At some point in your lifting career, you might decide to specialize in either powerlifting or bodybuilding training. Therefore, it’s important to understand exactly how these two styles of lifting differ in order to maximize your training efforts.
So, what is the difference between powerlifting vs bodybuilding? Powerlifting training aims to increase maximal strength, especially in movements such as the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Bodybuilding training is less concerned with how much weight is lifted but aims to maximize muscle hypertrophy (growth) as much as possible.
As a result, everything from the exercise technique and programming is going to look a lot different. In this article, we’ll explore 8 differences between powerlifting and bodybuilding training.
Let’s get started!
Powerlifting and bodybuilding are both competitive sports.
In powerlifting, you compete in the squat, bench press, and deadlift, with the goal of lifting as much weight as possible for 1 repetition. When you compete in powerlifting, you have 3 attempts to reach your max capacity. The winner is determined by adding up the heaviest squat, bench press, and deadlift attempt, which gives you what’s called the ‘powerlifting total’.
In bodybuilding, you compete in different physique categories, such as bodybuilding, fitness, wellness, and bikini. Each of these categories has a different type off “look” that the judges will be basing their criteria on. Generally speaking, the criteria is based on how much ‘muscle mass’ is acceptable and the types of posing routines that are required.
Not everyone who enjoys powerlifting and bodybuilding training decides to compete. But, for those that do, it’s important to learn the specific standards of each activity as outlined in the sport guidelines and rules.
Both powerlifters and bodybuilders use weight training to increase muscle mass, strength, mobility/flexibility, and overall performance. However, the exact exercises within each training program will differ drastically.
In powerlifting, the three main exercises are the squat, bench press, and deadlift. This means that any exercise that is programmed must have a direct impact on improving these three movements. Therefore, you’ll see powerlifters implement several variations, including:
- Squat: Front squat, pause squat, tempo squat
- Bench Press: Incline bench press, narrow grip bench press, long pause bench press
- Deadlift: Deficit deadlifts, snatch grip deadlifts, stiff leg deadlifts
In bodybuilding, while many of these same powerlifting movements are programmed, there is much less of an emphasis on them. What you’ll see more prominently in bodybuilding program are several isolation exercises that are targetted toward specific muscle groups, including:
- Back: Seated row, wide grip pulldowns
- Shoulders: Machine shoulder press, lateral dumbbell raises
- Biceps: Dumbbell preacher curls, cable bicep curls
- Triceps: Rope tricep pressdown, dumbbell skull crushers
- Glutes: Barbell hip thrusts, glute kickbacks
- Hamstrings: Machine leg curl, swiss ball leg curl
Both powerlifters and bodybuilders care a lot about implementing proper exercise technique.
This is because neither can risk an injury, which might potentially put them out of their sport for several weeks or months.
However, powerlifters use lifting technique that limits the range of motion on exercises, whereas bodybuilders use lifting technique that increases the range of motion on exercises.
In powerlifting, the less range of motion that is used the less work that is required to move the weight from point A to B. As a result, every angle of the movement is analyzed in order to reduce the range of motion so that more weight can be lifted. This is why you’ll see powerlifters arch their back in the bench press or use the sumo deadlifting technique.
For bodybuilders, the opposite is true.
They want to take an exercise through its full range of motion in order to stress the muscle at different lengths. This will lead to greater muscle damage producing greater hypertrophy adaptations (muscle growth).
The “training split” refers to how workouts are structured throughout the week.
In powerlifting, the training split is broken into each of the powerlifting movements, with the main emphasis on having “squat” days, “bench press” days, and “deadlift” days.
This is much different than a bodybuilding split, where the main emphasis is on breaking each workout into 1-3 muscle groups.
Here are two examples of a powerlifting vs bodybuilding training split using a 4-day workout schedule:
Example Powerlifting Training Split
Day 1: Squat Day + Deadlift Accessories
Day 2: Bench Day + Upper Back Accessories
Day 3: Deadlift Day + Squat Accessories
Day 4: Bench Day + Shoulder & Tricep Accessories
Example Bodybuilding Training Split
Day 1: Lower Body Day (Quads, Calves)
Day 2: Upper Body Day (Chest, Triceps, Shoulders)
Day 3: Lower Body Day (Glutes, Hamstrings)
Day 4: Upper Body Day (Back, Biceps, Forearms)
Many people would broadly say that powerlifters use low reps (1-5) and bodybuilders use high reps (6-15).
This is because lower rep ranges produce strength adaptations and higher rep ranges produce hypertrophy adaptations.
However, this is not to say that powerlifters don’t benefit from building muscle or bodybuilders don’t benefit from building strength.
Therefore, the real difference is not necessarily what rep ranges are used, but rather, the ratio of time spent in each rep range.
For powerlifters, they will spend on average 3:1 in the lower rep range versus higher rep range.
For bodybuilders, they will spend on average 3:1 in the higher rep range versus lower rep range.
You can picture this like spending 3 months doing either low or high reps depending on whether you’re a powerlifter or bodybuilder, and then spending 1 month doing the opposite rep range.
On average, powerlifters use heavier loads and bodybuilders use lighter loads.
This is a function of the rep ranges and the types of exercises used.
Since powerlifters on average use lower reps, they will use a higher percentage of their 1 rep max (80-95%).
On the other hand, since bodybuilders on average use higher reps, they will use a lower percentage of their 1 rep max (65-80%).
However, don’t confuse the training load with training effort. Just because powerlifters use a heavier load doesn’t mean they’re working harder, and vice versa for bodybuilders.
Based on the rep ranges used, powerlifters and bodybuilders are still trying to exert a training effort that’s relatively close to their maximum capacity.
For example, a powerlifter squatting 90% for 3 reps would be equally as hard as a bodybuilder squatting 75% for 12 reps.
Yes, the loads are different, but because the rep ranges are also different, the training efforts are still equally as high.
The rest intervals refer to the time spent in between sets.
When you’re lifting a load that’s a higher percentage of your 1 rep max, you generally need more rest in order to recover before attempting your next set. The opposite is true when you’re lifting a lower percentage of your 1 rep max. Lower weight equals less rest.
Therefore, powerlifters will typically take between 3-7 minutes of rest between sets, while bodybuilders take between 1-3 minutes.
As such, it’s not uncommon to see powerlifters take 1-hour to do 10 sets of bench press, whereas bodybuilders would have already finished 3-4 exercises in that same time period.
Recovery is an important aspect for both powerlifters and bodybuilders.
For powerlifters, it’s critical to strategically plan the frequency of their max lifts. It wouldn’t be appropriate to max out every workout week-after-week. This would certainly lead to over-training, burn-out, and increase the risk of joint and tendon injury.
For bodybuilders, it’s important not to do too much volume, too fast. This could create muscle soreness lasting in excessive of 48 hours. If that’s the case, then any future workouts will likely take a hit because you can’t train as hard with sore muscles.
Other ways powerlifters and bodybuilders implement recovery protocols are:
- Engaging in low-stress activities outside the gym: walking, meditation, or being social with friends.
- Planning a de-load phase of training: 1-2 weeks of training with lower levels of volume and/or intensity.
- Using Electric Muscle Stimulation (EMS): a tool like PowerDot to increase blood flow and circulation, which wards off inflammation.
While powerlifting and bodybuilding both use weight training principles, their end goals are different. Powerlifters aim to increase their 1 rep max in the squat, bench press and deadlift. Bodybuilders aim to increase muscle mass and muscular symmetry. As a result, everything from their exercise technique to programming will differ.