POWERLIFTING VS. BODYBUILDING: TRAINING FOR SIZE VS. STRENGTH

Written by: Chris Barakat, MS

Defining your primary goal is very important when either creating your own training program, or looking for one that will optimize your progress and take all the guesswork out of it.

If you want to develop the most aesthetic physique possible, and your primary goal is to put on muscle, a well-designed hypertrophy training program is going to be key.  If your goal is to lift as much weight as possible and improve your ‘absolute strength’ (1-rep max) your training program needs to be specific. There is a massive difference between how a bodybuilder and powerlifter trains, and it’s for a good reason!

It’s important to note that getting stronger does generally lead to getting bigger, so even if your primary goal is to get more muscular, you’re going to gain strength at the same time. However, your primary goal is going to heavily dictate how you’re training. I’m going to point out some of the main differences between the two training styles and explain WHY further below.

Bodybuilders are going to be focused on developing aesthetic muscle mass as they are judged on symmetry, muscularity and conditioning.  Powerlifters are most focused on getting strong, improving their skills of performing each lift as efficiently as possible. Because of these major differences, bodybuilders should perform a wide variety of exercises that stimulate their musculature from every angle.  Powerlifters generally perform much fewer exercise, focus on the big three lifts (Squat, Bench, Deadlift) and perform some ‘accessory’ work.

Regardless of your goal, those who weight train are going to get bigger and stronger, however, your primary goal should be the main factor in how you’re training.  

Understanding what causes a muscle to grow and what causes you to gain strength is going to improve your training approach.

Mechanisms of Hypertrophy:

  1. Mechanical Tension
  2. Muscle Damage
  3. Metabolic Stress
  4. Cell Swelling

Variations of Hypertrophy:

  1. Myofibiril
  2. Sarcoplasmic
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The primary driver for increasing muscle size is mechanical tension.

When your muscle generates force & concentrically contracts/shortens, mechanical tension is created, and when a muscle is stretched/lengthened & undergoes a loaded eccentric contraction (negative), mechanical tension is present. These contractions (positive and negative) as well as the tension created leads to a multitude of “mechanochemically transduced molecular and cellular responses” in the muscle fibers & satellite cells(1).

One main reason “progressive overload” is key to continuously improving muscularity is because a heavier load has the ability to place greater mechanical tension on a muscle (given that form is kept consistent) & over time lead to greater volume. Although increasing load is important, lifting more weight with poor form will only increase your risk of injury. You can significantly increase mechanical tension without increasing load simply by improving form & execution!

That’s why in the School of Gainz, we stress the important of standardizing your form and execution of each exercise, and then focus on progressive overload.  Logging your workouts from week to week and pushing yourself to use heavier loads over time is going to be key to your continued growth!

Powerlifting and strength training really is more about training a movement and becoming very skilled at specific exercises. This generally is best served by having an external focus, thinking about moving weight from point a to point b.

Bodybuilding is more about training each muscle in various ways to maximize the growth response.  This generally is best served by having an internal focus, thinking about stretching and squeezing the muscle throughout the repetition.  

Powerlifters are also primarily concerned with improving their 1-rep max.  This forces them to constantly work with heavier loads closer to their 1RM.  Doing high rep work isn’t very specific for a powerlifter and won’t benefit them much at all.  Just like any sport, you have to train for your goal. You’re not going to see a kicker in football run routes or practice like a quarterback.  

These different training styles also rely on different energy systems within the body. Powerlifters are going to primary rely on the phosphagen system to fuel their lifts, where bodybuilders will tap into the glycolytic system much more.  This is one reason why rest periods drastically vary between the styles. A bodybuilder may rest 30 seconds to 3 minutes depending on what they’re doing, but a powerlift often rest 3-5 minutes between sets. Moreover, the heavy loads powerlifter work with on a regular basis are extremely demanding on the central nervous system.  Recovery is huge for both goals, but the stress on the nervous system is generally much higher for strength focused athletes(2).

If you’re looking to put on some quality size, training throughout the 5-20 rep range will serve you really well and stimulate a response from each growth mechanism mentioned above.  There really is no reason to lift heavier than your 5 rep max if you’re just focused on hypertrophy. Training with loads close to your absolute max/1RM is increasing your chance of injury and also going to place a lot of stress on your nervous system to recover from.  

hypertrophy-4

Although you can and will make various types of gains in various rep ranges, specific ranges/intensities are most efficient for specific adaptations.

If you’re looking for a training program that’s backed by science to build muscle, School of Gainz offers evidenced based plans for all training levels!

References:

  1. Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.
  1. Helms, E. R., Fitschen, P. J., Aragon, A. A., Cronin, J., & Schoenfeld, B. J. (2015). Recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: resistance and cardiovascular training.
  1. Yue, G., & Cole, K. J. (1992). Strength increases from the motor program: comparison of training with maximal voluntary and imagined muscle contractions. Journal of neurophysiology, 67(5), 1114-1123.

4. Ranganathan, V. K., Siemionow, V., Liu, J. Z., Sahgal, V., & Yue, G. H. (2004). From mental power to muscle power—gaining strength by using the mind. Neuropsychologia, 42(7), 944-956.

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