What is Multi-Ply?

Written by Tara Duncan

Hi, my name is Tara and I’m now a gear whore. 

Okay, so that sounds a little more scandalous than it really is… it just means I’m now a multi-ply powerlifter with a collection of multi-ply gear and I love picking up new gear. Even though you can only wear one piece at a time. I’d say it’s just a girl thing, we like having outfit options, but I know a lot of guys with way more than I have, so I just assume it’s a geared lifter thing. 

I was introduced to equipped lifting pretty early as many of my teammates at CTX Barbell have been doing it for years. I’d always wanted to try, but a variety of life circumstances, as well as the desire to hit some raw goals first, meant I’d wait nearly four years until I was able to try— I made the switch back in March. And day one— I was in love. 

If you don’t know what multi-ply powerlifting is, also called geared or equipped— the competition works the same way as raw lifting. Three attempts each at squat, bench, deadlift, same rules apply, etc. etc. Depending on federation rules, both raw and geared lifters can use belts, knee sleeves or wraps and wrist wraps. The major difference is in geared lifting, we wear multi-layered supportive briefs, suits and bench shirts to maximize the load we are able to lift. (There’s also single-ply lifting which is similar to multi-ply, except much like toilet paper, it just means one supportive layer vs. several. I’m not really getting into single-ply lifting only because I haven’t trained that way, but the concepts are pretty similar to multi-ply.) This gear is meant to support the body and also protect it, if used properly. 

Depending on fit and a few other factors, we can potentially lift hundreds of pounds more than we could with our bodies alone. Well, except for maybe deadlift, deadlift tends to get the least extra help from the gear although there are a few people who have mastered it. 

Because of the ability to lift much more than you could raw, lot of people think multi-ply lifting is cheating. Oh sure, you put on a suit or shirt and can suddenly lift a lot more than your body itself allows. Others think multi-ply lifting is easy, because the suit/shirt does all the work. 

Allow me to dispel those rumors and make some points. (Granted, I’m no expert after less than a year, but it doesn’t take long in gear to figure out none of the above is true. Plus, I’ve been watching/helping my teammates for years, so although I’m not qualified to speak on some of the finer points, this I can chime in on.)

MULTI-PLY MYTHS

Multi-ply is cheating. I mean, you’re competing against others in the same gear, it’s not like your records are compared to a raw lifter’s. This makes no sense whatsoever. It’s pretty much a separate sport. We’re squatting, benching and deadlifting, but we’re all doing it in a different way, and a big multi-ply loft or total doesn’t in any negate a big raw lift or total and vice versa.

The suit (or shirt) does all the work. Take a recent injury I had as proof. I tried to squat 800 lbs., but I couldn’t properly stand it up. The suit doesn’t pick the bar. You can’t squat the bar if you can’t pick it and support it. The suit doesn’t generally kick in until you’re descending, so if you can’t stand up the weight, you definitely can’t squat it. Your body has to be ready for it. Your body has to be strong enough to handle the weight in general. There’s no magic suit that takes someone who can barely squat 400 lbs. and the first time they put it on, they’re blowing grand out of the water. That’s not a thing. Same thing for bench— if you can’t even hold the weight from the handoff, you certainly can’t get it to the chest and back. The shirt’s biggest help is off the chest, so you still need to be able to lockout that lift. Hello, hi, triceps, let’s be friends. And deadlifting, well, I already mentioned lifters tend to get the least assistance out of the gear with this lift. If you learn how to use the suit correctly (I’m still working on this), you get some help off the floor, but locking it out is largely just you. This is one reason why you’ll see multi-ply lifters with huge squats and sometimes bigger benches than deadlifts.

Equipped lifting is easier. Yes, you have additional support in the gear, but you have to know how to use it. That takes time. Form is not exactly the same. It’s not like just getting your body to do what you want it to do, is the suit fitting right? Is the shirt set right? Are the straps too tight, too loose? Did your legs go numb because the briefs and/or suit is too tight? Did your arms go numb in the shirt? Did the neck come up and choke you while you benched? Is your bar path off because the shirt is binding up? There’s way more factors involved besides just being strong. You can fail a lift on equipment alone regardless of if you’re actually strong enough to do it. 

Equipped lifting is the same as raw. In some ways, it’s even more mental than raw lifting. Of course this can vary from person to person. But if your shirt isn’t set right and you fail a lift at a meet, even though you know you can get it, can you overcome to get it on your next attempt? If you pop some discs in your back, can you rehab and overcome mentally to not be afraid to pick a heavy squat? That one can happen lifting raw, of course. But you have more to battle than just your own body. You have to know your body and trust your body even more because you’re technically handling an overload. The risk is greater. Bombing out of meets is far more common in geared lifting and 9/9 is much more rare because of all the additional factors you have going into every single lift. Can you handle that mentally?

Lifting alone is easier with gear. Equipped lifting takes a village. There do exist a few lifters that train and do well in gear by themselves, but the vast majority of top multi-ply lifters have a team. They have proper spotters, someone to run the monolift (because trying to walk out a squat 4x or more your body weight while wearing what feels like 18 layers of a compressive diaper is nearly impossible at worst and highly miserable at best), people that help you get in and out of your gear, etc. Because of the technicality of using all the equipment, and the fact that you’re often handling what is really an overload on your body, accidents and failures can happen and without people you can trust to have your back, the risk of injury is very high. There’s always a risk, but it’s diminished with the right people. And if the worst case happens— you have experienced people around you who can help take care of you. 

The gear protects you from pain. Ummm not at allIf you don’t like pain, equipped lifting is not for you— so this goes back to it not being easy. I’m not talking about devastating pain, but look… the gear is not comfortable, and I would argue even less so for females with meat on them. (Hi, I’m a big girl potato.) The gear is more cut for a man than a woman, and if you’ve got some generous curves, they get mashed around in the gear. You get “bites” or bruises on your legs, your arms, etc. Limbs can go numb, the suit can burn some depending where and how you wear it on your legs, boobs get mashed and there can be immense pressure in the bottom of a squat or the bottom of a bench press. Getting you back out of the briefs or suit isn’t exactly something anyone likes to do at parties. It is not uncommon to see one person being wrestled around by 4 or 5 to try to free them from the gear. It definitely takes some getting used to and isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you’re not easily scared off, the discomfort is well worth the reward. 

I’m not here to say either option is better. I enjoy the challenge gear presents me. It’s different everyday to me, I love seeing what I can do in different ways, and I’ve had less pain deadlifting, which is pretty cool. Despite the general discomfort the gear causes while it’s on, it’s a worthwhile sacrifice to do some cool stuff. Plus, I competed raw for a few years, it was my first love. I still have some goals I would like to hit raw, but for now, I’m enjoying really working the technique and the craft of lifting in gear. 

I’m just here to talk about an aspect of the sport that’s widely misunderstood by those who haven’t tried it. The gear can boost your ego but it can also humble you real quick. 

But we’re not here because we want to be mediocre. We’re here because we want to be strong and that means you sometimes need to take a slice of humble pie and make the best out of it. 

So if you like a challenge, and you have the means, give it a try sometime. At the very least, I promise you’ll learn something. 

And isn’t that what this is all about?

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