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Powerlifting and Bodybuilding:
Two Completely Different Sports

By Gary F. Zeolla

Powerlifters and bodybuilders both utilize weightlifting as part of the training for their sports. And most bodybuilders, at least knowledgeable ones, do the three powerlifts (squats, bench presses, and deadlifts) as part of their training. For this reason, there are some who try to compete in both sports.

However, powerlifting and bodybuilding are two completely different sports. As such, the training for them is completely different, even if both utilize weights in their training. And to try to compete at both sports will keep the athlete from ever reaching his or her full potential at either sport. This article will look at some of the more important of these differences, and why, if you want to reach you full potential in one of these sports, you need to choose just one to train for and compete in.

Squat Form

Although, both powerlifters and bodybuilders both perform squats, bench presses, and deadlifts in their training, the form that is ideal for each sport for these lifts is completely different. In my book, Starting and Progressing in Powerlifting, I explain in detail the form that powerlifters should utilize in their training and competition for each lift. But here, I will just look at aspects of each for where there is a difference between how powerlifters perform the lifts and how bodybuilders do so.

First is the squat. The most important rule in powerlifting in regards to squats is that the lifter must "break parallel." By this is meant, the top of the thigh where it meets the torso must be lowered below parallel with the top of the knee. Ideally, a powerlifter will just break parallel. To go down any further will reduce the amount of weight that can be utilized in the lift.

A powerlifting must learn how to hit this exact depth in training. This is done by repetition, repeatedly doing each and every squat, both warm-ups and work reps to this exact depth. That way, it will be second nature to hit that depth in competition.

Now, most people who lift weights just for general conditioning don't go anywhere near this depth. And their lack of leg development shows as a result. But bodybuilders who are serious about their sport usually squat far below parallel. This is so a full range of motion is utilized, and thus full leg development will occur. Not that powerlifters don't have great leg development, but bodybuilders looking to reach their full potential need to do full squats, not just below parallel squats.

Second on squats, most powerlifters utilize a somewhat wide to a very wide stance. In this way, the hips are utilized as much as the thighs are. And with more musculature being utilized, more weight can be lifted. And again, powerlifters should practice on utilizing the exact same foot spacing for each and every set in the gym so as to have no problems getting set-up at a contest with that foot spacing. But bodybuilders will generally utilize a close stance in squats. In this way, the thighs are more isolated and the hips are little used.

Now a person trying to both powerlift and bodybuild would have to go back and forth between these very different forms in their training. And by doing so, they would not ingrain in their "muscle memory" the correct depth and foot spacing that is needed at a powerlifting contest, while they would not reach their full potential in terms of leg size and definition for bodybuilding.

Bench Form

By rule in powerlifting, the shoulders and butt must stay on the bench throughout the performance of the bench press. But powerlifters generally "arch" their backs in-between the buttocks and the shoulders. This has two beneficial effects for the powerlifter.

First, by arching, you are in essence turning a flat bench into a decline bench. And if the reader has ever done declines, you will know that you generally can use more weight when doing decline benches than when doing flat benches. This is because the lower pecs are larger and stronger than the middle or upper pecs.

Second, arching reduce the "stroke length" of the bench. By this is meant, arching raises the chest, thus shortening the distance that the lifter must press the bar up.

However, it would be foolhardy for a bodybuilder to arch while doing flat benches. The purpose of flat benches is to develop the middle pecs. Bodybuilders will then do declines and inclines separately in order to work the lower and upper pecs, respectively.

The second important form point in a powerlifter's bench is that the lifter must pause the weight at the chest. More specifically, at a contest, the weight must be motionless at the chest, and the lifter must weight for a "Press" command from the head judge before pressing the weight upwards. As such, each and every rep in training should be done with a pause at the chest to mimic the time one must wait for the judge's command at a contest. Not to do so will cause the lifter at a contest to be unable to press the weight off of the chest since he or she is not used to a pause.

Meanwhile, bodybuilders, as with most people who lift weights, generally perform their bench reps in a "touch and go" fashion. Thus they never get used to the pause of a powerlifting contest bench.

But again, the powerlifting must work on his or her arch and pausing the weight and perfect this form while benching by using it in each and every rep in training. So again, it is second nature in competition. To try and go back and forth between the two forms would prevent the lifter from ever perfecting either type of form. And for the bodybuilder, arching would keep him or her from reaching full chest development.

Deadlift Form

This lift is called a DEADlift for a reason. The lifter must lift a "dead" weight from the floor. By this is meant, the bar is stationary on the floor and overcoming gravity and getting the bar started can be the hardest part of the lift. For this reason, a powerlifter must start each and every lift from a dead stop. In other words, there should be no bouncing of the weight between reps when doing more than one rep. The lifter should stop and pause the weight at the floor on each rep. Not to do so can lead to the very embarrassing event of trying a deadlift at a contest and not being able to budge it.

Meanwhile, bodybuilders generally bounce the weight between reps when deadlifting. This keeps momentum throughout the set and enables the bodybuilder to get a better "pump" in the hamstrings and lower back. And this leads to the next point.

There are actually two different forms a powerlifter can utilize in deadlifting, a "conventional" (close) stance and a "sumo" (wide) stance. The differences between these two lifts and the form therefor is describe in my book. But here, the important point is that conventional deadlifts work the hamstrings and lower back, while sumo deadlifts work the quadriceps and the hips more. The only way to know which form a powerlifter can use more weight for is to try each form.

However, the main reason a bodybuilder does deadlifts is for hamstring and low back development. Thus for him or her to do sumo deadlifts would not be productive. The quads and hips are better worked via squats. But if a bodybuilder can utilize more weight with sumo deadlifts, then that puts him or her in a quandary of what form to utilize in training if he or she wants to compete in both sports.

Number of Reps

At a powerlifting contest, one rep is done for each of the powerlifts. Thus powerlifters train for doing one rep on the big three. This means that powerlifters must do heavy singles in training. They will do higher reps, but by "higher is meant usually up to 5-6 reps. Now I sometimes went as high as eight reps for "back-off" sets or to mix things up. But I never went higher than that in training. But bodybuilders will generally do, at least at times, as high as 9-20 reps when training.

There is a big difference between doing a one rep max (1RM) and doing say a set of say ten reps. Or to put it another way, doing ten reps does not prepare the body for doing a 1RM. In fact, I would say someone who has only been doing sets of ten and tries a 1RM could very well end up getting injured in the attempt. At the very least, he or she would probably find that they cannot lift near as much weight as expected when doing one rep.

The physiology of doing one rep versus multiple reps is totally different, both in terms of the energy systems utilized and in terms of the muscle fibers employed. This is too complex to go into here. But what not is complex is that the amount of weight one can use in doing one rep versus ten is so much higher that the person who is only used to doing ten reps will feel "crushed" under the weight of an expected 1RM.

Along with differing physiology is differing psychology. When doing ten reps, the first few reps are relatively easy. So one does not have to push maximally at the start of the set nor be completely "psyched up." But as the set progresses, one has to start pushing harder and get more psyched to finish the set.

But when doing one rep, the lifter must be completely psyched up and ready to exercise full strength the moment the bar is touched. This is especially the case when doing deadlifts. With squats and benches, the lifters gets to "feel" the weight when it is taken off of the racks and during the descent, so he or she can save maximal effort for the push upwards. But with deadlifts, there is not feeling of the weight or descent before needing to lift the weight.

This differing psychology is why powerlifters must do heavy singles at least on occasion in training. It is the only way to get used to this effect of having to be full psyched and ready to exert maximal effort at as soon as the bar is touched.

But it would be foolhardy for bodybuilders to do max singles in training. There is nothing to be gained in terms of muscle size and definition versus higher reps. But what there is, is a great chance of injury. In fact, I would say there's no reason for a bodybuilder to ever do less than five reps in training. The lower the reps the greater the chance of injury. The powerlifter must take this risk in order to be successful, but there is no reason for the bodybuilder to do so.

Rest Time Between Sets

The powerlifter's goal in the big three when doing a set is to be able to handle as much weight as possible with correct form for each and every set. As such, when doing multiple sets, a powerlifter will generally rest for 3-5 minutes or longer. This way, full effort and a maximal amount of weight can be used for each set.

However, bodybuilders are not (or at least should not) be concerned with how much weight they are using for a set. What matters for the bodybuilder is to get the muscles "pumped up" as much as possible. As such, short rest times of 1-2 minutes or less are generally utilized. This generally means that less weight and/ or a lower number of reps are done for each set. This would be anathema to the powerlifter who wants to use a maximal amount of weight on each set.

Powerlifting Gear and Posing

In my book, I discuss in detail the types of supportive gear that some powerlifters wear. Discussing all of this gear is out of the scope of this article. But suffice to say, bodybuilders generally do not use any gear, except for maybe a belt and knee wraps on squats and a belt on deadlifts. Learning to use powerlifting gear is a skill in itself. And training with gear is totally different from training without gear. But there is no reason for a bodybuilder to use the specialized gear that many powerlifters use.

Meanwhile, a big part of the sport of bodybuilding is the posing routine. And a significant amount of time is (or should) be spent by bodybuilders in perfecting their contest posing routines. But there is no reason for powerlifters to waste time with such an activity.

How to Choose Which Sport

So the training methodologies of powerlifters and bodybuilders are completely different. And trying to engage in both would prevent the lifter from ever reaching his or her full potential in each sport. But how does one go about picking which sport to participate in?

Well, for me it was easy. Back in high school, a local gym held an event for high schoolers that consisted of a bench press contest and a bodybuilding contest. In my senior year, I decided to enter both. In the bodybuilding contest, I was dead last out of about a dozen participants. But I won a four place trophy out of about 20 lifters in the bench competition.

On top of that, I absolutely despised the having to shave my whole body and apply "fake tan" for the bodybuilding event. It seemed all so silly. But I loved the lifting of heavy weights in preparing for the bench press meet.

As such, for me, the decision was easy. I never again bodybuilded, but I competed in many powerlifting contests in college and in my 40s, and did very well at them. But most of all, I loved the training and the competition. And I regret to this day that my health no longer allows me to compete in powerlifting.

So one way is to go ahead and try each sport. Enter one contest for each and see all that is involved in each sport and which is most to your liking and which you do best at. Or you could just attend a contest for each sport, and in that way get some idea of what is involved in each and how much you like the sports. And reading my powerlifting book will give you a good idea what that sport entails.


I know there are many who engage in powerlifting and bodybuilding. I've had discussions about this subject many times at gyms that I used to train at. And I've had people tell me that they do well at each sport. That might be true. A very gifted and dedicated athlete might be able to be "good" at both sports. But I would say that it is the very rare individual indeed who would ever be "great" at both sports. But most of all, trying to train for and compete in both will keep you from ever reaching your full potential in either sport. So pick one and stick with it if you want to excel.

Powerlifting and Bodybuilding: Two Completely Different Sports. Copyright 2012 By Gary F. Zeolla.

Powerlifting and Back Pain

    The first book is geared towards the beginner to intermediate powerlifter. It presents sound training, competition, dietary, and supplement advice to aid the reader in starting and progressing in the sport of powerlifting. The second book details how I overcame years of crippling low back and was able to return to the sport of powerlifting.

Starting and Progressing in Powerlifting: A Comprehensive Guide to the World's Strongest Sport

Overcoming Back Pain: A Mind-body Solution (Second Edition)

See also this series on Amazon (#ad).

The above article was posted on this site May 30, 2012.

Powerlifting and Strength Training

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