This week’s video might set a record for most needlessly elaborate explanation that only really partially answers the question in the first place.
It all comes from when a friend was having lunch with Chris (my husband and the co-creator of these videos) and she expressed a little confusion as to what my channel was about. It’s something I’ve heard before—to many people, the differences between bodybuilding and powerlifting (and their relationship to weightlifting) aren’t always clear, and the relationship of that whole conceptual cluster to health and fitness is also a point of confusion.
Basically: both powerlifting and bodybuilding claim to be sports, and regular weightlifting workouts are how both are pursued. Both have competitions or meets, where there are scores and winners and medals given. The key difference is that powerlifting is performance based whereas bodybuilding is aesthetics based. This is why it’s difficult to argue that powerlifting isn’t a sport, but it can be a live debate as to whether bodybuilding is or is not. (A lot of bodybuilders push the “bodybuilding is a sport” angle really hard, for reasons of legitimacy and respectability; I tend to come down on the “is not” side, but that’s for another day.)
At a powerlifting meet, the person who lifts the heaviest weight relative to their own bodyweight wins—the end. In that way it’s quite similar to the Olympic lifting you see at the Olympics (and for our purposes today, powerlifting and Olympic lifting can be grouped together). It doesn’t matter at all how you look. A six-pack of abs that pop won’t help you a bit (indeed, a higher bodyfat level is better, because it makes you a little stronger, gives your joints a little cushioning from the punishment that extremely heavy lifting takes out on them).
Whereas in a bodybuilding competition, competitors will do a series of mandatory poses for the judges, and the judges will score them based on how well they believe they meet an agreed-upon ideal. All that matters is how the competitors look—how much weight they can lift doesn’t matter.
As a result, bodybuilding style training is more focused on hypertrophy (making the muscles larger), conditioning, and achieving balance between the body’s muscle groups. Bodybuilding style training involves doing lots of repetitions per set, shorter rest periods between sets, and isolation movements that target specific muscles (doing 15–20 bicep curls, for example). Powerlifting workouts focus on the big compound lifts (called “compounds” because they incorporate multiple parts of the body—basically the whole thing, really): squats, deadlifts, bench press, and so on. These are the lifts that are tested in a powerlifting competition – there is no category for “bicep curl.” In a powerlifting workout, rep ranges tend to be lower (usually no more than five repetitions per set) and rest periods between sets are longer.
But of course that division is too neat. The big compound exercises are some of the best at adding muscle, so bodybuilders do them too, and powerlifters might add elements of bodybuilding-style training because they want to address some specific part (their triceps are holding back their bench press), or simply because even if their sport doesn’t care how they look, they do.
The two styles of training are so complimentary that they are often combined into something some people call “power-bodybuilding,” which is a training style I followed with good success for a while. Basically, after warming up, you’d start your workout with a compound move (bench press on chest day, deadlift on back day, squat on leg day, and so on), training powerlifting style, going very heavy for five sets—and then you’d shift gears and do high volume, high intensity bodybuilding style training for the rest of the workout.
So an example chest day might look like:
Barbell Flat Bench Press (2-3 light warmup sets, then 5 sets of 5 reps—or attempts—because it’s as heavy as you can manage—3–4 minutes rest between sets)
Dumbbell Incline Bench Press (4 sets of 12 reps) superset with Pushups to Failure (4 sets) (90-120 seconds rest between sets)
Dumbbell Pullover (4 sets of 12) superset with Dumbbell Fly (4 sets of 12) (90–120 seconds rest between sets)
Cable Crossover (4 sets of 15) (60–90 seconds rest between sets)
But why do I bite the Fitness Broccoli at the end of the video? Well, all of this is part of the shambling behemoth that is the Health and Fitness industry, a monstrous creature that includes a lot of half-truths and outright lies—for example, a lot of “Fitness” can be quite fat-phobic, despite it being a fact that the longest-lived cohort are people who are slightly overweight.
It’s true that, at the casual and amateur levels, lifting weights can have amazing health benefits—especially for older people (nothing is better for maintaining bone density, so lifting is particularly great for post-menopausal women, from a fitness perspective). But taken beyond that, bodybuilding and powerlifting are no longer about ‘health’ per se. Staying healthy is something elite athletes in both fields spend a lot of time and energy monitoring and maintaining, because the sports they practice are actually not great for them (and many of the greats in both fields die relatively young). Yet, for cultural, political, and economic reasons, the charade that professional bodybuilding is primarily about fitness is maintained.
But, beyond casual fitness-oriented levels, the goal of these pursuits isn’t to maximize health and longevity. That’s not why people are doing them. That’s what I meant when I told Fitness Broccoli he should be a bit more open-minded. Different people make different choices about what they want for their bodies, what goals they want to pursue, what’s important and of value to them, and the purpose of fitness is to respect those choices and work within those boundaries – not to champion a narrow and dogmatic vision of what people “should” be doing and how their bodies “should” look.
Or, as 90s mass-monster Markus Ruhl memorably put it….