Why are Bodybuilders Weaker than Powerlifters?

Why are Bodybuilders Weaker than Powerlifters?

Why are Bodybuilders Weaker than Powerlifters? It doesn’t make any sense! Bodybuilders are absolutely massive, made up of nothing but huge muscles. They train more than powerlifters, they take more drugs, and they are better funded. So why can’t they out-lift them?

The main difference between bodybuilders and powerlifters is that bodybuilders focus on muscle hypertrophy above all else. While powerlifters focus on strength. Bodybuilders also have to get as lean as possible, which is something that most powerlifters don’t have to worry about. But many bodybuilders also participate in powerlifting. It is therefore incorrect to assume that all powerlifters are stronger than bodybuilders. 

In this article, we will talk about why bodybuilding and powerlifting require completely different focuses (towards the Pro end of the spectrum), and how the two forms of training can be combined. We will also look at famous bodybuilders who also participated in powerlifting.

Why are Bodybuilders Weaker than Powerlifters?

This question is a little like asking “why are 100m sprinters faster than 1500m runners?”. Bodybuilders are weaker than powerlifters because instead of focusing on lifting the heaviest weight possible they are focused on building the biggest muscles possible.

Strength and hypertrophy are often assumed to be linked. The idea is that the stronger you get the bigger your muscles will get. This is certainly true for the beginning of your training. For the first 2-3 years of lifting weights, you will see strength and size gains no matter which program you follow.

Size or Strength?

It is only when you start specialising that decisions have to be made. If you want to train for size (as bodybuilders do) then your training will revolve around lighter weights and higher rep ranges. If you want to train for strength (as powerlifters do) your rep ranges will be much smaller and the weights heavier.

This is a simplification, powerlifters will often start their training programs with higher rep ranges and bodybuilders will spend time performing low rep sets with heavy weights. But in general, bodybuilders focus on more repetitions and training to exhaustion. While powerlifters focus on getting the heaviest weights in the air.

Another thing that affects bodybuilders’ ability to gain maximum strength is the focus they have to put on getting lean. A large proportion of their training year is spent in a huge calorie deficit as they attempt to drop as much body fat as possible. This is not optimal for gaining strength, instead, bodybuilders spend their time trying to preserve muscle.

That doesn’t mean that all powerlifters are stronger than bodybuilders though. In fact, the top Pro bodybuilders are almost certainly stronger than the vast majority of amateur powerlifters. Because they train harder and for longer than regular lifters, have access to incredibly effective steroids, and will have trained for decades. Having good genetics is also a factor.

Why are Bodybuilders Big But Not Strong?

Let’s be clear, bodybuilders are strong. Very strong. They may not be quite as strong as the top 10% of powerlifters, but they are still going to be the strongest guys in almost any gym. A better question is how come having big muscles does not translate into being as strong as a powerlifter?

To keep things simple, bodybuilders train for hypertrophy (size) while powerlifters train for strength. These are different training styles with different goals. Whether you are a bodybuilder, a powerlifter, or a regular gym-goer, you only have a certain amount of energy to expend during a session.

  • Bodybuilders prioritise exercise volume. Performing a higher number of sets and reps at a lower intensity.
  • Powerlifters prioritise exercise intensity. Performing a lower number of sets and reps at a higher intensity, allowing them to lift much heavier weights.

These approaches affect how muscles adapt on a cellular level. Powerful low-rep exercises increase the strength of fibres more than higher-rep but less intense exercises. Both approaches should see increases in strength and hypertrophy, but the ratio will be different.

But it’s not just about how muscle fibres adapt to exercises. It is also the intent of the lifter. A bodybuilder needs to put a lot of focus on every single muscle, prioritising muscle symmetry and aesthetics. Whereas a powerlifter mostly trains their muscles as a unit. This means that they are able to lift heavier weights and dedicate more time to pure power.

Bodybuilders will also have to dedicate around 30-50% of their training year to weight loss as they need to have very low body fat levels. This prevents them from building strength as they must instead attempt to retain as much muscle as possible while in a calorie deficit.

Bottom Line: Bodybuilders are both big and strong, they just aren’t as strong as elite powerlifters because their priorities differ, and they focus on building size.

Why are Bodybuilders More Ripped Than Powerlifters?

Bodybuilders are more ripped than powerlifters because they train for that specific goal. If a powerlifter wanted to get lean then they could, it would just impact on their strength. Which is something that most powerlifters do not want to do. That being said, many powerlifters have got very lean after retiring from the sport. Layne Norton is an example of a powerlifter who has switched to bodybuilding (and back) multiple times. When he competes in bodybuilding he can get very lean.

There can also be an element of genetics in this. Many successful powerlifters have a body type that lends itself to gaining size and maintaining higher levels of body fat. Whereas bodybuilders tend to have natural physiques that are better suited to high muscle, low body fat.

If you find it easy to pack on muscle but really struggle to keep your body fat levels low then becoming a powerlifter makes a lot of sense. Playing to your genetic strengths will allow you to excel. Take a look at Olympic level shott putters and compare them to Olympic level marathon runners. Two completely different body types.

Strength vs Hypertrophy

When it comes to exercise, many people split everything into categories and act as if you can only pursue one or the other. It’s either cardio, strength, weight loss, or hypertrophy. But the vast majority of people are untrained. Meaning that if you start going for a jog twice per week you are probably going to be getting benefits from each category. Yes, even hypertrophy.

A 2014 study found that aerobic exercise could lead to small hypertrophy gains in untrained individuals. Yes, this mostly applies to populations who struggle to gain muscle (the elderly), but the point here is that exercise doesn’t fit into categories in the way that people expect.

If you are embarking on a new fitness regime, then that “bodybuilding program” that you follow will be building strength, improving your cardiovascular fitness, and gaining size (hypertrophy). When combined with a calorie deficit then it will also lead to weight loss.

If you instead choose to follow a “powerlifting program” then you will be building strength, improving cardiovascular fitness, and also gaining size. Combined with a calorie deficit, then you should also experience weight loss.

It is only as you become more experienced that you start to make decisions on what you want to do. And even then most people will be able to switch between the two. Even at an elite level!

Famous Bodybuilders Who Powerlifted

To give you an idea of how strong bodybuilders can be, here are four bodybuilders who also competed as elite powerlifters.

  • Franco Columbu – Best friend of Arnold, and an incredibly successful bodybuilder in his own right. Columbu won 4 Mr Olympia titles, two of which were overall wins. He also came 5th in the 1977 World’s Strongest Man competition. Columbu was also a highly regarded powerlifter with a 750lb (340kg) deadlift! He also had a decent boxing career, and he feels like a throwback to the Strongmen of the early 20th century.
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger – As the most well-known bodybuilder of all time, and a massive 80s Action movie icon, Schwarzenegger’s powerlifting career is often overlooked. He wasn’t quite as impressive as Columbu when it came to powerlifting records but still managed to win two competitions in the 1960s as well as two Weightlifting competitions.
  • Johnnie Jackson – Johnnie Jackson may not be as well known in bodybuilding as the previous two legends, but his powerlifting accomplishments are incredible. He has an 832lb (377kg) deadlift record to his name, and is often referred to as the World’s Strongest Bodybuilder.
  • Stan Efferding – It would be unfair to mention Johnnie Jackson without mentioning Stan Efferding, the only bodybuilder to have out lifted him. Stan has a 837.5lb (380kg) deadlift to his name.

How to Combine Bodybuilding and Powerlifting

Short answer. Don’t!

Why would you want to combine two forms of training that have different outcomes? As with many things in life, if you want to get good at something then focus exclusively on it. That being said, you could flirt with powerlifting while pursuing a bodybuilding career.

You could follow a strength-building program while bodybuilding. But to be honest, you would probably need to be taking anabolic steroids to see real results. That’s because the training volume and intensity required would be too much for a natural bodybuilder.

If you have no desire to compete, then you can of course combine the two, but ask yourself why? What do you hope to get out of it?

Why are Bodybuilders Weaker than Powerlifters? Final Thoughts

Bodybuilders are weaker than powerlifters because they choose to focus on being better bodybuilders. Prioritising aesthetics over raw power is essential if you want to win bodybuilding competitions. However, it is certainly possible to be a bodybuilder and a powerlifter, we have seen examples of this at an elite level.

Focusing on one form of training then switching to another is a better option than trying to do both at the same time for the vast majority of people.

Remember, just because elite level bodybuilders may be weaker than elite level powerlifters, it does not mean that bodybuilders are weak. They could certainly kick my ass!

About the Author Matt Smith

Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.

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