When you pit two fierce, competitive sports against each other, which one wins?

As it turns out, that depends on the rules of the game.

Powerlifting vs. bodybuilding

Powerlifting and bodybuilding are both resistance training sports that involve pumping iron, but they have distinct goals. In super simple terms:

  • Powerlifting focuses on the amount of weight you can lift.
  • Bodybuilding focuses on the amount of muscle you can gain.

That means you’ll use different training routines for each:

  • Powerlifting training typically involves doing 1 to 5 repetitions of compound exercises (like squats) and taking long rests between sets.
  • Bodybuilding is more likely to involve an 8- to 15-rep count for isolation exercises (like biceps curls) with shorter rest periods between sets.
Was this helpful?
powerlifting vs bodybuildingShare on Pinterest
Pekic/Getty Images

Assemble! It’s time for your intro to powerlifting vs. bodybuilding training routines. Here’s how to get fit for each sport.

Powerlifting training

The central goal of powerlifting is to lift the maximum weight possible for 1 rep — this is called the 1-rep max (1RM). You’ll use a barbell to do the following three lifts:

Powerlifting competitions: Judges be judging

You can’t just struggle your way through each move. Form is super important in powerlifting. In a competition, three judges will assign a pass-fail score to your technique on each lift. If at least two judges give you a passing score, your lift counts. (Kinda like “American Idol” but without Katy Perry.)

If the judges give you the green light, your performance is based on your 1RM. (That’s the max weight you lifted on each move.) Your score then gets calculated based on the absolute weight you lifted relative to your weight.

Powerlifting training: Pumping iron

Since powerlifting is all about that 1RM performance, your training will prepare you to lift as much weight as possible for your squat, bench press, and deadlift.

Powerlifters typically go for moves like:

  • a low-bar back squat variation
  • a medium- to wide-grip bench press
  • either a standard or sumo-style deadlift

In order to safely lift a massive amount of weight, it’s important to practice other exercises too. These will give you more stability for the main lifts, lower your risk of injury, and help prevent muscular imbalances.

For example, you might add the following “accessory” moves to your routine:

Powerlifters mostly focus their energy on lower rep ranges (about 1 to 5 reps) using heavy weights and long rest periods.

In the long run, you might also have periods of training at higher rep ranges so you can maintain and boost muscle size.

Bodybuilding training

Bodybuilding competitions are all about that body, baby. On competition day, the judges rate competitors based on their physical appearance in these categories:

  • muscle size
  • symmetry
  • definition

Bodybuilding competitions: You better *work*

Just like Arnold, bodybuilders pose on stage in Speedos, bikinis, or other barely-there outfits to show off the goods. Even though bodybuilding requires you to practice and perfect your muscular regimen, you’ll be judged based on your overall aesthetic rather than your physical performance.

If you’re down with competitive bodybuilding, these are your #goals:

  • Maximize the size and symmetry of your muscles.
  • Reduce body fat.

Basically, your purpose is to show off the definition of your hard-earned muscle mass. Criteria in these competitions vary, but size, muscle definition, and overall appearance in your poses are what counts in this sport.

Bodybuilding training: Feel the burn

Bodybuilding training focuses on resistance training to max out your muscle growth. You’ll use:

Since bodybuilding #aesthetics are fundamental, you’ll likely spend more time pumping iron in slightly higher rep ranges (like 8 to 15). This will stimulate more muscle growth than lower-rep workouts.

You might lift slightly less weight than in powerlifting but do more reps. Your rest periods will probably be shorter as well (1 to 2 mins after each set).

To make those individual muscles really *pop*, you’ll spend some time isolating muscle groups. For example, you might tackle some of these moves:

Powerlifters might also perform some of these moves, but bodybuilders are more likely to focus on isolation exercises during a workout.

For long-term #gains, you’ll likely incorporate heavier training using lower reps and near-max weights. The goal is to boost strength so you can go for more reps with heavier weights.

While both powerlifters and bodybuilders rely on weight and resistance training to succeed in competition, the goals are different.

Powerlifting pros

Even if you don’t want to compete in powerlifting competitions, you can benefit from this training style. Here are just a few pros of powerlifting.

1. Gives your bones a boost

Lifting heavy weights at low reps can increase your bone and connective tissue density. A 2018 review noted that lifting your 1RM (or close to it) is much better at stimulating bone and tissue growth than training at a lower intensity.

Why should you care about bone growth? Strengthening your bones can help protect them from fractures. It can also fend off osteoporosis, a disease (most common in older folks) that leads to superfragile bones.

2. Strengthens your muscles

Powerlifting isn’t just about knocking the socks off everyone in a competition. It can also improve your day-to-day functional strength. So whether you’re rearranging your living room furniture (again) or carrying all your grocery bags at once so it’s just one trip, powerlifting can help you prepare.

In particular, heavy squats and deadlifts build the core stability and strength necessary to promote spine health. That’s helpful when you bend over, stand up, and lift heavy objects. As you age, this becomes even more important for staying healthy.

3. Helps you focus with clear goals

Setting goals can help you stay motivated and committed to your health and fitness routine. Even if you think competing isn’t for you, you don’t have to write off powerlifting. Focusing on measurable performance improvements just might be the inspo you need to stick with your workouts day after day.

Lots of people love powerlifting because it’s a great way to measure how much stronger you get week after week. Not everyone is motivated by numbers, though, so find what works for you. Maybe lifting with a friend is more motivating for you.

Bodybuilding benefits

Even if competing in a Speedo isn’t your jam, bodybuilding training exercises can help you build muscle and boost your overall fitness. Here are just a few benefits of the sport.

1. Helps you build muscle mass

If you want people on the street to start asking you to rescue cats from trees or lift cars off people, bodybuilding is a pretty solid place to start.

Bodybuilding training using medium-to-heavy weights for 8 to 12 reps of multiple sets per muscle group is the best way to build muscle mass, according to a 2016 review. And that muscle isn’t just for show. Boosting your muscle mass comes with a host of other health benefits.

Increased muscle mass is linked to improved insulin sensitivity, reduced body fat, improved levels of fats in the blood, and a higher resting metabolic rate, according to research from 2015. And according to a 2018 review, it may also delay, counteract, or even reverse age-related muscle loss.

2. Encourages better nutrition

If you need a reason to revamp your nutrition, bodybuilding might be a good fit. While all high performance sports involve dietary needs and considerations, diet and nutrition are integral to bodybuilding training and culture.

The focus is on optimizing the nutrients you eat and monitoring your calorie intake. And it’s not necessarily about restricting calories. You’ll need to get enough nutrition to fuel your body as it builds muscle.

Pro tip: There are plenty of reasons to eat well that have nothing to do with the number on the scale.

3. Gives you plenty of aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise (aka cardio) is important for any well-rounded fitness regimen. While powerlifting often prioritizes all those weight #gains over cardio, bodybuilding never skimps on getting your heart pumping.

Getting enough aerobic exercise can help you maintain a healthy weight, boost your mood, and relieve stress. Regardless of your motivation for getting moving, a combo of aerobic and resistance training is definitely ideal for any balanced fitness routine.

While dedicated competitors might insist “once a bodybuilder, always a bodybuilder” (or “once a powerlifter, always a powerlifter”), that doesn’t have to be true. The two sports may be different, but they’re actually really complementary.

Here’s how you can blend aspects of the two to suit your unique goals.

Switch up your reps

Powerlifting is all about sticking to lower rep ranges (about 1 to 5), while bodybuilding aims for higher ones (like 8 to 15). There are advantages to resistance training at both higher and low rep ranges, so why not mix it up?

Try choosing a muscle group to train and alternating between high rep and low rep exercises.

Vary your training

Sticking to the same ol’ training routine for months on end isn’t necessarily the best thing for your health — or for holding your interest. Though powerlifters focus on three big lifts (squats, deadlifts, and bench presses), you can get a much more well-rounded fitness routine by mixing it up.

Shake up your routine by implementing moves from both powerlifting and bodybuilding. Try training your triceps, lats, and rear delts in addition to practicing isolation exercises.

Whether you’re powerlifting or bodybuilding, when you’re working with weights, you’ll need to take appropriate safety measures. Here’s what to do:

  • Wear the right gear. Wear exercise gear that allows for plenty of moving and grooving but doesn’t get in the way of your weights.
  • Ask for help. No one starts out as an expert. When you’re getting started, check out YouTube videos, ask friends who lift, or enlist a trainer for support to ensure you nail down every move.
  • Warm up and cool down. Warming up and cooling down your precious muscles will help you hit peak gains without injury or pain.
  • Secure your weight plates. No one wants to wind up with a weight plate on their toe. Protect yourself and others by securing your weights with collars and exercising extreme caution.
  • Finesse that form. It might be tempting to test your limits with higher and higher weights (that’s all part of the fun, after all). Just make sure you can execute perfect form before you take it to the next level.
  • Take it slow. Slow and steady wins the competition! You’ll be amazed at how much progress you can make even while executing each move with patience and care. Bonus: You’ll also lower your risk of injury.

Powerlifting and bodybuilding both involve resistance training, and both help you build muscle and improve your fitness level.

However, the sports have distinct goals. Powerlifting is all about maximizing your strength in three big barbell lifts. Bodybuilding is about maximizing muscle mass and reducing body fat.

To get the most from each sport, consider combining elements of the two.