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USAW vs. USAPL: A Tale of Two Sports

USAW vs. USAPL: A Tale of Two Sports

October 21, 2019



USAW and USAPL are the two governing bodies in America of the sport of Weightlifting, and the sport of Powerlifting, respectively. Although there are dozens of federations in Powerlifting, most people would consider USAPL the “gold standard” of the sport. To the casual observer, these sports may seem almost identical. To be sure there are many similarities between the two, however they are more cousins than siblings. An analogy I often use is football vs. Rugby. Similar, but not exactly the same. With that said it is not uncommon for athletes to crossover from one sport to the next and do well. Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of coaching athletes from absolute beginners, all the way up to national level competitors in both sports. While you may see athletes transitioning from one sport to the other, I feel there are fewer coaches that have a stable of both types of athletes. Having now competed in both sports, and coached both sports at a high level, I feel I have a unique perspective.

Both USAW and USAPL have seen tremendous growth over the last few years. Many attribute that to the rise and popularity of CrossFit, which has no doubt been a factor, but both organizations seem to have taken steps to improve participation on their own accord. In this article, I aim to compare the two governing bodies and highlight what each does well, what each could improve, as well as my opinion as a participant in both organizations.

At the Local Level

Local meets vary quite a bit from event to event. This is due to things like who the event director is, the facility that is available for a local competition, and so on. In general I’m very impressed by the local USAPL events in the New England area (which is where we usually compete). Everything form the competition equipment to the referees scoring system, to the amount of information available to coaches and competitors as to what’s going on, is typically well done. At every local USAPL meet I’ve been to, all the judges wore USAPL polos with name tags. They always had electronic scoring systems that digitally displayed the lights. There are typically numerous monitors displaying lifting sequence, current athlete, and other pertinent data. This is usually done via which is an excellent website that displays real time results from all USAPL meets happening that day.

Local USAW meets seem to be more grassroots for lack of a better term. Unfortunately in New England, there are only two people who consistently hold local competitions, and that is Robinson Weightlifting in Franklin, MA, and Gary Valentine in Connecticut. There are occasional other one-off competitions here and there, but if you’re a Weightlifter in New England, the odds are strong that you’ll be competing at a meet hosted by one of those two directors. Both Ellyn Robinson, and Gary Valentine do a great job hosting their meets, but outside of those two meet directors, it’s very hit or miss. it’s not uncommon for a judge at a Weightlifting meet to be pulled out of the crowd of spectators. Both USAPL and USAW require judges to be certified, however I am sometimes dubious that a judge is actually certified at local Weightlifting meets.

It’s also not uncommon for the competition at a local Weightlifting meet to be less than stellar. This is particularly true when it comes to the barbells used. Because of the necessity for a barbell to spin during the snatch and clean & jerk, athletes tend to be more sensitive to the particulars of a barbell than they do in Powerlifting. One upper hand that local Weightlifting seems to have is the warm-up equipment is usually in kilograms. I have yet to attend a local USAPL meet where that was the case. While I’m sure most local competitors in Powerlifting would prefer to warm-up in pounds, I absolutely abhor it. Both sports are contested in kilograms, so that’s what we train with at Arkitect Fitness. While you still get the occasional odd ball at a local Weightlifting meet who has no idea what they lift in kilos, it seems to be the absolute standard at Powerlifting meets. I assume that’s due in part to the fact that Powerlifting can be trained even at most general fitness/globo gyms, where if you’re a Weightlifter, you usually need to seek out a more specialized and boutique style gym. Of course there are also dozens of Powerlifting federations outside of USAPL that still compete in pounds.

For all of the uniformity a local USAPL meet has with their equipment and staff, there are certain things that absolutely baffle me. I’ve been to multiple meets where the time between events was either debated, or just completely disregarded. According to the rule book, there is supposed to be 10 minutes between the squat and the bench, and 10 minutes between the bench and the deadlift. I’ve been to meets where officials have told me it’s 5 minutes, 15 minutes, and 20 minutes. I’ve also been to meets where they just completely disregarded any specific time and they got started with the next event “whenever.” I’ve had USAPL officials at local meets not know that there is an hour between the end of weigh-in and the start of lifting. I also was recently at a competition where they pushed back the start of lifting by 5 minutes because there was one athlete who thought he was in flight B, but was actually in flight A. So they gave him more time to warm-up, which screwed the other 10 athletes who had warmed-up on time, and were now ready to go. In my opinion 5 minutes is enough to ice an primed athlete, and I was completely shocked this was allowed to happen. Rarely have I seen anything like this at the local Weightlifting level. I recall a time at a Weightlifting meet when a session started earlier than scheduled, but this was only decided after each and every athlete in that session had been consulted and had agreed upon doing so for the sake of keeping the meet from running behind.

It is also standard practice for local Powerlifting meets to charge for spectator and coach admission. Personally I’m fine with the former, and annoyed by the latter. Theoretically speaking, the athlete’s registration fee should cover the “cost” of having a coach at the competition. I understand that local meets are not huge money makers, and obviously take a lot of manpower to host, which is why I’m fine with spectators being charged. But to charge the athlete as well as the coach feels like “double dipping” to me. I have never attended a local USAW meet where there was an admission fee for spectators, and I feel that this is a missed revenue opportunity for meet directors. Perhaps they feel like less people will attend if it costs money, however most spectators are friends and family of the athletes, so I think people would be willing to spend a nominal amount of money to support their loved ones.

Lastly let’s talk about doping. Both sports are subject to doping control and prohibit the use of performance enhancing drugs. While technically local USAW meets can be drug tested, this only happens under two scenarios: USADA decides to randomly test participants at a local meet, or, a local meet directors pay for drug testing. In 7 years of coaching Weightlifting, I’ve never seen either happen. On the flip side, just about every local USAPL meet I’ve attended has been drug tested. Perhaps they’re able to afford doing so because of all the coaching fees they charge.

The Cost of Doing Business

As you would assume, both organizations require participants to be members of the organization in order to compete. Currently USAW’s membership is $69/year, and can be paid monthly. The membership runs one year from date of payment. They also charge less for youth and juniors, and more for masters. USAPL’s current membership is $65 for open, masters, and juniors. It is $40 for teens, and $25 for youth. However, the membership expires at the end of the calendar year. In my opinion, this is probably costing USAPL money. I have had first time Powerlifters be disuaded from competing because their first meet was towards the end of the year. If you do your first meet in November, and want to compete again in February, you’ll be paying $130 in membership fees in a 3 month period. When you factor in all the other expenses associated with becoming a competitor (belt, shoes, singlet, competition fees, etc…) the costs begin to be prohibitive.

It’s difficult to compare the cost of local competitions, as this varies widely. Currently it’s difficult to find local meets in either sport for less than $50. This is especially true if you want to be ranked in multiple divisions. For example many masters athletes prefer to compete against both masters and open/senior competitors. It’s not uncommon for meet directors in both sports to have additional fees for each division on top of the base registration cost. Understandably this is likely to cover the costs of the additional medals they may hand out.

When it comes to national competitions, I believe both USAPL and USAW are now above the $100 mark for athlete registration. Both charge for spectators, and only USAPL charges for coach registration, which is $25. USAW does require coaches to pre-register for competitions, however there is no charge for it. More on this later.

Theoretically, all competitors in either sport really need to compete is a singlet, and a pair of shoes. However both sports typically have athlete’s wearing belts, wrist wraps, knee sleeves, and specialized shoes. Weightlifters luck out in using the same shoes for snatch as they do for clean & jerk, where Powerlifters may have designated shoes for the squat, bench, and deadlift respectively. When it comes to the equipment used to compete, I would say it’s about the same for both sports. With that said USAPL is more particular about the brands and design. For example you cannot use a singlet with a zipped back in USAPL. Powerlifters also need knee high socks for the deadlift, which is not required by USAW. With that said the cost of the socks is usually minimal.

At the National Level

Having just returned from my first USAPL Raw Nationals, I have quite a bit to say about the two sports at the national level. First of all, I think USAPL did a fantastic job organizing the largest Powerlifting meet ever held (over 1,300 athletes). The event was held at the Westin in Lombard, IL. USAW held Nationals here a few years ago, so I was familiar with the venue. I can honestly say that based on this event, USAPL Nationals was a much more spectator friendly event. While USAPL doesn’t use raised stages like USAW, each platform had a giant and crystal clear screen above it, so no matter where you were seated, you had a fantastic view of the action. During any “downtime” of the competition the giant monitors displayed highlights from the day before, which were edited together in a very cinematic and professional way. Of course Powerlifting is notorious for blasting heavy metal, and having hype men call the meet for the crowd. I don’t know if the same level of energy is necessary for national Weightlifting meets, but I’ve certainly been to big meets where it feels like you’re sitting in a library prior to someone coming out for a even a potential crack at an American record. USAW uses projector screens behind platforms displaying the competition info, but unless you’re in the front row, they’re tough to read. Generally speaking, national Weightlifting meets seem a lot less engaging from a spectator’s standpoint.

For the athletes at USAPL Raw Nationals, the first order of business is equipment check and picking rack heights. I chuckled to myself because getting rack heights set never even occurred to me. Obviously we do this at local meets, but usually it takes only a few minutes after weighing in. In order for USAPL to process the rack heights of 1,300 lifters, there’s no way it can be done day of for everyone lifting. Regarding equipment check, USAPL is very particular about which brands you can use for particular pieces of equipment. While USAW is much more relaxed about that, I still think they could benefit from an equipment check. A perfect example was a few years ago when the rule about having the elbows covered change. Previously athletes could not have anything covering the elbow. Now the rule had changed saying that your shirt and or singlet could cover the elbow. After an opening snatch attempt an athlete was told by an official that she could not wear a shirt that was covered the elbow. Obviously that was incorrect, but have you ever told an official they’re wrong? It doesn’t go down well. The ref brought in some more people to confirm the rule, and we were informed that her shirt was in fact illegal, however it was because the stitching on it was visible. A superfluous rule perhaps, but a rule none-the-less. As a coach it is my responsibility to know these things, and I failed. I have seen other scenarios with other athletes before…someone’s belt is to tall, or their knee wraps are too long. While their coaches should have also known, an equipment check would be helpful, especially for first time national competitors and coaches. What surprised me about the rack height settings for Raw Nationals, was there was no one assisting athletes with setting rack heights. The equipment at my facility is extremely old school. Some of our athletes squat off of stands that are simply two rickety pieces of metal. After grabbing their measurements athletes had the option of entering their rack heights into a nearby (unattended) laptop, or going to and entering it in there. I would be curious if there were any screw-ups throughout the weekend. If not, bravo to USAPL for making a somewhat disjointed process work.

Speaking of websites, it seems USAW and USAPL are in the running to see who can build the worst one. USAW has the excuse of being part of the USOC, and thus their website has to be a subsidiary of that. USAPL’s hotel and coach registration for Raw Nationals could not have been more convoluted. When I went to register for the event hotel room, there was no link to do so on the event page. I looked in several places before asking my athlete, who then sent me to a page completely unrelated to the event page. Registering as a coach was even worse. Once again, a special webpage had all the information (separate from athlete registration) for the coach to register. My athlete had to enter my name as their coach, with my USAPL number. Then I had to create a unique ID number (why they couldn’t use my USAPL member number is beyond me), which I then had to give to my athlete, who then linked our numbers together, and voila! You’re registered!

Another seemingly disjointed idea, was that initially USAPL was going to have the coach’s registration table and athlete’s registration table set up in two different locations at the event, and you were only going to be able to register at designated times. At some point they combined the two, and just said “we’re open til 7.” In my opinion this was the right move, and how it should have been from the beginning. Oddly USAPL did not have a training hall for the athletes. I’m not sure if that was because it is less common for Powerlifters to lift for the few days leading up to the competition, or if it simply wasn’t an option due to budget constraints. Either way, we were able to get our last session in at a local gym called 2XL Powerlifting. If you’re in the Lombard area, it’s worth checking out. It’s a great old school strength gym, with lots of great equipment. I will say though, one of my favorite parts of national Weightlifting meets is hanging out in the training hall while my athlete’s get a session in, and seeing all the lifters train. It’s usually a great vibe, and a good time to catch up with friends you only see a few times a year.

In the warm-up room at USAPL Raw Nationals there were only 2 squat racks/bench racks per 1 competition platform. With four flights of competitors per competition platform, that meant roughly 40-60 athletes were sharing those two racks. Despite this all of the coaches and athletes did a great job sharing and working people in. I will say generally speaking Powerlifting is a much better “community” with competitors being supportive of one another. The Weightlifting community on both the local and national level tends to carry a much more elitist attitude. Unfortunately I’ve had to deal with athletes in Weightlifting that think they are somehow special because they snatch and clean & jerk a decent amount of weight (hint: you’re not). Not to say that Powerlifters don’t’ have their fair share of bad apples, but I’ve been to way too many Weightlifting meets where coaches and athletes are straight up rude to you because you ask to work in on a single set.

While everyone in the warm-up room at Rat Nats was trying their best to keep things running smoothly, there were simply far too many coaches and athletes that struggled to know what to put on the bar because all of the warm-up equipment was in kilos. This led to me needing to take the reigns with the 7-10 athletes that were working in on the same platform as my competitor. A duty I took on not out of kindness, but simply to keep my athlete from getting screwed by people dubbing around with their warm-up attempts. For all of the grandeur of the spectacle of the competition side of the curtain, I felt like USAPL was living in the dark ages in the warm-up room with letting athletes know what was going on. Each platform had a 60″ TV which broadcast the scoreboard. Unless you were within 5 feet of the TV, you couldn’t read what was on it. Two officials sat at a scorer’s table and called out athlete’s names…without a mic and PA. To me, this is insanity. Consider that there were 5 platforms, each platform with 4 flights of athletes, about 10-15 athletes per flight, and of course, figure an average of 1 coach per athlete.  That means on the low side there were roughly 400 people on the warm-up side of the curtain. Don’t forget on the other side of the curtain where the lifting was taking place, were hundreds of spectators and of course loud music blaring through speakers facing the audience. In other words, in the warm-up area, you couldn’t hear a damn thing about what was going on out front.

This is one thing that USAW gets way, way right compared to USAPL. At a national Weightlifting meet, it’s not uncommon to have 5 competition platforms, however in the warm-up area each platform has its own PA system facing the athlete’s warming-up. So when at athlete is called, they can clearly hear their name. USAW also puts TV screens in the warm-up area showing what’s happening on the competition platform, as well as a TV displaying who the current athlete is, how much weight they’re attempting, and which attempt it is. This is all pertinent information for competitors who are trying to…you know, compete against other athletes. Certainly there is a lot more strategy involved in picking attempts and timing warm-ups in Weightlifting compared to Powerlifting, however it is still nice to know what the hell is going on, on the other side of the curtain at a Powerlifting meet.

USAW has made strides over the past few years to bring their national competition process up to the international level, particularly when it comes to the scorer’s table. In Weightlifting, after an athlete makes an attempt, either they or (ideally) their coach go to the table, where they will find all the athlete’s “cards” laid out with all of the athlete’s information. During snatch the snatch portion of the card is displayed. During clean & jerk, the clean & jerk portion of the card is displayed. The coach hand writes in the attempt and signs them, then the official enters it into the system and the computer updates the order of lifting. In USAPL…There are small pieces of what feels like scrap paper, where the coach must circle the lift for which you’re putting in the attempt. Then you must write the athlete’s full name. After that you put in the weight they want, and then sign. The official takes the piece of paper and enters all of the information in. USAPL…bro, what are you doing?

Hand writing an athlete’s name for every single attempt is beyond tedious. Circling which lift it’s for just seems amateur. But for me, the worst part is I have no display (other than the single 60″ TV that dozens of people are crowded around) to see what my athlete’s competition are choosing for weights, what they weighed in at, what their subtotal is, etc… Many people told me “just pull up on your phone.” But here’s the thing. I put my phone on airplane mode when I’m coaching at a competition. Why? Because I don’t want any distractions when I’m coaching. I don’t want e-mail notifications, facebook messages, texts from clients asking me questions that can wait until I’m done. When I’m coaching at a competition, my sole focus is the competition and my athlete. I shouldn’t have to rely on a web page to tell me what’s going on with the competition I’m currently participating in, in person. To my point, the first athlete to squat in the C flight, missed her first attempt due to the clock timing out, because she wasn’t aware that it was her turn. This is absolutely the responsibility of the athlete/coach, however, this is a scenario that could have easily been avoided if the event had a PA system for the warm-up room or if there were bigger/better displays of who the athlete is, which at a national event should be standard practice.

Final Thoughts

All in all, my experience at my first USAPL Nationals was a positive one. I’ve watched both of these sports grow and improve over the years. Despite the massive amounts of athlete’s competing this past weekend, everything ran smoothly. A far cry from the rinky-dink Powerlifting meets in which I used to compete in in the late 90s and early 2000s where I would squat at 9am and I wouldn’t deadlift until after 3.  USAW on the other hand went from what seemed to be the laughing stock of international Weightlifting, to a formidable figure on the global stage, and that could not have happened with some major improvements to what was happening state-side. While neither organization is perfect, I think they’re both improving, and can learn a lot from one another. I know that they have been in collaboration, for example USAPL is now somewhat “following” USAW around the country for national events. However I think if both organizations really took a deep dive in to how the other operates, even more improvements could be made. I also would love some type of cross-over super total meet. Such a cross-promotion could help grow both sports. Perhaps in a “CrossFit open” style where athlete’s compete in their home gym, and upload scores online.


Dr. Brett Scott


Arkitect Fitness

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