Powerlifting vs Bodybuilding: Which Is Best for You

Woman weightlifting in a gym

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Bodybuilding and powerlifting are two types of resistance training. While bodybuilding is primarily focused on aesthetics, muscle growth (hypertrophy), and symmetry, the intent of powerlifting is to gain maximum strength in the squat, bench press, and deadlift.

While bodybuilding and powerlifting can be done for competitions, they are also styles of training that anyone can follow to build muscle, increase strength, and improve quality of life. Learn more about the basics of both lifting styles and the potential pros and cons, so you can decide which training method is best for you.

The Basics of Powerlifting 

Powerlifting is a training style where your focus is to increase the amount you can lift for three primary lifts: the bench press, squat, and deadlift. The aim is to lift a maximal amount of weight—training is designed to encourage increases in strength for these three lifts over time.

Powerlifting is a competitive sport, but those interested in this style of training do not have to have a goal of competing. Training is performed at near maximum effort, usually at low repetitions, although some training sessions may have lower weight and higher repetitions while working on technique. Technique is essential for improving the amount you can lift over time.

Pros and Cons   

Powerlifting is a challenging and taxing form of training. Neither of these aspects are negative, but they are worth considering since you will need to prioritize your training sessions and recovery to fully engage in a powerlifting program.

The heavy compound lifts that are the primary focus of powerlifting are very fatiguing, and there is a higher risk of injury when pushing near maximal weights consistently. However, these same challenging attributes are what make powerlifting a rewarding choice for many.

Compound movements, including the three main powerlifting lifts, are excellent full-body exercises. Squats, deadlifts, and bench presses target every muscle group in your body to a high degree. These lifts also translate into better functional movement during everyday activities since they carry over to human activities we do every day—pushing, pressing, hinging, and squatting.

However, the heavy weights required for powerlifting and the complexity of the techniques required to maintain safety as you progress mean that powerlifting is not the best choice for individuals who are new to resistance training.

The Basics of Bodybuilding 

Bodybuilding is a style of training that aims to increase muscle size and symmetry. The goal is to develop a specific physical appearance. Competitors in bodybuilding are judged on their muscle size and symmetry, along with other physical attributes and posing techniques.

Using bodybuilding style training to develop a muscular, defined body without the goal of competing is also popular. The sport and culture of bodybuilding are well-established, and techniques have been developed and put into practice for decades. This makes bodybuilding workouts appealing to many hoping to obtain a muscular aesthetic.

Unlike powerlifting, bodybuilding training focuses on large and small muscle groups, focusing on isolation exercises and compound movements. Isolation exercises are those that target specific muscles rather than larger muscle groups. Examples include bicep curls, tricep extensions, hamstring curls, lateral raises, rear delt flyes, and several dozen more.

Bodybuilding also uses many techniques, reps, and set ranges that are changed over weeks and months. These training changes are called microcycles and mesocycles, and the number of sets and repetitions are manipulated to encourage continued adaptations that lead to muscle growth. Increasing the amount of volume you lift is typically required to see continued growth.

Aside from training, bodybuilding is also very focused on nutrition. Specific nutrition techniques and requirements are often partnered with training programs. These include high protein diets, counting macronutrients, supplementation, and adjusting calories to either gain muscle or lose body fat.

Pros and Cons 

Bodybuilding can be programmed in many ways, and beginners will do best with fewer workouts, slowly increasing volume over time. This makes it an excellent way to gain muscle due to the structure and variety of movements typically involved in bodybuilding programs.

A combination of compound and isolation work helps ensure you will train small and large body parts focusing on symmetry, which reduces the risk of muscular imbalances. Unilateral exercises are popular for compound and isolation bodybuilding exercises and are also functional movements that improve daily living and performance.

Although an excellent form of activity for building strength and muscle while improving body composition, bodybuilding can be damaging if you become obsessive over your appearance. Bodybuilding culture is well known for leading to body image and eating disorders.

Seek help from a qualified therapist if you feel that bodybuilding endeavors or interests are based on negative thoughts about your body, or leading to an unhealthy relationship with food or exercise.

Which Is Best for You

If you are trying to decide between powerlifting and bodybuilding, it's first important to understand that these training styles are very different. If your primary goal is to gain strength in the three main compound lifts, powerlifting may be ideal, especially if you plan on competing. If you wish to build muscle size and symmetry, bodybuilding will probably work best.

A simplified version of bodybuilding that focuses on both strength increases and muscular growth, with different cycles of programming throughout the year is a good compromise. Unless you plan on competing in bodybuilding shows, you can take a more relaxed approach to your training than is typical for competitors, especially when it comes to incorporating fat loss and nutritional strategies, which can be extreme to the point of being unhealthy. 

Safety Tips 

With powerlifting and bodybuilding, it's strongly recommended to seek the guidance of a trainer or specialist in the specific training style you are interested in. This way, you have a solid understanding of how to perform the movements involved in your program.

Lifting very heavy and/or very frequently can lead to overtraining, overuse injuries, strains, joint issues, and an increased risk of major injuries.

A Word From Verywell

Powerlifting and bodybuilding are two different extremes in training styles. Unless you plan on competing or are motivated by strict routines, a balance between the two with cycles of strength and hypertrophy training throughout the year will most likely be best.

It is essential to gain more experience and understanding of resistance training if you are a beginner. Be sure to speak to a doctor and seek guidance from a personal trainer if you have any questions or concerns.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you combine powerlifting and bodybuilding?

    You can combine many of the practices from powerlifting and bodybuilding if you cycle your programming through the year. Powerlifting focuses on gaining strength in only three exercises: bench press, squat, and deadlift. Bodybuilding incorporated dozens of exercises with a goal of building muscle size.

  • How can I recover faster from powerlifting?

    You can recover faster from powerlifting by being sure to take active recovery days. This means still being active but not lifting to an intensity that will cause further muscle disruption. Consider light weight training, hiking, biking, and swimming. Manage fatigue with regular de-loads.

  • What is peak week in bodybuilding?

    The week before a bodybuilding competition is called peak week. This week, bodybuilders aim to maximize aesthetics by manipulating macronutrients, electrolytes, water, and exercise. The primary goals of peaking are increasing "muscle fullness” with glycogen, obtaining a “dry” or “hard” look by eliminating subcutaneous water, and maximizing the “V-taper” by reducing abdominal bloating. 

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By Rachel MacPherson, BA, CPT
Rachel MacPherson is a health writer, certified personal trainer, and exercise nutrition coach based in Montreal.