One of the incredible things about resistance training is just how many styles exist. There are literally hundreds of ways just to pick up a weight. You’ve likely heard about the different styles of strength training, but what are the major differences between bodybuilding vs. powerlifting vs. weightlifting and how do you know what’s right for you?
“Weightlifting, powerlifting, and bodybuilding offer very unique approaches to strength training,” says Brian Sutton, M.S., C.S.C.S. a strength coach with the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). And all of them can help you develop strength and power in different ways, he explains. One aspect that makes these training formats stand out is that they’re all competitive sports, too.
Read on to learn how the competitions, training styles, and benefits of powerlifting, weightlifting, and bodybuilding differ.
What Is Powerlifting?
The gist: Powerlifting is a competitive sport that focuses on three main barbell lifts: the bench press, squat, and deadlift.
“Powerlifting tests the competitor’s strength in the bench press, squat, and deadlift,” says Sutton. Each lift uses a barbell loaded with weight plates. Participants at powerlifting meets get three attempts at the maximal weight of each lift (aka your one-rep max). The weight of your highest successful attempt at each lift is added together for your total score. Participants are usually judged in different categories, separated by sex, age, and weight class.
Because powerlifting is all about increasing your one-rep max, programming for powerlifting is geared toward developing maximal muscular strength. “Competitors in powerlifting typically train using very heavy weights for only a few repetitions to maximize their strength potential,” explains Sutton.
Someone practicing powerlifting might work out three days a week with each day focused around one of the foundational lifts, says Danny King, certified trainer and national team member development manager of Life Time training.
A workout usually involves key foundational exercises of those lifts or some versions of it, like a box squat (when you perform a barbell squat but squat onto a box), explains King. While the main lifts will be heavy and require the most focus, a workout will also include exercises using lighter weights, designed to work on some weak points. For example, a sample squat-focused workout might include: a hip thrust warm-up, then heavy squats (maybe 4-5 sets of only ~6 reps), deadlifts, split squats, hamstring curls, leg press, and supermans.
Powerlifting workouts typically have longer rest periods than other types of strength training, to allow for full recovery between sets. “If your goal is to lift the most weight, you need two, three, maybe even up to five minutes of rest,” says King. “You’re really focusing on the intensity of the lift and how much you can move.”
The Benefits of Powerlifting
Gaining strength, building muscle mass, and increasing bone density are the biggest benefits of powerlifting (and lifting weights in general), so if you’re looking for #gainz, this is the style for you. King says powerlifting can be motivating for a lot of people because it gets you hyper-focused on outcomes, i.e. the weight you’re lifting, that aren’t just about aesthetics or losing weight.
If you’re a runner, powerlifting can also benefit your training in a big way. “Powerlifting increases your force production,” explains Meg Takacs, founder of Run with Meg, CrossFit Level 2 coach, and trainer at Performix House in New York City. “When your foot lands on the ground, you’re able to have more power and lean muscle behind your stride.”
Getting Started with Powerlifting
If your gym has a bench press and squat rack, plus barbells and weight plates, you’ve got everything you need to start powerlifting. [should you build a base of strength before you really go ham with a PL program?] When working with heavy weights, King advises enlisting a spotter, especially for the bench press and squat. “The spotter’s first job is to help you get your weight into position,” he explains. “Their second is to follow you through the lift and ensure the weight gets back to the rack safely.”
Communication with your spotter is key, says King. “A good spotter will ask questions, like: Do you want a little help if you start training? Or do you not want me to touch the bar until it starts dropping?”
“In powerlifting, one of the best things you can do is get a training partner or coach, someone who can have your back and that can make a big difference,” says King. A trainer can ensure proper form and prevent injury, as well as help you determine when to progressively add load. Look for someone certified by USA Powerlifting’s coach certification program.
USA Powerlifting maintains a database of powerlifting-friendly gyms and Girls Who Powerlift (an apparel brand and community of female-identifying powerlifters) has resources on how to pick a training program and more. Also, get inspired by this woman who started powerlifting and loves her body more than ever and these powerlifting women on Instagram.
What Is Weightlifting?
The gist: While you can technically refer to any weight-based strength training as weight lifting (two words), competitive weightlifting (i.e. Olympic weightlifting, one word) is a sport that focuses on two dynamic barbell lifts: the snatch and the clean and jerk.
Weightlifting—the kind that’s in the Olympics—tests your ability to perform the snatch and the clean and jerk. Similar to powerlifting, these moves are done with a loaded barbell and competitors get three attempts at each lift. The highest weights lifted for each exercise are added together for a total score, and the athlete with the highest score in their category wins. Participants are judged in categories based on their age, weight, and gender.
A sport with just two moves might sound simple, but the form of these moves is incredibly technical. Both lifts require you to lift a loaded barbell explosively overhead. To train for this feat, exercise programming is focused on nailing the movement and the technique, says King, as well as developing explosive power and speed.
Compared with powerlifting, training sessions don’t use as heavy of weights, but they’re higher in frequency, he explains, with sessions taking place five to six days a week.
When you compare Olympic weightlifting vs. powerlifting, “Olympic lifting dips more into aerobic conditioning than powerlifting does,” says Takacs, meaning the intensity is lower, but your heart rate stays up for an extended period. This sort of conditioning is required, as Olympic lifting is done at a faster tempo. A typical workout focused on metabolic conditioning could include 5 rounds of an 800-meter run, 15 kettlebell swings, and 10 deadlifts.
The Benefits of Weightlifting
One of the major benefits of Olympic weightlifting is that it helps develop explosive power. It also tends to recruit more muscles than other types of strength training, making it great for fat loss, says Takacs.
“If you’re doing big fundamental lifts with a barbell, you’re going to create more strain or stress on your body, so after you work out your body immediately goes to repair the tiny muscle fiber tears, called microtears,” she explains. “The more that you can break down your muscles, the harder your body has to work to recover, and when it recovers, it builds new lean muscle.” This lean muscle will help to burn fat.
Getting Started with Weightlifting
“Olympic weightlifting requires weightlifting platforms and bumper plates to perform the movements correctly and safely,” says Sutton. It also requires ample room to drop the barbell, so it may not be available in all gyms. Check USA Weightlifting for a list of gyms in your area where you can get guidance from experienced weightlifters and learn the proper form from a USA Weightlifting-certified (USAW) coach.
What Is Bodybuilding?
The gist: Bodybuilding is the practice of progressively building muscle for aesthetic and strength purposes, and usually focuses on training/fatiguing one muscle group at a time for maximum hypertrophy aka muscle growth.
Unlike weightlifting and powerlifting, which evaluate strength or muscular power, participants in bodybuilding competitions are judged based on their appearance, explains Sutton. Characteristics like muscle size, symmetry, proportion, and stage presence are taken into account, but athletic performance is not usually evaluated. Similar to weightlifting and powerlifting, there are different divisions you can compete in based on gender and weight class. Other subdivisions in bodybuilding include wellness, physique, figure, and bikini competitions, each with their own rules.
The training for bodybuilding competitions is less specific than for weightlifting or powerlifting because moves are not typically performed during the competition. That leaves a lot of room for creativity in training. “Bodybuilders typically perform high-volume resistance training in which moderate-to-heavy weights are combined with moderate repetition schemes (6-12 reps) and lots of sets and exercises for each body part,” says Sutton. This protocol is efficient for developing muscle mass, he explains.
Bodybuilders tend to isolate certain body parts on each training day, so one day may be focused on legs, while another is focused on chest, shoulders, and triceps. Cardio is also a key component of training, as it increases fat loss, vs. powerlifting or weightlifting, where that’s not an important factor.
Since the goal of a bodybuilding competition is largely focused on physique, things such as bodybuilding nutrition and supplementation are also big components of getting ready for a competition, says Takacs.
The Benefits of Bodybuilding
When you compare bodybuilding vs. powering vs. Olympic lifting in terms of body-composition goals, “arguably, bodybuilding is most efficient for developing increases in muscle mass and fat loss,” says Sutton. That’s because bodybuilding requires high volume resistance exercise that creates cellular changes to grow muscle tissue, he says. “When combined with a proper diet, a person can increase their lean muscle mass and reduce body fat at the same time.”
Getting Started with Bodybuilding
One of the great things about bodybuilding is that it can be completed in virtually all gyms, and you don’t necessarily need a trainer or coach to start. If you’re training for a bodybuilding competition, you might use a combination of free weights and strength training machines that use a system of pulleys and weight plates. Exercises could include the bench press, lat pulldowns, biceps curls, triceps extensions, and squats.
What’s the best type of weight training for you?
Powerlifting, bodybuilding, and Olympic weightlifting are all advanced forms of strength training, so if you’re just getting started with exercise or have any physical limitations or chronic disease, you’re better off starting with a more basic strength training approach, says Sutton. Once you’re comfortable with light to moderate weights, you can try more advanced styles. (And know that you’re not limited to these three; Strongman and CrossFit are other options for strength-based sport as well.)
All of these styles will help you develop strength and power and impact your body composition by increasing muscle mass, explains Sutton, but unless you’re looking to compete, combining aspects of all of the formats is probably your best bet.
“An integrated approach to fitness combines multiple forms of exercise into a progressive system,” he explains. That means bringing together “weightlifting, bodybuilding, powerlifting and other forms of exercise, such as stretching, cardiovascular, and core exercises.” Ultimately, whatever style you enjoy the most will be the one you stick with, so it’s worth exploring them all and committing to what works for you.