Impressive feats of strength…mountains of muscle mass…bigger and stronger athletes than in just about any sport?
What isn’t there to like about the long-awaited strongman vs powerlifting showdown?
As awe-inspiring as these disciplines are, strongman and powerlifting are two different sports, each with their own distinctive rules and objectives. While the highest levels of both involve elite strength athletes lifting heavy objects, the differences between the two are rather numerous.
Today, we’re going to do a deep dive into the sport of strongman and the nature of strongman events while also exploring all things “powerlifting”. Most importantly, we’ll look at the main differences between strongman and powerlifting. By the end of this clash of titans, we may even be able to crown an overall winner of “maximal strength” events!
Table of Contents
Strongman vs Powerlifting: Key Differences
As mentioned above, although both sports involve lifting heavy weights, there are key differences between them as well.
The types of lifts involved in each sport are very different from each other. Powerlifting training focuses heavily (ha!) on “The Big 3”: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. On competition day, these are the only three lifts performed.
In contrast, strongman training features a wide variety of movements that involve athletes lifting, pushing, carrying, and pulling heavy stuff. This may sound like typical strength sport training…until you realize they’re carrying atlas stones and performing log presses (try sneaking one of these implements into your local bro gym!)
Another significant difference between powerlifting and strongman involves weight classes. During powerlifting events, athletes are divided into narrow weight classes, ensuring that lifters of the same size/weight compete with each other. These weight classes vary by the powerlifting federation hosting the event, but they are relatively standard and straightforward.
Strongman competitions have significantly fewer weight classes. In many competitions only 3 weight classes (lightweight, middleweight, heavyweight) are represented, while 2-class competitions (lightweight, heavyweight) and no weight class competitions (everyone competes against one another) are also very common.
Strongman Competitions vs Powerlifting Competitions:
Strongman competitions consist of tests of overall strength and (to an extent) endurance. Athletes compete in a series of events that showcase their ability to handle heavy implements and complete challenging tasks. From carrying heavy yokes to flipping tires, strongman requires athletes to possess strength, stamina, and mental fortitude across a wide range of movements.
A key feature of these competitions are the very unique movements (or variations of more “traditional” exercises) that challenge athletes. As odd as the Olympic weightlifting lifts may look in your local globo gym, snatches look downright “normal” compared to the “fridge carry”! Athletes earn points for their placement in each event; the one with the most is the winner.
Compared to strongman events, powerlifting competitions are almost “boring” as they focus solely on the Big 3 mentioned earlier: the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. Athletes have three attempts to lift the heaviest weight possible for each exercise. The best attempt of each are included in each athlete’s total; the lifter with the highest total (in their body weight class) wins.
Strongman vs Powerlifting: Main lifts/Movements
If you’re gonna be a strongman or a powerlifter, you better enjoy deadlifting. Deadlifts are present, in some form or another, in every strongman and powerlifting competition. However, the actual facilitation of the deadlift can vary greatly! While powerlifters will always use a deadlift bar in an effort to hit a 1RM, a strongman might showcase his maximum strength by her ability to perform a “car deadlift” or his ability to rep out deadlifts at 900 pounds.
The squat is another staple in both sports. As expected, in powerlifting, athletes are vying to hit a big single with a barbell. Strongmen also train for max strength…however, it might be applied via the use of a fat bar, from the front rack (front squat), or with odd-object “plates”.
The bench press is primarily associated with powerlifting (and with Monday in every bro gym on the face of the earth) and is rarely tested in strongman. In contrast, the (normally log) clean and press, object flipping, object carrying (in the hands or on the back), object pulling, and pedestal loading (with heavy bags or stones) are unique to strongman events and training.
Strongman vs Powerlifting: Training
Strongman training involves a combination of heavy lifting, event-specific training, and, to a degree cardiovascular conditioning. Strongman athletes train to build overall strength and power, as well as to master the technique required for the various events they will encounter in competition. They often incorporate unconventional training methods, such as carrying heavy objects and implementing functional movements.
Powerlifters, on the other hand, focus on maximizing strength in the three powerlifting lifts: squat, bench press, and deadlift. Their training revolves around progressively increasing weight and perfecting technique in each lift. Of course, there are a number of accessory lifts that powerlifters perform to complement that core lift training, however, none of these will be tested on the day of competition!
It is worth noting that the training of a strongman or powerlifter can differ from that of a bodybuilding (and is more akin to Olympic weightlifting, or CrossFit training). While bodybuilders primarily focus on aesthetics and developing a symmetrical physique, strongmen and powerlifters prioritize functional strength and performance in their respective sports.
Strongman vs Powerlifting: Top Athletes
There are a number of notable strongman competitors who have made names for themselves in the sport. Athletes like Hafthor Bjornsson, nicknamed “The Mountain” from Game of Thrones, and (the recently retired) Brian Shaw, a four-time winner of the World’s Strongest Man competition, could easily claim the title of “Best strongman”.
(My vote actually goes to Magnus Samuelsson. If you lived through ESPN2 in the early/mid-90’s, you understand!)
Powerlifting also boasts a roster of exceptional athletes. Lifters such as Eddie Hall (unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know Eddie!) and Stefi Cohen (yes…the “boxer”!), with her ridiculous bodyweight to deadlift ratio are a couple of the more high-profile athletes. However, pull up any old USAPL competition stream and you’ll see a ridiculous number strong powerlifters, all of whom have, like, 2,000 (or fewer!) Instagram followers. Crazy!
Strong and Powerful?
When we “host” these types of versus battles on this page, we often end with some kind of “why not both?” type of statement. For this matchup, it would go something like “not powerlifting vs strongman; strongman and powerlifting, FTW1!!1”
Truth be told, there is a lot to like about both styles of training and we’re not going to declare a “winner” between the two (sorry everyone who read this far for some arbitrary opinion on the “better” sport!). However, the very different components of each sport, particularly with how their respective competitions are run, would make it difficult to excel in both sports, simultaneously. As such, for most people, it’s gonna be more of a strongman or powerlifting thing.
For those who are more into “traditional” lifting with minimal equipment, powerlifting is the way to go. For big guys who like variety (and can’t bear the thought of CrossFit!), time to become a strongman! And for those who want to mess around and train with atlas stones after finishing their last set of bench, great; you do you!
However, for those who want to get beyond the “enthusiast” or “hobbyist” stage, specializing is likely necessary. Thankfully, after our deep dive into strongman and powerlifting, you should have a better idea of what you’re getting yourself into…even if it involves something like…this:
Decided to “play it safe” and interested in learning more about powerlifting? Check out our article on powerlifting weight classes to get a better idea of the best competition weight for you.