Powerlifting V.S. Bodybuilding – What’s The Difference?

by Caleb Lee on February 12, 2009

powerlifting-bodybuilding

Powerlifting V.S. Bodybuilding - What's the difference?

I figured I’d write a quick article on the difference between powerlifting and bodybuilding because I talk a lot about each of these two disciplines on my blog… and am going to be talking about powerlifting even more.

Very simply, let’s define them both here:

  • Bodybuilding: sport where the goal is aesthetics, to look muscular, lean, larger and “ripped”. Competitions are judged by who looks better…
  • Powerlifting: sport where the goal is to lift the heaviest weight in one of three of the powerlifts, bench press, deadlift or squat. Competitions are judged by who lifts more…

Another way to define them is that bodybuilders prance around on stages in little bikinis with fake tans and oil all over their bodies… and… powerlifters eat McDonalds every day, shave their heads and grow gotees. But let’s look a little deeper…

Difference In Exercises

You would think the two sports would be similar because they’re both about lifting weights right? Well, the differences in exercise choice are probably the first thing you’ll notice between the two.

Bodybuilders generally employ a different exercise for each and every part of their body to try to build it up and get it larger and more ripped. On “Chest day” for instance they might do bench presses, incline bench presses, dumbbell flyes, and then finish up with a pec dec machine or something like that.

Powerlifters stick more to the basics of the squat, deadlift and bench press — with any “assistance work” (i.e. other exercises) being focused on making those lifts better. Either extra exercises or variations on those movements to “work” certain parts of the lifts.  For example: low box squats with a pause in the bottom position to train to get stronger out of the deep, bottom position of the squat.

Training Philosophies

For bodybuilders, it’s all about “how can I look better–get more development” and strength is a by-factor or secondary concern. It’s about how much muscle can I gain while losing a lot of fat so I can get huge, ripped, and vascular (veiny).

For powerlifters it’s all about how much weight can I lift. How can I get stronger… how can I improve my technique… how can I get better than the next guy at putting more weight on the bar and lifting it.

Nutrition

You’ll hear many bodybuilding pros say that nutrition is 80% of bodybuilding because what you put into you mouth has a BIG effect on the fat that gathers around your waist… or the muscle that grows on your biceps. So nutrition is a big part of bodybuilding and always will be, because the focus is on looking large and strong but with very low bodyfat.

In Powerlifting, nutrition is seen as a part of being in the right weight class at the meets. If you are a lighter lifter then it’s important to eat healthy to stay in the lighter weight class — yet the emphasis on nutrition is still on fueling your athletic performance.

For the heavy weight lifters it’s no-holds barred when it comes to food. Here’s some real advice from some of the strongest powerlifters who ever lived:

Why I Like Powerlifting Stuff

While I have no intentions of getting as big wide as I am tall, shaving my head and growing a gotee (oops! Already got one of those!) I like powerlifting.

Why? Bunch a reasons:

  • Focus on strength: strength is the basis of all other physical skills (and building it builds mental strength too).
  • Emphasis on posterior chain: most bodybuilders only work the muscles they can see in the mirror, i.e. pecs and “guns”. Powerlifting focuses a lot on getting the backside of your body strong which is good for your overall athletic performance and especially back health.
  • Lifting heavy stuff is cool: nuff said
  • They don’t do bicep curls in the squat rack.
  • Emphasis on technique: to get heavy weights up you gotta have technique or you get seriously hurt
  • Builds a good base: most people don’t know it but virtually all the world-champ bodybuilders started out in powerlifting and olympic weight lifting

Which One For You?

You probably don’t fall into either category completely. You probably don’t want to get “freaky huge” like professional bodybuilders and you probably don’t want to set a new world record in the squat or deadlift…

My guess is you’d like to be a little healthier, a little stronger, a whole lot leaner and just feel good about yourself. Am I right?

Leave me a comment to let me know what your goals are — whether you’re interested more in powerlifting or bodybuilding — and what you want to achieve!

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{ 42 comments… read them below or add one }

Al Sexton February 13, 2009 at 5:07 pm

saw your recent artical about bodybuilding vs powerlifting and i loved it. When i saw those quotes from the powerlifters i was floored. I truly believe that yes you do need to eat clean, but no as clean like a bodybuilder’s diet. They go to the absolute extreme with their diet. For the average person i believe the definition of eating clean is one or two steps below that with common sense rules: fast food/eatining out, junk food, sweets, etc are bad for you.

I believe that we do no have to eat plain oatmeal, boneless skinless chicken breasts, brown rice to get lean and healthy.I is too tough to eat that food all the time and not feel miserable or be able to keep your sanity. Do those foods work, of course they do, but it is too extreme for most people. What do you think?

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Caleb Lee February 13, 2009 at 5:29 pm

@ Al Sexton: you got it buddy! You don't need to just eat oatmeal, thousands of chicken breasts, etc… just a little common sense is all that's needed! Plus, the more you workout the more muscle you build (which makes it easier to stay leaner) and of course the more fat you burn and calories you burn.

And there's something to be said for enjoying your new healthy living lifestyle — learning to enjoy how to make food that's good for you but also tastes great. Instead of thinking "this is a chore" to eat healthy, think "this is a cool new challenge — I get to be creative to figure out how to make something healthy and also tastes great!"

And like you said, restricting yourself to strict diets only makes you not ever stick to them.

Thanks for the comment Al!

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Michael Howard July 5, 2009 at 7:07 pm

Good read. I myself agree with you. I will never be the strongest guy or have the best looking muscles, but I can strive a little for both. I tend to go with more PL movements, but I also like the aspect of Body building. I think the majority of people that train can do a little of both. Either way unless you have a great guide or training partner neither is going to realy take you to the top.

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Trevor Lakin July 8, 2009 at 12:24 am

To Caleb,
I personally find it a little offensive on how you put down bodybuilders pretty much all the way through this article. I understand where you’re coming from with the powerlifting aspect. On the other hand, SUCCESSFUL bodybuilders do not use “ego training” aka “I can out-bench anyone in this gym”. When I have someone ask me how much I bench, I find them less educated because bodybuilding takes much more mental and physical strain than any average person can begin to fathom. Just because I don’t bench 350+ doesn’t mean I don’t use technique and form (an absolute staple of successful bodybuilding) because if you just throw weight around all your days in the gym, guaranteed your back and knees will eventually take the fall. As far as “prancing around up on stage with fake tans and oil” goes, I’d like to see someone else have the balls to get up on that stage in front of 100+ people and see how you do showcasing the diet and mental hell you’ve gone through to get there. Some people should think before they shove their foot in there mouth and talk about something they apparently know nothing about.

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Caleb Lee July 8, 2009 at 11:12 am

@ Trevor: I tried to put both down because they’re both silly at their extremes (the powerlifters and diet for instance) … and I respect the old school bodybuilders like Arnold, Franco, etc (you’ll see tons of their pictures all over this blog) — but yea both schools of thought take mental toughness :)

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Rider August 7, 2009 at 1:09 pm

Yes, You Right about the difference between those two programs But The question is, I think on everyone’s mind is : Who’s Stronger?
So Bodybuilding You wanna look better, more huge, and gain muscle, The muscles make you strong.
Powerlifting makes you too more stronger, You Are advanced with lifting more and more Kilograms and pounds And it build your strength more and more.

But Who’s Stronger? BodyBuilder or Powerlifter? I want Answer.

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animal February 3, 2011 at 8:05 am

powerlifters are way stronger. The best bodybuilders weigh close to 300 lbs ripped, and can only bench maybe 500 and the ones who can are few in number. The best power lifters at 300lbs can bench over 800lbs, and the best Ryan Kennely has done over a 1000lbs. Bottom line powerlifters are supperior atheletes, they just aren't as pretty as bodybuilders.

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Caleb_Lee February 5, 2011 at 11:20 pm

"Superior" in absolute strength in the higher weight classes.
Sometimes "superior" in relative strength in the lightest weight classes (Lamar Gant anyone?)
But "athletes" is a broad term — and "healthy" is another — it's hard to make generalizations.

But good comment!

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Jabba the Bench August 22, 2009 at 3:13 am

Trevor Lakin = Fag

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Darren October 3, 2009 at 3:21 pm

I’ve been bodybuilding for like the couple last 9 months till I got a injury in my forearms.
And now I have started on powerlifting. Don’t know why, but the sport just pulls me in.
This article of yours enlightened me a lot on powerlifting nutrition.

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Dom October 16, 2009 at 3:55 pm

Powerlifting – U train to develop actual lifts, using the body in a powerful systematic way, developing your muscular strength & size and training ur CNS to be more efficient
Bodybuilding – U train to develope your actual body parts, with close attention to aesthetic proportions, definition etc. U build the appearances of your body to be the mental ideal of male/female physiques

I think people are too caught up in the hypertrophy vs strength training training thing in general. If u increased all ur current max for ur main lifts, say bench, squat , dead , overhead press etc by 200lbs/90kgs from what they are now, relatively injury free and eating lots of calories and using minimal iso work tell me u wouldnt be a much much bigger person from solid gains.

Alot of stuff we have been taught in the past as ‘hypertrophy work’, being high rep isolation stuff is just sarcoplasmic hypertrophy which occurs from an increase in the non-contractile cellular fluid in the muscle.. which is in effect the plumbing and energy systems of the muscle. This type of hypertrophy is responsible for approximately 25-35% of your overall mass.
Id say go for solid myofibrillar hypertrophy which u get plenty from powerlifting training as it makes up the solid 70% of your muscle mass from.
Also dont forget u train ur nervous system when u train powerlifting style, which makes u more efficient, powerful and explosive. Power is a good thing to have in daily life. Also it has superior hormonal benefits… youll be producing alot more growth hormone & test by focusing on low volume, heavy basic lifts at a high requency.
Big heavy compound lifts performed requently burn up alot of calories, the intensity and demand on ur body becomes huge as ur working weights slowly get heavy. Once youve built a solid initial strength/size base make sure u eat ALOT more calories otherwise u will be spinning ur wheels, esp ALOT on training days.

just my humble 2 cents :)

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Alex Moisescu October 17, 2009 at 4:13 pm

Hi there:
I would like to add a word about physical conditioning. It is more on the powerlifting side, being concerned with improving the physical qualities and less about the look.
Physical conditioning aims to make you a human machine: strength (limit strength, functional strength, core strength, specific strength, power, muscle endurance, power endurance), speed (running, reaction, repetition), endurance (anaerobic endurance and aerobic endurance), flexibility and skill (balance, coordination, precision, ambidexterity).
By the way, trainees who engage in physical conditioning look much better than inflated bodybuilders; just take a look at MMA fighters, wrestlers, judoka, basketball, football players, track and field athletes, end the list can go on and on.
Be the best you can be! Overall.

Train hard… and smart..

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Romero October 29, 2009 at 12:54 am

I have done a BB routine for the first few months of since I started weight lifting. It wasn’t worth it because I wasn’t seeing as much functional strength as I should have. Ever since I switched to a power lifting/olympic lifting routine I love the challenges every time I hit the gym. I go to a ‘pretty boy’ gym and all I see are guys curling on the squat rack with low weights, and doing the three lifts with light weight. I have gained more size, strength and speed ever since I switched over.
The harder and more often you train the leaner and stronger your muscles will be.

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Caleb Lee November 5, 2009 at 6:21 pm

@ Romero: LOL at “pretty boy” gym. I know the feeling.

“30 sets of different bicep exercises!” and “squat in the smith machine cause it’s “safer”"

haha, great stuff. and good for you!

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jackattack January 18, 2010 at 11:56 pm

Powerlifting is alot better than bodybuilding because Powerlifting builds incredible explosive power. I have sparred with a powerlifter in the ring before and believe me, it was like fighting a friggin pitbull.

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Caleb_Lee January 27, 2010 at 8:12 pm

Yessir!

Strength is the basis of all other physical qualities (explosiveness, power, endurance, etc) so it's great for fighting!

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John Letter February 1, 2010 at 8:05 pm

Heyy greatt article! But i just wanted to ask for advice. I dont want to set a new world record or stand on stage in a bikini i just want to get strong and cut should i start woth powerlifting to get strong and big?

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Caleb_Lee February 1, 2010 at 10:08 pm

Yup. Lift weights for strength/muscle. Diet to lose the fat. If necessary a little interval training cardio to help with fat loss. Lately, I've been doing almost strictly weights and diet and look as good as ever :)

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Anabolic Scholar March 5, 2010 at 2:25 am

ha its rediculous to compare the 2 each sports are in 2 different worlds its like trying to compare rugby to soccer i recon you just hate bodybuilders
bodybuilding is an art of the body im no bodybuilder and i use powerlifting to complement my rugby but seriously stop hating on the bodybuilders as far as i know people who are into powerlifting once had a passion for bodybuilding but when they found out that they just didn't have the genes for it they moved to powerlifting

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Caleb_Lee March 5, 2010 at 10:32 pm

Well sir, I don't believe I was hating on either. Do you? I simply explained which one appeals to me and then asked for comments.

As for this …

bodybuilders as far as i know people who are into powerlifting once had a passion for bodybuilding but when they found out that they just didn't have the genes for it they moved to powerlifting

I would say it goes both ways …

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Dave Mcaferty April 2, 2010 at 9:38 pm

I am always trying to get biger I’m 6’2″ an weigh 310 at 15% I think that bodybuilders have to lift heavy to get biger heavy on all exercises .I Mean when was the last time you saw a big person in the gym doing 225 on the bench it’s all about the weight but not just in bench. Your reps are from 5 to 15 in bodybuilding and power litters train in the 1 to 3 rep range there is a lot of BS in bodybuilding people don’t know what to do hmm do I use peak contraction what do I do ? Well start trying to lift extra large weights in every lift and watch your self grow!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Caleb_Lee April 5, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Yessir Dave, gotta lift heavy. The old time bodybuilders knew that, had a real thick "base" of muscle. Guys like Ronnie Coleman and Johnny Jackson today also know this.

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Guest April 4, 2010 at 7:35 am

Who is the powerlifter on the left?

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Caleb_Lee April 5, 2010 at 4:28 pm

Can't remember, but he was big in the 70's …

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Thiago July 5, 2010 at 4:19 am

Hey Caleb, nice comparisons. Man, I’m sedentary and looking for do something better for my looks and health. I NEED to get wider as an aesthetic matter and NEED to improve my health pretty bad. I’m kinda of a fat mesomorph ectomorph being. I’m really confused on what to do but my real goal is to look wider. I love the whole idea of powerlifting ’cause its a sport and you’re not suffering for the absolute fact that you’re in a “looking better” chase . Also powerlifters look wider than bodybuilders and more natural, its like they were born that way. And I love the Idea of bodybuilding for concentrating the whole effort on what you want to increase. I love being a fatty and my girlfriend like to squeeze me. But still I don’t know what to do. The idea of powerlifting is fantastic but i’ve seen some powerlifters that are normal people and I want to be “naturally huge” not just ordinary. The idea of body building is nice too but you seem so artificial and in spite of being sure of size gains (not much in the powerlifting) you could look too vain and hard and I like being squeezable. I’m one step away of becoming a powerlifter but i WANT my WIDE, BROAD, FAT, NATURAL LOOKING BACK GAINS. I’m affraid of start suffering so much for lifting the weights and not to have a good gain. Please what should I do? Thanks already for the answer and really nice post. (loved the part that powerlifters give attention to the back more than bodybuilders). Much love.

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Caleb_Lee July 7, 2010 at 5:47 pm

Yea powerlifting sounds fun for you. No reason why you can't do both for the parts that inspire you about them both. Look at guys like matt kroczaleski and johnny jackson. Good luck!

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oliver aperahama November 12, 2010 at 8:02 am

i found ur article very interesting and it cleared up alot of things for me esp about powerlifitng. thank u.

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lee November 27, 2010 at 9:35 pm

hello,i am no expert but if you want to build bigger muscles you need to lift heavier weights.not high rep muscle burn pump's funny thing's is bodybuilders and power lifters share the same discipline even though they are very different sports.i think Nutrition is a bit overrated but if you do eat mostly right and especially keep useless calories like alcohol to a very minimum then you will like what you see and the women will to.so really the average person just wants to look good for summer witch to me means short 45mins – 1hour weightlifting workouts 2x or 3x a week max + cardio day,lifting weights that is going to make your muscles grow,eating mostly right 5x snack size meals a day and protein shake after your workout,not skipping cardio day,getting your 8hours sleep,staying hydrated,being patient and having a life outside of the gym.i guess with powerlifting you still need to follow some of these displines because your body does not store protein so you also need to keep feeding it in order to recover.you need rest and sleep to grow bigger muscles and the body is mostly made up of water so staying hydrated is a good idea.so both sport are very different in there lifting routines but building muscle is not rocket science and the root of each of these sports share the same foundation.KEEP LIFTING HEAVY WEIGHTS!!! hay like i said i am no expert i just read alot.

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Caleb_Lee December 1, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Thanks for the input Lee :)

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brian December 14, 2010 at 1:31 am

Why not cross train, heavy bag, powerlifting, high reps to confuse your body, then kettlebells and running, then one gallon of water daily and eat according to your goals, the goal and challenge is to get strong and not f up your body when your 65 and on social security i personally like to mix it up.

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Caleb_Lee December 18, 2010 at 10:41 pm

Good goal Brian.

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eddy m. January 28, 2011 at 2:07 pm

like you said at the end of your article, i dont want to be in any of the categories. i just want to get stronger, look better and be just overall physically fit. i dont want muscles for show either. i actually want to improve more on my strength than show.
my friend goes to the gym and bodybuilds and takes supplements and pills and all that shit. i just take protein after workouts and try not to eat bad. i do the same workouts as him because i honestly dont know what to do so i just do what he does. i dont want to do that anymore because it kind of pointless since i dont really watch what i eat that well and i dont want to have beach muscles.
can you give me some advice on what to do? or some sort of plan that will get me started? thanks

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Caleb_Lee February 5, 2011 at 11:19 pm

Read the archives, whatever goal you're chasing you'll find the plan in there.

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Kurt January 30, 2011 at 3:33 am

I am 16 and I have been bodybuilding for about 1 1/2 years now and gained 17kg (37lbs). I am now combining heavy powerlifting exercises with other bodybuilding exercises in the 8-10 rep range.

What do you think bro?

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Caleb_Lee February 5, 2011 at 11:19 pm

Hey "Bro" ;)

Yes, good way to go for bodybuilders, look at Johnny Jackson.

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frank February 3, 2011 at 11:30 pm

whats the powerlifters name in the picture? the bearded guy…

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Caleb_Lee February 5, 2011 at 11:21 pm

I dunno, someone on here might though.

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moonoo March 7, 2011 at 12:24 pm

Strength always look fascinating. from inside. I would say, be strong then you don’t need to try to look so.

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Kole March 17, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Would bee nice to see something more about risks/benefits on general health regarding these two sports. A lot of sport science articles are saying higher reps are better (safer) for blood pressure in a long run. Stating that heavy lifting causes arterial stiffness because of massive blood pressure spikes. Not to mention higher potential for injury. For building up performance one should train for strength, but most people just want to be fit and healthy.

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Dela Vega April 12, 2011 at 2:58 am

I am a powerlifter but in a low weight class, (currently 148lb class) but to keep my weight down i do gotta diet and eat right like a bodybuilder. but ALL my workouts are based on increasing my 3 mainlifts, which where i live,(wichita ks) we powerclean instead of deadlift. But my best frend and workout buddy is a bodybuilder, he looks twice the size of me, and weighs alot more, but i bench more, squat way more, and clean more. And people always wonder why, its just the cycle. we have different goals so we workout for different results.

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Caleb_Lee April 25, 2011 at 1:42 pm

Yup Yup

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Marc August 12, 2011 at 10:09 pm

Wow! I had no idea… I never had and any aspirations to being a bodybuilder, nor will I. All of my interests for weight training were for being lean and strong, but I thought training every muscle group was important to have symmetry. I'm 41 and my goal is to melt the excess fat, while getting strong and healthy. I recently started a program mimicking the 5X5 Workout except I do 3X10 Total Body Workout involving: squats; military presses; bent-over rows; reverse curls; calf raises; roman chair side raises and EZ bar pullover – I'm exhausted afterward. I have noticed some results. Can you recommend something?

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