People make the switch from bodybuilding to powerlifting for several reasons.
Some of these reasons include: getting bored with your current training split, wanting to shift your goals from aesthetics to strength, or simply having more of an enjoyment lifting heavy weights versus “chasing the pump”.
Whatever the reason, the key is to understand how to make the switch properly so you can find success in powerlifting.
So how do you switch from bodybuilding to powerlifting? Follow these 9 steps:
• Train To The Competition Standards
• Structure Your Training Split Into The Powerlifting Movements
• Increase Your Squat, Bench, & Deadlift Frequency
• Get The Right Gear
• Pick The Right Powerlifting Accessories
• Learn How To Optimize Your Individual Leverages
• Train In The Lower Rep Range
• Don’t Train To Failure
• Stick To Powerlifting Training For At Least 16 Weeks
In my role as the Head Coach for Team Canada Powerlifting, I’ve taken former physique athletes from competing in bodybuilding to competing at the World Championships in powerlifting. The tips discussed in this article are the same tips I’ve used with these athletes.
Let’s get started!
1. Train To The Competition Standards
Regardless if you plan to compete in powerlifting or not, you need to learn the movement standards that are followed in competition.
When I refer to “movement standards”, I mean the technical aspects of the squat, bench press, and deadlift that every powerlifter must follow in order to ‘pass a lift’ in a competition environment.
While some people might think that this tip doesn’t apply to them because they don’t intend to compete in powerlifting, you should still take the time to learn and implement them into your training.
This is because when you “max out” your lifts, you want to ensure you are not cheating the movements to gain any further advantage.
For example, let’s say you test your squat at 400lbs, and then 6 weeks later you test again at 450lbs. If the 450lbs was several inches above parallel compared to the 400lbs squat, then you won’t truly know if you’ve gotten stronger or not as it could just be a function of squatting shallower.
Notwithstanding, no powerlifter will take you seriously if you aren’t following the movement standards.
Takeaway: Learn the powerlifting movement standards and follow them in your training without compromise.
2. Structure Your Training Split Into The Powerlifting Movements
In bodybuilding, you would structure your training split into ‘body parts’ (chest, back, glutes, etc.). However, in powerlifting, you need to structure your training split into powerlifting movements (squat, bench press, and deadlift).
Powerlifters don’t refer to their training split as “arm day” or “glute day”. Instead, powerlifters refer to their workouts as “squat day” or “bench press day”.
The reason for this is because in powerlifting we’re not trying to isolate each muscle group into individual parts. We view the body as a whole and try to use as much musculature and as possible to execute the movements.
For example, even in the bench press, we’re trying to think about how we can use our legs to leverage the weight further (read more about leg drive in bench press).
A typical powerlifting workout will start with one of the powerlifting movements, which will serve as the primary focus for the day. Then, it’s followed up with either another powerlifting movement (usually lighter) or a series of accessory exercises that support the primary powerlifting movement.
A sample “squat day”, could look something like this:
Primary powerlifting movement: Squat
• The squat would be performed with heavier loads and low reps.
Secondary powerlifting movement: Pause Deadlift
• The pause deadlift would be performed with light-to-moderate loads and higher reps with a focus on technique.
Accessory exercises: Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat, Good Mornings, and Weighted Plank
• The accessory exercises target any deficiencies that the lifter has in the squat.
For example, a single-leg movement can be programmed if there are any imbalances between the right/left side. A good morning would be programmed if the lifter needed to increase the strength of their hamstrings and low back to improve their squat.
As you can see, the accessory exercises are individual to a particular lifter’s weaknesses.
We’ll talk more about exercise selection in tip #5.
Takeaway: Structure your training split using the powerlifting movements not ‘body parts’.
3. Increase Your Squat, Bench, & Deadlift Frequency
Switching from bodybuilding to powerlifting requires you to increase your frequency in the powerlifting movements.
When I refer to “powerlifting frequency”, I’m talking about how many times per week you squat, bench press, and deadlift.
Most bodybuilders will train with a relatively low powerlifting frequency, only squatting, benching, and deadlift 1-2 times per week.
In part, this is because of the issue I outline in Tip #2, which is that bodybuilders set up their training split using ‘body parts’.
It’s also because bodybuilders are required to do a lot more exercises per workout versus a powerlifter. This is what happens when you focus on isolation exercises that target one muscle at a time versus compound exercises that target multiple muscle groups at once.
With that said, the main reason why you want to increase your powerlifting frequency is that you need sufficient practice with the powerlifting movements in order to improve your technique.
The squat, bench press, and deadlift need to be viewed as any other sport skill.
For example, in basketball, an important skill is free-throw shooting (shooting the ball 15-feet from the net). If you only practiced this skill once per week, how fast do you think you would improve? Probably not as fast as if you practiced 2, 3, or 4 times per week.
This is why powerlifters will have both ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ training days. The light training days are simply to practice the technique and refine the skill of each movement. The heavy days are to build strength.
Takeaway: Consider increasing your frequency of the squat, bench press, and deadlift, especially if you’re currently only doing these movements once per week.
4. Get The Right Gear
When you switch from bodybuilding to powerlifting, you need to make sure you have the right powerliting gear to both optimize your performance and avoid getting injured.
There is definitely some overlap with the gear that you use for bodybuilding and powerlifting.
However, the differences are two-fold:
First, some of the gear that is optional in bodybuilding, I would consider mandatory in powerlifting.
Second, if you plan on competing in powerlifting, there are specific requirements around what you can or cannot wear in competition based on the brand and technical specifications (read more about powerlifting competition gear).
For training purposes, the three pieces of powerlifting equipment I would invest in are: (1) a proper powerlifting belt, (2) specialized shoes for squatting and deadlift, and (3) durable wrist wraps.
A powerlifting belt is typically made out of rigid leather whereas a bodybuilding belt is made out of flexible nylon.
The key is that a powerlifting belt is made for heavier lifts. It’s either 10mm or 13mm thick and comes with a secure buckle using either a prong or lever system, not Velcro like a lot of bodybuilding belts.
My top recommendation for a powerlifting belt is the 10mm Inzer Forever Lever Belt (click for today’s price on Amazon). I’ve had this belt for 13 years. It’s extremely durable and comfortable and is the go-to choice for many top powerlifters.
Squat & Deadlift Shoes
In bodybuilding, you can get away with using a variety of shoes because the focus is not specifically on squatting and deadlifting. However, when you start to specialize in the powerlifting movements, you want to get a shoe that is made for those individual lifts.
A squat shoe has a hard, raised heel in order to transfer force more efficiently into the floor and allow your hips to more easily drop between your feet.
My top recommendation for a squat shoe is the Adidas Powerlift 4 (click for today’s price on Amazon). This will have all of the necessary features you need in a squat shoe at the most affordable price. Trust me, squat shoes can get real expensive, real fast ($300 vs $100).
A deadlift shoe has a flat, minimalist sole that brings you closer to the floor, which reduces the overall range of motion the bar has to travel. It also has a grippy underside and high ankle support.
My top recommendation for a deadlift shoe is the Sabo Deadlift Shoe (click for today’s price on Amazon). The key to this shoe is how the sole is designed, ensuring the load gets transferred directly over the mid-foot, while keeping you low to the ground.
Bodybuilding wrist wraps are usually made of cotton and/or are short in length, typically around 12-inches.
When you handle heavier loads, you want a more durable powerlifting wrist wrap made out of elastic fiber, and a longer length, either 20-inches or 36-inches. This will ensure your wrists don’t bend under heavier load, and the strap itself won’t pop off under stress.
My top recommendation for a powerlifting wrist wrap is the Inzer True Grippers (click for today’s price on Amazon). These wraps have all of the features you need, but the key is that they will last the longest. So you won’t have to replace them after 6 months (a common experience for powerlifters who use their wrist wraps often).
Takeaway: Invest in powerlifting gear that will help you lift heavier weights and keep you safe doing so.
5. Pick The Right Powerlifting Accessories
The accessory exercises you select should work on your areas of weakness.
What is an accessory exercise? It’s any movement that is not a powerlifting exercise. In powerlifting, this is any barbell, dumbbell, or cable movement that is not a squat, bench press, or deadlift.
When you switch from bodybuilding to powerlifting you need to think about what are the limiting muscle groups that are preventing you from getting stronger in the squat, bench press, and deadlift, and you should focus on those exercises.
As you can see, accessory movement should change between lifters because everyone will have a different area of weakness.
For example, I wrote two articles that discuss being weak at the bottom of the deadlift vs being weak at the knees in the deadlift. One of the reasons why you’re weak in these different ranges of motion is because of limiting muscle groups.
If you’re weak off the floor, your knee extensors are the problem (i.e. your quads). So you would select accessory exercises to build your quad strength: front squats, leg press, and deficit deadlifts.
If you’re weak at the knees, your hip extensors are the problem (i.e. your glutes). So you would select accessory exercises to build your glute strength: block deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, and pause deadlifts.
Different exercises for different muscular weaknesses. Makes sense.
You would stick with the same accessory exercises for 4-8 weeks before assessing your areas of weakness again.
Takeaway: analyze where within the range of motion you’re weak for the squat, bench press, and deadlift, and select exercises that target those limiting muscle groups.
6. Learn How To Optimize Your Individual Leverages
When switching from bodybuilding to powerlifting, you need to learn how to leverage your body around the barbell to create better angles for force production and reduce the overall range of motion.
In powerlifting, you’ll hear the word “leverages” being thrown around a lot. It’s referring to the different limb lengths (arms, legs, torso), and their relationship with one another.
It’s another way of saying, everyone is built slightly differently and knowing how you’re built can help you with how you set up and execute each movement.
For example, someone could have short arms, long legs, and a short torso, or any combination of those things.
Depending on the exact combination, you might feel more comfortable taking a wider or narrow squat stance, having your elbows in or out for bench press, or placing your back angle more or less horizontal to the floor in the deadlift.
Sometimes it’s just a process of experimentation and getting enough practice in the powerlifting movements to know what works for you.
Another key aspect to optimizing your own individual leverages though is purposely trying to reduce the range of motion for the powerlifting movements. This is because it will reduce the amount of work you have to perform.
Taking the bench press, for example, this is why powerlifters focus on ensuring their shoulder blades are maximally retracted (pulled back) and implement a bench press arch (pushing their chest up as high as possible).
This sort of position drastically reduces the range of motion compared with someone who has their shoulders protracted (pushed forward) or uses a flat-back bench press (no arch).
Takeaway: start learning what technique feels the most comfortable based on your leverages and work to decrease the range of motion for each of your powerlifting movements as much as possible.
Check out my article on the differences between a bodybuilding vs powerlifting bench press.
7. Train In The Lower Rep Range
One of the biggest factors to consider when switching from bodybuilding to powerlifting is the rep ranges. In powerlifting, a lower rep range is used compared with bodybuilding.
Broadly speaking, reps between 1-5 drive neural adaptations.
Neural adaptations enhance a lifter’s brain-to-muscle coordination. So when you lift a heavy weight in the lower rep range it teaches you how to fire the correct muscles with a high amount of force.
You won’t get a ‘pump’ from this sort of rep range, like you would with bodybuilding rep ranges (6-15), but you’ll learn how to maximally contract your muscles.
Since the goal of powerlifting is to lift as much weight as possible for 1 repetition, you need to train for neural adaptations. This means giving the body a lot of stimulus in the 1-5 rep range with heavier loads.
It doesn’t mean that week-in, and week-out, you will lift heavy weights all of the time. You would burn out really fast doing so.
But it does mean that the ratio between your lower rep training vs higher rep training should favor the lower rep ranges.
Then, at certain intervals you would plan higher rep training or deloads to give your body a break from heavier lifting.
Make sure to read step #8 because it’s a key part in training in the 1-5 rep range.
Takeaway: In bodybuilding, you might be spending a lot of time in the 6-15 rep range. In powerlifting, you need to spend a lot of time in the 1-5 rep range.
8. Don’t Train To Failure
In bodybuilding, while you might be able to train to failure with lighter weights, in powerlifting you should not attempt to train to failure with heavier weights.
Training to failure means lifting a load to the point where you can’t perform any more reps. In other words, at the end of the set, you leave no reps in the tank.
In bodybuilding, a common protocol is doing something like 4 sets of 10 reps of a particular exercise, but on the last set you drop 10-20% of the load you were using and do a ‘burnout set’. This ‘burnout’ set is a set where you do as many reps as possible, i.e. training to failure.
You can do this in bodybuilding because the weight is relatively light and you’re usually performing 15+ reps for the burnout set.
In powerlifting, because the majority of your reps will be performed in the 1-5 rep range, you don’t want to lift to failure. This is because the absolute loads you will be using are a lot heavier than in a bodybuilding context.
As the load increases, the risk of injury is a lot higher. It was reported in a study by Goertzen et al. (1989) that powerlifters get twice as many injuries than bodybuilders.
This is not to say that if you start powerlifting, you’ll get injured. But it does mean that your training program needs to be carefully structured in order to optimize recovery. One aspect of this is never training to failure like you would in bodybuilding.
A good rule of thumb is to always leave 1 rep left in the tank when training for powerlifting. In other words, if you do a heavy set of 3 reps, pick a weight where you can stop at the 3rd rep and say “I could have done another rep if I continued”.
The load in this instance would still be heavy enough for you to get stronger, but light enough where you’re not risking failure.
Takeaway: Never use loads that cause you to fail your set.
9. Stick To Powerlifting Training For At Least 16 Weeks
If you are switching from bodybuilding to powerlifting, make sure to stick to a powerlifting program for at least 16 weeks in order to see the full benefits.
Just like when starting any new activity, it takes time to reap the reward from your efforts.
The minimum time you should commit to when trying a powerlifting program is 16-weeks. This will give you sufficient time to practice the powerlifting movements at a higher frequency (Tip #3), and create neural adaptations in the lower rep ranges (Tip #7).
The last thing you want to do is what’s called ‘program hopping’, where you go from a bodybuilding program, to training on a powerlifting program, and then jumping back to a bodybuilding program.
You won’t see any progress in powerlifting if you don’t commit to the style of programming that is specific to increasing your max strength.
Takeaway: commit to 16-weeks of powerlifting programming when switching from bodybuilding to powerlifting.
Powerlifting can offer you the chance to increase your max strength.
Switching from bodybuilding to powerlifting requires a change in both your technique and programming.
The technique for the squat, bench press, and deadlift should follow the movement standards of the sport and optimize your own individual leverages.
The programming should ensure you get enough practice with the powerlifting movements, have lower rep ranges, have the right exercises, and never train for failure.
You also need to get the right powerlifting gear to ensure that you can lift heavy in a safe manner.
If you’re interested in starting powerlifting and want to read more, I encourage you to read the section on my website called Starting Powerlifting.