Powerlifting vs. Bodybuilding: What's Right For You? - Coach Mark Carroll

Powerlifting vs. Bodybuilding: What’s Right For You?

Nov 4, 2022
Mark Carroll

Powerlifting or bodybuilding? What’s the difference? Are powerlifters stronger than bodybuilders? Should you do one or the other? Can you do both interchangeably? Well, let me break it down! Getting strong at the basics is really what I think sets my methods apart from most comp prep coaches and coaches in general who tend to focus far too much on gimmicks. With my methods, we combine elements of powerlifting strength with bodybuilding rep ranges and training volume to build an elite level physique.

What is Powerlifting?

Powerlifting is an actual sport. It’s not just about lifting heavy weights in the gym. The specific sport itself involves aiming to achieve your 1 rep max lifted on 3 specific lifts – the bench press, the squat and the deadlift – in a powerlifting competition. The winner is the person who’s total of the 3 individual lifts is the highest. Put simply, powerlifting is a sport based off of strength performance. Very different to that of body building.

How To Train Powerlifting?

You may be wondering how to compete in powerlifting or how to start powerlifting. In order to train for a powerlifting competition your lifting will heavily centre around those 3 competition lifts. Since the goal of the sport is to squat, deadlift and bench press your max for 1 rep in the meet, it will be integral for you to train those 3 key movements over and over again. Training for powerlifting will be heavily based around these 3 movements. 

The Benefits of Powerlifting

Powerlifting relies upon only testing 3 different exercises. This means that through repetition of those 3 exercises you will become incredibly strong at these movements. Strength is very much a skill. To truly develop your highest strength potential in the 3 lifts, you will need to repeat those movements over and over. The more repetition, the stronger you will become. The aim of the game is increased ability to lift as heavy a weight as possible for 1 rep. However, this does not mean you will not also achieve strength adaptations on lower rep ranges as well as hypertrophy adaptations as a byproduct of resistance training.

The Challenges of Powerlifting

The goal of powerlifting is to lift the maximum weight possible on the squat, deadlift, and bench press for a one rep max (1RM) so naturally, training must revolve around those 3 big lifts. The downside to this is that you may not be able to develop the physique you want with such a specialised focus. There will definitely be differences in a bodybuilder vs powerlifter physique due to the difference in training.

Powerlifting can also be very time consuming, as you need to maximise rest periods in order to lift as heavy as possible. It’s not unusual to have 5-6 minute rest periods between sets. Therefore you may wind up spending additional hours in the gym as compared to a bodybuilder. The risk for injury also increases in powerlifting due to how hard you are pushing your body to lift at your max. Performing a proper powerlifting squat, bench press, and deadlift is crucial to prevent injury.

What is Bodybuilding?

Bodybuilding is a sport as well. I often like to say everyone who goes to the gym with the intent to build muscle and improve their physique is a bodybuilder. By utilising specific exercises in the gym, you can directly focus on improving the shape and size of the muscle. When it comes to bodybuilding, however, winning involves not performance based on strength, but rather the aesthetics of your physique. Bodybuilding is judged on the look, shape and size of your muscles and low body fat development. It will take years of resistance training combined with high levels of nutrition in order to compete in bodybuilding. Then, a very specific diet will allow the competitor to achieve incredibly low body fat to visually reveal their muscle mass. A bodybuilding show is not won from your performance in the gym, rather the gym is what you utilise to build and shape your physique. Judges will then determine the winner based on who looks closest to their ideal physique.

How To Train Bodybuilding?

Bodybuilding is about building muscle, not about how strong you are. In order to build as much muscle over the body to best represent the desired aesthetic physique, you will require a large array of exercises to best target as many muscles as possible in the body. No one exercise is essential to train in bodybuilding as no one exercise leads to superior hypertrophy adaptation for a muscle. To fully develop a muscle to its greatest potential, you will require many exercises for a muscle group. Each exercise can train a muscle in a slightly different way, raising the potential to hypertrophy that specific muscle.

The Benefits of Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding is a sport which will allow a lifter to have an incredible physique from a visual perspective. The recreational bodybuilder, majority of lifters in the gym, will have the benefits of improved muscle mass, strength, bone density and in most cases, improved confidence in one’s appearance. This is probably the main reason why most young people get into the gym initially- to look and feel better!

The Challenges of Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding is a unique sport in that every aspect of your day can greatly influence your physique potential. An athlete who plays rugby or cricket, for example, plays their game, then outside the game it primarily ends. Sure, their nutrition can support their performance in the gym, but it is nowhere near as time consuming and essential to their sport. Bodybuilding is a 365 day sport, 24 hours a day. Every choice you make in your day can greatly influence your physique. It’s a very demanding sport for this reason which is something you need to understand when it comes to time commitment as well as life commitment. You will also need to be in the gym more frequently than other sports in order to train your physique to its full potential by targeting each muscle. 

The Main Similarities Between Powerlifting and Bodybuilding

The biggest similarities between both sports are that lifting in the gym is essential. There is no sport without resistance training. You are utilising weights to develop the adaptation you are aiming to achieve. The gym is where your sport starts and finishes. We use resistance training to improve the specific requirements we need. Then from a nutritional standpoint, calories and protein will be essential components of both sports. Nutrition heavily supports performance as well as recovery. 

The Main Differences Between Powerlifting and Bodybuilding

What is the difference between powerlifting and bodybuilding? Both sports have huge similarities from the outside to the non gym enthusiast, however, how we want to look at utilising resistance training is almost the opposite between the 2 sports. 

Powerlifting – we want to make lifting the weight as EASY as possible. The goal is to use as much weight as possible and move a weight from point A to point B. The more favourable positions biomechanically we can use, the better. The less range of motion we can move the weight, the more weight we can use. 

Bodybuilding – we want to make lifting the weight as HARD as possible. The goal is to use the weights to create as much tension in the muscles as possible. This comes from making it as hard on the muscles as possible when moving the weight from point A to point B. We want to utilise positions that train the muscles where they are weakest, usually with as much range of motion as possible for the muscle to target where the muscle has its LEAST mechanical advantage. The more tension we can place through the muscles, the harder it will be to lift, but there will be greater potential to progressively overload that muscle, which will lead it to growing.

With both sports we want to improve our strength, but with bodybuilding, strength gains are not the essential component of the sport. They are a great byproduct of resistance training for building muscle. Likewise, powerlifting- strength is the key driver with muscle being a nice byproduct of aiming to lift heavier.

Powerlifting will be focused around neurological adaptations. To improve neurological adaptations, this will be best achieved by targeting very low rep ranges (1-5 reps). 

Bodybuilding will be focused around structural adaptations and muscle building. To improve this, we will tend to use a larger spread of rep ranges (3-5 up to 15-20 reps). 

So yes, both use resistance training, however, the rep ranges and specific lifts will tend to differ depending on the goal.

Powerlifting vs. Bodybuilding Physique

As powerlifting is very much still resistance training which targets a lot of muscle tissue through the big compound lifts, you will absolutely build muscle. But again, this is not the sole focus. Since powerlifting requires focus on a few key movements, you will build the muscles these movements train. However, bodybuilders will target more muscles in the body as well as more direct focus on specific muscles which powerlifting does not target very much. This is why bodybuilding will result in a physique which not only will be more muscular, it will also require that no muscles be a weak point. The sport requires balance for an aesthetic physique. If, for instance, the arms are not matching the rest of the physique, more direct work will be placed here. Whereas powerlifting, the weak point work is not aesthetic based, it’s performance based. 

Incorporating Powerlifting into Your Bodybuilding Program

A lot of bodybuilders also powerlift at some stage in their career, for example during their off season from competing. The sports work well interchangeably as the differences between the sports  actually support the opposing sport. Both exercises involve the gym and involve lifting weights. The small differences are not so great that you cannot incorporate both.

My client, Lauren Simpson, competed in a powerlifting competition in 2018. 8 weeks later, she competed in the WBFF World Bikini competition in Las Vegas and WON and became WORLD CHAMPION! 8 weeks after powerlifting. 

Can everyone do this? No, but this shows you that both sports can work well together. However, to do both well and to their fullest potential, it’s best to target one at a time as much as possible. Specificity matters with lifting. The more you can train towards a specific goal, the more optimal performance you will achieve.

For my clients, I am a huge fan of strength and hypertrophy work together. Majority of my clients are neither powerlifters nor bodybuilders from a competitor stand point, but they all love becoming strong and building shape in their physiques. It’s for this reason that I love utilising both low rep strength phases at times, to undulate between hypertrophy focused phases.

Powerlifting vs Bodybuilding: So What is Right For Me?

Now with all that we have covered so far, what is best for you? Well, it depends. What is your goal? Do you want to be as strong as possible on low reps on the big 3 lifts? Is your focus more so on building a muscular aesthetic physique? Would you like to combine both into your training? 

If your goal is strength development on low reps – I strongly suggest spending a period of time with that being the focus. This does not mean you cannot build muscle and train for hypertrophy, however, the program should be heavily focused around strength first. This is why I created my program STRONG.

STRONG is my advanced women’s 12 week strength program aimed to have you achieve a 1 rep max on your big lifts! 

Is your goal focused more so on hypertrophy and less on strength? Then I recommend for the women out there to use my programs YOUR GLUTE COACH series, or my BUILDING THE BIKINI BODY series. 

For the guys, THE MALE METHOD series is perfect.

All of these options are focused around hypertrophy and building muscle all over the body. However, this does not mean these methods will not build your strength substantially, it’s just the focus is centred first on hypertrophy adaptations, then strength. 

You can achieve the best of both worlds, but this is best done by utilising specific training phases targeted at one goal first, and a slight regression of the other goal. Ideally you should spend 12-24 weeks focused on either of the options. Then come back and devote 12-24 weeks working on the other goal.

Regardless of whether you are powerlifting or bodybuilding, the key to incredible results are hard work and consistency then, very importantly, following high level training programs to optimise the process. This is what COACH MARK CARROLL training programs are all about- helping make science simple, to allow lifters like yourself to train confidently, knowing you are following the perfect steps to achieve your goals. 

Good luck in your future lifting. I cannot wait to be your coach and guide you to your next goals.

Coach Mark Carroll

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