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Powerlifting VS Bodybuilding – The key training and nutrition differences

Powerlifting vs bodybuilding, what are the main differences between the two? Honestly, they are completely different sports but they do both require you to get in the gym and lift some iron.

However, the way you approach your lifting and nutrition will have a few key differences depending on whether you are a powerlifter or a bodybuilder.

This article will outline the main variances between each sport so you can tailor your own training approach depending on where your goals lie.

Even if you aren’t seeking to compete in either sport, this article can still help you out. After all, you are likely to be drawn more towards either a strength goal or an aesthetics one so your training needs to match.

What is powerlifting?

Ed Coan deadlift image

Powerlifting is a strength sport that focuses around three barbell movements: The squat, bench press and deadlift. The idea is to master each of those three lifts to lift the most weight possible across all of them.

To even up the playing field, competitions are divided into different weight classes and even age classes as well. The weight classes vary among the different federations within powerlifting.

The rules for a successful rep on each lift may also vary slightly between different federations, as do the rules on equipment and drug testing.

One of the most well-known federations is the international powerlifting federation (IPF), which does drug test its’ competitors and holds itself to some fairly high standards for the what constitutes a passing attempt on each lift.

In powerlifting, every single lift is judged by three judges who award either a red (fail) or a white (pass) light. A lifter needs 2 out of 3 white lights for a lift to count.

A lifter gets three attempts at each lift with their highest weight recorded on each to give them what is known as their “total”, the sum of their highest weight in the squat, bench press and deadlift.

For a more detailed look at all the rules of powerlifting, you can check out the IPF’s rule book. Please note, as I mentioned earlier, these are the rules for that federation and some things may vary in the other organisations.

What is bodybuilding?

Arnold bodybuilding pose image

Bodybuilding is all about sculpting the most appealing looking physique as it is judged purely on aesthetic appearance. The winner should be the competitor who has ticked the most boxes when it comes to building and then showing off their physique.

Like powerlifting, bodybuilding incorporates the use of judges who mark each competitor on a list of criteria that includes muscle mass, body proportions, body fat levels, skin tone and their posing. As you can see, bodybuilding isn’t just about getting as big as possible; there are several different factors that must be acknowledged.

As is the case with powerlifting, there are several different bodybuilding federations so some rules will vary within each. Typically, a bodybuilding show will be split into two parts: pre-judging and the finals show. These may be held in the morning and then the evening or all in one go.

During pre-judging, all competitors in a weight class or category will be judged alongside each other through a series of standard poses.

During the finals show or “evening show”, competitors have the chance to show off their physique and impress the judges further by going through their own choreographed posing routine.

After the judge’s scores have been totalled from both portions of the competition, the winners are announced on stage.

Training for powerlifting

image of weights on a barbell

If you are a powerlifter, the end goal of your training is to increase your squat, bench press and deadlift numbers. There may be times where you focus on a sub-goal like building leg size but your reason for doing so should always relate back to the three competition lifts.

The actual training for powerlifters is going to vary a lot based on your current level and the amount of time you have been training for.

As an example, somebody completely new to the powerlifting movements will be able to make vast improvements relatively quickly with a very basic program. On the other hand, a more advanced lifter may need to break his/her training down into multiple phases in order to make small gains over the course of an entire year.

As you have probably guessed, there are almost endless methods and programs out there to help you become a stronger powerlifter. Instead of going through all the individual programs and the nuances of each, I have listed a set of guidelines that you can put into consideration when selecting a powerlifting training program.

Powerlifting Program Considerations

Your Training Level and Experience

I have already covered this briefly but if you have been training for powerlifting for a long time, you are going to do more work if you want your body to adapt further.

Beginners are in the enviable position of being able to make strength gains on almost weekly basis without the need for complicated programs. Simply performing the main lifts a few sets and looking to progress from workout to workout is likely to be enough for a novice.

As you advance through your training life, gains will become harder to come by since you need to find ways to push your body further and force it to adapt. This is where you may have to get more creative with your programming and possibly even have phases of training with more specific goals.

Check out this guide on how to pick a program If you want a bit more detail and some recommendations on selecting a program by training level.

Specificity

The goal of powerlifting is to perform heavy squats, bench presses and deadlifts. Therefore, your program should include heavy squats, bench presses and deadlifts if you want to get better at them.

On top of that, the rest of your training needs to be focused on improving those three lifts. If anything is in your program for any reason other than making you better at the competition lifts, take it out.

Progressive Overload

Your body gets stronger because it adapts to the demands you put it under so it can cope better with them in the future. The absolute key to any powerlifting program is progression over time; you need to be training and forcing your body to make adaptations.

This overload can come be the result of several factors: lifting more weight, performing more reps or sets and reducing rest times are just a few ways in which you can force progression over time.

Any good program will have some form of progression already built into it, you just need to decide if a given progression scheme matches your current goals and training level.

Personal preference/circumstance

Although general guidelines can be used to get a rough idea of the best program for you, there are always going to be some individual factors to consider. If a program doesn’t cater to your own personal set of circumstances, you will not follow through with it.

This is a big reason that online coaching has become so popular; people have realised that customised programming is likely to yield better results. In my opinion, most beginner level trainees can get away with a generalised program but may want to seek additional help and personalisation once a more advanced stage is reached.

How to design your own powerlifting program

Most people should not be designing their own program until they have gained enough knowledge to do so. If you have no desire to learn about proper programming for lifting, you will fare better by sticking to pre-made, expertly designed programs or hiring a coach.

On the other hand, if you want to start gaining the know-how behind the principles of program design, a good place to start is the book “practical programming” by Mark Rippetoe.

practical programming for strength training cover

Training for bodybuilding

image of bodybuilder training in the gym

You know that the goals of powerlifting and bodybuilding building are very different, so surely the training must be wildly different as well, right?

In fact, the principles spoke about in the powerlifting training section above still hold true for bodybuilding. The only difference would be that less focus should be placed on maximal strength in the squat, bench press and deadlift.

Performing those three lifts with as much weight for a single rep is not going to be of great use to a bodybuilder. However, progression in those exercises, as well as other movements should still be a focus.

There are many bodybuilders that put their efforts into just destroying a muscle group by splitting their training into weekly session for each body part. The reality is, training a muscle just once per week is sub-optimal.

The recovery cycle after a training session will last a maximum of 2-3 days, which means the muscle is ready to be trained again after that period of time. If your training volume is properly managed, you shouldn’t feel too sore and should be able to train a muscle group every 2-3 days.

how often should you train a muscle group? SRA curve

For more info on this, go to this post: How often should you train a muscle group?

The body-part split method, where you have a separate day for each muscle, was popularised by professional bodybuilders. This isn’t a problem but you must realise that these guys are seriously advanced and likely to be using performance-enhancing drugs, which do change the rules of training recovery.

The best bodybuilding program

I must apologise in advance for the somewhat misleading title; there really isn’t one “best” program. There are way too many individual differences for there to be one program that will be optimal for everybody.

What I can offer you are some general rules and an example of what should be a very solid bodybuilding routine.

General rules for bodybuilding programs:

  • Volume should be divided throughout the week to allow for proper recovery
  • Exercises should cover the entire body throughout the week
  • A clear progression scheme must be put in place (this detail is key; if you progress over time, you will build muscle)
  • Example bodybuilding program

    The following program is a very simple, yet effective program that trains the entire body. I would consider these to be a very general routine that will build a good base of muscle for most people.

    The workout is broken down into two upper body workouts and two lower body workouts each week. To take advantage of the benefits of heavier training as well as higher rep training, there is a heavier and lighter day for each workout.

    The workouts

    Lower 1

    Exercise

    Sets X Reps

    Squat (M)

    4 x 6

    Deadlift (M)

    2 x 6

    Leg press

    3 x 8-12

    Hyper extensions

    3 x 8-12

    Kneeling cable crunch

    3 x 8-12

    Upper 1

    Exercise

    Sets X Reps

    Bench press (M)

    4 x 6

    Bent over row (M)

    4 x 6

    Overhead press (M)

    2 x 6

    Weighted chin-ups (M)

    2 x 6

    Incline dumbbell curls

    3 x 8-12

    Tricep pushdowns

    3 x 8-12

    Lower 2

    Exercise

    Sets X Reps

    Front squat (M)

    3 x 10

    Romanian deadlift (M)

    3 x 10

    Leg press

    3 x 8-12​​​​​​​

    Hamstring curl

    3 x 8-12

    Kneeling cable crunch

    3 x 8-12

    Upper 2

    Exercise

    Sets X Reps

    Incline Bench Press (M)

    3 x 10

    Bent over row (M)

    3 x 10

    Seated dumbbell press

    3 x 10

    Lat pulldown

    3 x 10

    Barbell curl

    3 x 8-12

    Close grip bench press

    3 x 8-12

    * Sets and reps listed are main working sets. They do not include warm-up sets.

    How to progress

    The exercises labelled "(M)" are your "main" movements and should be your primary focus of progression.

    For the first week, start with a weight that you are confident you can do the required amount of sets and reps with.

    Start relatively light and then progress from there. If you can complete the required seats and reps, add weight to that exercise next time.

    Only add weight once you can perform the target sets and reps with good technique. You may not be able to increase every single week.

    You should still aim to increase the weight on the other exercises over time but progression will likely be a bit slower on these.

    For example, leg press is 3 sets of 8-12 reps. Start with a weight that you can get 3 sets of 8 with and build up from there.

    Once you have reached 3 sets of 12 with a weight, add weight next time and build back up to 3 sets of 12 again.

    Powerlifting vs bodybuilding nutrition

    The nutrition side is probably where the most extreme differences are going to be seen between powerlifters and bodybuilders.

    During the off-season, which is when competitors are not getting prepared for a competition, both groups may follow a relatively similar diet.

    In general, the off-season diets will consist of quite a large amount of protein, higher carbs and a moderate amount of fat. This is to ensure that powerlifters are getting enough fuel to build strength and bodybuilders are getting enough to gain muscle mass.

    The run-up to a competition is where things are really going to be different between competitors of the two sports.

    image of bodybuilder eating

    A bodybuilder needs to be extremely lean to make all his/her muscles as visible as possible. To get to such low levels of body fat, an incredibly strict diet needs to be followed leading up to competition day.

    The number of calories being consumed by a bodybuilder during the latter stages of a contest preparation phase is much lower than their body needs. Usually, this has a negative effect on strength and energy levels.

    Of course, a powerlifter cannot afford to follow any type of diet that hampers their strength or energy for competition day. So, most competitive powerlifters won’t change too much in the run-up to a competition.

    The only time nutrition may be altered is if a powerlifter needs to drop a small amount of weight to stay in their desired weight class. Often, a water cut will be done to achieve this weight loss instead of a calorie-restrictive diet.

    Conclusion

    I hope this has given you a much clearer understanding of the differences between powerlifting and bodybuilding. As you can see, the requirements, particularly on the nutrition side, for each sport are quite different.

     Because of the differences, successfully competing in both sports at the same time is tremendously difficult. If you do want to take part in both powerlifting and bodybuilding, you really need to focus on one at a time as your primary goal.