The fact is that United State Powerlifting Association (USPA) and USA Powerlifting (USAPL) are extremely similar. They have near identical standards for lifts, consistency between competitions throughout the US, and exceptional atmospheres for the sport of powerlifting. But there are some main differences that make the need for two powerlifting federations within the United States.
1.) The biggest and most notable difference is that the USAPL is drug tested and the majority of the USPA competitions are not. USPA does have a drug tested division, but its popularity is minimal and competitions are significantly less frequent than with its untested division. While this is a major difference, the fact is that there are plenty of natural athletes competing in the USPA as well, as it is just personal preference due to other differences listed below.
2.) The USAPL uses a stiff bar for all 3 lifts, while the USPA uses a deadlift bar for deadlift, and then uses a squat bar for the heavier weight classes. If you are unfamiliar with a deadlift bar, it has a bit more give/bend to it than a regular bar, usually allowing someone to deadlift a little bit more weight than with a stiff bar.
3.) USAPL is more stringent on competition equipment, especially at the national and world level. There is an “IPF Approved Equipment List” that has a list of approved gear that can be used in USAPL national level meets and above.
4.) In the USPA you can use elbow sleeves on squats and in the USAPL you cannot. This is a very minor thing, but it is a difference.
5.) While both federations have a national and world championship, USAPL’s are much more popular and competitive. The absolute best lifters in the USAPL all competed at nationals, and the winners of nationals have the opportunity to possibly compete at worlds. USPA has these same competitions, but they do not usually attract the “best”. In recent years though, the USPA US Open has started to become this type of “world championship” competition that the USPA needed.
6.) While the competition rules are the same according to the rulebook, USAPL is known to be more strict with their judging on the squat, bench, and deadlift.
7.) USPA allows you to use the “lift-off” person of choice on bench press, many times your coach or friend, where in the USAPL there is a designated person that handles the lift-offs for all lifters.
These differences are fairly minor, so really what it comes down to is personal preference and what meets are available in your area. Either way, I am sure in both federations you will have an amazing experience and be in a great atmosphere that supports powerlifters and the growth of the sport!