcing someone to wear it if they do not wish to. So, if you are capable of accomplishing a lift without it, then by all means, lift “raw”, if you choose to, but you may use a supportive squat suit or bench shirt should you choose to do so…in this division. 

Confused yet?! “But wait…there’s more”!! 

Last on our list of divisions are probably the most controversial, the “tested” and “non-tested” divisions. The names pretty much self-identify the categories, but for those who may not know, powerlifting is the only sport that I am aware of, that actually allows for performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) or anabolic steroids to be used. In “tested” meets in the USPA, for example, a certain percentage of lifters are chosen to be “tested” for drugs immediately after the competition. Those who fail the tests are fined $500 and receive a life-time ban from in any drug tested competitions of the USPA. (I do not know the penalties that other federations enforce. Please refer to their rulebooks for details.)

As the name implies, “non-tested” meets are exactly that. No one will be tested because in this division, drug use is NOT cheating, it is allowed. It is not necessarily encouraged, but it is rather, simply not an issue. If you wish to use “PEDs” you are free to do so in this division.

 (Side notes regarding “non-tested” lifters: First, MOST people who lift in this division do NOT use drugs. Just because drugs are allowed, does NOT mean and no one should assume, that all of these lifters are using PEDs. This is simply not the case. Just because someone punches up a huge total and stomps yours into the ground does NOT automatically mean that person is chemically enhanced. The FACT is, some people are just way stronger than others and some people simply work way harder than 99% of their competition and THAT is the reason they are kicking everyone’s ass. So, before you ignorantly (yes, this is a rant) accuse someone, whom you know nothing about, of taking drugs, try getting to work and focusing on your own weaknesses. Just don’t be that person who assumes. 

On the other hand, if you are one of those who does choose to use anabolics, please don’t be “that guy” who enters a tested meet just so you can maybe win a trophy. Is it really so important to win that you cannot man-up (it’s just a phrase, ladies, please) and go head to head against your competition? If it is, and you get caught, I promise you that many of us will make fun of you for years to come. And yes, I have seen it happen on national PL forums. Good stuff, if you asked me. You choose to cheat, some of us will tell the world about it just because you chose to do stupid.  End of rant… and you’re welcome.)  

Back to our story…….

Now that I have given you a very basic look at divisions, let’s end with some examples of how this would work on an entry form:

Male Lifter #1…..lifting in the 110kg/242# weight class, classic-open division, non-tested. This lifter must weigh over 100kgs/220#s and less than 110kgs/242#s and will be allowed to use supportive knee wraps if he chooses to do so. He is 46 years old and has chosen to lift as a Master in the 44-49 yr old age group. If this lifter has chosen to use PEDs, he may lift in this meet with no issues. No drug tests will be administered.  

Female Lifter #2….lifting in the 60kg/132# weight class, junior age group, single-ply division AND the Open division at the “tested” State Championships. This lifter must weight over 56kg/122# and less than 60kg/132# and will be allowed to use any recognized single-ply gear allowed in the rulebook if she chooses to.  She has also chosen to enter both her specific age group (20-23) AND the Open division. In this case she will be competing with other females in both or either divisions. Depending on this lifter’s total at the end of the day, she may or may not be randomly chosen to take a drug test. 

So, there you have it, pick your division, get to work and have some fun. I hope this has helped answer the question, “what division should I lift in?” Whatever you choose, everyone is welcome and there is a place for you in powerlifting. 

God bless!


Coach Ken Wheeler USPA Multi Ply/Vice-President/HogPit Powerlifting



Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.