Powerlifting Vs. Bodybuilding Arm Workouts: What’s the Difference?

Recently, I wrote an article explaining what I think of bodybuilding — from, of course, my point of view as a life-long professional powerlifter. In that article, I explained that despite how different bodybuilders and powerlifters might seem on the surface, they actually have a lot in common. For example, just take the need for concentration and focus during a hard training session:

“From the powerlifting side, think about how difficult it is to maintain your technique during a PR attempt: you’re running through a list of mental cues, amping yourself up to apply maximal effort, and probably trying to calm your nerves, all at the same time, and in preparation for a set that will probably only take a few seconds.

A bodybuilding session requires a much different type of concentration – you’re trying to eke the most out of each and every rep, contracting only the muscles you’re targeting, while maintaining a steady, demanding pace – not just for one rep, or even an entire set, but over the course of an entire workout. Instead of a few seconds, you must maintain your focus for upwards of an hour or more.”

Now, when it comes to training, concentration is part of the big picture. But there are also a lot of specific situations where bodybuilding and powerlifting might have a lot in common, but small nuances nevertheless add up to huge differences when all you look at is the final outcome. Understanding those nuances can make you a better lifter — no matter what your goals are!

How Bodybuilders and Powerlifters Train Arms

First, I highly recommend you check out the video below. I go in-depth with IFBB professional bodybuilder (and fellow Granite/Iron Rebel athlete) Luke Carroll to learn more about his arm training, and we discuss some interesting differences between bodybuilding and powerlifting! If you’re pressed for time, though, I understand — just scroll down to check out the most important points below.

Three Differences and Similarities of Powerlifting and Bodybuilding Arm Training

1. Exercise Selection

Choosing the right exercises is paramount, regardless of whether you’re a powerlifter or bodybuilder. If you’re hurting yourself when you’re trying to train, you’ll never make progress! This is, of course, entirely individual. I only experience elbow pain with overhead triceps movements, but if skull crushers or even kickbacks give you issues, skip ‘em. There are plenty of great arm builders to choose from.

2. Performance

This is the first major difference between bodybuilding and powerlifting training styles. Bodybuilders should focus on getting the maximum stretch and peak contraction possible on each and every rep. Powerlifters, on the other hand, should be concerned more with the speed of execution and the positioning of the body relative to a competition movement (the squat, bench press, or deadlift). For example, if you tuck your elbows really hard when you bench press, you should try to tuck them equally hard when you’re performing a skull crusher.

3. Programming

This is the most obvious distinction between bodybuilding and powerlifting. Bodybuilders must use higher volume (that is, more total reps) than the powerlifter will, because volume is a key driver of hypertrophy. Bodybuilders will often also stick with higher rep ranges.

Now, that said, remember that training for powerlifting tends to be more cyclical. Even if you’re a powerlifter who couldn’t care less whether you were carrying a six-pack of abs or of beer, you need to incorporate some higher-volume training phases into your long-term plan, if only to give your joints a break.

Arm Training Program for the Bodybuilder And Powerlifter

The first thing you’ll notice is how brief this program looks. That’s intentional! You should use this as an “extra session,” designed to increase your arms’ strength and size without eating into your recovery. Extra sessions like this one allow you to add volume to any program, making them a very powerful tool.

But, like all powerful tools, they need to be used responsibly. Don’t throw them in at random: make sure you’re in a phase of training that allows you a little bit of leeway, like the off-season. And don’t stretch them out! Extra sessions should last no more than 30 minutes, tops.

With those disclaimers out of the way, check this one out:

  1. Warmup: Dumbbell lateral raise. Wait a second! Isn’t this an arm workout? Yeah, it is — but because it’s very difficult to work the biceps and triceps without involving the shoulder joint (at least to a small degree), it’s important to warm-up first. Perform 2 sets of 20 reps using a slow tempo and a very light weight. Don’t push it here.
  2. Elbows-out extension. This is a fantastic movement for strengthening your bench press lockout and for adding width to the tricep when viewed from the front. For a little variation, try performing these on a low incline bench. 4 sets, beginning with 20 reps and pyramiding up in weight to a top set of 8.
  3. Cross-body hammer curlThe cross-body curl does a great job of hitting both the forearm and upper arm muscles — just make sure that at the top of the movement, you supinate your wrist (twist it towards you) a little bit to really accentuate that biceps contraction. 2 sets of 20 reps with a light weight, focusing on the squeeze-and-stretch that Luke described in the video above.
  4. Superset: EZ-bar skull crusher and barbell curl. Now that you’re warm, it’s time to move on to heavier exercises. Use the EZ-bar to save some strain on your elbows, and crank out 3 sets of 12 reps of each movement with a weight you could use for about 15. Don’t rest between supersets — just keep knocking out one after the other until you’re done.

Again, it’s a short one, but trust me: move fast enough to squeeze all this in in 30 minutes, and you’ll quickly see how it can add tons of size and strength to your arms.

Got your own arm training secrets? Share them in the comments below!

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image courtesy Ben Pollack. 

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack is a professional powerlifter and holds the all-time world record raw total of 2039 in the 198-pound class. He has won best overall lifter at the largest raw meets in the world, including the US Open, Boss of Bosses, and Reebok Record Breakers. Ben earned his Ph.D. in the history and management of strength and fitness from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018, and has published articles in a number of scholarly publications, including The Journal of Sport History, The Journal of Sport Management, and Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture. He also coaches strength athletes of all skill levels, including several internationally-elite powerlifters and world record holders. You can contact Ben through his website (phdeadlift.com) or via email at [email protected]

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