If you started going to a real, no-BS, old school gym, you’ve already learned that there are two different philosophies in the weight room—one focusing on getting as big as humanly possible while the other on getting as strong as can be.
While both of these methods revolve around the same exercises, there are a few distinguishable differences, hence the powerlifting vs bodybuilding debate.
In this guide, we’ll do our best to take a look at both of these sports, highlight the main differences, and talk about basic training, nutrition, benefits, and potential drawbacks.
As it may already be clear, these two schools of training are also respective sports.
Bodybuilding is a competitive sport that features several competitors who are on stage and pose for a group of judges.
Prior to the competition, these athletes focus on gaining as much muscle as possible with as little fat as they can. The goal is to be as aesthetically pleasing and as proportionate as possible.
As said before, the sports’ main goal is to maximize the potential for muscle hypertrophy. This happens by increasing the size and number of fibers in the muscles.
During competition, the athletes are judged and are given scores based on different criteria: Symmetry, balance of size, and muscularity.
Needless to say, this kind of judging is pretty subjective, often causing heated debates when talking about competition principles in powerlifting vs bodybuilding.
To combat this subjectivity, federations have developed a scoring system that works with averages. What this means is the judges, usually seven of them, rank the competitors to get an average score, dropping the highest and lowest scores. The athlete with the lowest overall score is deemed the best, having the most muscle mass, best proportions, and overall muscle visibility.
Take what you’ve learned from bodybuilding and throw it out the window. But only at first glance. Powerlifting is a totally “different animal” when it comes to competition and overall philosophy. For starters, powerlifters aren’t concerned with looks, meaning that they don’t go either for size or low body fat levels. They only have one single goal, and that’s to lift as much weight as they can. They usually compete in three disciplines which are the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
They get a total of three attempts with each exercise, and have to perform them according to the rules of the given federation. At the end of the competition, they get a “total” which is the combined number of the heaviest weights properly lifted in each discipline.
As far as the basic differences go, you can see that bodybuilding and powerlifting, on a competition level, differ a lot. The first one is based more or less about what the judges are looking for while the latter has more of an objective character to it. If you fail to lift the weight, or fail to lift it according to the rules, it won’t count. Simple as pie.
Understanding the Basics of Training
Before we dive into the nuances of the two sports, we first need to talk a bit about the basic foundation of lifting weights. In short, resistance training can be referred to as any type of exercise which causes muscle contraction against an external source of resistance. In return, and over time, the muscle will increase in strength as it gets used to the load, grows in size as it repairs itself, and becomes more enduring. Resistance in this case may be weights, body weight, bands, or literally any object that can cause contraction.
Strength vs. Size
As mentioned already in the intro, both powerlifters and bodybuilders use the same equipment (weights) to achieve different goals. Basically, there’s lots of overlap between the two sports, however, when breaking it down, you will see that there are a couple of pretty obvious differences.
First of all, when talking about the barest things, volume is probably the most important difference. More precisely, bodybuilding vs powerlifting programs will differ around volume, with bodybuilding programs requiring more of it and powerlifting programs less.
Training volume is basically the number of sets and reps you do during a single gym session. The more exercises you perform for a specific muscle group and the more sets you do, the greater your volume becomes.
So, simply put, your muscles need stress in order to grow and you will achieve that by increasing overall training volume. Still, you will need to use intensity in your arsenal as well. Intensity is the weight you use to perform the exercises with. In order to maximize hypertrophy, or adding muscle mass, you need to use the heaviest weight possible with the optimal repetition range.
Finding optimal set numbers and rep range can be a bit like rocket science. When doing main exercises, like the bench press, deadlift, rowing variations, and squats, you should aim to perform a total of 20 to 36 repetitions with around 70% to 85% of your one rep maximum.
You should perform this in different variations, like five sets of five repetitions, or six sets of six reps, for example.
Another important thing when comparing powerlifting vs bodybuilding training techniques is rest between sets. Hypertrophy training prioritizes muscle stress accumulation which is the main culprit behind size growth. You should focus on finding the sweet spot that will still keep the muscle stress accumulating but will also help with recovery so that you can keep going with optimal weight percentages.
While this will be highly individual for everyone, generally, 60 to 90 second rest periods between reps should keep everything at optimal levels.
On the other hand, assistance exercises should be focusing on improving mostly aesthetic shortcomings with a similar rest scheme and volume. As far as intensivity goes with assistance exercises, you can ease up a bit and focus on proper form and muscle contraction.
When your most important goal is to build as much strength as you can, stress is still needed, but things happen in different ways.
First off, there will be less training volume most of the time but with more emphasis on intensity. In layman’s terms, you will use heavier weights but will perform fever reps on each set.
Generally speaking, if you’d ask what’s the difference between weightlifting and bodybuilding, this would be the first thing most experienced trainees on either side would highlight.
Furthermore, most strength programs follow a similar program as hypertrophy plans. Both of them focus on main lifts first, then shift to accessory exercises. Here, you’re cutting rep numbers significantly because you want to maximize your one rep max.
With strength, you generally aim for 80% to 90% of your one rep max (1RM), with rarely performing more than 10 to 20 reps. Once you go above 90% of your estimated 1RM, you will see further drops both in sets and reps, sometimes performing a single set of two reps or two sets of triples.
Because heavier lifts are neurologically more demanding, rest times will rise. As the nervous system requires more time to recover, you will often see powerlifters rest three to 5 minutes between sets, if not more.
Assistance training is also different than it is with hypertrophy. There are also fewer sets and less volume here. You’re in the 15-25 rep range with no more than 80% of your 1RM.
Also, assistance exercises focus more on helping you overcome weak points when performing your main lifts. If your back haunches forward when you’re squatting, you will most likely add pause squats to your training program that will force your back and entire body to stay firm when coming out of the “hole” (the lowest point you lower your upper body, core, and upper legs during the squat exercise).
This is where the powerlifter vs bodybuilder physique differences primarily come from. This is where the most extreme differences can be found but this doesn’t have to be the case.
Generally speaking, both athlete types will follow a high-protein (often supplementing with high-quality protein powders), moderate-fat, high-carb diet to maximize performance.
In the case of bodybuilders, this diet is most common in the off-season, when they aren’t preparing for the stage. This diet allows them to maximize muscle gains while keeping their body fat levels under control. Also, a diet like this helps powerlifters to fuel their muscles to perform their demanding training sessions.
Naturally, both athletes will also aim to use the best multivitamin supplements on the market.
The most noticeable differences come during contest preparation periods.
Bodybuilders will start dropping weight (mostly preferably from fat) to make all of their muscles visible and defined. This sometimes means body fat levels under 5% (in the case of pro-level male athletes) which requires an incredibly strict diet. Oftentimes, carb intake will be cut down gradually with limiting fat intake to the lowest amounts necessary to ensure proper hormonal functions.
Furthermore, bodybuilders will often supplement with fat burners to get the fastest results.
A cutdown in carbs and fats also means fewer calories which can interfere with energy and strength levels.
Less concerned with looks, powerlifters can’t really afford to hamper their strength gains, especially during a competition prep, meaning, they don’t change their diet that much.
As a matter of fact, the whole powerlifting vs bodybuilding physique debate has also managed to spawn several jokes revolving around the eating habits of powerlifters. As athletes often joke, powerlifters follow the “seefood diet”. When they see food, they eat it.
The only time a powerlifter might really get concerned about their weight is when they want to stay in their preferred weight class and need to diet down or add a few pounds.
From what we told so far, you might guess that the basic differences when it comes to physique stem from the fact that these athletes follow different diets. Also, training for volume vs intensity can also change things up.
All in all, when it comes to physique, a lot of it boils down to programming and personal preference.
What we’re saying is, that you will see bodybuilders on stage who happen to be insanely strong, and you will also be able to see elite-level powerlifters who would also feel pretty much comfortable on a bodybuilding stage.
Athletes like Stan Efferding compete in both sports, while retired legend Ronnie Coleman also competed as a powerlifter before becoming the best bodybuilder to ever grace any stage.
Apart from these extreme examples, the real powerlifting physique vs bodybuilding physique is pretty different.
As bodybuilders prioritize hypertrophy while the others strength, it’s only normal that bodybuilders will tend to look bigger. Thanks to their stricter diets, they will also look proportioned.
Powerlifters, on the other hand, will be a bit more blocky, thanks to the rather demanding core work they do to support the intensity of their training sessions. Also, they will probably look a bit more ‘fluffy’ as well, if they don’t really care about their diets.
Even then, some elite level powerlifters stay relatively lean all year long (like Dan Greene).
As a matter of fact, even the most popular bodybuilder in the world, Arnold Schwarzenegger competed as a powerlifter, alongside with his friend, Franco Columbu.
Columbu, apart from being Mr Olympia, also managed to compete in strongman competitions, and is considered by many, the strongest bodybuilder who ever lived, pound for pound.
As you can see, both sports pretty much rely on the same equipment and basic nutrition rules, but the way they execute their actions to reach their goals make for a huge difference.
However, as you can see from the examples above, one athlete can reap the benefits of both training programs.
This is where powerbuilding programs come into play. These hybrid training models combine both hypertrophy and strength principles that aim to bridge the powerlifting vs bodybuilding debate.
Basically, powerbuilding is a simple yet effective combo of both lifting styles to maximize the amount of muscle mass you can put on and also improve strength gains not just with the three main lifts but across the board.
Most beginner trainees hit the weightroom for the first time with the idea of getting both strong and big. Ideally, a total amateur will see significant gains both in the mass and strength department (i.e. ‘newbie gains’), but as they get to more advanced levels, one or the other (if not both) will stall somewhat.
To remedy these problems, coaches developed specific programs that combine low-rep and high-rep work in a way that won’t hinder strength nor size gains. As a matter of fact, most coaches argue that training for strength will also eventually create an optimal environment for hypertrophy as well.
For instance, in the case of an eight-week-for-day split, there would be two different phases. During the first four weeks, the first and third days focus on strength, while the second and fourth days prioritize volume for optimal muscle building.
During the second phase, all four days combine into a powerbuilding split where you can perform higher reps with more intensity.
Similarities and Differences
Now that you know the basic difference in the powerlifting vs bodybuilding debate, here’s a short recap of the similarities to have better insight into the things that tend to overlap.
- Both athletes go through peaking phases. For bodybuilders, this is referred to as “bulking”, where they eat more calories and start to lift with more intensity. This phase is intended to help the athlete add as much muscle mass as possible. For powerlifters, peaking is pretty similar, with eating as much as possible and focusing on adding more weight to the core lifts every week, reaching their potential 1RM.
- Both athletes prioritize recovery and sleep. While their training goals are somewhat different, they still need to rest to achieve their goals.
- Both powerlifters and bodybuilders experiment with different training regimens and methods to discover what enables them to get the best results. In the case of bodybuilding, this experimentation is also more pronounced in the kitchen.
- Mental preparation is also essential in both cases. In the case of bodybuilding, having the mental capacity to pull through the most crucial periods of contest prep can mean the difference between placing in the top three or the bottom three. As for powerlifters, they simply need to be brave enough and ready to go under an 800lb bar and squat down with it, even though it could easily paralyze them for the rest of their lives.
- Lastly, both bodybuilding and powerlifting athletes perform the same lifts in the weightroom, but focus on different intensity and volume.
And to recap, here are the differences.
- Bodybuilders train for size, powerlifters prioritize brute strength. High volume training versus high intensity.
- Bodybuilding is a visual sport, and as such, diet will play a crucial role in their lifestyle. Powerlifters don’t really care about looks and will often carry a bit of extra weight that they can leverage when they pull off heavy lifts.
- Bodybuilders will also focus more on cardio. While dieting and preparing for a contest, cardio is essential for bodybuilders. We’re not saying that all powerlifters neglect cardio, it’s just not essential for raw strength
- Powerlifters and bodybuilders both train every body part but in a different manner. Powerlifters tend to do less isolation work and tend to focus more on full body lifts whereas bodybuilders prioritize isolation to pack on mass on every muscle possible.
The Benefits of Each
Both sports have their own benefits. For starters, both of them teach dedication and discipline. Sticking to a strict diet with a large caloric-deficit will test your willpower, while going under the bar for 350lb bench press will certainly test your focus and bravery.
On the other hand, one of the biggest benefits of bodybuilding is the appearance. By looking better, you’ll probably gain more confidence and be happier.
Also, when taking a good look at powerlifting vs bodybuilding, it’s imperative to know that both sports will help you develop a better sense of perseverance and confidence. With powerlifting, you will not only improve your physical strength, but your mental capacity as well.
Remember, it takes a lot of guts to stand under a heavy load that can cripple you for the rest of your days.
Before we end the article, it’s also important to point out that there’s a certain amount of hostility between the two camps.
For starters, some bodybuilders will rip on powerlifters for being “fat”, while powerlifters will often say that bodybuilder “pretty boys” are the best example of “all show and no go”.
But truth be told, when genetically gifted powerlifters diet down and incorporate isolation work, they might even outshine some bodybuilders.
As a matter of fact, legends like Ronnie Coleman, Arnie, and Franco Columbu were all powerlifters at one point.
Greg Doucette, IFBB pro bodybuilder, used to be a record-breaking powerlifter before hitting the stage.
All in all, the “hostility” isn’t really severe, and in most cases, it’s more of an act than anything serious.
So, there you have it, these are the biggest differences between powerlifting vs. bodybuilding. Both of these sports bring a lot to the table and both types of athletes require a ton of dedication and hard work to reach their goals.
The biggest differences are most evident in the gym and the kitchen. Powerlifters focus on heavier weights, more compound movements, lower rep ranges. Bodybuilders prioritize high reps, isolation work, lower intensity, more muscle failure. In the kitchen, bodybuilders tend to be more meticulous, while powerlifters will often gobble up everything in sight.
However, that doesn’t mean that they will throw every diet regime out of the window.