Powerlifting and bodybuilding are sports that revolve around resistance training using weights.
If you’re new to weight training in general, powerlifting and bodybuilding may seem remarkably similar.
While both sports rely on lifting weights, the goals within each sport are quite different.
This article compares powerlifting and bodybuilding, discusses their benefits and downsides, and provides tips on incorporating either into your fitness routine — even if you don’t plan to compete.
Powerlifting is a competitive sport that assesses your ability to lift the maximum weight possible for one repetition, commonly referred to as one rep max (1RM), using a barbell in the following three lifts:
From an exercise science standpoint, the goal of powerlifting is to generate the maximum amount of muscular force for the given movements.
In powerlifting competitions, three judges assign a pass-fail score to the technique for each lift. A passing score from at least two judges is needed for the lift to count.
Presuming you execute the lift according to proper technique standards, the sole measure of performance is your 1RM on each lift (1).
Your score is then calculated in terms of the absolute weight lifted and the weight lifted relative to your weight.
Powerlifting competition rules are usually broken down into “raw” and “equipped,” with “equipped” allowing special suits and knee wraps, while “raw” generally allows only a lifting belt and knee sleeves (1).
How do you train for powerlifting?
Since powerlifting focuses on 1RM performance in the squat, bench press, and deadlift, the training revolves around increasing strength in these movements.
Given that the goal is lifting the most amount of weight, powerlifters generally opt for the low-bar back squat variation, a medium-to-wide grip bench press, and either a standard or sumo-style deadlift (2).
When practiced over time, these lifting techniques allow you to lift the most amount of weight due to optimal leverage and recruitment of the largest muscles.
With the massive amount of weight your body must support to be effective at powerlifting, you need to train additional exercises in conjunction with your squat, bench, and deadlift.
These additional exercises are typically known as assistance exercises and primarily used to strengthen the muscles that assist in stabilizing during the main lifts, thereby helping avoid muscular imbalances and reducing the risk of injury.
For example, on a squat- or deadlift-focused day, an intermediate or advanced powerlifter might add the following exercises for additional glute and hamstring strengthening:
- good mornings
- Romanian deadlifts
In general, powerlifters focus most of their efforts on lower repetition ranges of 1–5 reps with heavy weights and long rest periods to improve maximal strength.
In the long run, you may also have periods of training at higher rep ranges to maintain and increase muscle size. However, this is always in support of maximal strength performance in the three lifts and will not be present in every training cycle.
Powerlifting is a sport that revolves around lifting the most weight for a 1RM on the squat, deadlift, and bench press. Powerlifting training primarily focuses on lifting heavy weights for 1–5 repetitions.
Bodybuilding is a sport that judges competitors based on their overall physical appearance on competition day.
Bodybuilders pose onstage in speedos, bikinis, or other revealing outfits and receive a score based on muscle size, symmetry, and definition.
While posing for bodybuilding requires you to practice and perfect your routine, you’re judged based on the aesthetic of your appearance, not on any measure of physical performance.
As a competitive bodybuilder, your goals are the following:
The overall purpose is to reveal the definition of your hard-earned muscle mass.
The judges will score you based on the criteria of the competition, as well as your appearance relative to the other competitors.
Certain bodybuilding competitions have different clothing requirements and may favor different overall looks from the competitors’ physiques.
Nevertheless, the primary drivers of victory in bodybuilding are size and muscle definition displayed through posing routines onstage.
How do you train for bodybuilding?
Bodybuilding primarily relies on resistance training with barbells, dumbbells, and machine-based weights to maximize your muscle growth.
Since bodybuilding requires symmetrical growth in most of your major muscles, you’ll spend more time lifting weights in slightly higher repetition ranges, such as 8–15 reps, which stimulates more muscle growth than lower repetition sets.
While you still lift reasonably heavy weights, you lift slightly less weight than a powerlifting workout but do more overall repetitions.
The rest periods for these workouts tend to be somewhat shorter as well, roughly 1–2 minutes between sets.
Bodybuilding also requires more time spent on isolating muscle groups. For example, these exercises are frequently found in bodybuilding routines and less common in powerlifting:
- lateral shoulder raises
- bicep curl variations
- triceps extensions
While powerlifters may perform a few of these exercises in certain programs, bodybuilding almost always involves several isolation exercises per workout, in addition to higher repetitions of compound movements like squats and presses.
For long-term bodybuilding, you’ll eventually incorporate heavier training using lower repetitions and near-maximum weights. The purpose of heavier training in bodybuilding is to improve strength that eventually allows more high repetition training using heavier weights.
Ultimately, if you can lift a heavier weight for more repetitions, it will increase the overall muscle-building stimulus of your workout.
However, bodybuilding ultimately aims at increasing muscle growth itself via high repetition training.
Bodybuilding is a sport that focuses on maximizing muscle size and growth while minimizing body fat on competition day. Training for bodybuilding involves higher repetitions using medium-to-heavy weights and isolation movements.
Bodybuilding and powerlifting share some similarities and differences.
Both sports rely on weight training to succeed in competition.
However, the purpose of the weight training for each sport is different, which ultimately results in substantially differing workout programs over time, despite some overlapping methods.
For general fitness, both sports offer the benefits associated with resistance training.
Benefits of powerlifting
Powerlifting training using heavy weights and lower repetitions is incredibly beneficial — even for non-competitive lifters.
A few of the potential benefits of powerlifting training are meeting performance-based goals and increased functional strength and bone density.
Bone density improvements
Using heavy weights for low reps is effective for improving maximal strength, including increasing bone and connective-tissue density.
Studies have shown that lifting close to your 1RM during training provides the greatest stimulus to bone and tissue growth, compared with training at a lower intensity (
Improvements to functional strength
Given that the movements used in powerlifting develop maximal strength across the biggest muscles in your body, powerlifting can improve your overall functional strength for performing day-to-day activities.
In particular, heavy squats and deadlifts build the strength and core stability required to avoid throwing out your back while bending over or standing up, especially as you get older.
Performance-based training goals
While improving your health or appearance may be your primary motivator for training, having performance-based fitness goals is a good way to stay motivated while striving to meet your long-term goals, such as improving your health.
Powerlifting focuses on measurable performance improvements regarding how much weight you’re lifting.
The positive feeling of getting measurably stronger week-to-week or even month-to-month is incredibly rewarding and helps break up the monotony of simply going to the gym.
Not everyone is motivated by numerical improvements in the weight they lift. However, if you’re someone who enjoys the feeling of measurably improving at an activity, powerlifting is a great training option.
You don’t need to be an aspiring bodybuilding champion to take advantage of the benefits of bodybuilding. It’s an excellent way to build muscle and improve your fitness, even as a non-competitive individual.
While bodybuilding and powerlifting training techniques overlap at times, the main benefits of bodybuilding include building muscle, focusing on nutrition, and incorporating more aerobic exercise.
Bodybuilding workouts build the most muscle
Bodybuilding training using medium-to-heavy weights for 8–12 repetitions and multiple sets per muscle group is the best method to build muscle mass (
Even if you’re not interested in a more athletic physique, increasing your muscle mass offers many health benefits.
It has been linked to improved insulin sensitivity, reductions in blood fat and body fat levels, and a higher resting metabolic rate (5).
Resistance training may delay, offset, or even reverse age-related muscle loss, all of which are important for older adults who want to maintain their health, strength, and quality of life well into their golden years (
Bodybuilding focuses heavily on nutrition
Given that the sport of bodybuilding requires competitors to reach exceptionally low body fat percentages, nutrition is a key aspect of all bodybuilding training.
While all sports at high performance levels involve nutritional considerations, diet and nutrition are integral components of bodybuilding training and culture.
The focus on healthy eating, macronutrient and micronutrient considerations, and monitoring calorie intake benefit anyone interested in improving their overall diet.
Bodybuilding includes more aerobic exercise
Aerobic exercise (cardio) is vital for any well-rounded fitness program. However, in the sport of powerlifting, cardio is often left out, as it may hinder improvements in maximal strength (7).
On the other hand, bodybuilders often incorporate cardio to increase calorie expenditure to help burn body fat, particularly during cutting periods.
Regardless of the motivation for doing cardio, a combination of aerobic and resistance training is the core of any good health-centered fitness program.
Powerlifting and bodybuilding training improve multiple health and lifestyle outcomes, even for non-competitive individuals.
While powerlifting and bodybuilding training can benefit nearly anyone looking to improve their health, there are a few potential shortcomings in both sports.
These issues primarily affect athletes pursuing the sports at the highest level, and they’re trade-offs that elite competitors must make. Still, it’s important to be aware of them.
Powerlifting and bodybuilding focus on singular goals
The biggest downside to both sports is that they focus heavily on a singular aspect of fitness.
In the case of powerlifting, the goal is maximal strength in the three main lifts.
For bodybuilding, the goal is maximal muscle growth and minimimal body fat.
While most people are better off being stronger, more muscular, and leaner, these are far from the only considerations for overall health and well-being.
For powerlifting, the neglect of cardio exercise, and in certain cases, lack of overall balanced nutrition, may harm your health.
If you use powerlifting as your primary fitness activity and aren’t planning to compete, consider adding some cardio and ensuring you maintain a healthy diet.
Meanwhile, the focus on physical appearance in bodybuilding may lead to muscle dysmorphia, a psychological disorder characterized by being preoccupied with the idea that your body isn’t lean and muscular enough (
This disorder causes emotional distress that may harm your overall quality of life. In some cases, it may lead to engaging in unhealthy behaviors, such as using anabolic steroids, leading to potentially serious health issues (
If you’re interested in gaining muscle or burning fat for aesthetic purposes, be aware of your overall mental and physical health. No amount of muscle gain is worth jeapordizing your long-term health and well-being.
The best method for maintaining overall fitness is alternating between periods of resistance training and aerobic exercise, as well as maintaining a healthy diet.
Competitive bodybuilding and powerlifting focus on singular goals and may neglect other aspects of overall fitness. If you’re simply looking to improve your fitness, be sure to alternate between training styles and incorporate some cardio exercise.
Powerlifting and bodybuilding are both sports that rely on resistance training using barbells, dumbbells, and other resistance equipment.
While the sports share many similarities, the competitive performance goals are quite different.
Powerlifting focuses on maximal strength in the three big barbell lifts, while bodybuilding is about maximizing muscle mass and reducing body fat to extreme levels.
Each sport may offer many health benefits, but there are also downsides to consider, mainly around the singular focus in each sport at the competitive level.
However, if you incorporate powerlifting or bodybuilding training into an overall balanced fitness routine, you can reap the benefits and significantly improve your strength and overall fitness.