Sometimes, it can be a bit overwhelming to keep track of all of the heavy lifting disciplines out there.
With the emergence of CrossFit and Strongman over the last decade, as well as non-barbell endeavors like rucking and kettlebell-focused workouts, there is no shortage of creative ways for you to test your physical limits by moving some heavy loads around.
Amidst all of the newer entries, some of the O.G.s of the barbell world stand out, offering history, prestige, and a lineage of the strongest lifters in history that no others can rival.
These disciplines are powerlifting and weightlifting.
Today, we’re going to look at the two in a classic “versus battle” format. Powerlifting vs weightlifting is an oft-requested matchup. With so much going for both of these disciplines, it’s going to be really hard to crown a champion.
…but we’re gonna try!
Table of Contents
Powerlifting vs Weightlifting – The Contending Lifts
If you’ve set foot in any type of gym (with the exception of, maybe, a Planet Fitness) in your life, you’ve likely been exposed to the three competition power lifts.
(That is, unless you stick to the machines, cardio, and group class areas. If this is the case, these lifts may seem very foreign to you!)
The Bench Press
These lifts, while having a large degree of overlap with one another in regards to what they work, work three major parts of the body.
- The Bench Press works the upper body
- The Squat works the lower body
- The Deadlift works a bit of both, to include much of the back
While there are definite advantages to performing these lifts with a the highest degree of speed allowed (at least when in a competitive environment where putting up successful lifts with the heaviest weights possible is the objective), they by no means have to be performed quickly.
Just check out the war Tamara Walcott had trying to lock this deadlift out.
In contrast the two competition lifts in weightlifting, the Snatch and the Clean and Jerk, are rarely, if ever witnessed in any type of fitness facility outside of a dedicated weightlifting gym or a CrossFit box. The sheer speed of these lifts, accompanied by the (beautiful) noise of fast feet hitting the ground and heavy weights smashing to the floor is just too much for most gyms to handle!
Another major difference between the competition powerlifting and weightlifting lifts is that the snatch and clean and jerk are literally impossible to perform at a slower-than-really fast pace.
Due to the anatomical nature of the lifts themselves, a slow clean or snatch will simply end up on the floor as a failed lift (or worse, morph into some type of odd curl or pressing movement).
This has been just a introduction to the contending lifts in the powerlifting vs weightlifting showdown. Next, we’ll get into the major characteristics of the lifts.
Powerlifting vs Weightlifting – Speed of Lifts
As mentioned above, there is an advantage to performing all of the competition lifts in the powerlifting vs weightlifting debate as quickly as possible. With the exception of the required pause when the bar touches the chest in the bench press, in competition, a faster lift is almost universally preferable.
…but some lifts are simply faster than others.
Part of the reason for this? The competition powerlifts are executed in a manner that allows lifters to really pile on the plates. Although not too common, at the highest levels (and in the heaviest weight classes) powerlifters can amass a full ton of combined weight in their lifts.
In contrast, if you see anybody, even a yuge guy, load up 4-plus plates a side for a snatch, you better pay attention. That ~500-pound snatch may only be half as much weight as the half-ton squat, but that barbell moved a heck of a lot faster.
…and that’s the rub: the lighter relative weights of the snatch and clean and jerk exercises both allow for and require the bar to move really fast.
The snatch isn’t called “the world’s fastest lift” for no reason!
Powerlifting vs Weightlifting – “Power” of Lifts?
One of the biggest points of “contention” (although, to be honest, I don’t think anybody is losing sleep over this) in the powerlifting vs weightlifting skirmish is the very misleading names associated with the two disciplines.
Let’s start with “weightlifting”.
Eavesdrop on any number of normie conversations about exercise and gym-going habits. I guarantee you that at some point, you’ll hear the phrase “I like to do a little weightlifting or something else to that effect”.
While what they’re saying is certainly correct (I’m sure that these people engage in the lifting of weights during their training sessions), I would imagine that few, if any, are engaging in “weightlifting” in a formal sense.
Although this is a relatively minor annoyance, there is always a degree of clarification necessary when discussing the sport of weightlifting.
(In all honesty, though, you can generally discern the answer simply looking at someone, but I digress)
The much larger elephant in the corner is what the “power” in powerlifting actually entails…especially in relation to weightlifting.
The definition of power is “the time rate of doing work or delivering energy” The equation looks something like this:
In the equation P = overall power, W = the total work completed and t = the time it takes to complete the work. Long story short, if you want to be “powerful”, you want to move a heavy load, really quickly.
Now, think back to that seconds-long deadlift that we looked at earlier. Walcott is no doubt strong (and pretty powerful!), but took roughly 4 seconds to move 641 pounds somewhere between 2 and 3 feet.
So…is it just me or should, at the very least, the names of these two disciplines be reversed?
Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of “power” in powerlifting…but the weightlifting movements are simply more powerful.
(Note: the clean is affectionately referred to as “the world’s most powerful lift. Keep that in mind!)
Powerlifting vs Weightlifting – Pros and Cons
Weightlifting and powerlifting are both excellent sports and are worthy disciplines to anyone interested in getting stronger. However, as much overlap exists in the sports, there are also distinctive advantages and disadvantages (at least, perceived) to each sport.
Pros of Powerlifting
Want to get lifting, get strong, and continue to get strong for an extended period of time? Welcome to powerlifting!
Easy to start
Although not formally a powerlifting program, the Starting Strength program’s cornerstone movements of the bench press, squat, deadlift, and strict press are right in the powerlifting wheelhouse. Over the last ~30 years, Mark Rippetoe and his crew have popularized the progressive overload method to beginning strength training.
In a basic, progressive overload system, lifters perform their first workouts by learning the fundamentals of each of the core powerlifting movements. During their second workouts, a modest amount of additional weight is added to each movement with still more weight being added to the next workout. This system not only accommodates new lifters by allowing them to start with very light weights while also allowing them to experience constant and rapid progress.
It should be noted that the Starting Strength model isn’t the only program to follow (you can also look into StrongLifts and 5/3/1). A new lifter who performs the core powerlifting movements with a degree of regularity will grow adept at the lifts and grow stronger by following any number of programs.
Overall, the relatively simple movements that comprise powerlifting (at least, relative to the highly technical movements in weightlifting) make it easy for newbs to get started.
Can make quick gains
As alluded to above, any type of progressive overload program allows for new lifters to make rapid and continuous progress for a significant period of time. As the body continues to be placed under increasing, yet controlled stress, it continues to adapt in order to accommodate these stressors.
As multi-joint exercises working large and diverse muscle groups, the powerlifts allow for more muscles to be recruited to facilitate the lifts, strengthening all of them in the process. With so many muscles “chipping in” on these lifts, it takes much longer for gains to “plateau” compared to gains made in single-joint exercises (Ex. leg curls) where much fewer muscles are recruited and gains level out much more quickly.
Relative to the Olympic lifts, gains are much more “even” in powerlifting. Due to the technical nature of the weightlifting movements, improvements in the lifts might come due to strength gains, but lifters often hit plateaus due to technical limitations. Powerlifters don’t face these issues to the same degree.
Not overly technical
There are certainly a number of technical elements associated with each of the core powerlifting movements that can help the lifter to move more efficiently and, as a result, lift more weight. However, as these movements largely mimic real-world, fundamental movements, our bodies are largely conditioned to squatting, pressing things over our heads, and picking them off the ground.
Can do it anywhere
With a couple of squat stands, a bench, a barbell, a few plates, and ~50 square feet of space, you can start your own poerfliting gym! Of course, powerlifting is best performed with a dedicated “power” bar (make sure it has that center knurl!), proper plates (bumper plates if you don’t want to detroy your floor, skinny steel plates if you’re planning to get really strong), and an actual power rack. However, even an excellent powerlifting set-up requires a relatively small investment.
Additionally, as bad as most hotel gyms are, if you have access to a barbell, a bench and a friend, you can usually perform deadlifts, moderate-weight bench press reps, and light squat reps while you’re on the road.
(Alternatively, you can always try one of the top Hotel CrossFit workouts of all time!)
Cons of Powerlifting
It’s hard to knock the impressive strength that powerlifting can build. To be honest, any of the “cons” of powerlifting are only relative to areas where weightlifting simply does things better.
Not Overly Technical
I know we listed this as a “pro” of powerlifting, however, it can also be viewed as a negative in some contexts. For people who are interested in more complex movements that combine advanced technique with overall strength, powerlifting may not be the best sport.
Not as much crossover (cardio improvement)
Studies show that there is much more improvement in cardiovascular capacities of those who participate in heavy strength-training programs than there are comparable gains in strength capacities for those participating in heavy cardio-focused fitness programs.
In layman’s terms, powerlifters and weightlifters gain some “free” cardio benefits from their regimens. Runners don’t get stronger from theirs.
Powerlifters do not derive as much of this benefits as weightlifters due, though.
Additionally, while weightlifters will perform a plethora of squats as well as presses and and deadlifts, powerlifters will rarely, if ever, perform “full” versions of the weightlifting movements. As such, general crossover is more limited.
Pros of Weightlifting
Weightlifting offers the opportunity to perform fitness feats that are very different than what one might experience in other disciplines. Let’s look at a few of them here.
As niche as the movements in weightlifting may appear to your typical globo gym-goer, in recent times, the snatch and clean and jerk have grown in popularity throughout the fitness world.
If you’re a weightlifter, you’re very well positioned to do well in CrossFit. You’ve probably also performed thousands of weighted squats and your cardiovascular capabilities will have grown more than they would have from following any other type of strength program.
Finally, if one has the patience and perseverance to master the technical elements of the Olympic lifts, just about any other type of fitness regimen or exercise movement will seem easy by comparison.
Step into any globo gym and coming across a,dedicated powerlifter is rare, indeed. However, if one dares to venture into the free weight area (no, the 15 flat bench press station area doesn’t count), they’re likely to come across at least a few yuge dudes fighting over the single squat rack.
Weightlifters, though…I’m confident there is some kind of face control that ensures that this exclusive group never sets foot inside!
Because of these (in some cases, literal) “barriers to entry”, weightlifters comprise a much more niche and exclusive group than those practicing most other fitness disciplines.
A snatch involves a lot more considerations than simply rapidly picking a barbell off from the ground and hoisting it over the head. If this were the case, nobody would have a problem moving their carry-on baggage from the floor of the airplane to the overhead compartments!
The technical aspects of weightlifting require lifters to be much more “aware” of what their body is doing throughout the entirety of each movement. They also require an intense and constant connection between the brain and the body in order to achieve technical perfection. As such, weightlifting provides a lifetime of challenge and enjoyment in the pursuit of excellence.
Highest level of competition
You ever seen a powerlifting competition on TV? Sure, maybe you’ve seen snippets online of a close-up of 6 terrified-looking guys spotting a 900-pound squat, but the competition and crowd themselves…probably not so much.
In contrast…have you ever heard of the Olympics? Heck, there is probably a really good chance that you’ve watched weightlifting at the Olympics at some point.
Weightlifting is showcased on the world’s biggest athletic stage. Nothing else needs to be said.
Cons of Weightlifting
Even the most niche pursuits have their downsides. Let’s look at some of the possible “cons” of weightlifting.
This word…”technical”…it just keeps coming up in this conversation, doesn’t it? Although not a polarizing term persay, there are many who find the highly technical aspects of weightlifting to be significant barriers to entry.
To even an experienced fitness person, the movements are uncomfortable (at least relative to other lifts), can be difficult to execute, and can even feel a little scary. When there are perfectly admirable lifts that require laying down and pushing a barbell or even simply lifting a bar off the ground, it can be hard to make the weightlifting argument.
Hard to find places to train
We mentioned how weightlifters can experience difficulty in finding places to train. Try even a moderately-heavy snatch at a globo gym and listen to the “lunk alarm” sing in all its hellicous glory.
Serious weightlifters are pretty much relegated to garage or basement gyms (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing!), the rare dedicated weightlifting gym, or CrossFit boxes.
Or on rare occasions, when the stars are just right, they can just MOG everybody!
Powerlifting vs Weightlifting – Everybody Wins!
Like many of the versus battles we’ve been party to on this site, the powerlifting vs weightlifting showdown is one that doesn’t really have a “winner” or “loser”. In either case, you’re going to be working hard, getting stronger, and ultimately able to shift a lot of weight.
Whichever route you decide to go, make sure that you have the proper equipment and other necessary items that will help to set you up for success. Whether these include beginner lifting programs such as Starting Strength or The Beginner Olympic Weightlifting Program, appropriate barbells for deadlifting and bench pressing, or simply some ever-so-comfy knee sleeves, spending a little goes a long way to achieving lifting success.
If you’ve decided to go down the powerlifting rabbit hold, now check out our article on the different powerlifting competition weight classes. Weightlifting going to be your sport of choice? Introduce yourself to the Olympic lifts now.