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Powerlifting vs Bodybuilding: What's the Difference?

Powerlifting vs Bodybuilding Johnnie O Jackson

For as long as there has been weights to lift, there have been people arguing over the best way to do it.  Although there are numerous schools of thought on the subject, the two most prominent weightlifting disciplines are powerlifting and bodybuilding. 

While sharing a few similarities, these two disciplines tend to be on opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of training methodology & goals.  It’s wise to tread carefully before engaging in open debate over which training method is superior as both camps have their share of diehards; zealots who so emotionally defend their sect that they can make religion or politics sound like the more civil choice of discussion.

This is not to say that one is right and the other wrong.  The ancient Greeks appreciated both athleticism & aesthetics, holding each in the highest regard as is evidenced in their sculptures & Olympic competitions.  So enduring are these Greek ideals that they still represent modern standards of strength & muscularity.  Considering that like the Greeks, most modern lifters fall into a camp somewhere in-between, it becomes more of a question of, “which is better…FOR YOU.” 

Greek sculpture strength and aesthetics

Powerlifting vs Bodybuilding

Powerlifting - A form of competitive weightlifting wherein maximum strength is tested in three lifts:  bench press, squat & deadlift.  Bodybuilding – A subjective sport wherein diet & progressive resistance training is used to develop an aesthetic physique that balances elements of muscularity, proportion & symmetry.

Or to compare powerlifting & bodybuilding in simpler terms:

bodybuilding is all about who looks like they can lift the most weights whereas powerlifting is who CAN lift the most weight.

In powerlifting the weight is the goal & the muscle the tool.

In bodybuilding the muscle is the goal & the weight the tool.

What is clear is that muscle & strength is valued by both camps.  Its just the degree to which each attribute is emphasized that differs.  This kind of sounds a lot like the classic, “which came first, the chicken or the egg” argument.  Obviously bigger muscles help one to grow in strength & getting stronger (progressive overload) is needed to continue making gains in terms of muscle hypertrophy.  So, what is all the fuss about, really?!

Why do powerlifters look different from bodybuilders? 

Essentially, the difference in appearances can be explained by considering the variety in training techniques used to achieve strength or size.

The principle of specificity is more commonly known as the SAID principle, which stands for "Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands." The SAID principle asserts that the body will adapt to the specific demands placed upon it. Specificity training implies that you must practice a skill in order to get better at it.  In other words, you get what you train for

So, it’s not the drugs or genetics that explain the physical differences between bodybuilders and powerlifters.  Rather it’s the difference in the training methodologies between the two camps that account for bodybuilders looking more jacked than their powerlifting counterparts. Bodybuilding is a sport that emphasizes muscle size, shape, symmetry, and definition.

More specifically, it is intensification methods such as higher rep ranges, time-under-tension, isolation training, and a focus on mind-muscle connection that explains why bodybuilders tend to look more muscular.  Contrariwise, powerlifters who focus almost exclusively on one-rep max attempts with compound lifts will gain more strength.  Couple this with added work on partial reps to overcome sticking points and powerlifters achieve precisely what they train for: brute strength

Simply put, it is a matter of training for size vs strength.


 Arnold Schwarzenegger best explains bodybuilding in the following quote from the classic documentary,  Pumping Iron:

"It's like judging the body by muscularity and by proportion, symmetry, the whole thing.  ...Good bodybuilders have the same mind when it comes to sculpting, that a sculpter has.  If you analyze it, you look in the mirror and you say:  'I need more deltoids, more shoulders', so you get the proportions right.  So what you do is you exercise and put those deltoids on.  Whereas an artist would just slap on some clay on each side; does it, maybe, the easier way.  We go through a harder way because you have to do it on a human body."

"I mean, obviously a lot of people look at you and they think it's kind of strange, what you're doing.  But those are the people who don't know much about it.  As soon as you find out what the whole thing is about, then it's just like another thing.  It's not any stranger as going into a car and trying to go in a quarter mile, five seconds.  I mean, that's for me, strange."
                                                                                             - Arnold Schwarzenegger




 powerlifting vs bodybuilding stereotypes

There is no hiding the clear animosity that exists between these two iron kingdoms.  Fair or unfair, here is how each camp tends to view the other:

Some bodybuilders view powerlifters as:

  • Ego lifters with delusions of grandeur
  • Undisciplined dieters (fatties)
  • Not having as much muscle
  • Slow & unathletic
  • Lacking in gym etiquette (grunters & shouters)

Some powerlifters view bodybuilders as:

  • Big, but not strong (weaklings)
  • Unmanly, beauty pageant contestants
  • Shallow and self-absorbed/narcissistic
  • Spending all day at the gym (that’s all you do)
  • Having an inferiority complex (bullied in youth)

Non-lifters view both powerlifters & bodybuilders as:

  • Brainless meatheads (I pick things up and put them down)
  • Steroid abusing rage monsters (Hulk smash!)
  • Having all their muscle turn into fat when they quit training
  • Strange, Unusual & Obsessed


powerlifting vs bodybuilding | similarities & differences

Both bodybuilders & powerlifters incorporate sleep & recovery, progressive overload & “the big 3” (deadlifts, squats & bench press).  The difference is that powerlifters train for strength whereas bodybuilders train for size with added emphasis on diet & cardio as they are judged on appearance rather than performance.

Despite all their differences, both bodybuilders and powerlifters can feel like their whole worlds revolve around eating, sleeping and lifting.

powerlifting program vs bodybuilding workouts

 Bodybuilding vs Powerlifting Comparison

Looking at the contrasting ranges in weight and volume used between the two, it is safe to say that powerlifters want to make weight feel as light as possible in order to lift as much as possible.  Bodybuilders move weight slower, intentionally making weight feel heavier; concentrating on “feeling” every repetition rather than simply moving said weight from point A to point B.

It must also be noted that for most powerlifters, the word “cardio” is nothing more than a dirty six-letter word.  Those who partake in cardio do so infrequently, if for no other reason but to take care of their cardiovascular health as this has little impact on performance.

Competitive bodybuilders on the other hand, can’t avoid performing extensive cardio as they are subjectively judged based on appearance with performance being a non-factor.

powerlifting vs bodybuilding which is better

Powerlifters prioritize heavy compound lifts to improve functional strength whereas bodybuilders emphasize dieting & body part-based lifts to improve aesthetics & muscularity.  Both require dedication and are great for building confidence & discipline.  “Which is better” is a matter of personal goals & preference.

powerlifting vs bodybuilding pros and cons

The chief benefits of powerlifting are insane strength, technical excellence in lifts, and being judged on performance instead of appearance.  The big drawback is high risk of injury.  The main benefit of bodybuilding is an aesthetic superhero look, while lack of freedom & flexibility with diet can be a major drawback.

 Powerlifter Larry Wheels Bodybuilder Mr Olympia Brandon Curry

what is powerbuilding?

“Powerbuilding” is a relatively new term used to describe a hybrid weightlifting program which combines elements of strength and hypertrophy training taken from powerlifting & bodybuilding.  The goal is to gain superior levels of strength while simultaneously building the most aesthetic & muscular physique possible.

So, if you’re not competing at the elite levels in bodybuilding or powerlifting, why make a choice between the two?  If you prefer to lift weights with the goal of maximizing all the benefits possible why not investigate the mysterious world of powerbuilding?!

Plenty of popular & successful fitness icons happen to fall into this classification of lifter.  Ultimately, to be the best at any one craft you have to specialize, but any of the names I’m about to mention have or could have competed at top levels in either bodybuilding or powerlifting:  Ronnie Coleman, Stan Efferding, Johnnie Jackson, Mike O’Hearn, Larry Wheels, Mariusz Pudzianowski, Franco Columbo & Tom Platz just to name a few.  What I’m trying to say is that if you went down the path of the powerbuilder you would be in good company.

I think no video better captures the differences between bodybuilding & powerlifting than the gem below.  Here we have Jay Cutler (4x Mr. Olympia-bodybuilder), Larry Wheels (powerlifter), and Mike O'hearn (hybrid-"powerbuilder").  This is just an amazing insight into the mindset behind each discipline. (Larry's epic laugh alone is worth the price of admission!)

In the end, only a tiny fraction of a miniscule percentage of powerlifting and bodybuilding athletes ever make it to the upper echelon of iron-immortality.  So why not go buffet style with your training and take the best of both worlds.  Before trying to be the best that ever hoisted the iron, first try to become the best you.  If you have the potential it will become evident in short time; then you could choose your end goal from there.  Until that day comes, do what you enjoy most with no regrets.

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