Powerlifting, barbell strength training… as long as you’re lifting a heavy barbell, it’s all the same, right?
Over the years, we’ve chatted with various people who are unfamiliar with what we do at Hygieia. There’s actually some confusion with regards to the terminology. In fact, we’ve realised that the layperson uses the above terms more or less interchangeably.
Is there a difference between these 2 activities? Of course there is! In this article, we’d like to clarify the differences between what we do, which is barbell strength training, and powerlifting.
Let’s first define each activity.
Barbell strength training involves performing physical exercises in a manner intended to build strength
Strength is defined as the ability to exert force against an external resistance. The more force you can exert, the stronger you are.
Training is physical activity that’s done with a long-term and specific goal in mind. Hence, training workouts are programmed to produce specific training goals.
When we talk about “strength training”, we’re talking about a series of systematic physical activities where each workout is programmed with the long-term goal of getting you stronger. The barbell just happens to be the tool that we use to achieve that goal. Why barbells you ask? Because it is the best tool to build strength.
Powerlifting is a competitive sport where the objective is to lift the most weight
On the other hand, powerlifting is a sport where athletes lift the highest combined weight for three lifts (the squat, bench press and deadlift).
Powerlifters have three attempts per lift. Each individual lift has its own rules that dictate how it can be performed for it to be counted as a successful attempt.
When we talk about “powerlifting”, we’re talking about a sport where the winner lifts the most amount of weight within the rules of the competition in their respective sex, age and weight classes (e.g Male, Master 2 [age 50-59], U105kg).
“Same same, but different” in goals and approaches
There are certainly overlaps between these two activities. Most obviously, both use barbells and do the squat, bench press and deadlift. (Though barbell strength training also performs other basic barbell lifts, like the press and the power clean.)
However, they differ in their goals, and therefore how you approach each activity.
In barbell strength training, the goal is to get stronger. To do so, one needs to lift progressively heavier weights. However, lifting heavy weights isn’t the be-all and end-all of getting stronger. There are other criteria that needs to be considered as well.
Even though both barbell strength training and powerlifting perform the squat, bench press and deadlift, a lifter may choose to perform them differently depending on the outcome that they’re trying to achieve. In barbell strength training, why each lift is chosen to be in our strength program and how they are performed is guided by these three criteria:
1. Utilise the most amount of muscle mass,
2. Over the longest effective range of motion,
3. So as to lift the most amount of weight possible.
However, performing the lifts in accordance to these criteria may not always result in the heaviest weight lifted. This is especially so when we take into account the second criteria (the longest effective range of motion). For example, one can lift a whole lot more weight doing a quarter squat as opposed to doing a squat to the appropriate depth of hip crease just below the top of the patella. But in doing a quarter squat, it undoes criteria number 1 and 2.
In powerlifting, however, there is only one objective: to lift the highest total weight in your category – because the most weight lifted is what decides the winner.
In order to be as competitive as possible, powerlifters not only train to get as strong as possible but also work on optimising for efficiency in how they perform their lifts.
Lifting the heaviest weights doesn’t mean you’re the strongest
Wait, what? Doesn’t lifting the heaviest weight mean you’re the strongest?
Yes, lifting heavy weights most definitely requires one to be pretty damn strong. However, apart from just utilising strength, powerlifters also frequently use physics to increase the amount of weight they can lift in a meet.
The simplest way to improve efficiency is to shorten the distance the bar has to travel.
Because Work = Force x Distance, the shorter the distance the bar has to travel, the less work is being done. For the same amount of work done, a powerlifter very likely prefer to move 200kg over 5cm rather than 100kgs over 10cm because more weight lifted increases their chances of winning.
Recall the second criteria above – while a lifter that’s training to get stronger will utilise the longest effective range of motion, the powerlifter will aim to minimise the range of motion in order to put up heavier weights.
Let’s look at some examples. In a powerlifting meet, a competitor may choose to utilise a sumo deadlift as opposed to a conventional deadlift to “shorten” his legs. By doing this, the distance the bar has to travel from the floor to lockout is shortened.
In a more extreme example, some powerlifters with sufficient flexibility will utilise a very wide grip and a big arch to drastically minimise the distance the bar has to travel on the bench press. This lifter has achieved that and results in almost zero range of motion – she’s benching a huge amount of weight… but the bar only moves a centimetre or so.
According to the rules, the spacing of the hands shall not exceed 81 cm measured between the forefingers (both forefingers must be within the 81 cm marks and the whole of the forefingers must be in contact with the 81 cm marks if maximum grip is used) (International Powerlifting Federation, 2022, p. 18). While that bench press attempt was within powerlifting rules, I find that these rules allow for some ridiculous extremes and ought to change. But I digress, that’s a topic for another time.
Back to her bench press attempt. Is she strong? Certainly. If she used the narrower grip that we advocate (so that her forearms are perpendicular to the floor when the bar is on her chest), quite a bit of weight would have to be taken off the bar. While the wide grip allows for more weight to be lifted, it doesn’t fit into our criteria for training to get stronger.
For comparison, here’s how we’d perform the deadlift and bench press in barbell strength training.
Choose your training program based on your goals
Do you want to compete in powerlifting meets? Then, by all means, go for it and train to lift the heaviest weights possible.
Or do you want to get stronger? We’ve talked about it before, but it bears a recap. Strength has many benefits, from improving sports performance to boosting general fitness. Particularly for older folks, it helps with improving mobility, preventing falls, and inhibiting osteoporosis. We firmly believe that barbell strength training, under a systematic method like Starting Strength, is one of the best ways to get strong.
Fundamentally, strength training is an activity you do to get stronger, while powerlifting is a sport. We don’t necessarily recommend one over the other, as they’re different things. What we’re trying to achieve with this article is to highlight that while barbell strength training and powerlifting may look similar, they aren’t quite the same. Or as they say “same same, but different”.
International Powerlifting Federation. (2022). IPF Technical Rules Book. https://www.powerlifting.sport/fileadmin/ipf/data/rules/technical-rules/english/IPF_Technical_Rules_Book_2022_1.pdf