Powerlifting and strongman are two major strength sports in North America and around the world.
While switching from one sport to the other is possible, you may be surprised at how different they really are.
The 12 main differences between powerlifting and strongman are:
- Number of “events”
- Types of Lifts
- Weight Categories
- Body Type
- The Deadlift
- Equipment Needed
- Drug Testing
We’re going to explore each of these in the article to help you better distinguish between the two sports and hopefully help you decide which one may be best suited for your goals, needs and/or skills.
1. Number of “Events”
- In powerlifting you compete in only 3 lifts
- In strongman competitions, competitors are expected to complete 5 events
One of the main and most obvious differences between strongman and powerlifting is that powerlifting only consists of 3 lifts: the squat, bench and deadlift whereas in strongman competitions you need to compete in 5 events which are all different from one another.
The implication of this is that there are more things to get yourself prepared for on the day of competition and you have more opportunities to redeem yourself in competition and move ahead in rankings based on your personal strengths.
2. Types of Lifts
- Powerlifting is all about squat, bench and deadlift and only the squat, bench and deadlifts
- Strongman is all about squats, deadlifts, clean and press, carrying, flipping, pulling, pushing, pulling, pressing and loading
Not only does strongman have more lifts for you to compete in within the competition setting, but the variety is much broader than powerlifting.
While squats and deadlifts can and do make an appearance within strongman competitions, things like carrying a stone or sandbag, flipping a tire, pulling a truck or getting a large circus dumbbell over your head are just as common.
Therefore, you need to be conditioned to do more than just 3 lifts and need to get your body to move effectively in many different planes if you wish to be successful as a strongman.
Want to get advice on programming, technique, or competing? Speak with one of our coaches.
3. Weight Categories
- Powerlifting weight has 8 weight classes for men and 8 weight classes for women, each separated by 5-10kg
- Strongman weight classes are split up into 3 broad categories of light, middle and heavy weight for both women and men
As of 2021, the powerlifting weight classes are as follows:
Women: 47 kg, 52 kg, 57 kg, 63 kg, 69 kg, 76 kg, 84 kg, 84 kg+
Men: 59 kg, 66 kg, 74 kg, 83 kg, 93 kg, 105 kg, 120 kg, 120 kg+
This means that you are likely to compete with someone who is very similar in weight and build as you. Even though some do cut weight before competition it is usually just to jump down one weight class.
In contrast, at Strongman competitions the weight classes are a bit more complex and even vary between novice and open categories.
Generally speaking they are split up into a lightweight, mediumweight, heavyweight and a super heavyweight weight category with more broad cut offs than you’ll see in powerlifting. However, there are now subclasses within these broader categories which look more similar to powerlifting classes.
USS events have novice women and men only split between lightweight and heavyweight with the cut off for women being 165lbs and 220lbs for men.
In that same event the open category is split as follows:
- Lightweight: under 123lbs/55kg, under 132lbs/60kg
- Mediumweight: under 148lbs/67kg, under 165llbs/75kg
- Heavyweight/Superheavyweight: under 180lbs, under 198 lbs, 198lbs+
- Lightweight: under 148lbs, under 165lbs, under 181lbs
- Mediumweight: under 198lbs, under 220lbs
- Heavyweight+Superheavyweight: under 242lbs, under 275lbs, 275lbs +
The exact cut offs are pretty similar across events but do vary with some having different numbers of subclasses within the light, medium and heavyweight categories.
Therefore for Strongman it is imperative you check the specific event you are signing up for to know exactly how much you weigh and which category you are likely to compete in.
With powerlifting it is a lot more straightforward and you can expect the same categories across events.
- Powerlifting requires almost no endurance to perform decently well at a competition
- Strongman requires a ton of endurance to perform well
While both powerlifting and strongman are sports based in strength and power, the key difference is when it comes to endurance. A powerlifter only has to lift a weight one time in order to be deemed a successful lift and get points toward their total.
In contrast, Strongman events involve either performing something for multiple or as many reps as possible or will require you to carry something for a set distance and as a result endurance really will make or break your ability to be successful and garner points.
5. Body Types
- Powerlifting athletes are more likely to be shorter with strong, girthy trunks and thicker lower bodies
- Strongman athletes at the highest level tend to be much taller than powerlifters with larger upper bodies
While it would be ridiculous to pinpoint a single way one should look to compete in either or any sport, there are certain characteristics that will naturally benefit some people over others. With powerlifting, being shorter can be a benefit since weights just simply have to move across a shorter distance when your body is closer to the ground.
In Strongman, certain events can be good for the shorter folks like deadlifting and squatting; however, events where you need to carry heavy objects or have to handle an atlas stone.
This may be a consideration for anyone who is between the two sports and wants to use their height to their advantage!
Learn more about body types in my article What Is The Best Body Type For Powerlifting?
6. The Deadlift
- In powerlifting, the deadlift is done on a competition approved bar and has strict rules regarding how to execute it.
- In Strongman, the deadlift is a common movement within the competition setting however it can be in a number of styles and has different rules regarding execution.
A powerlifting deadlift can be performed either in sumo or conventional stance and is either done with a deadlift bar or a stiff bar with more or less the same form across all federations. Your knees and hips need to be locked out, you can’t use straps and hitching is not allowed.
In the world of Strongman, deadlift-like mechanics are usually found at most competitions; however, it may be an 18” deadlift which is a partial deadlift, or it may be an axle deadlift which is much more difficult to grip than a barbell. Sometimes you’re not deadlifting plates at all and it’s a car instead.
Additionally, straps and wraps are all acceptable in Strongman and hitching is not an infraction. This means a lift is still considered a success even if you rest it on your thighs on the way up and use your legs to inch the bar closer to a lockout.
Learn more about the Deadlift Rules For Powerlifting Competition.
- In powerlifting, you know exactly all the equipment you will find at the competition and what will be expected of you
- In Strongman, there is usually some element of surprise even leading up to a competition and definitely in the off season
If you haven’t already noticed throughout the article, powerlifting is very structured.
You probably know what type of bar you’ll be using, the feel of the platform, the amount of time you have to complete your lift and the overall structure of nearly everything. And the rules and practices of your federation will continue to be consistent between competitions.
Strongman is the type of sport where you can’t really start to implement “specificity” months in advance of a competition.
While there is some rough understanding that each of the 5 events in the competition will be somewhat categorical (a deadlift, a carry etc), the exact details are not released until much closer to the competition and in some cases they will intentionally leave out details about one of the events and keep it a surprise.
The principles and goals Strongman competitions are based on is that you have an overall, general strength that can withstand any challenge whereas powerlifting is extremely predictable and entirely surrounds squatting, benching and deadlifting.
8. Equipment Needed
- Training for powerlifting can be done in pretty most, if not all, major fitness facilities with a few exceptions
- Training for strongman competitions requires lots of specialty equipment that can’t be found at most gyms
Powerlifting is a pretty accessible sport in that no matter what city or town you move to you will probably be able to find a gym to suit your needs.
While some gyms definitely cater to the sport better than others by getting good quality barbells and plenty of space to deadlift and squat; overall most gyms at least have a barbell you can make do with.
In contrast, strongman requires far more complex implements and equipment that you can usually only find at strength gyms that cater to all strength sports, including strongman.
- In powerlifting, you get 3 attempts per lift for a total of 9 lifts in competition
- In Strongman, none of the events are repeated and you just have one opportunity to complete the event/task
In powerlifting, while there are only 3 lifts, you do get to hit the platform 9 times since each lift gets 3 attempts. Therefore, if you didn’t manage to lift a weight on the second attempt you can try again.
In addition, so long as you get one of the attempts successfully you are good to move forward in the competition.
In Strongman you only really get one attempt at the event. If you perform something in a way that is not considered acceptable or incomplete and you fail out of the event your chances of redemption are slim.
Read my complete guide on How To Pick Attempts For Powerlifting.
- Powerlifting scoring is based on the total weight lifted when you add up the highest successful squat, bench and deadlift attempts and then compared with your body weight at competition
- Strongman scoring is allotted on what ranking you finished within your event and the points get added up across all 5 events and the most points win, regardless of exact body weight
In powerlifting, every pound counts, both on the bar and on your body. Someone who performs the same as someone else who is a pound heavier than them would beat them solely based on body weight. In addition, the actual weight they are able to move carries most of their total score. Meaning if you lift more overall, you’re probably going to place.
In Strongman it works a little bit differently.
Here your weight category is just a category and the exact decimal point of where you weigh in is not relevant. If there is ever a tie between 2 people in a single event the points are split between them.
In addition, if there is an event where you need to lift something for the most amount of reps, the actual number of reps you do doesn’t bear any weight, you just have to do the most compared to the other competitors.
Therefore, how well you have to perform solely depends on who shows up at the competition. Most events are standardized where everyone in the class has to use the same equipment, therefore the actual weight of the items doesn’t affect scoring for the most part.
Read more about How Is Powerlifting Scored?
11. Drug Testing
- Powerlifting has both tested and untested federations, both of which are sizeable in popularity
- Strongman is largely an untested sport with some exceptions and some natural competitions
Drug tested powerlifting is quite popular in North America and around the world and its rise to popularity has had a large role to play in the rise of powerlifting popularity as a sport of choice.
Those who wish to compete untested do have plenty of options available to them as well, creating a sport where there are options for everyone. This will however differ by region.
Strongman is one of those sports where performance enhancing drugs are one of those things that come with the territory, particularly at the elite level.
This is not to say everyone in strongman does use them, but those who don’t are often competing against those who do because of the general lack of events in strict, drug tested federations.
There may not be a demand for it; however something the sport may want to look into if they wish to increase its popularity among the general population.
- Powerlifting program centers around squatting, benching and deadlifting and progressively overloading all of these movements in various cycles of training
- Strongman programs includes a variety of movements and combines elements of strength, power and endurance
Regardless of what programming style you prefer, powerlifters will start every single day with either a squat, bench or deadlift. And unless it’s months away from a meet, it will likely be a competition style lift or a very slight variation.
Most sets are done for reps of 1-5 unless in an off-season, hypertrophy phase of training.
Strongman on the other hand deals with much more rep work and doing things for longer period of time or distances.
In addition, one cycle of training can be very different from the next based on what style of events you are wanting to improve in or need to work on for an upcoming competition.
One year you may be doing tons of work to improve a car deadlift whereas the next year it’s more about the axle deadlift, solely because of what your upcoming competition will ask of you.
The days are less likely to be split by upper and lower body since a lot of the competitive exercises are full-body style compound movements.
Other Helpful Guides
- How To Switch From Powerlifting To Weightlifting
- Powerlifting vs Bodybuilding Bench Press: 13 Differences
- How To Switch From Bodybuilding To Powerlifting
- Powerlifting vs. Powerbuilding: Differences + Examples
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.