Nearly every gym go-er starts off wanting to get as aesthetically pleasing as possible whilst being as strong as possible. But is it just the case of one or the other? Is it just the case of powerlifting OR bodybuilding? Am I forever going to be stuck benching weights as heavy as my overly large ego, whilst looking like I could get swept up at any moment from the slightest gust of wind? Or is there an actual middle ground to looking like a tank whilst being able to lift one? To answer this we really need to look at the fundamentals of each training type.
Disclaimer the following sentence has been pulled from the greatest information source of all time: Wikipedia. “Powerlifting is a strength sport that consists of three attempts at maximal weight on three lifts: squat, bench press and deadlift.” If that wasn’t simple enough; lift as heavy as you can. Period. This compares to Bodybuilding where the emphasis is put on how good your physique looks (like a beauty pageant with roided-up goats).
Now a few people will firmly be in one camp or the other, but for most they either want both or train dominantly in a style that suits one whilst wanting the other. So to help you out, I shall attempt to compare the two training styles and see if there actually is a middle ground.
Typically many would expect powerlifters to use a low volume, high intensity training programme to help test their one rep max out, whilst bodybuilders “should” be utilising a higher rep range and volume split to focus on the muscle hypertrophy. However, look at the likes of Dorian Yates and the great Arnold, bodybuilders who would either use powerlifting splits for growth and in the case of Arnie, actually compete in powerlifting shows!
The simple fact is the stronger you get, the more muscle you build. And the more muscle you build, the stronger you’ll grow!
This is probably the only way in which the two properly differ from each other. With powerlifting, the emphasis is places heavily on “the big 3”, that is the squat, deadlift and bench. Because there is no need to attain a symmetrical physique to compete in strength competitions, you won’t see many (if any) hardcore powerlifters doing any accessory movements unless it proves beneficial to these compound lifts.
There’s also differences in the way some of these compound exercises are performed by powerlifters and bodybuilders, most notably with the barbell bench. As a powerlifter, you’re encouraged to keep your elbows tucked in and maintain an arch in your back to help lift as heavy as you can without putting too much strain on and injuring your shoulders, whereas for increasing muscle hypertrophy it is in fact more beneficial to have your elbows flared out without the arch to optimise chest stimulation.
The Middle Ground
Is there actually a middle ground? Definitely. The two training styles overlap heavily, and many powerlifting programmes actually utilise muscle hypertrophy splits for the first few weeks to build up a solid foundation. My first proper training programme that focused on increasing the stats of my big 3 last year had an initial 4 weeks of GVT followed by another 4 weeks of drop sets, both of which work within the “bodybuilding rep range” before stepping up the intensity and reducing the volume to test my one rep max. This has been adopted in other programmes too, with the phrase “powerbuilding” popping up as a new training style category.
A word of warning; whichever path you pick as our main goal, make sure you follow the core principles behind it. Last January when the focus was on powerlifting despite using the hybrid split, progress was being measured on whether the numbers were going up. However, switching my emphasis onto bodybuilding required me realise the need to drop the weight and focus on the contraction. This is where knowing what you want comes into play; as ego-boosting as gaining an extra 10kg on my bench would be, I’d be happier looking like I bench 10kg more, and so like many should be measuring my progress on my physique rather than my numbers.
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