Three Tips for Switching From Bodybuilding to Powerlifting

Lessons learned and what's to come for this off-season!

By now, you probably know about my experiment with bodybuilding — specifically, with Classic Physique — and, if you’ve been following me on Instagram, then you know that in the long-term, it’s just not for me:

Don’t get me wrong.  I loved training for bodybuilding: the discipline, the diet, even chasing the pump began to grow on me. I just didn’t enjoy the process of competition. Dave Tate put this perfectly when discussing his own bodybuilding career: “the competition never felt like a competition to me.” I agree: show day was mostly a lot of waiting around for sixty seconds on stage. It’s a far cry from a powerlifting meet.

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Wrapped up my short-lived bodybuilding career yesterday at the @npcnorthamerican 😁 Biggest thing I learned over the past month: competitive bodybuilding is NOT easy, but for me, also not fun. I learned to love the training and posing and even most of the dieting, and EVERYONE I met was super friendly, encouraging, and supportive, and I'm super grateful for that. I'm also super grateful to @mountaindog1 for his coaching, @troponin_nutrition for handling me the day off the show, and @ironrebel and @granitesupplements for their support. Thanks to them I went on stage looking my best ever and knowing I gave it 100%. I had hoped my conditioning would be good enough for first callouts, but I ended up in 10th in my class. Results aside, the big thing for me is that I didn't enjoy the process of competing (tanning, getting onstage, etc.) at all, and have no desire to ever do it again. I gave my joints and mind the break they needed from lifting heavy shit and now it's time to get back at that… And regrow the beard 😁 Thanks to @kyle_wurzel for the photos!!

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But there were a lot of benefits to competition as well, like the ones I discuss in this article. The biggest one for me: I have nothing left to prove. I’ve accomplished my powerlifting goals — in fact, far beyond — and I’ve found that Classic Physique isn’t right for me. I feel, more than ever before, free to pursue the goals I set when I first started lifting: to get nasty big and freakish strong.

I think a lot of you are probably chasing the same goals, so I want to share my strategy with you here! 

Now, I’m lucky: I have the support of one of my earliest powerlifting and bodybuilding inspirations, Justin Harris, a ridiculously strong and ridiculously ripped strength and physique coach. We’re developing a diet, training program, and long-term strategy specifically for my body and my experience level, and so I can’t share all the exact details of that here. But that’s okay: you don’t want to follow my exact plan. You want to develop your own plan, one that’s right for your body and your goals. My hope is that this article will help you in that endeavor.

Three Ingredients For Bulking Success

There are three major things you have to consider here: your training, your diet, and what you do outside of the gym and the kitchen.

1. Diet

Now, if you’re a strength athlete, this shouldn’t be your top priority — unless you’re training to build muscle, or want to look good naked, or want to drop a weight class, or… you know what? Diet is really important for both bodybuilders and strength athletes.  

Of course, just as with everything else, there’s no one diet that’s right for everyone.  If you’re searching for the one that fits you best, here are some resources to help:

  1. Diet questions every strength athlete should ask!
  2. Using If It Fits Your Macros for powerlifting athletes.

As I mentioned above, I’m working with Justin Harris, and we’re following a carb cycling diet. This method maximizes the opportunity for muscle growth around training, while minimizing fat gain by incorporating a hypocaloric intake on rest days. You can read more about carb cycling here:

2. Training

I shouldn’t need to explain the importance of a solid training plan, even during the off-season. What I do want to explain is the huge opportunity you have in the off-season: the opportunity to figure out what works for you.

I truly believe that my UYP method is the absolute best for building strength, but it’s a program that takes time to work: you have to experiment, be willing to make mistakes, and really invest in yourself by putting in the effort to learn how your body responds to training.  This can be difficult — even impossible — when you’re training for a competition, because you simply can’t afford the time to make mistakes if you want to perform at the best you can in just 8, 12, or 16 weeks. So I strongly suggest you take advantage of the off-season to do that instead.

You don’t have to take that route, of course. Any program that incorporates the principles of periodization will work very well for building both strength and muscle.  My own training program — one that Justin and I are designing together — will do exactly that. We’re incorporating some other cool strategies, as well: explosive training, hypertrophy-specific work, and muscle activation techniques to maximize both strength and size gains. 

I’ll share more about this particular method in future articles, but keep in mind that I’ve tried many, many different training methods. If you’re just starting out, you’re better off keeping things simple!

3. Outside the Gym

Finally, you need to look at your athletic endeavors holistically. Many people wish they had unlimited time to train, but that’s not reality — and, even if it were, it probably wouldn’t be ideal.  Balance is important in everything.

When it comes to achieving your physical goals, I strongly recommend that you consider the following things:

  • Your external stressors. As much as you might wish, you can’t ignore these. Whether it’s your career, your family, your health, or anything else, the reality is that external stressors will impact your performance in the gym. That doesn’t mean you can’t progress just because you have a stressful life situation. I have athletes with incredibly stressful lives — a consultant on a month-long trip to India and a guy building a new house (literally building it) in Texas heat, for example — and they’re able to keep training hard.  You can, too, but you need to plan to work around what you’ve got going on outside the gym.
  • Your schedule. As much as possible, you should consider your schedule as well. If you’ve got a lot of travel planned, well, that might not be the best time to begin meet prep. I know that I’ll have a long trip overseas and a wedding (my own!) next spring, so trust me: I won’t be signing up for any meets around that time. 
  • The need to be flexible. You can’t control or plan for everything. Just be prepared for when life throws that inevitable twist your way, and stay calm. That will enable you to respond calmly, skillfully, and optimally to keep your training going strong.

Enjoyed this article and want to follow along with the return of Project Big Ben? Be sure to follow me and Justin on Instagram — we’ll be keeping you up to date with my progress!

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 from @phdeadlift Instagram page. 

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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