Bodybuilding Versus Powerlifting Programs: Three Big Differences

Both athletes are pushing their physical limits, but how they approach training is very different!

Over the past year, I’ve trained for both the world’s most prestigious powerlifting meet (the Kern US Open) and for a national-level bodybuilding competition (the NPC North Americans). It wasn’t the best year for me in terms of results: severe tendonitis kept me out of the US Open, and I finished 10th in my class at North Americans. 

However, the diversity of experiences over the past year has definitely taught me a lot more about how my body works, and how I can train to maximize both performance and aesthetics.

While they’re certainly complementary, I do find it very difficult to train for both powerlifting and bodybuilding at the same time.  The differences between the two run deep. There’s a saying that powerlifters train to take a heavy weight and make it feel light, while bodybuilders take a light weight and try to make it feel heavy. 

There’s some truth to that: to be a successful bodybuilder, you have to focus on training muscles, while to be a successful powerlifter, you have to focus on training movements. While that sounds like a minor distinction, in reality, it’s pretty significant.  This video dives into that difference a bit more:

The differences don’t end with your performance of individual reps. 

The programming methods for both pursuits differ in major ways, too. Read on for some examples – or, if you prefer to watch, check out this follow-up video to the above:

Three Differences in Strength & Physique Programming

1. Movement Selection

This one should be a bit obvious in some regards. Powerlifters train to maximize their performance in the squat, bench, and deadlift, so those three lifts must be a mainstay of their programming. After all, you have to practice the lifts to improve at them!

It’s different in bodybuilding, where your goal of overall size and symmetry really has nothing to do with your performance in any one lift. Instead, the goal involves finding movements that maximize the growth of specific muscles. This can be pretty tricky to implement. For example, in a story from IFBB pro John Meadows’s about bringing up his back. John writes:

I finally came to terms with the fact that I was simply not genetically gifted for building back size, width, or density. If I was ever going to have a hope of hanging with the wide boys on stage, I was going to have to try exercises that were not the standard ones, or simply accept having a subpar back forever.

John’s story gets at one of the biggest hurdles when it comes to designing a good bodybuilding program: addressing weaknesses using movement selection. 

In powerlifting, because the outcomes are more objective (i.e., you can measure weight lifted but not aesthetic quality), and the competition movements are more standardized, movement selection tends to be more straightforward. You’ll certainly include some variations of the squat, bench, and deadlift (for example, a floor press to improve weak triceps or a block pull to improve deadlift lockout), but for the most part, you’ve got just three movements to consider.

In bodybuilding, on the other hand, a lot of creativity and experimentation is required to develop the right method for your body and your genetic strengths and weaknesses. My own coach, Justin Harris, put it this way:

“With training you have 660 muscles to make sure you’re adequately stimulating without going over the training volume limit!”

Put that way, it’s pretty easy to see why movement selection in a good bodybuilding program can be really complicated.

2. Training Frequency and Intensity

In my YouTube programming series, I explain the basics of periodization for powerlifting: over time, your training volume should start high and gradually decrease. As volume decreases, intensity increases, and decades of research shows that this simple manipulation of training variables produces consistent strength gains.

In bodybuilding, again, it’s not quite so simple. In fact, most bodybuilders will define intensity as effort – how close you come to absolute muscular failure during a set. There’s a good reason for this, and again, I’ll defer to the research: many studies show that training to failure produces greater rates of muscular growth than “easier” training. That method is backed by experiential evidence, too: just look at Dorian Yates and Mike Mentzer, both famous for training to brutal, all-out failure and having incredibly dense physiques to show for it.

However, your body simply can’t handle training to failure all of the time. If you attempt to do so, you’ll soon find that the aches, pains, and even injuries begin to mount. Furthermore, bodybuilders need to keep volume fairly high all of the time, as volume is a key driver of hypertrophy.

So, to recap: powerlifters decrease training volume and increase training intensity (defined as training load or percentage of 1-RM) over time. Bodybuilders keep volume high and intensity high as well – but for bodybuilders, intensity is defined as effort, not load.

3. Other Programming Factors

Of course, (good) programming isn’t confined to an Excel spreadsheet, but rather encompasses the whole athlete.  In the context of comparing bodybuilding and powerlifting programming, I’d be remiss to not mention these factors as well:

  • Diet: Generally – not always, but often – powerlifters don’t really follow a diet, although some will “eat clean.” Bodybuilders, on the other hand, follow rigorous diets year-round, and good programming should reflect that. A bodybuilding program will be heavier and more intense in the offseason, when the athlete can enjoy a large caloric surplus, and lighter during contest prep, when calories and therefore recovery ability are low.
  • Mobility: Bodybuilders do require some degree of mobility to pose, but in most cases, those mobility requirements are pretty low. The baseline level of mobility for powerlifters, on the other hand, can vary wildly in order to meet the standards of competition (e.g., hitting squat depth). If you have a powerlifter with very poor mobility, that athlete will need to devote a significant amount of time and energy to improving – and therefore, other training stimulus will need to be reduced to compensate.
  • Cardio: The converse is true for cardio: the more cardio a bodybuilder does, the less energy he or she will have for resistance training, and intensity and volume will often drop accordingly. Since most powerlifters eschew cardio, that’s not often a consideration when programming for them!

Again, please remember that these are just a few examples of differences between the two disciplines. My point is broad, though: powerlifters and bodybuilders must program very differently for success in their chosen pursuits. 

You should certainly try to learn all you can from any strength discipline – bodybuilding, powerlifting, strongman, whatever – but don’t just blindly follow a method because it’s popular or it sounds good. Analyze it, decide if and how it fits your body and your goals, and then implement it in a way that makes sense for you.

Feature images from @phdeadlift Instagram page.