Bodybuilding vs Powerlifting: Worlds Collide…

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If you’re one of those people who uses the terms “weightlifting” and “powerlifting” and “bodybuilding” interchangeably (and, as a result, incorrectly) I want you to know that you really annoy me.

I wouldn’t worry to much about this fact (I mean, why should you care that I’m annoyed?) and I’m going to assume that you clicked on this article because you want to be able to get your terminology right when you’re talking about powerlifting or bodybuilding.

…but what if you do know what these terms mean and you’re actually interested in giving one of these two disciplines a try…?

Thankfully, we’re here today to discuss a number of different nuances involved in the age old bodybuilding vs powerlifting training debate!

By the time we finish up, you should have a good idea of whether powerlifting training is for you or if a bodybuilding program is more your style. Just do me one favor; if you do opt for bodybuilding, be sure to save your competition practice posing for sometime after you’ve left my website!

bodybuilding vs powerlifting

What Is Bodybuilding?

So…what does bodybuilding really entail? It’s a discipline that is not just about “lifting weights”, but encompasses an entire lifestyle focused on developing symmetrical muscular size and an aesthetic physique. Unlike powerlifting, where the goal is sheer strength (mainly conveyed via performance on the “big 3” Powerlifting movements), bodybuilding is concerned with developing a balanced, sculpted body via a combination of resistance training and meticulous diet/nutrition.

Bodybuilding routines generally differ from pure strength-based sports (as well as from more “hybrid” disciplines like CrossFit) with workouts comprised of the following:

  • Isolation Exercises: Train specific muscle groups creating desired definition in each area.
  • Compound Movements: Essential for overall mass (although oftentimes performed slightly differently than in pure strength sports).

Additionally, the role of nutrition cannot be overstated. Any serious bodybuilder is going to be focused on the consuming the “correct” ratio of the three macronutrients:

  • Protein: The building block of muscle. Think chicken, fish, and legumes (and…obviously…shakes…)
  • Carbs: Provide the body with energy. Anything from cookies (not-so-great carbs) to sweet potatos (good carbs!)
  • Fats: Important for energy storage and for facilitating many bodily functions. Fish, nuts, and seeds are common sources

Recovery is another cornerstone of bodybuilding As “unsexy” as it sounds, this involves getting adequate sleep, managing stress, and using supplementation to support muscle recovery.

Ultimately, bodybuilding is a meticulous blend of weights, nutrition, and lifestyle choices with the goal of developing a seriously shredded (yet, in most weight classes, jacked) physique.

What Is Powerlifting?

Powerlifting is a sport we’ve covered at length on this page, but, for those who haven’t been following along, in its simplest form, it involves maximizing overall strength as measured in the “big 3” competition lifts. These lifts go as follows:

  • Deadlift: To put it very simply, this involves ifting a heavy weight off the ground. Powerlifters can opt for a standard or a sumo-style stance to haul up the weight using a combination of back, glute, and leg strength.
  • Bench PressThe favorite lift of Monday afternoon, bro gym lifters everywhere. Lifters lay back on a (hopefully) solid (and padded) bench and push away a loaded barbell.
  • Squat: Whether lifters opt for the high-bar version or the low-bar back squat (which powerlifters usually opt for since it allows for more weight to be lifted by engaging the hips more than the quads),  this involves loading a heavy barbell on the back and squatting up and down.

The goal for powerlifters is to lift as much weight as they can handle for a single repetition in each of these core lifts. Unlike some sports where more repetitions equate to better results (as is the case in many CrossFit workouts), powerlifting is all about maximal effort on single-rep attempts.

In terms of training, powerlifters’ programs are designed around periodization i.e. cycling through different phases of volume and intensity. In addition to core lifts, this programming also includes accessory exercises to strengthen weak points and improve overall lifting technique.

Powerlifting offers the added bonus of building bone density as well as functional strength, translating into better overall personal health and fitness. However, a powerlifter’s numbers on the competition lifts is truly what the sport is all about.

Bodybuilding vs Powerlifting – Main Similarities

Now we get to the meat of this showdown! Before we put these two “against” each other, let’s look at areas they most have in common:

Training Equipment: Bodybuilders and powerlifters each have some niche equipment (powerlifters use “power bars” to squat with, bodybuilders often use safety squat bars), but they also have a lot of equipment in common. Barbells, dumbbells, and even some machines are staples in both disciplines

Competitive Spirit: Sure, bodybuilders like looking good and powerlifters like being strong. However, serious athletes in both sports put their work to the test in the form of competition participation. While the way these comps are structured is very different from each other, the competitive juices are flowing, nonetheless!

Exercise Selection: While the specific exercises may vary, both sports include compound movements that engage multiple muscle groups. Don’t be surprised to come across both groups of lifters performing squats (albeit, with different types of barbells), deadlifts, bench presses, and bent-over rows.

There are other elements that both disciplines have in common (“they both involve weights1!!!!1!” they’re both in the gym!!1!11!”), but these are some of the main, under-the-surface level similarities. 

Bodybuilding vs Powerlifting – Major Differences

To be honest, there are more differences between powerlifting and bodybuilding than there are similarities. Out of respect or time (mine and yours), we’ll briefly cover some of these differences here before going into a “deep dive” below.

Bodybuilding focuses on the aesthetic aspect of fitness. Major elements are:

  • Aim: Sculpting a symmetrical, well-proportioned physique with an emphasis on muscle definition and low body fat.

  • Competition: Judges evaluate based on physical appearance, muscle mass, and symmetry (side note: participants are normally at their weakest on competition day!)
  • Training: Involves a higher volume of reps with more exercises to target all muscle groups meticulously.
  • Diet: Caloric intake is adjusted between bulking and cutting phases to facilitate muscle growth while managing fat gain and loss.

In contrast, powerlifting is all about sheer strength. Here’s the breakdown:

  • Aim: To gain maximal strength with a focus on increasing the 1 rep max (1RM) in the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
  • Competition: Success is measured by the maximum weight lifted in each lift, with a simple “lift-no lift” score.

  • Training: Strength training is the cornerstone with less emphasis on high-rep volume and training for aesthetics.
  • Diet: Nutrition supports strength gains and recovery, often with higher calorie consumption to support heavy lifting (although cutting periods do take place in the weeks before competition).

Even on the surface these disciplines are pretty different. At this point, I doubt you’ll ever confuse the two again!

Bodybuilding vs Powerlifting – Competitions


  • Judging Criteria: Competitors are judged on muscle size, symmetry, and definition.
  • Scoring System: It’s subjective, focusing on the overall aesthetic and stage presence (as well as during the pre-judging period backstage).


  • Judging Criteria: Lifters are assessed on their maximum amount (successfully) lifted in the squat, bench press, and deadlift.
  • Scoring System: Objective pass-fail score based on the completion of lifts according to specific rules. Whoever has the most points (in terms of pounds/kilograms lifted) in each weight class wins. Overall winners can also be determined by calculations such as the Wilks scoring system.

Bodybuilding vs Powerlifting – Training


  • Emphasizes muscle hypertrophy (increased muscle size) and muscle definition through high-volume training and higher rep ranges.
  • Workouts involve a mix of compound and isolation exercises with moderate weights.


  • Aims to increase maximal strength, primarily using heavy weights (75%+ of 1 RMs) in lower rep ranges.
  • Focus on technique and power with compound lifts such as squat, bench press, and deadlift.

Bodybuilding vs Powerlifting – Nutrition


  • Requires a careful balance of protein, carbs, and fats to promote muscle growth while maintaining low body fat.

  • Utilizes bulking and cutting phases to build muscle and then reduce body fat for competition readiness.


  • Prioritizes a calorie intake sufficient to fuel strength gains, with a focus on ample protein and sufficient carb consumption to fuel training sessions.
  • Often less restrictive surrounding body fat levels, especially when not in competition season.

Bodybuilding vs Powerlifting – Physiques


  • Strives for a sculpted physique with pronounced muscle definition and low body fat.
  • Symmetry and aesthetics are critical; muscle size is tailored to create the ideal body image.


  • Focus is more on functional strength rather than aesthetics, which can lead to a more varied body composition.

  • Muscle size is a by-product of strength training, with less emphasis on achieving a certain look.

Frequently Asked Questions

To be honest, the major areas in the bodybuilding vs powerlifting debate are pretty apparent. Let’s go over the last few items that may be…less than obvious.

Powerlifters, by virtue of their sport, are concerned with overall strength. Everything else is secondary. In contrast, bodybuilders are almost always really strong, although their primary focus (especially if they are competitive) has nothing to do with the amount of weight they can push. As such, on a "pound-for-pound" basis, serious powerlifters are going to be stronger than serious bodybuilders.

Switching from powerlifting to bodybuilding requires a significant shift in one's training approach. Powerlifting regimens emphasize heavy lifting with lower reps, whereas bodybuilding routines usually involve lighter weights (at least relative to what a powerlifter has been working with) and higher rep counts to achieve muscle definition.

These change can lead to alterations in body composition, including likely increases in muscle mass and a decreased total body fat percentage. These affects are largely due to different training stimuli and dietary adjustments.

Both bodybuilding and powerlifting can contribute to fat loss, but the two disciplines take very different approaches. Training for bodybuilding involves a combination of weight training and cardio, with a focus on diet to reduce body fat and carve out a ripped physique.

Meanwhile, powerlifting athletes training may not be directly structured to achieve fat loss, but the high-intensity nature of lifting heavy weights can result in calorie burn and improved body composition.

Bodybuilding vs Powerlifting: Post-game

So…after all of that, I wouldn’t be surprised if I just made things harder for you. While powerlifting programs sound intense and bodybuilding competitions sound…interesting, both training styles are objectively compelling. 

Ultimately, you have to imagine yourself describing to other people what your fitness objectives are…and keeping a straight face while doing so:

“Yeah…I train to lift a heavy barbell a total of nine times across three main lifts” vs “I need to maximize muscle size and definition in the objective eyes of expert judges in order to win”

(Actually, now that I’ve written both of these statements out, they both sound pretty cool!)

…and, if the choice of powerlifting vs bodybuilding is simply too hard to make, just opt for the middle road. Check out our article on powerbuilding: the love child of Powerlifting and bodybuilding!

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Tom, CrossFit Level 1 Trainer, ISSA-CPT, PN1-NC, DPA, CAPM has been CrossFitting for over 10 years. He has participated in a number of team and individual CrossFit competitions across Europe and the United States. He was the 2012 Chick-fil-A Race Series champion (North Georgia Circuit) and has put together a few gnarly garage and basement gyms in his time!

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