Bodybuilding vs Powerlifting: What's the Difference?

March 22, 2024

A Beginner's Guide to Bodybuilding vs Powerlifting

When it comes to strength sports, bodybuilding and powerlifting are often mentioned in the same breath. Both disciplines require dedication, discipline, and a deep understanding of one’s body. However, the similarities largely end there. This comprehensive guide delves into the core of bodybuilding and powerlifting, comparing and contrasting the two to help you understand which might suit your fitness goals.

Bodybuilding vs Powerlifting

What is Bodybuilding?

Bodybuilding is a sport focused on muscle hypertrophy, aesthetics, and symmetry. Athletes, known as bodybuilders, aim to develop and sculpt their muscles through specific training regimens and diets to achieve a visually appealing physique. The success in bodybuilding competitions is judged based on the appearance of muscles, overall physique balance, and stage presentation rather than just muscle size or strength.

Benefits of Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding extends beyond the pursuit of an aesthetically pleasing physique, encompassing a range of benefits that enhance both physical and mental well-being:

  • Improved Body Composition: Bodybuilding effectively increases muscle mass while decreasing body fat, leading to an improved body composition that benefits overall health.
  • Enhanced Muscular Definition and Symmetry: The focused training in bodybuilding enhances muscular definition and symmetry, contributing to not only a more appealing appearance but also functional balance and posture.
  • Increased Metabolic Rate: Muscle tissue burns more calories than fat, even at rest. By increasing muscle mass, bodybuilding can help elevate the body's metabolic rate, making it easier to maintain a healthy weight.
  • Discipline and Patience: Bodybuilding requires a high degree of discipline and patience, as achieving desired results takes time. This can cultivate qualities of perseverance and resilience that extend into other areas of life.
  • Mental Health Benefits: Engaging in regular bodybuilding training can reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress through the release of endorphins and the achievement of personal goals.

Resistance Training

Bodybuilding training is a disciplined and strategic approach focused on maximizing muscle hypertrophy (growth) and symmetry. It involves a comprehensive regimen that combines resistance training, nutrition, recovery, and sometimes supplementation to achieve desired physical aesthetics. Here's an overview of key aspects involved in bodybuilding training:

  • Progressive Overload: Central to bodybuilding, this strategy involves incrementally increasing the resistance or weight in exercises over time. This continuous challenge stimulates muscle fibers, leading to hypertrophy and strength enhancements. Implementing progressive overload can be achieved through more weight, increasing repetitions, or enhancing the intensity of workouts.
  • Training Split: A systematic division of workouts to target different muscle groups on different days—such as dedicating specific days to chest, back, legs, arms, and shoulders. This approach allows each muscle group to be intensely worked on its designated day, ensuring focused training sessions while providing ample time for recovery and growth.
  • Volume and Intensity: The delicate balance between the number of sets, repetitions, and the weight used during workouts is crucial. High volume training with moderate intensity is often employed for muscle growth, whereas lower volume with higher intensity can be used for strength gains. The key is to adjust these variables to avoid overtraining and stimulate optimal muscle growth.
  • Exercise Selection: A mix of compound exercises (engaging multiple muscle groups) and isolation exercises (targeting a single muscle group) is essential. Compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, and bench presses build overall strength and mass, while isolation exercises like bicep curls and calf raises are perfect for honing in on specific muscle aesthetics.
  • Technique and Form: Emphasizing correct form is paramount to maximize the effectiveness of each exercise and minimize the risk of injury. Proper technique ensures that the intended muscle groups are engaged and worked efficiently, leading to better muscle growth and strength development.


  • Protein Intake: Protein is the building block of muscle; thus, a high-protein diet is vital for muscle repair and growth. Bodybuilders often require between 1.2 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, obtained from foods like chicken, fish, eggs, and legumes, or supplemented by protein powders.
  • Caloric Surplus for Bulking: In the bulking phase, the goal is to gain muscle mass, which requires consuming more calories than the body burns. Bodybuilders focus on clean, nutrient-dense foods to supply this caloric surplus, ensuring that the body has the necessary energy and nutrients for muscle growth.
  • Caloric Deficit for Cutting: The cutting phase aims to reduce body fat to accentuate muscular definition while preserving muscle mass. This involves creating a caloric deficit, where fewer calories are consumed than expended, carefully adjusting to maintain muscle tissue while shedding fat.
  • Micronutrients and Hydration: Beyond macronutrients, vitamins and minerals are crucial for muscle function, recovery, and overall health. Adequate hydration is also essential, as water plays a key role in nutrient transport and muscle hydration.


  • Rest and Sleep: Muscle growth occurs outside the gym. Adequate rest between workouts for specific muscle groups, along with 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night, is crucial for recovery, growth, and overall well-being.
  • Active Recovery: Incorporating light activities, stretching, and mobility exercises on non-training days can enhance recovery, improve flexibility, and reduce muscle soreness. These practices promote blood flow to the muscles, aiding in the repair and growth process.

This comprehensive approach, balancing intense training, precise nutrition, and meticulous recovery strategies, forms the foundation of successful bodybuilding training, leading to maximized muscle growth and aesthetic development.

Bodybuilding Competitions

Bodybuilding competitions are events where athletes showcase their physiques, judged on muscle size, symmetry, and definition, among other aesthetic criteria. These competitions are the culmination of months or even years of dedicated training, dieting, and preparation. Participants are categorized by gender, weight classes, or bodybuilding divisions, such as bikini, physique, classic physique, and open bodybuilding, each with its own set of standards and judging criteria. Here’s an overview of what bodybuilding competitions entail, from the preparation phase to the day of the competition and the judging process.

Preparation Phase

Preparation for a bodybuilding competition, often referred to as "contest prep," typically begins 12 to 20 weeks before the competition date. This phase includes rigorous training, strict dieting to reduce body fat while preserving muscle mass, and practicing posing routines.

  • Training: Athletes follow a structured training program designed to enhance muscle size and definition. As the competition approaches, the focus may shift towards maintaining muscle mass and increasing muscle definition.
  • Diet: A carefully calibrated diet is essential for achieving low body fat levels while minimizing muscle loss. Competitors often follow a high-protein, moderate-carb, and low-fat diet, with adjustments as needed based on progress.
  • Posing Practice: Posing is a critical component of competition, as it showcases the athlete's physique in the best possible light. Competitors practice their posing routines extensively, aiming to highlight their strengths and downplay any weaknesses.

Competition Day

On the day of the competition, athletes go through several stages, including check-ins, prejudging, and the finals.

  • Check-ins and Meetings: Competitors check in, confirming their registration and competition category. There may also be a competitors’ meeting to go over the rules and schedule.
  • Prejudging: During prejudging, competitors perform mandatory poses in their respective categories. Judges evaluate muscle size, symmetry, conditioning, and overall presentation. This phase is crucial, as it significantly influences final placements.
  • Finals: The finals may include individual posing routines, especially in the higher categories, and a final comparison round. Winners in each category are announced, and overall winners may be determined in some competitions.

Judging Criteria

Judges look for several key elements when evaluating competitors:

  • Muscularity: The size and development of muscles.
  • Symmetry: Balance and proportion of various body parts.
  • Conditioning: Muscle definition, separation, and overall muscle tone, including the visibility of veins and striations.
  • Stage Presence: Includes posing skill, confidence, and how well the competitor presents themselves on stage.

Bodybuilding Competition Categories

Bodybuilding competitions often include multiple categories, each with its own standards:

  • Bikini: Focuses on a balanced and fit body, with less emphasis on muscle size and more on overall aesthetics.
  • Physique: A middle ground between bikini and bodybuilding, emphasizing muscle tone and symmetry.
  • Classic Physique: Aims for a more "classic" bodybuilding look, with strict height and weight restrictions.
  • Open Bodybuilding: The traditional bodybuilding category, focusing on maximal muscle size and definition.

Bodybuilding competitions are the pinnacle of physical aesthetics in the fitness world, where athletes display the results of their hard work, dedication, and strategic preparation. Competing requires not only physical strength and endurance but also mental resilience, as athletes diet down to low body fat levels and present themselves confidently on stage. Whether amateur or professional, bodybuilding competitions offer a platform for athletes to challenge themselves, achieve personal goals, and gain recognition for their achievements in the sport.

What is Powerlifting?

Powerlifting training is a focused discipline within strength sports, emphasizing maximal strength in three primary lifts: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Unlike bodybuilding, which aims for aesthetic muscle development, powerlifting is all about increasing the amount of weight one can lift in these three exercises. The training involves a blend of technique refinement, strength-building strategies, and proper recovery to optimize performance. Here's a deeper look into the components of powerlifting training.

Benefits of Powerlifting

Powerlifting, with its emphasis on maximal strength in the squat, bench press, and deadlift, offers a unique set of benefits that contribute to physical prowess and mental fortitude:

  • Increased Strength: Naturally, the primary benefit of powerlifting is a significant increase in overall strength, which can improve daily functional activities and enhance performance in other sports.
  • Bone Density Improvement: The high-intensity, weight-bearing nature of powerlifting exercises can stimulate bone growth and increase bone density, reducing the risk of osteoporosis.
  • Joint Health: Properly conducted powerlifting training strengthens the muscles around the joints, providing better support and reducing the risk of injuries in everyday life.
  • Mental Toughness: Powerlifting challenges athletes to overcome barriers and push through limits, fostering a strong mental attitude and resilience that can be beneficial in all aspects of life.
  • Community and Support: Powerlifting often involves training in a community or team environment, offering a support system that encourages progress and celebrates achievements.

Technique Mastery

  • Form and Efficiency: Perfecting the technique for the squat, bench press, and deadlift is crucial. Efficient form not only maximizes the weight lifted but also minimizes the risk of injury.
  • Lift-Specific Training: Powerlifters often dedicate entire training sessions to practicing one of the three lifts, allowing for focused technique work and volume.
  • Accessory Exercises: In addition to the main lifts, powerlifters incorporate accessory exercises that target weaknesses and improve overall strength. These exercises are selected based on their ability to support improvements in the main lifts.

Strength Building

  • Periodization: This involves structuring training into phases, focusing on different aspects such as hypertrophy (muscle building), strength, and peaking for a competition. Periodization helps in systematically increasing strength over time while managing fatigue.
  • Progressive Overload: Similar to bodybuilding, powerlifting also relies on progressively increasing the load or intensity of the workouts to continually challenge the muscles and central nervous system, fostering strength gains.
  • Volume and Intensity Control: Powerlifting training balances high-intensity days (lifting heavier weights for fewer reps) with volume days (lifting lighter weights for more reps) to build strength without overtraining.


  • Adequate Rest: Powerlifters need significant recovery time between sessions targeting the same muscle groups or lifts, due to the high intensity of the workouts.
  • Nutrition: A diet that supports recovery and strength gains is crucial, with a focus on sufficient protein intake, carbohydrates for energy, and fats for hormonal health.
  • Sleep and Active Recovery: Quality sleep and active recovery techniques, such as light cardio, stretching, and mobility work, are essential for repairing and strengthening the body.

Powerlifting Competitions

Powerlifting competitions are events where athletes test their maximal strength across three lifts: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Competitions are structured to determine the strongest lifters in various weight classes and often include divisions based on age, experience, and equipment used (such as raw, which permits minimal equipment, or equipped, which allows supportive gear). Here's a detailed look into the structure, rules, and strategies involved in powerlifting competitions:

Competition Structure

  • Weight Classes: Athletes compete in specific weight classes to ensure fairness. Competitors must weigh in either the day before or the morning of the competition to be placed in the correct category.
  • Divisions: Beyond weight classes, competitions may be divided by age (juniors, open, masters), gender, and lifting style (raw vs. equipped). Raw competitions limit lifters to minimal equipment, typically a belt, knee sleeves, and wrist wraps, whereas equipped lifting allows for supportive suits and bench shirts designed to aid in lifting heavier weights.
  • Attempts: Competitors get three attempts at each lift, starting with the squat, followed by the bench press, and ending with the deadlift. The best successful attempt for each lift is added together for a total score.

Rules and Judging

  • Squat: The lifter must squat down until the hip joint is lower than the top of the knee and stand back up with the weight. A "squat" command starts the attempt, and a "rack" command signals when the lifter can return the bar to the rack.
  • Bench Press: The lifter must lower the bar to their chest and press it back up to full arm extension without bouncing the bar off the chest. The attempt begins with a "start" command and ends with a "rack" command, with a "press" command in between once the bar is motionless on the chest.
  • Deadlift: The lifter pulls the bar from the ground to a standing position, with shoulders back and hips and knees fully extended. The attempt is initiated by the lifter and completed upon the "down" command from the judge, indicating the bar can be returned to the floor.

Lifts are judged by a panel, typically three judges, who ensure that each lift complies with the competition's standards. A lift is successful if a majority of the judges (at least two out of three) give a white light; a red light indicates a failed attempt.

Competition Strategies

  • Attempt Selection: Choosing the right weights for the three attempts is crucial. The first attempt should be a weight the lifter can confidently perform, even on a bad day. The second attempt can approach the lifter's personal best, and the third attempt can be a push for a new personal record, depending on how the previous lifts went.
  • Warm-Up: Proper warm-up is key to prime the muscles for maximal effort. Lifters typically begin warming up with light weights and gradually increase to heavier loads, timing their warm-ups to peak just before their first attempt.
  • Nutrition and Hydration: Maintaining energy levels and hydration throughout the competition day is important. Lifters often bring snacks and fluids to keep fueled between lifts.

Preparation & Recovery

Competing in powerlifting requires not just physical strength but also mental toughness. Lifters need to stay focused, manage competition nerves, and execute their lifts with precision under pressure.

After a competition, lifters often take a short period to recover, both mentally and physically, before beginning their training for the next event. Reviewing performance, setting new goals, and adjusting training and nutrition plans are key steps in continuous improvement.

Powerlifting competitions offer a unique challenge, testing one's limit in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Success in these events requires meticulous preparation, strategic planning, and the ability to perform under pressure. Whether for personal achievement, setting records, or competing at the national or international level, powerlifting provides a platform for athletes to showcase their strength and dedication to the sport.

Powerlifting training is a rigorous and precise discipline focused on maximizing strength in three key lifts. It requires a strategic approach to training, nutrition, and recovery, along with a strong mental game. While the primary goal is to lift the heaviest weights possible in competition, powerlifting also offers substantial benefits in terms of physical strength, mental resilience, and community. As with any training program, individual needs and responses can vary greatly, making it beneficial for those interested in pursuing powerlifting to seek guidance from experienced coaches or trainers to develop a tailored training program.

Bodybuilding vs. Powerlifting: A Detailed Breakdown


  • Bodybuilding: Aims to sculpt the body into an aesthetically pleasing form, emphasizing symmetry, muscle definition, and overall physical appearance. The goal is to create a visually stunning physique that exemplifies the ideal standards of body composition and aesthetics.
  • Powerlifting: Focuses on achieving the highest levels of strength in three core lifts: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. The primary objective is to maximize the amount of weight lifted in these exercises, showcasing brute strength and power.

Training Approach

  • Bodybuilding: Training involves a comprehensive range of exercises designed to target all muscle groups with an emphasis on muscle hypertrophy (growth) and definition. Workouts are varied and include a mix of compound and isolation movements, high volume sets, and a focus on achieving muscle fatigue and pump. The aim is to enhance the size, shape, and definition of muscles, leading to a sculpted and balanced physique.
  • Powerlifting: Training is centered around the three main lifts, with exercises chosen to directly improve performance in these areas. This includes practicing the lifts themselves as well as accessory exercises that strengthen the muscles involved in each lift. Training regimens focus on low repetitions with high weight, prioritizing strength gains and technical proficiency in executing each lift.

Competition Criteria

  • Bodybuilding: Competitors are judged on their physique's appearance, with criteria including muscle size, definition, symmetry, and overall aesthetic appeal. Judges look for a well-balanced, visually appealing body that represents the pinnacle of bodybuilding.
  • Powerlifting: Competitions are based purely on the total weight lifted across the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Athletes are divided into weight classes, and the one who lifts the highest total weight across the three lifts within their class is the winner. The focus is on raw strength and the ability to lift heavy weights.

Diet and Nutrition

  • Bodybuilding: Requires meticulous attention to diet, with a focus on maintaining a precise balance of macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates, and fats) to support muscle growth and fat loss. Diet plans are often highly specific and tailored to individual needs, with considerations for calorie intake, meal timing, and supplementation to achieve the desired body composition and aesthetic look.
  • Powerlifting: While also requiring attention to diet, the focus may be more on consuming sufficient calories and nutrients to support strength gains and recovery. Powerlifters may prioritize higher protein intake and sufficient carbohydrates for energy but may not be as strict with calorie control or macronutrient ratios as bodybuilders, unless managing weight for a specific weight class.

Which is Right for You?

Choosing between bodybuilding and powerlifting depends on your personal fitness objectives and what you find most rewarding. If your passion lies in crafting a visually stunning physique and you enjoy the intricacies of diet and varied training, bodybuilding could be your ideal path. Conversely, if you're driven by the challenge of lifting heavier weights and are fascinated by raw strength and power, powerlifting offers a compelling journey. Both disciplines require dedication, discipline, and a strategic approach to training and nutrition, each offering its own unique set of challenges and rewards.

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Written by

Ken Lu

Ken has a Bachelor's Degree of Psychology from the University of British Columbia, specializing in Sport Psychology. As well as being a Certified Personal Trainer, Ken is also a Movement & Mobility Specialist, and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He has trained for and won the 2018 NPAA BC Men's Physique Championship.