There was a time when it was thought powerlifting and bodybuilding were mutually exclusive. You were either a bodybuilder or a powerlifter, never both.
However, in recent years the lines have become blurred, especially in the drug tested arena. Now it is not uncommon for top natural bodybuilders to regularly compete in powerlifting during their “offseason”.
This paradigm shift has coincided with the rise in popularity of raw (unequipped) powerlifting.
In my opinion, this is a good thing.
However, not everyone believes that to be the case.
There was a recent T-Nation article written by Cliff Wilson titled “Is Powerlifting Hurting Bodybuilding? – The Benefits and Drawbacks of Powerlifting Training”. You can read the article here.
One quote that describes the underlying theme of the article is, “Powerlifting is beginning to become a detriment to many bodybuilders”.
Before going any further I want to make it clear I enjoyed the article. It was well written and the argument was presented in a well thought out and organized manner. I’m simply going to play devils advocate here and defend the bodybuilders who also enjoy powerlifting. I agree with the majority of the article.
However, there are a few aspects I disagree with.
For one, this is not really an argument of bodybuilding vs powerlifting. The true argument is centered around two main points in context of inducing hypertrophy.
1- High load vs. low load (low reps vs. high reps)
2- The necessity of body part specific training
At the end of the day, of course a program set up exclusively for bodybuilding will be superior for overall hypertrophy when compared to a program designed exclusively for powerlifting. (If you didn’t read the article, that is pretty much what it said)
It could just as easily be said the other way around…
Bodybuilding training is hurting powerlifting – Powerlifters shouldn’t train with lighter loads and higher reps (repetition method) when trying to build maximal strength.
But that doesn’t make sense because a powerlifter would never prepare for a meet training exclusively with high reps. Just as a powerlifter/bodybuilder hybrid would never prepare for a bodybuilding competition training exclusively the three powerlifts in a low rep range.
High Load vs. Low Load
A big part of this debate is going to come down to personal preference. Some people just really enjoy lifting heavy ass weight. When was the last time someone asked what your 10 rep max was…never. Why? Because no one cares.
Perfect example – Ronnie Coleman.
Ronnie Coleman is arguably more well known for the huge weights he put up in his videos than he is for being an 8x Mr. Olympia. When people talk about big Ron, most of the time its about him squatting and deadlifting 800lbs yelling “yeah buddy”.
You can say “the judges don’t care how much weight you can lift” which may be true, but most people intrinsically care how much weight they lift.
Training should be (at least in part) about having fun. You should enjoy the style of training you employ. Plus, if you enjoy the style of training you do, you are more likely to see better results from it.
But maybe you really don’t care how much weight you can lift, and that’s fine, but this whole debate doesn’t pertain to you. Just stick to bodybuilding.
The bottom line is strong bodybuilders are going to try and make a case for why heavy lifting is best for hypertrophy while the weaker/ less interested in strength bodybuilders will try and rationalize the benefit of lower weight/higher reps.
In the end, both methods have been shown to be equally effective.
A perfect example is the study by Brad Schoenfeld and his colleagues referenced in the T-Nation article. The study showed both bodybuilding and powerlifting style training promote similar increases in muscular size.
Yes, there is the issue of time commitment, which we will get into, but the main point here is a similar hypertrophy response was found. The “bodybuilding” group did not get superior hypertrophy, but the “powerlifting” group did get superior strength gains. I’m not trying to make the case everyone needs to train like a powerlifter for bodybuilding but going by that, it’s not going to be detrimental to their progress if that is the style of training they enjoy.
The Concept of Volume
When talking about volume we have to first define what we are referring to because there are a few definitions people use.
Volume = Sets x Reps x Load
This is also known as tonnage.
Load is the key. A lot of people (and studies) define volume as a total number of “sets”, so volume would be equal to sets x reps x exercises. However, when load is not included it really doesn’t represent the true training response induced by the volume.
Let’s look at Schoenfeld’s paper again.
As was noted, there was no difference in hypertrophy between the two groups (which were equated for tonnage) but strength went up significantly in the “powerlifting” 7 x 3 group.
Now I agree completely with the T-Nation analysis. It is generally easier to achieve higher overall volumes with moderate/higher rep training. The key point for a bodybuilder would be the fact that it would be easier to add volume (more sets and exercises) with the 3 x 10 style of training if for no other reason than the time commitment involved with heavier training.
But there are two counter points to that.
1- Getting stronger will also drive up volume (tonnage) over time.
2- No one trains in only one rep range.
Yes, it is going to take longer to train heavier. There is a huge time commitment to getting strong.
However, a lot of people enjoy training and therefore don’t mind spending extra time in the gym if it means better gains. If the goal is to get the best of both worlds, size and strength, then yes, it does seem heavier training will produce better gains.
Volume really is the ultimate stimulus for hypertrophy. However, there is a point of diminishing return.
If building muscle was all about volume then the best way to train would be to go really light for a ton of reps.
For example, 10 sets of 100 with 100lbs would equate to 100,000lbs. In comparison 5 sets of 5 with 500lbs is only 12,500lbs.
With that being said there is some interesting new research coming out that low load (25-30 reps per set) training does have some quality hypertrophy benefits but high rep sets like that are brutal, no fun and beyond the realm of this article.
Body Part Specific Training
If you have weak bodyparts, they undoubtedly will need extra attention. You can’t expect your arms or lats to get up to par if they are a weak point just by doing bench, squat and deadlift. But…
There is More to Powerlifting Training than just the Squat, Bench and Deadlift.
In fact, there are very few well known powerlifters that only train the squat, bench, deadlift and nothing else. And the ones who only hit the three big lifts will never step foot on a bodybuilding stage in their life. They are 100% powerlifters. They are not bodybuilders who compete in powerlifting in the offseason.
The biggest issue I had with the article is the generalizations made on powerlifting training. Most powerlifters train the big three heavy and then do assistance work more like a bodybuilder. This is especially the case for the bodybuilder/powerlifter hybrid.
It is not uncommon for powerlifters to hit a ton of back, shoulders, chest and even arms following their main lift of the day.
Going back to the Shoenfeld article (Powerlifting vs. Bodybuilding), it measured biceps thickness. The size increase was around 12% although neither groups did any direct arm work. This is not a case for no direct arm work but possibly an indication you don’t need a full day devoted to arm training.
Best of Both Worlds
One of the biggest reasons bodybuilders started to powerlift is the necessity to take long offseasons in order to make improvements for bodybuilding. In order to truly make progress in natural bodybuilding you cannot compete every year.
This is hard for a lot of bodybuilders to take. Many are former athletes who got into bodybuilding as a way to exercise their competitive spirit. That is hard when you have to take 2-4 years off between competitive seasons. Enter powerlifting.
There is no rule against trying to get the best of both worlds. There are a couple different options to accomplish this.
1- Train the powerlifting movements like a typical powerlifter – heavy, with low reps. Think close to the 7 sets of 3 model. Then follow that up with plenty of “bodybuilding” like assistance work. This style of program would have a huge strength aspect but still address the need for specificity to create a balanced physique.
2- Another option would be to follow a Daily Undulating Periodization (DUP) style program. This would have you hitting the main lifts with multiple rep ranges throughout the week. So you would not only be hitting the main lifts from a variety of rep ranges but also increased frequency. Of course some specific “bodybuilding” assistance work can be thrown in as well.
The Pros Outweigh the Cons
If you are only interested in bodybuilding and have no interest in being strong or powerlifting then yes, it is fine to avoid low rep training and never squat, bench or deadlift. There is no magic rep range that must be done.
There are benefits to every rep range. I see no reason why they all shouldn’t be utilized.
Like I said, I agreed with article in many ways but I just can’t come to the conclusion that powerlifting is in any way detrimental to bodybuilding.
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