Powerlifting vs Bodybuilding: The Complete Guide

What’s the difference between Powerlifting and Bodybuilding?

According to this Wikipedia article, bodybuilding is:

“…The use of progressive resistance exercise to control and develop one’s musculature. An individual who engages in this activity is referred to as a bodybuilder.”

Professional bodybuilding is when competitors stand on stage and are judged on how ‘perfect’ their body is. Perfection in this case is based on symmetry, size, vascularity and % of body fat.

In the corresponding post, powerlifting is defined as:

“…A strength sport that consists of three attempts at maximal weight on three lifts: squat, bench press, and deadlift.”

In a powerlifting competition an attempt is made to lift a maximal single weight in each of the above lifts. The combined weight of each lift’s heaviest rep is labelled as an individual’s ‘total.’ The highest total score in each weight class wins the proverbial gold medal.

Powerlifting is a true strength sport that is defined by how much you lift. Each periodised training program is designed to improve your performance in the big 3 lifts and isn’t at all concerned with how you look. ‘In-shape’ powerlifters can be few and far between.

If bodily perfection is your primary concern, then either start bodybuilding, or be prepared to take better care over your powerlifting programming.

Now Read: This Guide on How to Cut

Ronnie Coleman performing a lat pose in peak condition
Ronnie Coleman in peak condition is a sight to behold

Each exercise you perform, whether it’s hypertrophy based or strength based, tends to be a close variation of these lifts. It’s subtleties lie in the art of expert programming. In pushing your body to it’s maximal recoverable limit (MRV) every week, you drive efficient progress that requires minimal deloading and a low risk of overtraining.

Bodybuilding is defined by how you look. It’s a vascular world of diets and metal. An ego-driven hobby made famous by Eugene Sandow (‘The Father of Modern Bodybuilding’) and brought to the masses by Arnold Schwarzenegger and co. in the 1970’s. There’s no doubt bodybuilders at the top of the game look extraordinary.

Powerlifting Programming vs. Bodybuilding Programming

Both powerlifting and bodybuilding programming can be remarkably similar. Traditionally both require an athlete to go through a periodised accumulation phase:

Bodybuilding accumulation phase

A peaking phase in bodybuilding is when the athlete eats a caloric surplus in their off-season. The goal here is to gain as much muscle as possible so that the end result of their cutting phase is as impressive as possible.

Powerlifting accumulation phase

The corresponding phase in powerlifting is similar. Traditionally powerlifters don’t need to be as concerned about cutting or bulking, but rather finding a comfortable weight + maintenance calories to optimise performance.

However the aim here is to cram MRV (maximal recoverable volume) and improve an athlete’s weak points with a much lower specificity than towards the end of their cycle. I am a huge proponent of GPP (General Physical Preparation).

After the accumulation phase is complete, both will enter a secondary mesocycle designed to increased specificity and build upon the peaking phase:

  • Bodybuilding: This phase is more defined by diet than by exercise section. Typically a bodybuilder will go from being in a caloric surplus to a caloric deficit as they begin their meet prep.
    • This caloric deficit is typically only small (5-10% under maintenance), but is enough to begin losing around 2lbs a week.
  • Powerlifting: For a powerlifter, this phase is geared towards a greater specificity.
    • Traditionally weights will be slightly increased (consistently working around the 80-90% of 1RM), exercise variation will decrease and volume decreases.

As an example, I pull with a sumo deadlift as I think it’s the best way to build strength given the reduced injury risk. However I think that conventional deadlifting is the best way to express absolute strength.

Instead of pulling with a conventional deadlift off the blocks in a 4(8-10) rep range (as in my peaking phase), I could move towards a 5(5) sumo deadlift with an increased weight. As this is my competition pulling style, this does 3 things:

  • Increases Specificity: This is much closer to my competition style deadlift
  • Reduces Volume: As weight increases, your MRV decreases. In order to progress and reduce burnout your volume must decrease as you get closer to your 1RM.
  • Reinforces Technique: Pulling above 95% of your 1RM requires solid technique. The only way to reinforce that is by pulling in your preferred style with heavier weight.

The final mesocycle in both sports is separated primarily by strength. Powerlifters have spent the last 12+ weeks gearing up to the final test week.

This week is a true test of absolute strength and usually not recommended more than 3 times a year given the stresses placed on joints and muscles.

Conversely bodybuilders are arguably at their weakest at this point in their programming. The weeks and months beforehand spent in a calorie deficit take their toll on mood, mindset and athletic performance.

Protein and Caloric Deficits

The importance of protein can’t be underestimated when framing a caloric deficit. The research shows that Protein, fats and food(s) rich in fibre keep you satiated for far longer than carbohydrates. Ideal for those in a deficit!

Chocolate whey protein in a glass
Chocolate whey protein powder in a glass

Proteins* are the building blocks of muscle growth and high protein diets are incredibly efficient at minimising muscle loss when in a caloric deficit.

Of course the quality of proteins is of immense importance, but as a bodybuilder you want to maintain as much muscle mass as possible whilst feeling fuller for longer in a calorie deficit.

Now Read: How to Bulk and Gain Muscle

Powerlifting Exercise Selection vs Bodybuilding Exercise selection?

Powerlifting exercise selection has to be geared towards the big 3 lifts. As an intermediate powerlifter you should be spending 50-80% of your time in the gym performing the main lifts or close variations.*

The closer you are to the end of your program, the greater the level of specificity, so of course your exercise variation will decrease as you perform more heavy singles.

If you’d like to know more about exercise variation and selection, then I recommend the below as a good starting point for powerlifters:

*unless you’re running the Conjugate Method

Really as a powerlifter you wouldn’t need to add many (if any!) additional exercises in order to be successful.

Look, they’re vastly different:

Bodybuilding is vastly different. Powerlifting relies on exercise specificity and consistency, whereas bodybuilding requires a precise array of exercises, designed to ‘bring up’ each muscle and eliminate weak points.

The below image image the challenges facing bodybuilders. Outside of elite genetics (and good quality steroids) it takes years to create a body free of weak points. Ronnie Coleman’s first professional show was in 1992 and his first Olympia win was in 1998. This shit takes time.

Even the chest alone (pectoralis major and minor) requires a number of different exercises to efficiently target and improve.

Now imagine this for every major and minor muscle sets in the body and you’ll begin to understand the nuances within bodybuilding. Powerlifters don’t have this concern.

Image depicting chest muscles and the exercises required to target themImage depicting chest muscles and the exercises required to target them

So, for sweet simplicity powerlifting is far more efficient and enjoyable. Fewer reps, sets and exercises is an absolute winner for someone like myself with a mentally strenuous job.

You may be wondering:

‘Will Bodybuilding make you Stronger?’

Obviously… Unless you transition from powerlifting to bodybuilding, effectively lifting weights in a periodised format will effectively stimulate hypertrophy.

Essentially there are two types of hypertrophy that cause a temporary increase in muscle size, especially sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which increases the volume of fluid in the cells – AKA muscle glycogen storage. This type of instant gratification leads to bodybuilders looking ‘fuller’ after a high repetition session.

Rushing fluid to the muscles is the body’s response to the tissue damage caused by weightlifting. Muscle growth is then created as the tissues repair and blood rushes to the muscles, driving nutrients to the areas that need it most.

Powerlifters muscle growth is dominated by myofibrillated hypertrophy. Lower rep ranges with weights typically in the 80-90% range of your 1RM*. This causes the muscles to break down due to shear stress, whereby the tissues repair as nutrients rush to them.

*I like how the 5 | 3 | 1 method bases everything off 90% of your 1RM to prevent burnout, a smart way to program even if I don’t agree with the method for powerlifting.

I’m sure you’re also thinking:

‘Are Bodybuilding splits effective?’

This depends on what you define as bodybuilding splits. When I started bodybuilding in the mid-2000’s, bro splits were everything.

Monday– International chest and tricep day

Tuesday– Back and bis

Wednesday– Legs


Clearly from a protein synthesis perspective this is incredibly inefficient and means you only target muscle groups once a week.

Bro splits are based on steroid users. Steroids allow you to recover faster and push your boy harder. More reps and sets every day. So naturally you can push muscles to places unassisted lifters can’t.

However bodybuilding has moved on from bro splits and chicken and rice. Someone like Layne Norton has done a lot to remove myths about ‘dirty’ foods and how the calorie is more important than anything else.

This drive towards modernity also improved old-fashioned training methods. It’s no longer balls to the wall until injury. Now push-pull methods and full body splits are commonplace and based on scientific principles, helping bodybuilding reach the 21st c.


‘Can you combine Powerlifting and Bodybuilding?’

Absolutely. There are many successful bodybuilders who are equally successful powerlifters and vice versa.

The most well-known current bodybuilder who is also a successful powerlifter is probably Stan Efferding.

He also has a 20 rep program which I ran for around 8 weeks a few Summers ago.

Bodybuilder Stan Efferding topless
A ripped Stan Efferding

Larry Wheels is probably the most well-known pwoerlifter who is trying his hand at bodybuilding.

Powerlifter Larry Wheels on stage as a bodybuilder
Powerlifter Larry Wheels on stage as a bodybuilder

Both immensely successful in their own right. Larry has squatted and deadlifted 900lbs and bench pressed over 600. Stan wasn’t too far behind.

So they can complement each other fantastically well. The challenge is more to do with diet than anything else. Can you stay lean and on track when you really need to?

Why Powerlifting is better than Bodybuilding in my opinion

As a young man, my goals were incredibly different. Arnold Schwarzenneger drew me in with his breathtaking frame. After a refusal to do steroids the sport spat me back out. ‘Natural’ bodybuilding is absolute shite.

Powerlifting on the other hand is glorious. A pure test of strength and you get out exactly what you put in. You can’t game the system. It takes years and decades of intricate programming to build up old man strength. It’s what everyone asks:

“How much do you deadlift? Squat? Bench?”

There’s no better way to spend your time in the gym if you’re looking to get strong. Outside of adding in some shoulder hypertrophy and press work, but who’s got time for that.

No question for me, powerlifting shits on bodybuilding. Even if Arnold is my hero.

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