Para Sport 101: Everything You Need To Know About Paralympic Powerlifting
by Luke Hanlon
Powerlifting made its Paralympic debut at the 1984 Games, which were split between New York and Stoke Mandeville, England. The sport has grown immensely in the years since, as it is both accessible to many athletes and a simple sport to follow.
Today, the sport is practiced in nearly 100 countries, and still with plenty of room to grow.
Powerlifting is a simple sport, with athletes showcasing their upper-body strength by bench pressing as much weight as possible. The very best athletes are able to lift more than three times their bodyweight.
Unlike most Paralympic sports, powerlifting does not separate athletes by classifications. Instead, powerlifters are categorized by gender and body weight, with men and women of similar weights going against each other..
Each gender has 10 weight classes at the Paralympic level. For women, weight classes range from 41 kg. (90 lbs.) to +86 kg. (190 lbs.). For men, they range from 49 kg. (108 lbs.) to 107 kg. (236 lbs.). In each of those classes, an athlete can weigh up to the specific weight listed.
Athletes who compete in powerlifting have at least one of eight impairments: ataxia, athetosis, hypertonia, impaired muscle power, impaired passive range of movement, leg length deficiency, leg length difference, or short stature. Despite what impairment athletes may have to their spines or lower bodies, powerlifting gives them the chance to test, and show off, their upper-body strength.
Unlike weightlifting, in which athletes perform the snatch and clean & jerk, there’s only one lift that you’ll see at Para powerlifting competitions: the bench press.
During competitions, each athlete has three attempts to complete a successful lift, and they usually increase their weight after each successful attempt. The athlete who successfully completes the lift of the heaviest weight wins the competition. This introduces important strategy. Attempt a lighter lift, and the athlete might have an easier time completing it but not be as competitive. Attempt too heavy of a lift, however, and the athlete risks failing to complete the lift. The key is finding the right balance.
Athletes are given two minutes to complete each lift. The lift starts with the bar racked. The athlete must start with the bar at arms-length, then lower the bar to their chest. The bar must be held on the chest and then brought upwards as evenly as possible until an athlete’s arms are locked. The athlete still has to hold the bar in this position until the judge audibly says “rack,” which signals the athlete can then return the bar on to the rack.
Athletes do not get the chance to celebrate a successful lift right away, as they must wait for the decision of the three international referees to know if they executed a good lift or not. Three lights show the judges’ decisions as to whether the lift was good or not. If two or more of the lights are white, the lift is good. If two or more are red, the lift is no good.
While athlete can attempt to lift three different weights in competition, a fourth attempt will sometimes be granted by the judges if the athlete wants to attempt to break a world record. However, that attempt does not count toward the official result toward the competition.
Although the current version of powerlifting became a part of the official Paralympic program in 1984, weightlifting made its debut at the Paralympics 20 years earlier. After the 1992 Games, weightlifting was dropped while powerlifting continued on at the Paralympics.
The sport has continued to grow, both in total participants and in representation. The 1996 Games saw 56 countries represented in powerlifting, which was 31 more than in 1992, despite both having the same amount of medal events.
The most dramatic increase in participation came in 2000, when women’s powerlifting events were added to the Paralympic program.
While the amount of countries represented at the Games and the number of athletes that compete in powerlifting varies at each Games, the participation has grown immensely since 16 athletes from six different countries lifted at the 1984 Games. At the Tokyo Games, held in 2021, 178 athletes represented 54 countries in the sport.
Luke Hanlon is a sportswriter and editor based in Minneapolis. He is a freelance contributor to USParaPowerlifting.org courtesy of Red Line Editorial, Inc.