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Types of Lifting: Powerlifting vs. Olympic Weightlifting vs. Bodybuilding

Whether hitting the weights at a commercial gym or training at home, one of the key considerations is the purpose. Some lift to gain strength, others use weights to improve athleticism, and of course we all know those that seek to improve their overall health and physical appearance. To that end, it’s worth considering the three primary sports related to weight training and the types of lifting associated with each: Powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, and bodybuilding. Whether you ever actually compete in a sanctioned event in these sports, each comes with a set of stereotypes in terms of athleticism and muscularity which, while not always true, do wind up serving as a starting point for most novice lifters who say to a trainer, “I want to be like…”

If building out a home gym with an all-in-one machine, there are very few limits as to what kind of exercise stylings you want, whether bench pressing 300 pounds, improving speed and flexibility for soccer, or pumping up the biceps. But even if continuing the daily trek to a commercial gym, there are a number of accessories we’ve also rated as Best Strength Training Equipment here which can help with pretty much any goal. Read below to explore the three primary strength sports and their associated games, as well as their strategies which are ultimately designed to make you the best the you you can be.

Powerlifting

Lifting sports date back to the days of sticks and stones. Powerlifting as practiced for sport dates back to the early 20th century and is now sanctioned by bodies such as the International Powerlifting Federation and USA Powerlifting, the latter of which has it’s own training app for members. A closely related sport with much crossover is the Strongman Contests.

A powerlifting contest features lifters trying to reach their maximum combined poundage on the bench press, barbell squat, and deadlift. After warming up, participants are typically given three attempts at each lift to reach their best weight lifted for that movement. Their best one-repetition lift for each is then added together for a combined score. So a lifter with a best bench press of 300 pounds for one rep, squat of 400 pounds, and deadlifting of 400 pounds, would have a score of 1,100 pounds.

The sport itself is co-ed with both males and females and depending on the meet, age and weight class brackets may be used. The key takeaway for powerlifting is that competitors are seeking to maximize their ability to lift as heavy a weight as possible for one repetition, as opposed to multiple, and it’s three very specific compound movements being judged: Bench press, barbell squat, and deadlift. Competitors may use gear or equipment in powerlifting meets, such as weightlifting belts, gloves, knee wraps, and special bench press shirts. Competitions promoted as “raw” are those where no such gear is allowed. To read up on powerlifting gear essentials for both training and competition, read our review here, or our review of Best Strongman Gear here.

Powerlifting training, as opposed to the other forms, typically focuses on Specific Adaptation of Imposed Demand (SAID) and focus on the primary lifts of bench, squat, and deadlift, with accessory exercises added in for support. Typical rep and set schemes include the 5×5 Method, or the Westside Barbell Conjugate Method which might find one performing 10 sets of 2 repetitions on the primary lifts, as well as accessory movements and speed work with chains, bands, or boards. Powerlifting workouts typically work on a three- or maybe four-day split and are divided by Upper Body and Lower Body, or the specific lift in question, as in a bench day, a squat day, and a deadlift day. Given the goal of lifting heavy weights, lifters do need sufficient recovery time in between sessions. Here the Central Nervous System (CNS) and the body’s adaptability to heavier weight loads is emphasized more greatly than a specific bodyfat percentage or appearance of muscles shaped by hypertrophy.

Olympic Weightlifting

Olympic Weightlifting and it’s booming cousin CrossFit, first made an appearance on the world stage in the 1920 Summer Olympic Games. Comprised of the Snatch, the Clean and Press, and the Clean and Jerk, much like powerlifting, male and female competitors alike seek to get a maximum score by combing their poundage. In the modern Olympics, only the Snatch and Clean and Jerk scores are used as past officials determined the injury risk to be to high with the Clean and Press. Both age and weight classes are used to categorize competitors.

Woman and man lifiting weights

Considered by some to be more of an athletic endeavor than powerlifting, the Olympic lifts are multi-movement with several steps involved, whereas the powerlifting movements are compound, or multi-muscle group, but relatively stationary compared to their cross-sport peers. To perform the Snatch, lifters assume a wide grip and then hoist the weighted barbell overhead in one fluid motion. The Clean and Jerk requires lifters to take the barbell from the ground to the front of the shoulders and then from the shoulders to overhead. the Clean and Press is similar to the Clean and Jerk but requires an overhead press at the finish.

In addition to technique, the primary emphasis of Olympic-style lifting is explosive power, coordination, balance and overall athleticism. This explains its crossover into sports like track and field, football, and CrossFit, which is a bit of a combination between track and field and Olympic-style weightlifting. For those seeking to develop athletic bursts of power, this is a great choice of lifting, ever bearing in mind, technique coaching is essential and often begins with broomsticks and PVC pipe to get the movements down pat. Like powerlifting, Olympic-style lifting is very taxing on the body and sufficient recovery between workouts is essential. The primary lifts are performed in higher sets for lower repetitions as lifters are seeking to hit a maximum weight and the skill involved in the movement is key. A lifter might spend one day performing 4×2 Power Snatches with an Overhead Squat finish, then go to 3×3 Hang Cleans, 4×8 Barbell Squats, 3×2 Snatch Pulls, and an Overhead Press of 3×8.

Bodybuilding

Often used as an umbrella term, bodybuilding is a sport governed at the professional level by the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness (IFBB) and the National Physique Committee (NPC) for amateurs seeking their pro card. If powerlifting is a horse-pulling contest, and Olympic lifting is like equestrian jumping, then bodybuilding is a horse show for judging the muscles. As a sport, bodybuilding categories allow for both men and women and offer a spectrum of events including physique, figure, and bikini, which all allow the judges to place greater emphasis on features such as muscle symmetry, density, and size. Weight, height, and age classes are all utilized to group competitors who then perform a variety of mandatory poses where they show a particular muscle group to the judges for inspection, such as the Side Chest and Rear Double Bicep.

Bodybuilding might be the better-known of the weight lifting communities for its imagery and what the public sees as an emphasis on appearance. What most outsiders fail to realize is the degree to which nutrition is involved. To properly show the muscle for a bodybuilding event, men may get down below 5% bodyfat with women below 12%. It’s nearly impossible to maintain that low a bodyfat percentage year-round, and so diet becomes an integral part of the training.

In terms of workout planning, bodybuilding strategies are quite different than powerlifting and certainly Olympic lifting. A wider variety of exercises are incorporated with higher repetitions and fewer sets, with many bodybuilders breaking their days down into body part splits, such as one day for chest and triceps, and another day for back and biceps. Bodybuilders might hit the gym every day and use “off days” for abdominal work or cardio for fat loss. Whereas in powerlifting one seeks to maximize the number of pounds they can bench press for one repetition, in bodybuilding, the athlete uses exact same exercise to employ hypertrophy to break down muscle fibers and make the associated muscles larger and more defined. The number of pounds pressed isn’t as important as the Time Under Tension (TUT) and “pump” they get. This doesn’t mean bodybuilders are weaker, nor does it mean powerlifters aren’t large and cut. But the goal is completely different. Legendary bodybuilder and screen actor Arnold Schwarzenegger won seven Mr. Olympias and posted big lifting numbers as well using a number of techniques such as supersets, where he would combine two exercises with opposing muscle groups into a circuit, such as four sets of 10 repetitions on the bench immediately followed by wide-grip pull-ups.

Know Your Goals

In an ideal world we could all lift like a powerlifter, move like an Olympic weightlifter, and look like a bodybuilder. But as we all know, ideal worlds don’t exist. As a general rule, powerlifting and Olympic workouts tend to focus on heavier weights with repetitions in the 2-6 range, whereas bodybuilding workouts have repetitions in the 8-12 and perhaps even 15-20 range. Crossover is certainly common and many a powerlifter has tried their hand at bodybuilding and if not Olympic lifting, then perhaps CrossFit or Strongman Games.

But if you’re planning to outfit your own home gym, a good starting point is to determine what exactly it is that you want to accomplish, whether lifting for strength, athleticism, or weight loss, and general health. We’ve reviewed a number of Garage Gym kits as well as individual units such as squat racks and cages, and all-in-one units such as those from Force USA. No one says you have to do it all, but it’s certainly helpful to have a mental image in mind when approaching a goal. By considering the three lifting sports and what type of body style, build, and performance each is associated with, they can get a better idea of what kind of workout plan to follow.

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