Powerlifting vs. Powerbuilding: Differences + Examples

Powerlifting vs. Powerbuilding Differences + Examples

Bodybuilding has been mainstream for many years, and when powerlifting rose in popularity, a hybrid training goal was born: powerbuilding. 

Powerbuilding and powerlifting are similar in that they both contain the squat, bench press, and deadlift in training, with accessory exercises. But each training methodology serves a different purpose and will result in different outcomes.

So what are the differences between powerbuilding vs powerlifting? Powerlifting is the competitive sport that tests your strength in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Powerbuilding is a training modality that combines the goals of powerlifting and bodybuilding with the intent to build a specific physique while getting stronger at the same time.

In this article, I will define powerlifting and powerbuilding, explain the differences and similarities between the two, and everything you need to understand to decide what is right for you.

Want to get advice on programming, technique, or competing? Speak with one of our coaches.

What Is Powerlifting?

What is powerlifting?

Powerlifting is an individual sport that tests an athlete’s strength in three disciplines: the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift.

The goal of powerlifting is to exhibit the best maximum strength performance for each of these three lifts. In a powerlifting meet, each athlete can make three attempts for each lift, with the sum of the highest valid lifts in each category contributing to a lifter’s total.

The best powerlifter in each age and weight class will be the one who achieves the highest total of their best attempt of each of the three lifts.

Interested in learning more about powerlifting? Check out our definitive guide to powerlifting.

What Is Powerbuilding? 

What is powerbuilding?

Powerbuilding is a training goal and modality that combines the pursuits of strength for the powerlifting movements and the goal of developing a bodybuilding physique. This trend started to take off in popularity in the lifting community around 2010.

There are no powerbuilding competitions, but people who train for powerbuilding also compete in powerlifting competitions. Some even compete in bodybuilding competitions, too. This is a really suitable training modality for those who enjoy the variety of the training goals and variation in the exercises done in the gym.

Powerbuilding vs Powerlifting

Powerbuilding vs Powerlifting

Powerbuilding and powerlifting both have major similarities and minor differences. Depending on who you are, these qualities of training modalities can be positive or negative for you.

Similarities between Powerlifting and Powerbuilding

Two similarities between powerlifting and powerbuilding are:

  • They both seek to improve the squat, bench press, and deadlift
  • They both seek to build muscle mass

They Both Seek to Improve the Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift

The squat, the bench press, and the deadlift are the primary lifts in powerlifting and are also core to powerbuilding. 

The only major difference is that powerlifters ultimately seek to increase absolute strength in these three lifts. 

Powerbuilders will want to increase strength in these lifts, but they also use them to increase muscle mass around the quads, glutes, hamstrings, chest, and tricep muscle groups, too.

If you want to increase your squat, bench press, or deadlift, check out our course Powerlifting Technique: Pursuit of Strength.

They Both Seek to Build Muscle Mass

powerlifters and powerbuilders both seek to build muscle mass

Powerlifters and powerbuilders both seek to increase overall muscle mass long term. 

Powerlifters want to increase muscle mass long-term because research has shown that larger muscle fibers are correlated to being able to produce more force — in other words, larger muscle fibers are stronger.

Powerbuilders also want to increase muscle mass long-term because they want to develop more of a bodybuilder’s physique. The only difference is that the design of the training program for muscle mass is geared towards shaping a certain aesthetic physique, not just making the muscles larger and stronger.

Is it possible to build muscle even if you focus primarily on powerlifting? Get our expert opinion in Can You Build Muscle With Powerlifting? (Yes, Here’s How).

Differences Between Powerlifting and Powerbuilding

differences between powerlifting and powerbuilding

The key differences between powerlifting and powerbuilding are:

  • Powerbuilding seeks to develop a lean and proportionate physique
  • Powerbuilding seeks to structure training around muscle groups
  • Powerbuilding seeks more variations in exercise selection
  • Powerbuilding may help to prepare for powerlifting and bodybuilding competitions
  • Powerbuilding may have more emphasis on overhead movements or shoulder training
  • Powerbuilding may use more squat variations
  • Powerbuilding may use lower loads, higher reps, and more exercises

Powerbuilding Seeks to Develop a Lean and Proportionate Physique

People who train for powerbuilding also have the goal of training for a lean and proportionate physique. Powerlifters do want muscle mass, but they don’t necessarily pursue proportionate and lean physiques.

This will influence your exercise selection and nutrition. People who train for powerbuilding are more likely to be strict with their diet and not allow their body fat percentages to get too high.

Powerlifters care about muscle mass, but they primarily bias having larger prime movers, specifically the quads, glutes, hamstrings, pecs, and triceps. For many powerlifters, particularly those in the heavier weight classes, being lean is not necessarily relevant to them. They prioritize eating to maximize the growth of muscle mass and strength. 

Even though being lean isn’t a priority for many powerlifters, good nutrition is still important. We discuss this in detail in Do Powerlifters Eat Whatever They Want? (No, Here’s Why).

Powerbuilding Seeks to Structure Training Around Muscle Groups

In terms of structuring training sessions throughout the week, powerbuilding may have some more emphasis on prioritizing a muscle group or multiple muscle groups each day. For example, powerbuilders may follow a bro split or push/pull/legs routine and have a back and biceps day, a shoulders and triceps day, and so on.

On the other hand, powerlifters will structure their training days around specific movements, such as having a deadlift-focused day or a squat- and bench press-focused day. On top of prioritizing movements, they will then have accessory or isolation exercises that may help reinforce proper technique or work through muscular weaknesses.

Powerbuilding Seeks More Variation in Exercise Selection

Powerbuilding may have a higher number of different exercise variations to focus on developing the numerous muscle groups in different ways. Powerlifters over time will have very specific and narrow choices of movements and exercises in order to pursue excellence.

There is a principle called SAID, which stands for Specific Adaptation on Imposed Demand. This describes the idea that the body will adapt in a way that is relevant to the training stimulus it experiences.

This basically means that in order to be very good at the main three movements, you have to do them a lot or at least do lots of similar variations such as pin squats or deficit deadlifts.

Powerbuilding May Help to Prepare for Powerlifting and Bodybuilding Competitions

Powerbuilding can be a feasible choice of training style to prepare for powerlifting and bodybuilding competitions. However, powerlifting can only really help you prepare for powerlifting competitions.

There are famous individuals who have been able to perform at a decent level in both such as Layne Norton.

Are you a former bodybuilder who’s interested in trying powerlifting? Check out these 9 steps for switching from bodybuilding to powerlifting.

Powerbuilding May Have More Emphasis on Overhead Movements or Shoulder Training

In terms of upper body training, powerlifters want to get really good at performing the bench press. This means that they want to minimize any interference effect from other potential exercises. 

The interference effect refers to the competing nature of training one modality against the other. This likely means that a lot of powerlifters will generally not perform that many overhead pressing-type movements or shoulder exercises. 

Therefore, people who train for powerbuilding are likely to have more overhead pressing and shoulder exercises. This is important for them because having big shoulders is conducive to shaping their physique.

With that said, the overhead press does have some carryover to the bench press and is a featured movement in many powerlifting programs. Learn more in Does Overhead Press Help Bench Press?

Powerbuilding May Use More Squat Variations

Powerlifters will often spend a majority of the time using the low bar back squat as their main squat variation. Powerbuilders may opt for more variations such as high bar squats or front squats.

Powerbuilders may program their training around muscle groups as opposed to training movements. In this instance, the squat is a movement, and the quads are a muscle group. They may opt for the most quad-dominant variation for squats such as the aforementioned high bar squat or front squat.

To find out more about differences between powerlifting and bodybuilding styles of exercises, check out the difference between a powerlifting vs bodybuilding bench press.

Powerbuilding My Use Lower Loads, Higher Reps, and More Exercises

As I’ve discussed, powerbuilders will have more emphasis on training for muscle mass. For that reason, aspects of their training program may trend towards training for hypertrophy around muscle groups.

For example, they may do a higher number of exercises with lower intensity and higher repetition sets. Research has shown that low-load and high-rep training is beneficial for physique-based goals due to its ability to build muscle.

The reason why powerbuilders do not just rely on high-load and low-rep training is because the alternative offers variation to keep training interesting and enjoyable.

Powerbuilding vs Powerlifting: Pros & Cons

powerbuilding vs powerlifting pros & cons

To help you decide what’s right for you, you will need to understand the pros and cons of each training pursuit. 

Pros of Powerbuilding

Four pros of powerbuilding are:

  • Flexible in exercise choices
  • Can alternate between training phases
  • Develop a balance between strength and size
  • Create a good base to specialize in one or the other

Flexible in Exercise Choices

Powerbuilding will generally have greater flexibility in exercises choices. Any resistance exercise will have a beneficial effect on stimulating muscle mass, but it is down to you to choose ones that are both effective and enjoyable for you.

Can Alternate Between Training Phases

Having the pursuit of two different goals means you also have the flexibility to change what you want to train for depending on how you feel. This flexibility can really help people sustain consistent training and not burn out psychologically. 

Develop a Balance Between Strength and Size

If you enjoy being stronger and bigger, then powerbuilding is a very gratifying training modality for you. 

Pursuing both strength and size can be a very versatile training modality and aid the performance of other sports if powerbuilding is a supplemental form of training for a primary sport.

Create a Good Base to Specialize in One or the Other

Powerbuilding is a good style of training to follow if you eventually want to specialize in either bodybuilding or powerlifting. If you cannot decide which one is right for you, do a bit of both with powerbuilding and take note of whether you prefer powerlifting- or bodybuilding-style training. 

Cons of Powerbuilding

Three cons of powerbuilding are: 

  • Difficult to reach excellence in one or the other
  • May be demanding on training frequency
  • Training sessions may take a long time

Difficult to Reach Excellence in One or the Other

Time and resources are a zero-sum game, which means if you contribute some to a goal, you will sacrifice everything else. 

This means that choosing a hybrid training modality such as powerbuilding can result in you limiting yourself from being able to specialize completely in either bodybuilding or powerlifting. 

This may or may not be a disadvantage depending on what you want to get out of training. However, your rates of progress in both muscle and strength may be a little slower compared to people who specialize in one or the other.

May Be Demanding on Training Frequency

Powerbuilding may increase the demand for a higher training frequency because you are trying to increase strength in the big three lifts and focus a lot on training specific muscle groups at the same time.

Research has shown that exercise order is important for priority movements that you want to get stronger in. That likely means that the powerlifts will be performed first in training. Consequently, this may bias size in specific muscle groups, so you may want to add more training days to prioritize the neglected muscle groups.

Training Sessions May Take a Long Time

Powerlifters often go through phases with limited bodybuilding movements during competition season, so training sessions can have shorter durations. 

However, powerbuilders constantly want to improve their strength and appearance at the same time. The training sessions can include quite a large number of exercises, especially if the training frequency cannot be high.

Wondering how long a powerlifting workout should take? Check out How Many Hours A Day Do Powerlifters Train? (Full Breakdown).

Pros of Powerlifting

pros of powerlifting

Three pros of powerlifting are:

  • Reach excellence in strength potential
  • You get to specialize in your sport
  • You can see training progress in shorter time periods

Reach Excellence in Strength Potential

By doing powerlifting only, you put yourself in a better position to reach excellence in your sport. One of the biggest advantages of powerlifting is that it can really help you elicit high levels of strength that are impressive to most human beings. 

You Get to Specialize in Your Sport

When you get to specialize in your sport, you can really focus on doing one thing really well, which can be a gratifying process for you. Powerlifting may suit your personality better if you prefer to do one thing really well instead of just being average at multiple things.

You Can See Training Progress in Shorter Time Periods

As you are specializing your training to one sport, you are more likely to see progress more frequently and in shorter time periods. This itself can positively reinforce you to keep going and stay committed to your chosen sport.

Cons of Powerlifting

Three cons of powerlifting are:

  • Long-term heavy weight training can increase injury risk
  • Can be very repetitive and risk burnout
  • Can be an expensive sport to participate in

Long-Term Heavy Weight Training Can Increase Injury Risk

Powerlifting can be an extreme sport as you are training to be as strong as possible. This will load your body with very high-intensity weights frequently during your journey, especially as you get more advanced.

Over time, as you get stronger, the average intensity of your training repetitions will increase. This is a consequence of progressive overload, and it takes even more stress to be able to elicit a unit of strength.

As you get more experienced and spend more time in the game, your risk of injury will inevitably go up. 

There are ways to minimize the negative effects that heavy lifting can have on the body. Learn more in Will Powerlifting Destroy Your Body? (No, Here’s Why).

Can Be Very Repetitive and Risk Burnout

As you get stronger, you will need to increase your training specificity to maximize performance. This means that the number of variations you perform will go down in order to get really good at the squat, bench press, and deadlift. 

This can be a negative for some people as it makes powerlifting training more repetitive and risks mental burnout, which will make them quit.

Can Be an Expensive Sport to Participate In

Powerlifting training can be cheap, but as you get better in the sport and dedicate your time, effort, and money to it, it can get more expensive.

The reason for this is that you may eventually buy more garments and training kits such as singlets and spend more on entering and traveling to competitions, especially if there are national-level competitions that are not based in an area near you.

Curious about just how much powerlifting will cost you? I break it down in my article How Much Does Powerlifting Cost?

Program Examples

Here are examples of a powerbuilding program and a powerlifting program. It is important to have a look and get a feel for what training may look like. Enjoying the process is going to be a very important part of choosing which is right for you. 

Powerbuilding Program Example 

For a 3-day-per-week powerbuilding program, you want to achieve the following points:

  • Increase the squat, bench press, and deadlift
  • Consider the sets you do for the squat, bench press, and deadlift as training the muscle groups that each lift targets
  • Evenly distribute training sets across all muscle groups

Day 1

ExercisesSets and RepsLoad
Warm Up
Squat4x580% 1RM
Bench Press4x580% 1RM
Dumbbell Row4x103 reps in reserve
Bicep Curl4x103 reps in reserve
Dumbbell Pec Flyes3x153 reps in reserve

Day 2

ExercisesSets and RepsLoad
Warm Up
Deadlift4x580% 1RM
Overhead Press4x103 reps in reserve
Lat Pulldown4x103 reps in reserve
Tricep Extension4x103 reps in reserve
Lateral Raise3x153 reps in reserve

Day 3

ExercisesSets and RepsLoad
Warm Up
Leg Extension3x125 reps in reserve
Leg Curls3x125 reps in reserve
Calf Raises3x155 reps in reserve
Hip Thrusts3x155 reps in reserve
Side Plank4x30seconds per side

This is an example of a program for someone who has at least 1 year of training experience and knows their 1 rep maxes to be able to plot them into the program. 

This program can be run with linear progression, where it is repeated on a weekly basis with weight added in the lowest increment available. For upper body movements, a 2.5lb increase is appropriate, and for lower body movements, a 5lb increase is appropriate. This program can be run for 7 weeks consecutively with a 1-week deload with loads decreased by 10%.

Powerlifting Program Example 

powerlifting program example

For a 3-day-per-week powerlifting program, you want to achieve the following points:

  • Increase the squat, bench press, and deadlift
  • Consider accessories that support your three lifts
  • Prioritize sets towards the main lifts
  • Hit the lifts at least two times per week

Day 1

ExercisesSets and RepsLoad
Warm Up
Squat4x580% 1RM
Bench Press4x580% 1RM
Hamstring Curls3x83 reps in reserve
Barbell Row3x83 reps in reserve

Day 2

ExercisesSets and RepsLoad
Warm Up
Deadlift4x580% 1RM
Leg Extension3x83 reps in reserve
Pull-Ups3xAs many reps as possible
Tricep Extension3x105 reps in reserve
Pec Flyes3x105 reps in reserve

Day 3

ExercisesSets and RepsLoad
Warm Up
Squat3x570% 1rm
Bench Press3x570% 1rm
Deadlift3x570% 1rm
Side Plank4x30seconds per side

This is program is ideal for someone who has at least 1 year of training experience and has recent 1 rep maxes to plug into the program. 

This program can be run with linear progression, where it is repeated on a weekly basis by increasing the percentage-based lifts by 2% and increasing the accessory movements by 2.5-5lbs. This program can be run for 5 weeks consecutively with a 1-week deload with loads decreased by 10%.

Who Should Powerbuild? 

You should powerbuild if you are any of these individuals:

  • If you want a fun training modality to stay healthy
  • If you want to get stronger or build an athletic base for a specific sport
  • If you are unsure if you want to do bodybuilding or powerlifting
  • If you are burnt out from powerlifting

Who Should Powerlift? 

You should powerlift if you are any of these individuals:

  • If you want to get as strong as possible
  • If you enjoy competing in powerlifting
  • If you are not doing any other sport
  • If you want to build general strength

Frequently Asked Questions 

Is Powerbuilding the Same as Powerlifting? 

Powerbuilding is not the same as powerlifting. Powerlifting solely seeks to increase the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Powerbuilding seeks to increase the same but also develop an aesthetic physique that is proportional and lean. They both include strength and hypertrophy exercises.

Is Powerbuilding Good For Muscle Growth? 

Powerbuilding is great for muscle growth. The inclusion of strength exercises can complement the pursuit of muscle mass with more isolation exercises.

Is Powerbuilding A Sport?

Powerbuilding is not a sport, but it does seek to potentially train for the sport of powerlifting.

How Many Days a Week Can I Powerbuild?

You can start to powerbuild with a 3- to 4-day-per-week program. 

Can I Do the Olympic Lifts During a Powerbuilding Program?

Doing the Olympic lifts during a powerbuilding program is possible but difficult. It really depends on your availability of training, and this can dramatically increase how many days you need to go to the gym.

Final Thoughts

To figure out whether powerbuilding or powerlifting is right for you, you should take the pros and cons of each seriously. Use the example programs above to give yourself an idea of which training style is right for you. You are more likely to stick to something if the process is actually enjoyable for you.

About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach

Norman Cheung

Norman Cheung is a powerlifting, and accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience coaching various lifters, from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Alongside coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com