Bodybuilding vs Powerlifting – an age old rivalry. In this article we’re going to compare and contrast the bodybuilding physique and the powerlifting physique. What are the similarities and what are the differences? We’re going to break it down.
In many ways bodybuilders are powerlifters are close cousins. They’re both found at the gym, lifting those weights and getting those gains, and yet their end-goals are wholly distinct. The bodybuilder’s glory is to be found hitting a sick front biceps pose on stage, while the powerlifter dreams of heavy squats. The differences between the two reflect these differing priorities.
Note – this article discusses male bodybuilding and powerlifting physiques. Women’s bodybuilding in particular differs from men’s bodybuilding, and deserves its own article.
Bodybuilding Physique Overview
Often when we imagine a bodybuilder we immediately think of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Ronnie Coleman – enormous guys, at the very peak of their sport during their respective careers. However, not all prospective bodybuilders want to (or even can) achieve this level of muscular development.
Today there are a number of different bodybuilding divisions which feature athletes of various shapes and sizes.
Some divisions focus on pure mass, others aesthetics; some require performance enhancing drugs, others are all natural. As you can imagine, physiques in each of these divisions vary markedly.
Let’s go through some popular categories:
Men’s Physique & Natural Bodybuilding:
While Men’s Physique and Natural Bodybuilding are not the same, they often feature physiques in the same ballpark, more or less.
A men’s physique competitor is basically a jacked normal person. Unlike the more extreme bodybuilders, they’re recognizably human, and as such both lifters and non-lifters think they look great. Keep in mind though, the top men’s physique guys are big boys, even if they’re dwarfed by the classic and open guys.
True natural bodybuilders are an interesting breed. Reaching stage condition in bodybuilding involves stripping away most of one’s body fat until every muscle and vein pops through the skin. Cutting fat without losing muscle mass is more difficult for a natural bodybuilder, who can’t utilize substances that assist in this process. As a result natural bodybuilders often appear kind of small on stage – especially compared to their enhanced counterparts. This is somewhat deceptive – they’re very muscular – it’s just that enhanced bodybuilders are very, very muscular.
Benefits – Non-stop compliments (from your bros), physique can substitute for a personality, Zyzz-vibes.
Downsides – Broccoli and chicken for every meal, your girlfriend might break up with you because you’re prettier than she is.
Typical characteristics – Wide shoulders, trim waist, good ‘flow’, relatively healthy looking.
How to achieve –
- Train intelligently for years, eat well, ‘supplement’ (unless you’re doing natural bodybuilding, in which case supplement just a little, when no one’s looking).
- Have blessed proportions.
- Lots of stomach vacuums, probably?
Classic physique is the middle step between physique bodybuilding and open bodybuilding. It was introduced to bridge the gap between the other divisions, and possibly in reaction to the feeling that open bodybuilding was becoming only about mass. Introduced by the IFBB in 2016, the Classic Physique division attempted to inject aesthetics, symmetry and proportion back into bodybuilding.
Classic Physique comes with weight limits calculated on the basis of athlete height. This prevents Classic bodybuilders from becoming enormous – though the top guys are still bigger than most anyone at your average gym.
In terms of appearance, it’s more or less physique on (more) steroids. Unlike the Physique guys though, Classic Physique bodybuilders don trunks – so a little more leg development is typical. And glute striations are on the cards.
Benefits – Massive but still aesthetically pleasing in the eyes of most, Arnold vibes.
Downsides – Don’t even lift compared to an open division guy, yet already too freaky for a portion of the general public.
Typical characteristics – Narrow waist, wide shoulders, well-balanced.
How to achieve –
- Train intelligently for years, eat well, ‘supplement’ a lot, have naturally great proportions.
- Have the desire to be both huge yet still able to wipe your own ass.
- Have a teary-eyed nostalgia for bodybuilding’s golden era.
Welcome to the freakshow. These guys have left humanity behind in the quest for ever-increasing amounts of thick, solid and tight muscle mass. No one gets to this level without world-class work ethic, top tier genetics, and a slew of drugs used in agriculture to fatten up livestock.
These guys are extreme to say the least. In the pursuit of size at any cost, issues such as palumboism are rife in modern bodybuilding, which has drawn significant criticism (even from Arnold himself). Contrast the video of Ronnie Coleman above with someone like Frank Zane at the 1980 Olympia – though Zane was considered a smaller guy even for his time, you’ll appreciate that things have really changed.
That said, for many fans, open bodybuilding is bodybuilding in its ultimate form. Modern era bodybuilders showcase just how massive, lean, and freaky the human body can get – and no other division comes close. Even as a powerlifting guy myself, I have to admit bodybuilding is a lot more eye-catching for non-lifters.
You’ll know an open – division bodybuilder when you see him – delts as big as watermelons, glute striations, and veins snaking about their skin like a roadmap – it’s all fairly striking.
Benefits – Frighten enemies away, can only wear sleeveless shirts, conversations about how thick and tight you are with your bros – but it’s casual.
Downsides – Frighten the general public, can only wear sleeveless shirts, immense quantities of performance enhancers might cause physical side effects.
Typical characteristics – Huge all over, veins everywhere, and did someone say glute striations?
How to achieve –
- Train intelligently for years, eat well, ‘supplement’, have top-tier size genetics.
- Do whatever it takes.
- Insatiable appetite for gains and gains only.
Powerlifting Physique Overview
Just like bodybuilders, powerlifters come in a variety of shapes and sizes. For the most part, a powerlifter’s physique varies based on weight class and whether they compete drug tested or untested (note – tested does not necessarily mean drug free).
Similar physiques can be found in the following powerlifting categories:
In both tested and untested contexts, the lighter guys (think sub-100kg) are often ripped, with physiques that resemble those of physique/natural bodybuilders. The reason for this is simple – powerlifting is a strength sport, and strength and muscle mass go hand in hand. There’s more to it than that, of course, but as the experts at Stronger by Science point out, if your goal is strength – getting as big and muscular as possible is a good strategy.
The reason you’re more likely to see bodybuilding-esque physiques in the lighter weight classes specifically is because filling out your frame with lean muscle is both easier when you’re shorter, and advantageous from a strength perspective. For example, the 6ft tall, 90kg powerlifter will usually lose to a jacked muscle manlet who’s also 90kg but stands at 5’6”.
Now, given the squat and deadlift account for 2 out of 3 powerlifting movements (and often account for more like ¾ of a powerlifter’s total) your average powerlifting physique is generally lower-body dominant compared to their bodybuilding counterpart. Though some powerlifters care about aesthetics too, it’s not priority #1 – so things like training calves, and achieving ‘balance’ or ‘symmetry’ often fall by the wayside.
As height increases and weight classes go up, you’re more likely to see a little extra body fat on your average powerlifter, once the capacity for adding lean mass is exhausted. Drug-free lifters will exhaust this capacity first, while PED use can facilitate larger lean physiques.
Benefits – Jacked and strong, “How did he lift that?” – esque comments, heads sometimes turn at the gym.
Downsides – Still a manlet, no one’s familiar with powerlifting outside of powerlifters and their immediate family members – and the latter doesn’t really care.
Typical characteristics – Big legs relative to the upper body, well-developed pecs, triceps and back muscles.
How to achieve –
- Train intelligently for years, eat enough, ‘supplement’ if untested.
- Be short to average height at most.
- A deep, aching love of spreadsheets, training theory, and technical jargon no one else knows nor cares about.
For the purposes of this article, heavyweights are guys between 100-140kg (220-308lbs), though exact weight classes vary between powerlifting federations.
Once you get to the heavyweight categories, the tested and untested powerlifters tend to diverge in terms of physique.
Most tested guys competing at 100kg/220lbs and over are starting to pack on a bit of extra chub. The extra chub provides modest advantages (it shifts centre of gravity, lowers range of motion for bench press, etc) and is also a product of a diet designed to maximise performance specifically – these guys aren’t eating to stay shredded.
Bryce Lewis (105kg) and Dennis Cornelius (120kg) are good examples of heavyweights in the IPF, the biggest drug-tested powerlifting federation. They’re not particularly lean but they’re not fat either. They’re very muscular, with a tasteful layer of fat on top (see also – What Exactly Is A Power Belly?).
The untested guys in these heavy but sub-shw weight classes… well, they can get freaky. Many could do well in bodybuilding with some effort (and some like Larry Wheels have – see below). These guys are lean, mean, and incredibly strong.
Benefits – Big and strong, glorious power belly, not a manlet.
Downsides – (especially for the untested guys) blood pressure high enough that lifting causes facial bleeding, can’t wear jeans.
Typical characteristics – All-round muscularity with possible chub. Large legs, pecs, triceps, and back muscles. Relatively thick midsection compared to their bodybuilding counterparts.
How to achieve –
- Train intelligently for years, eat a lot, ‘supplement’ if applicable.
- Have a fondness for leather, chains, stimulants, and belts. A fondness for gym equipment helps too.
You’ve now entered the thick zone.
The super heavyweight category has no upper weight limit, so competitors can grow as large as they want and/or physically can.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a truly lean super heavyweight – all the PEDs in the world won’t get you past 140kg with abs (with a few notable exceptions, especially in the strongman world). As a result, tested and untested powerlifters in this category often look similar – mountains of muscle disguised by a kind of fat suit.
It’s been theorized that if these guys dieted down, they’d look like open-division bodybuilders. Though he wasn’t a powerlifter, Strongman Terry Hollands actually did just this. As suspected, he was a big guy, though because of his height he doesn’t look as wide as the top open bodybuilders.
Benefits – Huge power belly, 1000kg/2200lb total, own gravitational pull.
Downsides – Most people think you’re just a regular fat guy, basically a strongman without the prestige or financial incentives.
Typical characteristics – Thick as a bowl of oatmeal, tree trunk legs, immense midsection.
How to achieve –
- Train intelligently for years, eat constantly, ‘supplement’ if you’re untested.
- Invest in a CPAP.
The Hobbyist Bodybuilder vs Hobbyist Powerlifter
You might have noticed that the previous categories feature athletes of elite calibre.
What about the everyday guy? The guy who wants to bodybuild or powerlift for leisure? The hobbyist?
If you stood the average, self-proclaimed bodybuilder and powerlifter from the local gym next to each other, they’d likely look very similar. If one of them carries more fat, he might be a powerlifter, or he might be a bodybuilder attempting a bulking cycle. If one has bigger arms, he might be the bodybuilder, or he might be a powerlifter who hates squatting and calls themself a ‘bench specialist’.
The truth is, for beginners and intermediates, there doesn’t need to be much of a difference in training styles for powerlifters and bodybuilders. Both sports require a base of strength and muscle to begin with.
Later on, yes, the training styles diverge. The bodybuilder will invest more time in hypertrophy-based training and bringing up lagging muscle groups, while the powerlifter will invest more time perfecting their lifting technique and developing specific, high-end strength.
So, if you’re new to weight training and you’re still not sure whether bodybuilding or powerlifting is more your style, here’s some unsolicited advice: Learn to perform a variety of exercices with good form, develop a consistent gym routine, and build a base. Once you’ve been at the gym for a while you’ll likely gravitate towards strength stuff or physique stuff. Until then, just lift.
Whatever your preference, if you train intelligently for years, you’ll make gains.