Bodybuilding vs. Powerlifting Programs — Understanding the Difference

We're breaking down the differences (and surprising similarities) between the two big strength sports.

When it comes to slinging weight and getting huge, bodybuilding and powerlifting are the two training methods at the forefront of every conversation. In order to excel at either goal, putting as many eggs in the same basket as possible to drive you towards the singular purpose of gaining muscle or strength makes the most sense. 

bodybuilder and powerlifter compared
Credit: @w_wittmannphoto and @russwole on Instagram

We want to minimize redundancies and only venture outside of each wheelhouse in so far as to prevent injury or long term health detriments, but does that really need to be the case? To understand the question we must first understand what each training style is and is not – from there, maybe we can discover some overlap that benefits a bodybuilder, powerlifter, or average gymgoer alike.

What is a Bodybuilding Program

Bodybuilding is the sport of maximizing muscle hypertrophy with the greatest degree of symmetry, proportion, and just the right level of leanness. A bodybuilding program isn’t just trying to get as huge as possible – it involves a meticulous, honest evaluation of one’s physical characteristics. Selecting the right amount of exercises per muscle group, proper diet and recovery, and practicing specific poses to best show off your physique are all critical. 

The base training style of bodybuilding will be hypertrophy-focused — the ongoing development of the size of a muscle.

Hypertrophy Training

Hypertrophy training influences exercise selection, sets, repetitions, and load with respect to trying to bring individual muscle groups very close to fatigue. The key is to isolate and target specific muscle groups or regions in order to stimulate targeted growth like an artist molding clay on a sculpture.

Exercise Selection

Exercise selection for a hypertrophy program involves targeting muscle groups with exercises that have a high capacity to generate mechanical tension. Stimulating the muscle to grow comes down to how hard it can work in isolation, free from the athlete being overly concerned with stability or skill-based movement. 

bodybuilder in gym
Credit: Fotokvadrat / Shutterstock

A perfect example of this is a barbell squat versus a leg press. While both exercises have value to contribute to a bodybuilding program, the fact that a leg press is externally stabilized via the machine makes it easier to bring the legs to absolute fatigue. In this case, there is a greater opportunity to create mechanical tension — and thus grow.

This also allows for more exercise selection options during bodybuilding — a luxury not necessarily afforded to powerlifters who revolve many of their decisions around the competitive exercises.

Sets, Repetitions, and Load

Bodybuilding and powerlifting both follow the central tenet of progressive overload, but approach this concept from different angles. In bodybuilding, progressive overload often comes from increased total volume via strategically increased sets, repetitions, or load in order to stimulate individual muscles to grow. 

Usually this falls within a 1-repetition maximum of 60 – 85%, with two to four sets of 8 – 12 repetitions, but the true hallmark of a successful set is proximity to muscular fatigue. The aim is to progress slowly but surely to ensure that the target muscle group is “burning out” before anything else.

What is a Powerlifting Program

Powerlifting is the sport of lifting the heaviest single repetition you can in the squat, bench press, and deadlift under specific technique criteria. These competitive standards often guide training decisions as the athlete focuses on training movements instead of individual muscles.

The base goal of powerlifting training will be absolute strength; however, like bodybuilding, it is often quite complex to refine and perfect for competition.

Strength Training

Strength training for powerlifting influences exercise selection, sets, repetitions, and load with respect to maximizing the potential weight lifted during competition. This tends to involve developing movement patterns and refining technique rather than fully fatiguing a muscle..

Exercise Selection

Training for powerlifting should heavily rely on the “big three” competition lifts and their variations. Since powerlifting requires the expression of full body strength, the athlete must carefully track where the weakest and strongest points in their performance might be in order to properly train to stay ahead of plateaus. 

powerlifter getting ready to squat
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If an athlete is making errors in their back squat, such as knee collapse or shift, they should include an exercise designed to remedy the mistake over time, such as a split squat. Powerlifting programming is all about packing as much high-quality practice in as possible while reinforcing weak points to continue driving the entire movement pattern forward.

Sets, Repetitions, And Load

In powerlifting, progressive overload for long-term strength gain is accomplished through periodizing training blocks designed around the competitive exercises. This often involves changing training variables over time, typically beginning with higher volumes and more accessory work. Over time, training is tapered down to skill-based heavy practice attempts with minimal secondary exercises. 

[Related: Types of Periodization and When to Use Them]

While the competition lifts are well-suited to periodized training, accessory movements designed to attack weak links in performance are often done with less rigid guidelines. Depending on the length of a training block, competitive exercises could progress from 65% of 1-repetition maximum all the way to 90%+ in order to peak. As such, volume in accessory work would reduce along the way to offset the increased intensity.

Synergy Between Bodybuilding and Powerlifting

Although bodybuilding and powerlifting seem like conceptual opposites, they can borrow from each other in order to best serve the longevity and health of an athlete.

How Can Bodybuilding Help Powerlifting?

Bodybuilding often uses many different exercises to stimulate the same muscle. For example, a single-arm high-cable biceps curl places the shoulder joint in a relatively unstable position. This may sound like a bad thing at first, but in reality it means that the bodybuilder is getting some stability work while finishing off the biceps muscle. 

Weaving in certain bodybuilding techniques may be beneficial for the powerlifter looking for convenient solutions to keep their joints strong and stable.

How Can Powerlifting Help Bodybuilding?

Hypertrophy may be the central pursuit of a bodybuilder, but adding strength training does have an advantage as well. Heavy sets of 6 – 8 repetitions on the leg press for example can still be a strong contributor to growth while also enhancing their loading potential on smaller more isolation style exercises. 

Overall, a portion of high-load training can help raise the overload “ceiling” on other movements, increasing long-term potential muscle gain.

Distinctions Between Bodybuilding and Powerlifting

While synergy may be possible between both training styles, it’s also important to note the distinctions that make each sport unique. These points become increasingly important as an athlete gets closer to their scheduled competitions.


Specificity as it relates to powerlifting means that at some point you will need to train your competitive exercises in ranges that are specific to maximal strength. Things are a little bit different with bodybuilding, as specificity is more directly related to the challenge incurred on a muscle group. 

You are not necessarily training any specific exercise, but rather, training a specific muscle to near fatigue on a repeated basis to make it grow. Powerlifting is about movement patterns and mastery, whereas bodybuilding is about individual muscle challenge.

Set Termination Criteria

In bodybuilding, the proximity to muscular fatigue informs the value of a set. If you finish your set with five repetitions left in the tank, the amount of challenge and growth stimulation is likely less than a set that was stopped with one or two repetitions remaining. 

[Related: How to Use the RPE Scale for Effective Gains]

Conversely, powerlifting will typically prescribe load, sets, and repetitions off of a more objective and predictable endpoint such as a predicted or tested 1-repetition maximum.

Training Frequency

Training frequency for bodybuilding is often organized around body part splits. Therefore, separating the body into groups such as pushing, pulling, or leg days allows a much higher frequency of training, potentially as high as five to six days per week, since the recovery cost of any given day is fairly reasonable.

In contrast, powerlifting can sometimes be locked lower-frequency training weeks due to the more taxing nature of heavy barbell work.

Nutritional Considerations

Having a chiseled physique isn’t just for bodybuilders. Athletes such as Dan Green, Ben Pollack, Jamal Browner, or John Haack show that you can be a powerlifter with a six pack. In some cases, you can even be a dual-sport athlete in bodybuilding and powerlifting. Sound nutrition has a clear benefit to both sports – but there are some distinctions between the nutritional goals of each athlete. 

How to Eat for Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding at its core is focused on manipulation of body fat percentage while optimizing muscle gain. This requires strategic tracking of calories and essential macronutrients to correctly grow in the off-season and peak for the stage at just the right time. 

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How to Eat for Powerlifting

While powerlifting can definitely benefit from improved body composition, the main focus is to adequately recover between sessions. This means eating enough calories to optimize strength output during each session and alleviate soreness.

There is the consideration of weight gain, loss, or maintenance to land within a specific weight class for competition – but this has more to do with strength performance at a given weight than strict body composition.

Putting It All Together

Bodybuilding and powerlifting operate on different points of the same continuum. Both use weight training to influence muscle adaptation and performance, but the overall exercise selection, load, sets, and repetitions vary depending on the outcome of interest. 

In order to truly excel at either, the athlete needs to train specific to their goal – but that doesn’t mean that dabbling in the opposing style doesn’t bring some benefits. In some ways, the differences can be assets for the average gymgoer. Spending time in both disciplines can keep training fun and ensure the gains flow. No matter the choice, the synergy between the two methods lends itself to creating a stronger, more jacked athlete.

Featured Image: @w_wittmannphoto and @russwole on Instagram