Written by Lisa Allen | Edited by Dr Mark Kapnoudhis
To the average gymgoer, bodybuilders and powerlifters are often combined into the same group – they’re the ones grunting and sweating on the freeweights, the ones often accused of “intimidating” other gym patrons. In many respects, bodybuilding and powerlifting are similar, and they are undeniably dependent on each other. However, bodybuilding and powerlifting goals are very different, and consequently their training programs and workouts are nearly polar opposites.
Although there are obviously different programs in both bodybuilding and powerlifting, there are still some basic elements that run through each of them. The goal of bodybuilding is to get the biggest, most defined, most symmetrical muscles possible come showtime, while the goal of powerlifting is to put together the heaviest squat, bench, and deadlift possible on meet day. While both of these pursuits involve using resistance to affect the muscles, the way the muscles are worked varies significantly in regards to exercise selection, combination, and repetition.
A quick way to tell if a workout is predominantly a bodybuilding or powerlifting workout would be to look at the split. In bodybuilding, daily workouts are broken up by individual body parts, grouping similar (or dissimilar) body parts to allow for maximum focus and recovery.
In powerlifting, workouts are often separated by lift. Depending on the program, one, two, even four days a week are dedicated to squat, bench, or deadlift. Many of the same lifts are used in both bodybuilding and powerlifting templates, but the order and focus is different in each.
The exercise order and selection depends on the goals of the lifter. Since the goal of powerlifting is to become as efficient as possible in the “big three,” the competition lifts are the majority of most workouts. Nearly every workout starts with (or consists entirely of) squat, bench, or deadlift. This allows the lifter to focus on form and efficiency in the competition lifts, striving for the day that those movements will be second nature on the platform.
Some programs use “variants,” lifts very close to the competition lifts (box squats, deficit deadlifts, close grip benchpress), to train the competition lifts indirectly. Virtually all other exercises are considered “accessories” for the main lift, and will focus more on muscles being used in each lift. In bodybuilding, lifts are selected only to work the muscle group(s) being focused on for that workout, to allow the athlete to focus (and rotate) the muscle breakdown, recovery, and growth.
While there will always be some base lifts, bodybuilders will utilize many more exercises in their workouts, trying to hit muscles in different ways, from different angles, with different ranges of motion. For them, the goal is to continually keep the muscle guessing and growing. As an example, stiff-legged deadlifts have a place in both types of workouts, but where a bodybuilder would use them as a main exercise for isolating the hamstrings, a powerlifter would most likely use them as an accessory on deadlift day, or as a deadlift variant as a main movement.
Good form is important in both bodybuilding and powerlifting, but each camp has a very different view of what “good” is. In bodybuilding, good form reduces the number of muscles being used, to isolate the individual muscle being worked as much as possible. Good form in powerlifting incorporates as many of the strongest muscle groups possible into each lift (within the bounds of federation rules). While the powerlifter wants to incorporate almost the entire body into a benchpress, someone with a bodybuilding background might consider a huge arch and strong leg drive “cheating.”
The bodybuilder might bench with a flat back, elbows flared, and feet on the bench to focus the tension on certain muscle groups, but this style is not optimal for moving maximum weight. Both the powerlifter and the bodybuilder are correct, but within the confines and goals of his own sport.
The rep range is another obvious difference between bodybuilding and powerlifting workouts. Muscle hypertrophy occurs in a higher rep range, so bodybuilders will typically work in sets of 10-20, often going to failure. Muscle definition is also built in a very high rep range, so sets might stretch out even longer in the weeks or months before a show.
Powerlifters, on the other hand, are training for a one rep max, and work sets will typically be heavy singles, doubles, triples, rarely above five reps. As a powerlifter peaks for a competition, sets will get even shorter (and heavier). Longer sets are typically only used for accessories, or occasional repetition work or deload. Both powerlifters and bodybuilders will typically program their workouts in cycles, so weight and rep ranges usually change over the course of a few weeks or months, and then repeat.
However, as different as bodybuilding and powerlifting are, they are inseparable. Stronger muscles can get bigger, and bigger muscles have the potential to be stronger. Bodybuilders need to lift to get stronger, since a bigger one rep max will lead to heavier hypertrophy sets, which will lead to even more muscle development.
Powerlifters sometimes need to focus on hypertrophy, because a lifter will eventually reach a maximum potential at any given bodyweight, and bigger muscles can improve leverages, or can make powerlifting gear fit better. Despite the inherent differences, while one may not be quite as aesthetically pleasing and one may not be able to take as much to depth in a full squat, both types of athletes will end up bigger, and both will end up stronger. And both will have a love/hate relationship with the casual bystander stopping them (on the street or in the middle of a set) to ask: “So how much can you bench?”