Powerlifting is known as a strength sport while bodybuilding is known as a muscle building sport, leaving many budding powerlifters wondering if they are building any muscle.
Can you build muscle with powerlifting? Yes, you can build muscle with powerlifting. More than likely, you will build muscle with powerlifting training especially in the first couple years of starting the sport. However, you will gain muscle at a different speed and achieve a different “look” than a traditional bodybuilder.
It’s a common false belief within the fitness world that someone who focuses on powerlifting won’t be able to build muscle and change their physique. The truth is that the body does adapt to the stress created by lifting heavy weights because it needs muscle to help it be more efficient at lifting.
However, while it is also true that powerlifting is not optimized for muscle growth, there are many strategies you can implement to help out the process.
In this article, I will discuss why strength building and muscle building are not two separate entities, what kind of muscle you can expect to build from powerlifting, examples of powerlifters who have built lots of muscle, and on building muscle while powerlifting.
If you’re looking for a powerlifting program that can help you get stronger and build muscle, download our training app.
The Goal of Powerlifting Is To Build Strength (Not Muscle)
It’s important to understand that the goal of powerlifting is to build strength, not muscle. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t build any muscle at all from powerlifting.
If you completed a 12-week powerlifting program and came out with bigger muscles but no change to your strength, you’d consider it a failed program. But if you ran a program that helped you increase your strength even if you didn’t notice any changes in muscle size, it would be considered a successful program.
Because of the fundamental underlying assumption held within powerlifting that strength is the most important variable of change, you will find programs made for powerlifting that do not optimize muscle growth. The belief being, why would you do more work when you don’t have to?
This has resulted in many individuals within powerlifting circles sticking to what works to optimize strength and not pay much attention to muscle growth. This does not mean that muscle growth doesn’t occur or that muscle growth is not possible just because your primary goal with lifting is to increase strength.
We do not exist in a vacuum, and there is a way to balance both to suit your priorities. It’s a fallacy that you must give up your dreams of being strong just for the sake of increasing muscle size.
If you’re a bodybuilder who wants to give powerlifting a try, check out my 9 steps for making the switch from bodybuilding to powerlifting.
Building Muscle Will Help You Build Strength & Vice Versa
Some powerlifting purists may argue that you don’t have to have big muscles to be strong, but muscle and strength don’t exist separately and do influence each other.
A study looking at changes in muscle volume and 1 rep max after 3 different rep scheme protocols (4 reps, 8 reps, 12 reps) found that all 3 resulted in muscle gain. The only difference was that those doing 12 reps didn’t improve their 1 rep max.
Additionally, a recent study found through its methods that there was a significant relationship between 1 rep max and muscle size, as measured by 3 different methods. This further offers the perspective that having more muscle is associated with greater strength and likely should be something you consider if you’re looking to maximize strength.
Therefore, while powerlifting training devoid of any muscle building elements will still likely increase your strength, you will, in some sense, be limiting your rate of long term progress by completely ignoring the role building muscle can play in your pursuit of strength.
Want to get advice on programming, technique, or competing? Speak with one of our coaches.
What Kind Of Muscle Gain Can You Expect From Powerlifting?
The muscles you will see the most growth in from powerlifting will be the muscles that are most important for squatting, benching and deadlifting.
To the untrained eye, all muscular people may look the same. But if you look closely, there is a specific physique associated with powerlifting that is directly tied to the concept of “form follows function.” This means your body will end up looking like a body that needs to squat, bench, and deadlift a lot of weight.
This means lots of development in the traps, triceps, pecs, quads, core, and glutes and less development in the biceps, shoulders, calves, and other less prominent muscles. Your individual body response will be somewhat dependent on your personal genetics as well as your training history prior to starting powerlifting.
In terms of the speed with which you gain this muscle, it will depend on how trained you are prior to starting powerlifting. Newbies who have never lifted weights before will see transformations in their first year as their body adjusts to the new lifestyle. I wasn’t even new to lifting when I started powerlifting, but switching to powerlifting-focused training had me gain 8-10lbs in total body weight, as a woman, within my first year.
Beyond your first year of lifting you will continue to put on muscle, just at a slower rate. Various tips will be outlined at the end of this article to help you maximize those gains over time.
Related Article: 5×5 vs 3×10: Which Set & Rep Scheme Is Better?
Examples of Building Muscle With Powerlifting
To illustrate that powerlifting can exist side by side with powerlifting, here are some examples of powerlifters who definitely look like they lift.
1. Jessica Buettner
2. Panagiotis Tarinidis
3. Amanda Lawrence
4. Austin Perkins
5. Maria Htee
6. John Haack
Check out all the different body types you'll see in powerlifting in my article: What Is The Best Body Type For Powerlifting?
Tips On Using Powerlifting To Build Muscle
While powerlifting alone will help you build and maintain some muscle, there are important tips to keep in mind to really help maximize the progress you make.
1. Track Volume
Volume is king when it comes to hypertrophy (building muscle). Whether you do high reps or low reps, many sets or few sets, workout 4 days a week or 6 days a week, the main driving factor for your muscle gain will be how much total volume you do week to week.
Volume equals rep x sets x load. Meaning 3 sets of 8 reps at 10 lbs equals a volume of 240.
When you equate volume between two different training protocols, the differences in the effects shrink dramatically. While certain phases of powerlifting require lower volume training, like when you’re tapering for a meet, you should be looking to incrementally increase volume in order to drive hypertrophy during your off season.
If you’re not sure how many reps you should be doing for powerlifting, check out How Many Reps For Powerlifting? (Definitive Guide).
2. Lift with higher relative intensities
Intensity refers to how heavy the weight is that you’re lifting relative to your abilities. In order to preserve your strength and still maintain your primary goal of being a good powerlifter, you should keep lifting with higher intensities.
This means don’t throw out all your heavy lifting in order to pursue building muscle, unless you genuinely need a break from powerlifting.
Keeping a higher relative intensity also means that you shouldn’t start squatting and deadlifting for sets of 12-15 in hopes of building muscle and maintaining strength at the same time. Instead, increase your total training volume by adding more exercises into your training while still keeping the compound movements as “heavy” lifts within low to moderate rep schemes.
Doing accessory work and isolation movements is advantageous for powerlifters. Find out all the benefits of isolation work in the article Do Powerlifters Do Isolation Exercises? (Yes, Here’s How).
3. Don't just do squat, bench press, and deadlift
Building on the previous points, in order to maintain high intensity with compound movements while also increasing volume, you are going to have to do more than just squat, bench and deadlift.
I’ve seen some powerlifting programs that add a couple optional accessories after the main lifts, treat them as afterthoughts, and are usually quite repetitive with the same 5-8 exercises being used over and over again.
You want to be intentional with the accessories you choose, pick ones that directly address your weaknesses and the areas where you want to build muscle, and add more than just a couple extra movements to really try to challenge yourself.
4. Put In Effort
It should come as a no-brainer that you need to put effort into your workouts, but it’s worthwhile to reflect on how much effort you’re actually putting in. This can mean focusing on doing your accessories with intention and a good mind-muscle connection as well as pushing your reps close to their limit or increasing weight appropriately.
A recent study found that muscular swelling, commonly known as “having a pump,” is actually associated with muscle gains. This suggests that really pushing yourself and giving it your all will make a difference when it comes to gaining muscle, so don’t rush your sets!
RPE and RIR are both excellent ways to monitor your training intensity and ensure you’re pushing yourself enough. Learn more about the differences between the two in my article RPE vs RIR: What Are The Differences? How To Use Them?
5. Take blocks of time to prioritize hypertrophy
If you’re having difficulty seeing results with your typical powerlifting protocols, it may be beneficial for you to take a block periodized approach to your training so you can dedicate “off-season” time to building muscle.
This can look like going into a temporary bodybuilder-style training phase to give your body a break from the squat, bench, and deadlift.
Alternatively, it can look like keeping the main movements but just reducing the volume on the compound lifts and increasing total volume for the muscle groups you are trying to build up.
These hypertrophy blocks can come after or before strength blocks as a way to rest one system and build a different one up. It also offers time for you to explore new exercises and give yourself something new to look forward to. In the end it will help you become a more well-rounded athlete with good muscular development.
In short, muscles are important for powerlifters because they help you reach your strength potential. In addition, powerlifting will result in growth of muscles, especially those associated with the squat, bench, and deadlift even though its main goal is strength and not hypertrophy.
To make sure you aren’t selling yourself short, you may need to pay some extra attention to your training volume, effort, and intensity and make sure you are giving yourself a well-rounded program that isn’t just laser focused on your 1 rep max all the time.
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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.