Why Should Bodybuilders Do Powerlifting?

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An in-depth guide explaining why bodybuilders should do powerlifting

Bodybuilders should consider powerlifting as a way to enhance muscular density by developing their own strength. The idea of bodybuilders participating in powerlifting-based intervention isn’t a new one. In fact, this integration of bodybuilding and powerlifting tactics has been developed through the concept of “powerbuilding”.

However, in this article, our goal is to investigate the relationship between bodybuilding and powerlifting, and to explore the benefits a bodybuilder (who seeks to put on muscle mass) would gain from performing powerlifting programming (where the goal is solely strength). Indirectly, we will define some of the principles of powerbuilding programming, but we will not be spending our time discussing the topic of powerbuilding itself.

Whether you’re a bodybuilder, powerlifter, or recreational lifter, everyone’s goal in resistance training is to challenge their overall fitness. No one strength trains for complacency, everyone should want to improve. In bodybuilding, the goal is to improve your physique and build as much muscle as possible, but remain low in body fat. And in this article, our goal is to equip you with the knowledge of how to build more muscle mass through integrating powerlifting principles as a bodybuilder.

For us to do this, we will highlight the goals of bodybuilders and powerlifters, the science behind muscle growth, how powerlifting affects muscular growth, and the benefits of bodybuilders doing powerlifting programming for gaining more muscle mass.

Understanding the Goals of Bodybuilding and Powerlifting

The goal of bodybuilding is to emphasize muscle size, symmetry, and definition. On the other hand, the goal of powerlifting is to maximize strength by lifting the heaviest weights possible in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. While both bodybuilding and powerlifting are strength-based sports, bodybuilding is concerned with building size while powerlifting is concerned with building strength. To me, though, I believe that you can leverage these concepts to help diversify your training and your workout regimens.

An example of this could be the following:

Do you build size for strength? Or do you build strength for size?

Many of us believe that with bodybuilding, the focus of each workout needs to be exercised with the intention of building size. That means we are building size through “size-building” tactics. What if we change our mindset, though, and try to train our strength to increase our size?

This means, why not perform strength-focused training that could improve size development? To understand better, let’s think about the bench press. The bench press is one of the most widely used movements in programming, especially for powerlifters. If you have a big bench press, you’re going to have a big chest. But if you are someone with a big chest, that doesn’t mean you necessarily have a big bench press.

How is this relevant? The idea is that if you focus on building the strength of your bench press, you’re going to get a much bigger chest. Now, there could be some exceptions to this rule, but the majority of people who acquire a bigger bench press are probably going to gain a bigger chest. It all has to do with adapting to the strength-based stimulus of powerlifting. The heavier you bench press, the bigger your chest muscles will become to support the load of the barbell.

This is the top reason why a bodybuilder should consider powerlifting. Don’t believe me? Have you ever heard of Arnold Schwarzenneger? If you didn’t know, Arnold competed in powerlifting before his bodybuilding career. He had an impressive 525-pound bench press, which to today’s standards is still very high! Arnold argues his success in becoming Mr. Olympia has to do with his history in powerlifting and integrating those concepts into his training.

Arnold isn’t the only bodybuilder in history to use powerlifting tactics to build more dense muscle. We will continue to highlight some of the biggest names in bodybuilding, and how powerlifting has been used to affect muscle growth to make bodybuilders more successful.

Arnold Schwarzenegger powerlifting for bodybuilding
Image via Instagram @schwarzenegger

How does Powerlifting Affect Muscle Growth?

Powerlifting can affect muscle growth due to the integration of heavy compound movements that elicit a higher degree of mechanical tension, stimulating greater muscle fiber recruitment and promoting hypertrophy across multiple muscle groups. Arnold is a great example of this theory, as he performed heavy compound movements into his programming, such as the squat and bench press.

Following Arnold, bodybuilding witnessed the emergence of another iconic figure, Ronnie Coleman. Ronnie Coleman is one of the most well-known bodybuilders of all time, winning the Mr. Olympia championship eight times. Actually, he won these eight titles consecutively, meaning he ruled the world of bodybuilding for practically a decade!

His successes in bodybuilding stemmed from the use of heavy weights, a concept that comes from the principles of powerlifting. You can easily find footage of him online performing some insanely heavy movements, such as his famous 800-pound squat. He actually did 800 for two reps, and even though he ended up with a severe injury as a result, his biggest regret in life is that he didn’t take it for a third rep!

There are many other examples of bodybuilders who integrate powerlifting principles into their bodybuilding routine. Lifters such as Stan Efferding, Johnnie Jackson, and Branch Warren are also top figures in bodybuilding history that have integrated powerlifting tactics into their bodybuilding routine to help them gain tremendous muscle to beat out the competition. Gaining this muscle mass, also known as “muscular hypertrophy”, is not only supported by these iconic figures, but through science as well.

To better understand how powerlifting affects muscle growth, we need to understand the science behind muscular hypertrophy to take the next step into integrating powerlifting into your bodybuilding programming successfully.

The Science of Muscle Growth
growing muscle

Muscle growth, also known as muscular hypertrophy, is a complex process that involves microscopic damage to the muscle fibers that repair into larger muscle. This microscopic damage occurs during resistance training. As your body repairs from this damage, it makes the muscle tissue larger and stronger.

After you begin resistance training, though, you need to start following the principles of progressive overload to challenge the muscle tissue more and more. You can’t expect to lift the same amount of weight consistently and see any development in building muscle! That’s why integrating the concepts of powerlifting into your bodybuilding routine can help you get the most out of resistance training and get you bigger than ever.

The best way to get bigger, though, is through overloading compound multi-joint movements in addition to isolated single-joint movements.

Compound Versus Isolation Exercises

In powerlifting, you place focus on three core lifts – the squat, bench press, and deadlift. These three compound movements engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously. These exercises place more stress on muscle groups than within an isolation exercise. The reason is that with compound movements, you recruit multiple joints and muscle groups together which allows you to lift more weight than during an isolated single-joint exercise. This overloading sensation has been supported by science to be an optimal style of training when it comes to muscular hypertrophy.

In a study by Schoenfeld, they found that these multi-joint exercises recruit large amounts of muscle mass which has an impact on the anabolic hormonal response to training. They found hormonal elevations related to the amount of muscle mass involved.

Another study supported these findings as they found that multi-joint movements produced larger increases in both testosterone and growth hormone levels compared to single-joint exercises. This anabolic response to training is the science behind the argument of powerlifting being a great form of training for those who want to have bodybuilding success.

Many bodybuilders focus on isolating muscle groups for massive growth. Although this can be an effective tactic for improving muscle mass, science has proven that muscle growth peaks with the utilization of compound exercises recruiting multiple muscle groups together.

Another idea is that multi-joint movements tend to require significant stabilization of the entire body. It was found that this elevated use of muscular coordination involves numerous muscles that otherwise might not be stimulated in the performance of single-joint movements.

An example of this could be how the squat, for example, dynamically recruits not only the quadriceps femoris and hip extensors but also most of the other lower body muscles including the hip adductors, and hip abductors.

In all, it is estimated that over 200 muscles are activated during squat performance. To achieve a comparable degree of muscular recruitment to the squat within a single-joint exercise is impractical.

So with how much science supports the utilization of compound exercises, does that mean that compound exercises are better than isolation exercises?

Which is Better – Compound or Isolation Exercises?

The best approach to building muscle mass is through the utilization of both compound and isolation exercises. With compound movements, you can begin to exhaust the anatomy initially, while isolation exercises can recruit specific muscle groups you want to grow within a given instance. If you want to target bicep development, find compound exercises that recruit the bicep, and afterwards perform isolation exercises to further exhaust the bicep specifically within a single joint exercise.

We will continue to explore how to format a workout that would integrate both compound and isolation exercises to have a better outcome of building massive muscle mass.

What are the benefits of Bodybuilders doing Powerlifting?

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The benefits of bodybuilders doing powerlifting are:

  • Better muscular recruitment
  • Increase muscle mass
  • Increase the strength of subsequent accessory movements

Better Muscular Recruitment

Bodybuilders engaging in powerlifting benefit from superior muscular recruitment as powerlifting exercises involve compound movements that activate a bigger range of muscle groups simultaneously. This heightened recruitment leads to more comprehensive muscle development, improving the amount of muscle mass created which cloud lead to increases in strength and functionality as well.

Increase Muscle Mass

The integration of powerlifting into a bodybuilder’s routine facilitates an increase in muscle mass. Powerlifting’s emphasis on heavy, compound lifts targets major muscle groups, promoting hypertrophy and contributing to the overall size and thickness of muscles. This combination of intensity and multi-muscle engagement is a key role to significant gains in muscle mass versus isolation exercises alone.

Increase the Strength of Subsequent Accessory Movements

Powerlifting plays a pivotal role in enhancing strength for subsequent accessory movements in a bodybuilder’s training. The foundational strength developed through powerlifting exercises directly translates into improved performance in isolation and accessory movements. An example of this could be that when a bodybuilder’s bench press goes up, the amount of weight they do on chest flies goes up.

This increased strength allows bodybuilders to handle heavier weights during targeted exercises, fostering additional muscle growth in specific areas and improving their overall physique.

How to Integrate Powerlifting into Your Bodybuilding Routine

The best way to incorporate powerlifting into a bodybuilding routine is to integrate 2-3 powerlifting movements or variations to begin each workout. Other programs, such as Mathias Method, agree that at least 1 movement a day should be a strength focused movement, such as you would see with a powerlifting program. For example, here is what a leg day could look like for a bodybuilder that integrates powerlifting programming.

  1. Squat 2 sets of 5 reps with 80% of their one-rep max
  2. Tempo Pause Squats 5-2-0 with 3 sets of 3 reps at 75% of their one-rep max
  3. Walking Barbell Lunges 3 sets of 12 total reps
  4. Barbell Glute Bridges 3 sets of 10 reps
  5. Lying Hamstring Curls 5 sets of 12 reps

In this workout, the first two movements are powerlifting-based movements that you would see in a traditional powerlifting program. The squats are heavy, using 80% of someone’s one rep max. Afterward, the tempo pause squats are used to help the lifter improve their technique, focus, and time under tension to fatigue the anatomy even more. After this has occurred, the rest of the workout focuses on fatiguing the pre-exhausted muscle groups that have been trained through the squat exercises.

This is a great way to facilitate training to get the most muscle growth possible. Below is a template that describes the volume and criteria for a bodybuilding workout that incorporates powerlifting movements:

  • Powerlifting Compound Movement: 2-3 sets of 3-6 reps at varying percentages
  • Powerlifting Variation Compound Movement: 2-3 sets of 3-6 reps at varying percentages
  • Bodybuilding Compound or Isolation Movement: 3 sets of 8-12 reps
  • Bodybuilding Isolation Movement: 3-5 sets of 10-20 reps
  • Bodybuilding Isolation Movement: 3-5 sets of 12 or more reps (to failure)

Based on my experience of being a strength and conditioning coach for several years, my clients have thrived off this format of programming as it keeps volume consistent and blends compound and isolation movements carefully to not unnecessarily overload the athlete. The safety of each client is paramount, so having a well developed program and integrating lifting gear for safer movement is key.

A Sample Program

Below is a sample program that follows the format of blending compound and isolation movements you would see within a traditional powerlifting and bodybuilding program. I would follow this program for 4-6 weeks to acclimate to the stimulus provided for better results of gaining size and mass. I would also recommend utilization of some basic pieces of safety equipment, such as a lifting belt, wrist wraps, or even knee sleeves to help provide a more safe and effective workout to maximize results.

Disclaimer: I understand that there is a risk of injury associated with participating in an exercise routine. I hereby assume full responsibility for any and all injuries that occur with any type of programming stated in this article from Generation Iron. I also understand results are not guaranteed. 

Day 1 – Leg Day

Exercise

Sets

x

Reps

Rest (sec)

Notes

Squats

2

x

6

180

Use 76% of your one-rep max to start off, adding weight each week

Tempo Pause Squats 5-2-0

3

x

3

90

Use 75% of your one-rep max. The cadence is 5 seconds down, 2 second pause, 0 seconds up (explode up)

Walking Barbell Lunges

5

x

12

60

12 total steps

Barbell Glute Bridges

3

x

10

60

Lying Leg Curls

5

x

15

60

Day 2 – Chest, Shoulders and Triceps

Exercise

Sets

x

Reps

Rest (sec)

Notes

Bench Press

2

x

6

180

Use 76% of your one-rep max to start off, adding weight each week

Tempo Paused Bench Press 5-2-0

3

x

3

90

Use 75% of your one-rep max. The cadence is 5 seconds down, 2 second pause, 0 seconds up (explode up)

30 Incline Cable Chest Flies

5

x

12

60

Bent Over Rear Deltoid Flies

3

x

15

60

Cable Tricep Pushdowns

3

x

20,20,AMP

60

Last set to FAILURE

Day 3 – Back Day

Exercise

Sets

x

Reps

Rest (sec)

Notes

Deadlifts

2

x

6

180

Use 76% of your one-rep max to start off, adding weight each week

Snatch Grip RDLs

2

x

10

90

Never touch the floor

Single Arm Dumbbell Bent Rows

5

x

12

60

12 reps each arm

Cable Straight Arm Lat Pulldowns

3

x

15

60

Barbell Shrugs

3

x

20,20,AMP

60

Last set to FAILURE

Day 4 – Shoulders and Arms

Exercise

Sets

x

Reps

Rest (sec)

Notes

Close Grip Incline Press

2

x

6

180

Use 76% of your one-rep max to start off, adding weight each week. If you do not have a max, choose a rep that is RPE8, meaning tough but you have 1-2 reps left in the tank.

Seated DB Military Press

3

x

10

90

Neutral Grip Lat Pulldown

2

x

8

90

Go heavier than normal. Squeeze the biceps at the bottom of each rep

Single Arm Preacher Curl

3

x

10

60

10 reps each arm

Standing Cable Curls + Push Ups (SUPERSET)

5

x

**

60

Find your 20 rep max on curls, but go to failure each set. For push ups, go to failure each set

Wrap Up: Is Powerlifting Effective for Bodybuilding?

Integrating powerlifting principles into bodybuilding training presents a synergistic approach for achieving enhanced muscular density and size. The combination of strength and size-oriented training provides bodybuilders with a unique avenue to continuously challenge and improve their muscle fitness.

The best way to do this is through blending the compound powerlifting movements with isolated bodybuilding movements for recruiting and targeting muscle groups strategically to exhaust them to repair into larger muscle groups.

We’ve seen some of the most iconic figures in bodybuilding take on this approach. This, coupled with the scientific research provided, proves there is a relationship between recruiting larger muscle groups to evoke larger anabolic hormonal responses in the body. The benefits of powerlifting as a bodybuilder include better muscular recruitment, increased muscle mass, and improved strength for subsequent accessory movements.

If you are a bodybuilder and looking to make some serious gains in the weight room, start incorporating these concepts from this article into your training and begin to notice the differences in your body!

Let us know what you think in the comments below. Also, be sure to follow Generation Iron on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. 

Citations

Hansen, S, Kvorning, T, Kjaer, M, and Sjøgaard, G. The effect of short-term strength training on human skeletal muscle: The importance of physiologically elevated hormone levels. Scan J Med Sci Sport 11: 347-354, 2001.

Nisell, R and Ekholm, J. Joint load during the parallel squat in powerlifting and force analysis of in vivo bilateral quadriceps tendon rupture. Scan J Sport Sci 8: 63-70, 1986.

Schoenfeld, Brad J. The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24(10):p 2857-2872, October 2010. | DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181e840f3

Stoppani, J. Encyclopedia of Muscle and Strength. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, 2006. pp. 151.

Joseph Lucero, MS, CSCS, is a strength coach, author, and also owner of Harvesting Strength LLC.