Powerlifters and bodybuilders are two types of lifting enthusiasts who are stronger than the average person, but you may be wondering who is actually stronger between the two.
So, who is stronger, powerlifters or bodybuilders? On average, someone who trains for strength with powerlifting-style training will be stronger than someone who exclusively trains like a bodybuilder with the goal of developing their muscles.
There are some overlaps in the bodybuilding and powerlifting communities though. Many powerlifters try out bodybuilding after years of focusing on strength and vice versa. Therefore, it can be tough to discern what specifically contributed to their strength gains.
In addition, bodybuilders nowadays are taking elements and principles of powerlifting training and including them in their workouts and off-season training.
However, you are far more likely to be at your strongest while you are actively engaged in powerlifting training versus actively engaged in bodybuilding training, and that comes down to training principles and priorities.
In this article, I’ll discuss…
- How strong you need to be for each sport
- Reasons why powerlifters are stronger
- Some examples of powerlifters who are stronger than bodybuilders
Powerlifting vs Bodybuilding: Who Is Stronger?
How Strong Do Bodybuilders Need To Be?
There is no formal prerequisite of having to be strong in order to compete as a bodybuilder. However, many bodybuilders will gain strength along the way.
A bodybuilder is judged entirely on how they look and what they present to the judges compared to their competition on that day. The judges are looking for conditioning and symmetry and not asking them to lift any objects or to declare how many reps they are able to do for an exercise or what their best squat is.
Therefore, most bodybuilders tend to focus their training on doing more varied exercises and in higher rep ranges than the average powerlifter. Therefore, a bodybuilder's strength may rise in the 8-10 rep range for an exercise; however, that does not always translate to a higher 1 rep max (RM).
In the process of preparing for a bodybuilding show, someone needs to rigorously diet down and cut size, which at one point or another will come at the cost of your strength. Therefore, bodybuilders actually can often lose strength since that is the price they choose to pay for a better overall aesthetic, and it doesn’t affect their performance in their chosen sport.
However, while bodybuilders may not have higher 1RMs than powerlifters, they may be better adept at performing more reps at a given percentage of their 1RM because of their higher muscular endurance.
How Strong Do Powerlifters Need To Be?
Powerlifting is a sport that allows people of all strengths to join. However, if you are looking to win, you will need to be the strongest person in the room relative to your body weight.
Powerlifting is a sport that is based on being the strongest person in the room. Therefore, there really isn’t a baseline or a ceiling for how strong one needs or should be. However, there are some strength standards that can help you compare how advanced you are in your progress.
Also, if your goal is to win your weight class or qualify for something like national or international-level competition, you need to be more than just average. How good you are is dependent on your powerlifting total, or the sum of your highest squat, bench press, and deadlift in competition.
Advanced to elite level female lifters will have a total ranging from 3 to 4 times their body weight while advanced to elite male lifters will have a total ranging from 5 to 7 times their body weight. This far exceeds what someone who has never focused on strength and only focuses on bodybuilding will be able to do on the squat, bench, and deadlift.
For more information on powerlifting competitions and totals, check out How Strong Do You Need To Be At Your First Powerlifting Meet?
6 Reasons Why Powerlifters Are Stronger Than Bodybuilders
Here are 6 reasons why powerlifters are stronger than bodybuilders:
1. Higher Intensity
The main factor, in my opinion, is that powerlifters simply train in a more specific manner for the outcome of strength. While strength is celebrated amongst the bodybuilding community, it is not focused on and prioritized.
The more often you move heavy weight, the better you will become at moving it. You’ll also be more likely to increase how much weight you can move.
Therefore, intensity, which translates to the load on the bar and how hard your body has to work to lift it, is a big reason why powerlifters are stronger than bodybuilders.
If you’re interested in transitioning from bodybuilding to powerlifting, check out How To Switch From Bodybuilding to Powerlifting (9 Steps).
2. More Compound Movements
While many bodybuilders do still squat, bench and deadlift for the purposes of building muscle, the majority of their training is not focused on the skill development of the three lifts. Bodybuilders engage in a lot more isolation movements (ones that work one muscle group at a time) and exercises that powerlifters refer to as “accessory lifts.”
Doing compound lifts more frequently and with more intention and focus will inevitably make you more skilled at them and help you become stronger.
While bodybuilders have things they are far more proficient at than powerlifters, they don’t spend enough time with the compound movements to develop whole body strength comparable to powerlifters at a similar size and training age as them.
While the squat, bench and deadlift are the three most important lifts for powerlifting, powerlifters should still include isolation exercises in their training. Find out how to incorporate them into your routine in Do Powerlifters Do Isolation Exercises? (Yes, Here’s How).
3. Less Dieting
Another important factor when comparing bodybuilders and powerlifters is that powerlifters are not spending weeks on end in calorie deficits and trying to lose weight unless they are cutting to meet a certain weight class.
Even if a powerlifter is cutting for a weight class, they usually have to lose less than 8% of their body weight, and it often will just be water weight.
On the other hand, a bodybuilder loses far more than 8% of their body weight. As they get closer to their show, their calories drop well below what is optimal for good training and recovery.
Therefore, this often results in strength drops in the athlete, leaving them in a suboptimal state for increasing or maintaining strength for significant portions of the year.
If you’re a female powerlifter looking for guidance on how to structure your diet, check out Female Powerlifting Diet: Complete Guide.
4. More Rest Between Sets
Powerlifting training is focused on expressing your strength as best as you can. Therefore, the standard rest times between sets are typically longer than a bodybuilder would wait. While this is less optimal for something like muscle building, it ensures that the lifter has recovered enough mentally and physically to try to lift the weights again.
Therefore, the longer rest periods allow powerlifters to train at higher intensities without fatiguing in their workouts and as a result provides us with more opportunity to move heavier weight.
5. Lower Reps
The longer rest periods and higher intensity paired with lifting lower reps allows powerlifters to work much closer to their true 1RM than a bodybuilder. Powerlifters typically lift in the 1-5 rep range, which is another factor that helps those who prioritize strength building to work with heavier loads without exhausting themselves.
Lower rep work is better at improving 1RM strength since it is closer and more specific to that activity. Therefore, it acts as a good strategy for powerlifters to build strength faster than bodybuilders.
For more info on the best rep ranges powerlifting, check out How Many Reps For Powerlifting? (Definitive Guide).
6. Range of Motion
Another major component of strength is also maximizing your leverages, which powerlifters are known for doing. For example, someone with good thoracic spine mobility is going to arch on a bench press to reduce the range of motion. Similarly, someone with long legs will do sumo deadlifts to reduce their range of motion.
This is a stark contrast to bodybuilders who are focused on building muscle and will purposely increase range of motion as much as they can in order to increase time under tension, or the amount of time a muscle is under strain during a workout.
Example of A Powerlifter Being Stronger Than A Bodybuilder
To highlight the differences between powerlifters and bodybuilders, here are some examples of how strength can differ between the two types of athletes of similar stature:
Powerlifter John Haack Hits a Post-Meet Set of 5 With 705lbs
Bodybuilder Brandon Harding hits a 1RM PR with 667lbs
I’m not saying bodybuilders don’t have the potential to become just as strong as powerlifters if they switched up their training and focused solely on strength. It’s also important to understand that there are outliers among both disciplines.
It just means that training as a powerlifter is more optimized for strength, and that is often evident in the amount of weight that can be moved by the majority of powerlifters vs. the majority of bodybuilders.
Bodybuilding and powerlifting are both incredibly difficult sports that require lots of time, focus, and dedication. However, they are fundamentally different in their goals, and as a result, powerlifters will typically be stronger than bodybuilders when matched for size and experience.
This is because they train compound movements with higher intensities, lower reps, longer rests, and are far less inclined to spend extended periods of time in calorie deficits and dieting down to very low body fat percentages.
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About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.