Powerlifters may well be ripped. But the job of a powerlifter is not to burst through shirt sleeves with those bulging biceps. Instead, they’re aiming to build as much strength as possible in three lifts: the squat, bench, and deadlift. If their training makes a powerlifter appear muscular, that’s incidental. The main goal is very simple — to increase strength in three moves.
But does an emphasis on max strength mean that powerlifters are doomed to invisible-seeming muscles? Or can powerlifters, too, build muscles that will make a competitive bodybuilder or elite CrossFitter raise a dumbbell in respect?
Powerlifters, if you want to know how to build muscle in your sport, read on. Beginners who like the idea of powerlifting but also want to get yoked, this one’s also for you. Does powerlifting build muscle? Find out if — and how — to gain muscle as a powerlifter below.
What Is Powerlifting?
In powerlifting meets, you’ll get three attempts at the squat to establish your maximum weight. Then, you’ll get three bench press attempts. Following that, you’ll get three tries to find your one-rep max in the deadlift.
Whether you’re competing or not, powerlifting training emphasizes getting stronger at these three lifts — often to the exclusion of other aspects of training.
While you will sometimes do other powerlifting accessory exercises, everything is meant to be in service of getting stronger at those three lifts. So these accessory lifts will generally not be in high volume or frequency to maximize recovery for your big three.
Powerlifting Vs. Bodybuilding
The difference between powerlifting and bodybuilding is simple: powerlifters build max strength in three lifts. Bodybuilders build max muscle across their whole bodies.
It matters less which exercises bodybuilders use or how many weight plates they can move (though bodybuilders are often tremendously strong). Instead of weight on the barbell, bodybuilders focus on exercises’ impacts on their bodies. How much muscle can this move help pack on, and where?
While the squat, bench, and dead are a powerlifter’s bread and butter, bodybuilders don’t rely on any particular lifts to get them to their goals. In fact, many bodybuilders may eschew the powerlifters’ big three in favor of more muscle-group-specific exercises. It’s all about creating the desired physique, rather than lifts.
Powerlifting Vs. Powerbuilding
A competitive powerlifter who wants to grow their muscles during the offseason likely won’t trade in their big three for the more muscle-specific best bodybuilding exercises. Instead, a powerlifter seeking hypertrophy during the offseason may turn to a hybrid method called powerbuilding.
As the name suggests, powerbuilding programs are the gym-child of powerlifting and bodybuilding methodologies. The idea of powerbuilding is to “have it all” — both the strength and the muscles. If you’re interested in powerbuilding, you probably want to be able to lift heavy while also looking like you lift heavy.
Powerbuilding maintains a strong emphasis on your big barbell exercises — the squat, bench, and deadlift. Some powerbuilders might opt for a different pressing movement (say, an overhead press) and a squat or deadlift variation. But the typical protocol in this training methodology is keeping a focus on big, compound barbell exercises as your primary movers.
During accessory work, a more bodybuilding-style approach comes into play. The bulk of these workouts after big lifts will be muscle-group-specific exercises that are designed to build muscle. Unlike in powerlifting, these won’t be mostly focused on supporting strength in the main lifts. Instead, exercise selection will center primarily on what’s going to grow those muscles.
Does Powerlifting Build Muscle?
Research suggests that powerlifting and bodybuilding-style training can produce similar amounts of muscle growth in experienced lifters. (1) For folks who are newer to the gym, both bodybuilding and powerlifting-style training can also produce significant improvements in muscle mass. (2)
But those muscle gains might diminish with weights that are light enough to lift for more than 15 reps at a time — so stay under that range for the most growth. (2) That said, if you’re taking your muscles to failure (as many bodybuilders do regardless of rep range), you can still stimulate hypertrophy with light weights. (3)
As a powerlifter, these high-rep sets are probably not a natural part of your program. But some powerlifters may tack on high-rep alternating biceps curls for a “pump” at the end of a session. If you do that without sufficient training to failure you might not be building as much muscle as you could.
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Instead, opt for somewhat accessory movements in moderate rep ranges (between six and 12 reps). (4)
Powerlifters might not be concerned about looking muscular but may be instead chasing muscle growth to benefit their one-rep max. There’s research behind that approach. If you account for differences in technique, experience level, and fatigue, bigger muscles are generally stronger than smaller muscles. (5)(6)(7)
So even if you’re not too concerned with aesthetics, powerlifters may still want to consider beefing up their muscles to help improve their overall performance.
How Can Powerlifters Build Muscle?
Powerlifters looking to put on some bulk in the offseason have plenty of options to choose from. So do your average gymgoers who just love training the classic big three. Here are some hypertrophy tips for powerlifters.
Add Strategic Accessory Lifts
It might be tempting to just slap in a bunch of cool-sounding exercises for the sake of adding training volume. But be choosy with your exercise selection.
As a powerlifter, you place a large emphasis on only one pressing angle for your chest since you’ll be working to improve your flat bench press. When seeking to build a full chest, add dumbbell and cable flyes as well as presses from different angles.
Add the best shoulder exercises to build the muscles that might get neglected by overhead pressing. Pay special attention to moves like rear-delt raises and lateral raises to ensure shoulder growth from all angles.
Use single-arm dumbbell rows, straight-arm pulldowns, and face pulls to fill in back growth that might be lacking. In terms of the best leg exercises, hop onto some machines and get in some leg curls and leg extensions to chase your leg hypertrophy gains.
Make sure you’re tossing in various biceps curls and overhead triceps extensions and variations to fill out your arm growth.
You’ll notice that a lot of these movements are single-joint exercises instead of multi-joint compound exercises. That’s not typical for powerlifters, but embrace it. Don’t toss your compound moves aside — you’re still powerlifting, after all. But adding a focus on one muscle at a time can elevate your muscle gain.
Not to mention, strengthening any neglected muscles and improving your body symmetry with cables and dumbbells may help you bust through any strength plateaus you’re having.
Adjust Your Load and Volume
Performing four sets of between six and 12 reps per set at no less than 65 percent of your one-rep max is generally cited as the optimal range for promoting max muscle growth. (4) Work in this range with your accessory movements. To maximize recovery, adjust your big lifts accordingly, too — at least in the beginning.
Since you’re adding more accessory volume than you might be accustomed to, you’ll need to scale back your primary lifting intensity. This is to allow your body to adapt to a higher volume while promoting muscle recovery. If you’re used to working at over 85 percent of your max, consider dropping into the 75 percent range and performing more reps than usual.
Decrease Your Rest Time
Powerlifters typically deal with very heavy loads, and tend to rest between three and five minutes between sets. While this can be beneficial for replenishing strength reserves, it may be less optimal for muscle growth. (4) Try resting for less than three minutes between sets.
That said, there’s no need to overdo it. Resting for less than 30 seconds doesn’t seem to be long enough to maintain the strength and energy you need to maximize growth. (4) Instead, powerlifters may search for a sweet spot between 90 seconds and two minutes.
It might take you some time to build up the work capacity to shorten your rest periods. Get yourself accustomed to it by starting the habit with your single-joint accessory lifts. Then, gradually decrease your rest periods between compound exercises by 30 seconds or so each week until you’re where you want to be.
To allow for your muscles to recover while still maintaining strength, consider linking your lifts to a more muscle-group-focused training split. Powerlifters traditionally center each workout around one of their three principal lifts.
While you’re designing a training block to primarily build muscle, think like a bodybuilder and organize your workouts by muscle group instead.
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Doing so will allow you to maximize recovery between workouts. While you want to be progressively overloading your lifts in your program, you don’t want to start overtraining.
Make sure that you’re only gradually increasing your intensity one variable at a time — say, shortening rest periods or adding one rep to each set per week.
Eat for Muscle Gain
You can be doing the best muscle-building workouts in the land, but you’re just not going to grow if your body isn’t getting sufficient fuel. To build muscle, you’ll need to be in a caloric surplus — that is, taking in more fuel than your body needs to simply maintain itself.
You’ll want to get plenty of carbs to give you energy for your workouts and enough protein to support growth. To get an estimate of how many macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fat) you need each day to fuel muscle growth, use BarBend’s macronutrient calculator.
Generally speaking, you’re most likely to develop the specific adaptations that you train for. So if you’re training to run a marathon, you’ll become able to run a marathon. Your legs will get stronger too, sure — but if you haven’t also been training to deadlift heavy, running a marathon won’t help you suddenly deadlift 500 pounds.
Similarly, as a powerlifter, you’ll be programming primarily for strength. If you’re doing it right, that means that your primary training adaptation will be precisely that: strength. Still, you will build muscle as a powerlifter, even if you’re mostly focused on training your big lifts at a low volume and high intensity.
If you want to maximize your muscle growth as a powerlifter, here are some research-based tips:
- Keep emphasizing your big lifts, but add single-joint accessory movements to your routine. Use cables and dumbbells to ensure symmetrical growth from multiple exercise angles.
- To maximize muscle growth, perform about four sets of six to 12 reps with a weight that’s greater than 65 percent of your one-rep max.
- Decrease your rest time to under three minutes between sets.
- Gradually increase the overall intensity of your workouts using the principles of progressive overload to build muscle while avoiding overtraining.
- Eat enough calories, carbs, and protein to fuel your workouts, growth, and recovery.
- Rest adequately between your workouts to ensure that your body can recover between sessions.
Big and Strong
Yes, you can have it all — and you don’t have to lean fully into powerbuilding to do it. Powerlifters can and do build muscle from low-volume, high-intensity workouts that focus on heavy compound exercises.
But if you’re looking to maximize hypertrophy, consider adding accessory movements with slightly higher reps and more moderate loads to your routine. This way, you’ll be getting the best of both strength and muscle. Because who says powerlifters can’t be ripped?
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- Schoenfeld BJ, Grgic J, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. J Strength Cond Res. 2017 Dec;31(12):3508-3523.
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- Ye X, Loenneke JP, Fahs CA, Rossow LM, Thiebaud RS, Kim D, Bemben MG, Abe T. Relationship between lifting performance and skeletal muscle mass in elite powerlifters. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2013 Aug;53(4):409-14.
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