Have you ever wondered what the difference between powerlifting and bodybuilding is? The two are often confused or used interchangeably in conversation, but they are very different sports with specific outcomes.

In this blog, we will break down some of the fundamental differences in the approach to training and programming between powerlifting and bodybuilding.


Powerlifting is all about moving the maximum amount of weight which in turn requires recruiting as much muscle as possible for each lift. There is no specific aesthetic physique goal in mind and only overall muscle gain is important. The form for most powerlifting movements is intended to maximize power generation and minimize travel.

For example, on a bench press keep the feet grounded with a tight arch in the back while the glutes and shoulders are pushed into the bench setting your base. By taking a wider grip with your chest high and elbows in a prime position, it shortens the travel of the bar allowing you to gain mechanical advantage and maximize the amount of weight lifted. Similar techniques for squatting would be the low-bar squat, or sumo-stance for deadlifts which also increase mechanical advantage and force production.

As for training strategies, powerlifting is programmed for closed-kinetic chain lifts and compound movements. For competitive powerlifting athletes, they will typically work in blocks based on 1-5 rep max ranges. Please click here for a great NASM resource for estimating your 1 rep max (1RM) and the number of reps. 

Generally, these blocks are run for 3-5 weeks with personal records (PRs) re-assessed at the end of each week to set the load and reps for subsequent weeks. To increase strength over time the resistance is progressively overloaded 2.5-10 lbs every couple of weeks depending on progress. Overall, the training intensity is high, but volumes are much lower than seen in bodybuilding.

For example, 3 days per week of powerlifting exercises followed by some ancillary supportive exercises is very common. This is due to the high amount of exercise-induced muscle damage created by working in the 80-100% 1RM range, and the amount of time necessary for recovery.


Bodybuilding on the other hand is very high-volume based with a goal of aesthetic physique, body composition, and more specifically skeletal muscle development. Rather than just having a bunch of weight around, the goal of bodybuilding is far more specific.

A key difference is isolating specific muscle groups to develop them within proportion to one another and to meet division-specific criteria. There is also an emphasis on overall conditioning and body composition, symmetry, balance, muscle separation, and more. Because of these factors, bodybuilding will typically deal with more moderate loads and work in NASM OPT Phase 3 to maximize hypertrophy and muscular development. There are more single-joint and open-kinetic chain movements to isolate specific muscle groups.

Weekly/daily training volumes are much higher ranging from 4-7 days per week with 18-30 working sets. Generally speaking (and there are exceptions) a good rule of thumb is around 20 sets per muscle group per week for optimal hypertrophy. Throughout the week it is also very common to utilize undulating periodization and work between phases 2-5 for strength endurance, hypertrophy, max strength, and even power.

This combined with progressive overloading allows an athlete to stay in a specific training regimen far longer without plateau. Cardiovascular exercise and diet are also key in any bodybuilding program to help maintain a lower percent body fat.


You’re probably thinking, “wait a minute, aren’t bodybuilders really strong too? Didn’t Ronnie Coleman squat and deadlift over 800 pounds?!”

The answer is YES! Bodybuilders typically have higher work capacity than powerlifters, while powerlifters have higher peak strength performance. However, that is not always the case. There is a lot of overlap between the two in terms of certain lifts such as the deadlift, bench press, and squat. Many bodybuilding programs will integrate these CKC compound movements into their programming especially during the Improvement Phase to help put on muscle mass.

Despite sharing some similar lifts, power-building is not structured the same as powerlifting and will have higher rep ranges (or pyramid sets), and higher set volumes, and will be structured more similarly to a bodybuilding program with greater amounts of ancillary exercises.

For example, you might start a leg day with 5 sets of squats pyramiding from light to heavy before performing 3-5 ancillary exercises such as quad extensions, hamstring curls, hip thrusts, and calve raises.

Here is an example training day for powerlifting vs bodybuilding programs:

               Exercise      Sets          Reps               Tempo           Rest
Squat, 90% 1RM5  5            PL Pause     3-5 Minutes
Bench Press, 90% 1RM5  5            PL Pause     3-5 Minutes
Deadlift, 90% 1RM5  5            PL Pause     3-5 Minutes
Bent over Rows3         8-12           Controlled     3-5 Minutes
Back Hyper Extensions2         8-12           Controlled     1-3 Minutes
Loaded Parallel Bar Dips2         8-12           Controlled     1-3 Minutes

Exercise    Sets          Reps         Tempo            Rest
Flat Bench Press      4         8-10      Controlled      1-3 Minutes
Seated DB Shoulder Press      4         8-10      Controlled      1-3 Minutes
Decline Close-Grip Bench Press      4         8-10      Controlled      1-3 Minutes
Pec Deck      4       10-12      Controlled      1-3 Minutes
Triceps Skull Crushers w/EZ bar       4       10-12      Controlled      1-3 Minutes
Superset: Arnold DB Press
DB Side Lateral Raise
      4      10-12      Controlled      1-3 Minutes

While bodybuilding and powerlifting might sound the same and even look the same in the gym, when you get down to the nitty-gritty, there is a world of difference. In the end, it’s all in the details. When you’re looking to add size, learn new lifts, and take your training to the next level, use this breakdown as a guide to see which route is right for you.

The Author

Andre Adams is a professional athlete with the International Federation of Bodybuilding (IFBB) pro league, having competed in the 2015 Mr. Olympia and Arnold Classic professional physique divisions. He is also a master trainer with the National Academy of Sports Medicine® (NASM), physique contest prep coach, and holds several specializations with NASM. Certifications include: NASM-CPT, WFS, PES, WLS, GPTS, FNS and MT. Follow him on Instagram and LinkedIn!