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Beginners in the gym might think that powerlifting and bodybuilding are interchangeable. After all, they both involve people who look very strong and who are probably lifting heavy weights. However, when it comes to powerlifting vs bodybuilding, there are fundamental differences.
Bodybuilding is literally about building an aesthetically pleasing body (check our article on aesthetic workout tips here). When athletes decide to enter a bodybuilding competition, their job is to build and shape each muscle group into its full potential. However, bodybuilding is not just about size. Symmetry matters as well. A competitor with a huge upper body and tiny legs will fail miserably in a bodybuilding contest. While it may help bodybuilders to be strong, their primary interest is in looks.
Powerlifting is a sport with a primary goal to demonstrate strength. In a powerlifting competition, each lifter gets three chances at a bench press, squat, and deadlift, all at weights selected by the competitor. At the end of the competition, the lifter with the biggest “total”—reached by adding their best bench press, squat, and deadlift—wins (in their weight class). None of this is meant to suggest that powerlifters do not care about how their bodies look, but it’s not the focus.
One need not actually compete in order to practice powerlifting or bodybuilding. It comes down to your goals. If you are interested in having a magazine-ready body and how you look is your emphasis, then you should train like a bodybuilder. If you want to be brutally strong in the three lifts that comprise powerlifting, then you should train like a powerlifter.
Bodybuilders typically perform sets between 6-12 reps, which is generally considered ideal for hypertrophy (muscle building). Powerlifters spend much more time in lower rep ranges, often going as low as 1-3 repetitions per set (learn more about high reps vs low reps here). This is because bodybuilders must do whatever it takes to stimulate a muscle enough to make it grow. This can be done with lighter weights and higher reps. Powerlifters must spend time under much heavier weights, which cannot be lifted for nearly as many reps. However, when powerlifters perform assistance work—secondary lifts that contribute to increased performance of the main lifts—they may choose higher rep ranges.
Bodybuilders must be meticulous about their nutritional intake. Most serious bodybuilders track every gram of protein, carbohydrates, and fats, and can account for every calorie they put in their bodies. The pursuit of ideal aesthetics require this level of attention, particularly when counting down to a contest.
Powerlifters must eat enough to fuel their workouts, but because aesthetics are not their focus, they do not have to be as meticulous. When a powerlifter sits down to eat, his or her job is to make sure that he or she will have enough energy to sustain the heavy workouts to come. Most powerlifters will happily sacrifice the sight of their abs in order to eat enough to put another five pounds on their lifts.
The debate about powerlifting vs bodybuilding has been around for a long time, and will likely continue. Choosing the style that is right—or learning how to blend the two–for you depends on your goals, whether you want to compete, and your physical limitations. There are fundamental differences between the two disciplines, but there is also more overlap than the most devoted disciples of each are often willing to admit.