Most people think building muscle requires very different training than gaining strength.
If you want to build as much muscle as possible, prevailing wisdom says you should train like a bodybuilder. Eight-to-twelve reps or more per set, lighter weights, and short, 60-to-90 second rest periods between sets.
And if you want to gain as much strength as possible, you’ve probably heard that you should train like a powerlifter—1-to-5 reps per set, very heavy weights, and resting several minutes between sets.
What if you want the best of both worlds?
According to some people, “powerbuilding” is the answer.
Powerbuilding is a style of training that promises all the strength-gaining benefits of a powerlifting program with all the muscle-building benefits of a bodybuilding routine, all in a single powerbuilding program.
Is powerbuilding the fitness factotum it’s painted as? Or is it just another gimmick that’s all mouth and no trousers?
Learn the truth in this article.
Table of Contents
“Powerbuilding” is a style of training that purports to help you maximize muscle and strength gain simultaneously. A synthesis of “powerlifting” and “bodybuilding,” basically.
To that end, powerbuilding workouts tend to involve a mix of higher-rep, lower weight sets (which are claimed to be better for muscle growth) and higher-weight, lower-rep sets (which are claimed to be better for strength).
Most powerbuilding programs have you squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting to gain raw strength with heavier weights and for lower reps and include a variety of isolation exercises to develop any lagging muscle groups.
Generally, powerbuilding workouts have you doing one or two compound exercises using heavier weights and lower reps at the beginning of your workout followed by two-to-four accessory exercises using lighter weights and higher reps.
While some powerbuilding proponents have tried to spin this as a new kind of workout programming, the reality is that many successful strength training programs follow the same pattern, and for good reason—it works. This is also how Mike’s Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger programs are organized: you do a handful of heavier, lower-rep sets with compound exercises at the beginning of your workouts, and then several lighter, higher-rep sets of accessory exercises.
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Powerlifting is a sport that involves lifting as much weight as possible on the squat, bench press, and deadlift for a single rep (a one-rep max).
Powerlifters generally spend the bulk of their training time practicing the squat, bench press, and deadlift and do most of their sets in the 1-to-5 rep range, resting anywhere from 2-to-10 minutes between sets (or as long as they require to fully recover before the next set).
Most powerlifters also do a few “accessory” exercises, such as the Romanian deadlift, front squat, and incline bench press, though these are only used to augment their “primary” exercises—the squat, bench, and deadlift.
Powerlifters also tend to organize and periodize their training to be as strong as possible on the squat, bench press, and deadlift as they approach a competition.
On the other hand, bodybuilding is a sport that involves trying to gain as much muscle as possible while maintaining aesthetic proportions and symmetry and a low body fat percentage.
At a bodybuilding show, competitors stand on stage while judges score their bodies based on their muscle mass, definition, and balance and symmetry.
Although powerlifters’ and bodybuilders’ goals are very different (being strong versus looking good), the kind of training required to accomplish both of these outcomes is actually synergistic. In other words, while the final destination for powerlifters and bodybuilders is different, the road that gets them there is almost the same.
The reason for this is that the best way to get stronger is to gain a lot of muscle, and the best way to build muscle is to focus on lifting heavier weights over time (progressive overload). What’s more, the “competition lifts” in powerlifting—the squat, bench press, and deadlift—also happen to be some of the most efficient exercises for gaining muscle. Thus, powerlifting and bodybuilding workouts have much more in common than many people realize.
Powerbuilding routines put all of the heaviest sets of the most important compound exercises at the beginning of your workouts when you’re freshest and have the most focus.
This ensures you perform at your best during the sets that are most likely to help you get stronger.
What’s more, you know going into a powerbuilding workout that you only have to lift heavy weights for your first exercise.
This gives some people a psychological boost because they know they only have to stomach three-to-five truly intense sets before the weights decrease, the rep ranges increase, and the work becomes comparatively easy.
A compound exercise is any exercise that trains several major muscle groups at the same time, like the squat, deadlift, and bench and overhead press.
Despite this, many bodybuilding programs focus too much on isolation and machine exercises because they say that’s the best way to “sculpt” muscle.
That, however, is twaddle.
If you want to build muscle effectively, you should spend the majority of your time doing compound weightlifting.
A good rule of thumb is that 60-to-80% of your time and energy should go into compound exercises, which is exactly what you’ll do in any good powerbuilding routine.
Many powerlifters sniff at isolation exercises because they think they won’t improve their squat, bench press, and deadlift, but this is shortsighted.
In reality, isolation exercises can significantly improve your strength by developing muscles that aren’t effectively trained by the squat, bench press, and deadlift, and by reducing your risk of repetition stress injuries (which can rear their head when you only do a few exercises for months or years on end).
One perk of most powerbuilding programs is that you do less strength-specific work, which means you have time and energy to include more isolation exercises in your workouts. This is beneficial because research shows that training your muscles in several different ways—in different directions and at different angles—produces more growth than training them in just one or two ways.
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Most powerbuilding routines follow the same template: you start your workout with several sets of heavy squatting, benching, or deadlifting to gain strength, then move on to multiple sets of multiple bodybuilding-style exercises to build muscle.
And while that seems reasonable in theory, it’s not always practical. Most people are gassed after the intense powerlifting-style sets at the beginning of the workout, which can cumber their performance on their remaining sets.
Basically, many people tend to blow their powder in the first few sets, leaving little energy for the remainder of their workout.
In fact, most people find that the only way to finish their powerbuilding workouts is to decrease the amount of weight they lift or do fewer reps, or take every set to failure, both of which hampers muscle gain over time.
Thus, because of the way most powerbuilding programs are organized, it’s difficult to perform well during the “bodybuilding” portion of your workouts, which means you’ll never build muscle on a powerbuilding program as well as you would on a dedicated bodybuilding program.
As we’ve already seen, one of the main drawbacks of powerbuilding is that your “strength” training interferes with your “size” training.
Unfortunately, the same conundrum cuts both ways.
Building pure strength is a full-time pursuit. That is, if you want to improve your one-rep max on a few choice exercises, you have to gear your training toward that goal.
The downside of powerbuilding programs is that most tend to heavily emphasize bodybuilding style training, with only a smattering of strength work.
For example, a common powerbuilding workout might include 3-to-6 sets of heavier, lower-rep “strength” work and then 9-to-12 sets of lighter, higher-rep “bodybuilding” work. In contrast, a pure powerlifting program might include 6-to-9 heavier sets and then 3-to-6 lighter sets.
Thus, if building strength is your main goal, powerbuilding probably isn’t the best type of program for you. Instead, stick to a powerlifting program like the one in this article.
Setting clear goals is one of the best ways to succeed in your health and fitness journey.
Make your goals too ambiguous, incompatible, or complex, though, and they’re more likely to distract and diffuse your energy rather than concentrate and amplify it.
For many people, training to gain maximum strength and muscle simultaneously is too much to handle at one time, and instead of achieving everything, they end up achieving nothing.
If you think that powerbuilding sounds overwhelming, it probably isn’t the best option for you. Instead, stick to a simple goal, such as building muscle or getting strong or losing fat or getting healthy.
The following powerbuilding routine is based around the “upper lower” split, which has been used as the basis for powerlifting and bodybuilding programs for decades.
It works so well because it contains the best strength- and mass-building exercises, and uses the right number of weekly sets to promote strength gain and hypertrophy without wearing you to a frazzle.
If the 5-day powerbuilding split doesn’t fit your schedule, you can shorten it to a 4-day powerbuilding split by skipping Day 5. And if you’d prefer to do a 3-day powerbuilding split, skip Day 3 and Day 5.
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No, but this article contains all of the information you need about training to start powerbuilding.
And if you’d like a more comprehensive guide to dieting and training so you can build muscle and lose fat fast, check out Mike’s fitness books Bigger Leaner Stronger for men and Thinner Leaner Stronger for women.
Powerbuilding can be effective, but it likely isn’t as effective at gaining pure strength as a powerlifting program or building muscle as a bodybuilding program.
Thus, the best thing to do before starting a powerbuilding program is to ask yourself what you want to achieve.
If developing out-and-out strength is what gets you fired up to train and building muscle is more of an afterthought, it’s probably best for you to start with a powerlifting routine, then transition to a bodybuilding or powerbuilding routine once you’re happy with your strength.
Likewise, if building muscle is what gets you excited to train and gaining strength isn’t top-of-mind, then a bodybuilding program is probably a better fit for you at the moment. If gaining strength becomes more of a draw in the future, you can always switch to a powerlifting or powerbuilding program then.
If building muscle and gaining strength are equally important to you, then give powerbuilding a try. Bear in mind that you won’t gain as much strength or muscle as you would if you focussed on one of these goals at a time, though.
What’s more, you could also alternate between powerlifting and bodybuilding programs—spending 3-to-6 months focused on maximizing muscle, and the next 3-to-6 months bent on gaining strength. This kind of periodized training is my recommended approach, as it allows you to focus on one goal at a time, while still gaining muscle and strength over the long haul.
Yes and no.
A good powerbuilding program will help you build muscle, but it won’t help you build muscle as effectively as a bodybuilding program.
Thus, if your top priority is to build muscle and gaining a lot of strength is of little importance, you’ll make better progress if you follow a dedicated bodybuilding program than a powerbuilding program.
In fact, strength training of any kind has several unique benefits that make it particularly effective for losing fat.
That said, strength training is only one piece of the fat-loss puzzle. To maximize the fat-burning and muscle-building effects of powerbuilding, you have to know how to diet, too.
You don’t need to take any supplements to gain muscle and strength on a powerbuilding routine, but the right ones can help (and if you’d like specific advice about exactly what supplements to take to reach your fitness goals, take the Legion Supplement Finder Quiz).
Here are the best supplements for supporting your powerbuilding workouts:
- 0.8-to-1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day. This provides your body with the “building blocks” it needs to build and repair muscle tissue and help you recover from your workouts. If you want a clean, convenient, and delicious source of protein, try Whey+ or Casein+.
- 3-to-5 grams of creatine per day. This will boost muscle and strength gain, improve anaerobic endurance, and reduce muscle damage and soreness from your workouts. If you want a 100% natural source of creatine that also includes two other ingredients that will help boost muscle growth and improve recovery, try Recharge.
- One serving of Pulse per day. Pulse is a 100% natural pre-workout drink that enhances energy, mood, and focus; increases strength and endurance; and reduces fatigue. You can also get Pulse with caffeine or without.
+ Scientific References
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