Bodybuilding and powerlifting are two popular styles of weightlifting.
While they share similarities, the goal of each is quite different.
A bodybuilder’s focus is aesthetics. They aim to develop large, defined, proportioned muscles and maintain a low body fat percentage to impress the judges at bodybuilding shows (and lurkers on social media).
Conversely, a powerlifter’s target is to squat, bench press, and deadlift as much weight as possible while competing at a “powerlifting meet.”
Because of these divergent goals, bodybuilders and powerlifters train and diet in distinct ways, which causes their physiques to differ, too.
In this article, you’ll learn the difference between powerlifting and bodybuilding, how each style of training affects your physique, whether powerlifting or bodybuilding is the best training style for you, and more.
Table of Contents
Bodybuilding vs. Powerlifting: Overview
Powerlifting is a sport that involves competing to lift as much weight as possible on the squat, bench press, and deadlift for a single rep (a one-rep max).
As such, powerlifters generally spend the bulk of their training time practicing these “competition lifts,” doing most of their sets in the 1-to-5 rep range and resting anywhere from 2-to-10+ minutes between sets.
Most powerlifters also do a few “accessory” exercises, such as the front squat, incline bench press, and Romanian deadlift, to augment their performance on the competition lifts.
Powerlifters tend to organize and periodize their training to be as strong as possible as they approach a “powerlifting meet” (competition).
In contrast, 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.
To achieve this, bodybuilders place less emphasis on the squat, deadlift, and bench press (though most still include them in their training) and instead train each of their muscle groups with a lot of volume, using a variety of exercises, higher rep ranges (anywhere from 8-to-20+ reps per set) and shorter rest periods between sets (60-to-90 seconds, for example).
It’s worth noting that, technically, anyone focused on building muscle while staying lean or getting leaner is a recreational bodybuilder. For the purposes of this article, though, I’m referring to competitive bodybuilders.
Competitive bodybuilders also organize their training and diet to maximize muscle growth during the “off-season” (the time of year when they don’t compete in bodybuilding shows) and minimize muscle loss and body fat as they approach a bodybuilding show.
During bodybuilding shows, competitors stand on stage while judges score their bodies based on their muscle mass, definition, and balance and symmetry.
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Bodybuilding vs. Powerlifting: Physique
Both bodybuilders and powerlifters are heavily muscled. However, their physiques tend to look different for two reasons:
1. Bodybuilders maintain low body fat levels to accentuate their muscle definition, whereas powerlifters maintain moderate-to-high body fat levels to maximize their strength performance.
(Some powerlifters also believe that having a large amount of belly fat, or “power-belly,” aids their performance by shortening the range of motion in the bench press and giving them something to rebound off at the bottom of the squat.)
2. Bodybuilders train to achieve an “X-frame,” a physique that comprises broad shoulders, wide lats, a cinched waist, and large quads. They also aim to develop small muscle groups that “polish” a physique, such as the biceps, triceps, abs, rear delts, and calves.
In contrast, powerlifters have no aesthetic goals. But since the bulk of their training consists of pushing, pulling, and squatting heavy weights, they typically develop large shoulders, traps, and pecs, a thick waist, and big glutes, quads, and hamstrings.
Here are some examples to illustrate these differences:
(Legion athletes from top left to bottom right: Lauren Dannenmiller, Max Strazny, Rachael Becker, Chris Barakat, Jesus Olivares, Katyliftz, Nico Flores, and Sarah Lanzillo.)
Powerlifting or Bodybuilding: Which Is Best for You?
In truth, very few people should train like a powerlifter or bodybuilder.
That’s because most people don’t want to dedicate their entire training and diet regimen to maximizing their performance on three exercises. Nor are they motivated by long, high-volume workouts and strict dieting that can disrupt their mood, sleep, and social life often required for competitive bodybuilding.
Instead, a compromise between these approaches works best—“powerbuilding,” basically.
In terms of training, this means doing three-to-five 45-to-60-minute strength training workouts per week, focusing mainly on compound exercises that allow you to gain muscle and strength effectively and efficiently (including the squat, deadlift, bench and overhead press), and using the remainder of your time in the gym to do isolation exercises that round out your physique.
Check out this article for a training program that fills this bill:
Hypertrophy Training: Best Workout Program for Hypertrophy
And as for diet, this means following a high-protein, moderate-to-high-carb flexible diet, like the one in this article:
How to Get the Body You Want With Flexible Dieting
As with training, most people interested in feeling and looking great year-round should follow a more moderate approach with their diet—not getting quite as fluffy as many powerlifters nor as lean as bodybuilders, while still allowing their body fat percentage to rise and fall through a series of mini cuts and bulks.
Alternatively, if you want an exercise program and diet plan that works synergistically to help you gain muscle, lose fat, and get healthy fast, then check out my best-selling fitness books Bigger Leaner Stronger for men and Thinner Leaner Stronger for women.
(Or if you aren’t sure if Bigger Leaner Stronger or Thinner Leaner Stronger is right for you or if another strength training program might be a better fit for your circumstances and goals, take Legion Strength Training Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know the perfect strength training program for you. Click here to check it out.)
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FAQ #1: What’s the difference between powerlifting and bodybuilding?
Powerlifting involves training to lift as much weight as possible on the squat, bench press, and deadlift for a single rep.
Powerlifters typically spend most of their training time practicing these “competition lifts” in low rep ranges and with long rest periods between sets.
Conversely, bodybuilding involves training to gain as much muscle as possible while maintaining aesthetic proportions and symmetry and a low body fat percentage.
To achieve this, bodybuilders train each muscle group with a lot of volume and a variety of exercises and use high rep ranges and short rest periods between sets.
FAQ #2: Bodybuilding belt vs. Powerlifting belt: Which is better?
When most people refer to a bodybuilding belt, they’re actually talking about an Olympic weightlifting belt, which is a thick belt, often made of leather, that tapers toward the front so that it’s wider across the back than at the buckle.
Olympic weightlifting belts are designed like this so that your upper body can move more freely during exercises like the clean and jerk and snatch. However, the price you pay for removing this material is that it offers less support.
That’s why I don’t recommend you use a bodybuilding belt if you don’t do Olympic weightlifting.
The best option for powerlifters or those following strength training programs like Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger is a leather powerlifting belt that’s 3-to-4 inches wide, 9-to-10 millimeters thick, and that has a lever or single-prong buckle.
And if you want more help deciding which type of belt is best for you, check out this article:
How to Find the Best Weightlifting Belt for You
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FAQ #3: Can you combine bodybuilding and powerlifting?
You can follow a program like Bigger Leaner Stronger or Thinner Leaner Stronger, which combines aspects of bodybuilding and powerlifting to help you gain muscle by getting stronger over time.
Or you can follow a “powerbuilding” program, which is a style of training that purports to help you maximize muscle and strength gain simultaneously.
Bear in mind, however, powerbuilding programs often don’t deliver on this promise.
That’s because you have to train slightly differently to achieve these goals, which means most powerbuilding routines will never be as effective at helping you gain pure strength as powerlifting programs or as effective at helping you gain muscle as bodybuilding programs.
Instead of shoehorning a bodybuilding and powerlifting program together, it’s generally better to follow a program that’s optimized for building muscle that also incorporates heavy weightlifting toward that end (such as my programs for men and women).