When it comes to those of us who strength train, we often choose a camp to stick our flag in – it is never just strength training, we often label ourselves as either: a powerlifter; a bodybuilder; a Crossfitter, or an Olympic lifter.
For the powerlifters who want to be successful, you need to be, at least, bi-partisan when it comes to these camps.
And if you’re a powerlifter who wants to get to the top of their potential then you absolutely need to take a course in bodybuilding.
The reason this separation amongst strength sports or activities exist is due to the community that each one offers. It can be hard to accept, or incorporate, ideas from another area when your current group is grounded upon certain principles.
There is actually a lot of crossover in how each of these activities should be trained but it is rare to find one group admitting that they are using another’s golden ideas for their own success in their own sport.
Examples of Crossovers in Powerlifting
Powerlifting is a very niche sport or hobby for most of us. The other sports above seem even more niche again – so much so that some of their principles and training styles seem incredibly alien to us. That is, until you actually examine the top level people in those sports.
Take Arnold Schwarzenegger as a prime example – growing up in Austria he did many competitions involving powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting so much so that when he began bodybuilding he attributed his thick musculature and strength to these sports.
A closer example to home would be Dan Green, it only takes one look at him to see that if he spent some time refocusing his training he would make a pretty impressive bodybuilder. There seems to be a shift amongst the top powerlifters to a more bodybuilding style of lifestyle.
The point is that to reach your full potential, whether that be a world class level like the two examples mentioned or just as good as you could be, you will need to incorporate some bodybuilding style training in your powerlifting regimen.
Why Should Powerlifters Care about Body Composition?
This is a very fair question and yes, you can focus on strength gain and just pile on the weight. But what you’d need to ask yourself is if you would like to just get stronger or truly reach your potential?
Briefly mentioned above was how one of the best powerlifters on the planet, Dan Green, manages to look incredibly muscular while also being incredibly strong. This is due to how you are most likely to achieve your strongest total and strongest lifts while holding the most muscle mass you can with a body fat percentage of 10-15% for men and about 20% for women.
If you compete at the top of your weight class like this you’re not wasting any weight by being there but it also means that you might fall right in the middle of your weight class – if this works better for you then it means the improved total will counteract any concerns by not being lighter, and any thoughts of coming in heavier won’t apply as you will be less efficient at that weight.
Related: How Do You Know Whether You Should Cut or Bulk?
This leads on to questions of what weight class is best for you as an individual but you are better off just going for the weight, not weight class, that you can maintain the above body fat percentage at with the most amount of muscle.
By not being ridiculously lean, that is <10%, you don’t risk on losing any performance benefits. Being exceptionally lean will result in you eating less and therefore having less energy but also, you are likely to experience some hormonal issues as fat is imperative for human functions and we are not made to walk around exceptionally lean all year round.
This is why bodybuilders have maintenance phases at higher body fat percentages during their off season – it is just too hard and too uncomfortable to maintain.
As far as body composition goes you don’t need to focus on getting striations between your pec minor and pec major but you should definitely focus on building as much muscle mass as possible, without increasing your fat mass too much, or at all.
You Want to be Really Good at Powerlifting?
To get really, really good at powerlifting you need to do the obvious things like learn the technique, practice the movements and build a good deal of strength. This is your foundational work, and a heck of a lot of powerlifters do this, and do it well. But there is a massive difference between those that do this minimum and those that achieve the upper echelons of their classes.
It definitely takes more.
The ones who reach the top of their game are the ones who take that foundational strength and then grow further and reach beyond. A top class powerlifter will know, or at least their coach will, that to get to the top they need to build muscle as a bigger muscle, while not necessarily stronger, has more potential for strength.
You might think “surely if I’m strength training I will gain more muscle mass anyway?” And you’d not be wrong – but there is a caveat. Strength training will provoke the same hypertrophy response as bodybuilding work with equal volume will – i.e if you took one group doing 3 sets of 10, and another doing 10 sets of 3 (with the sets of 3 being higher weight) – but it will also seriously increase your fatigue.
This means that by the time you start growing muscle you’re too exhausted to really spend any time on improving or increasing that muscle mass.
How Do You Grow Muscle while Training for Powerlifting?
If you’re a complete beginner to powerlifting, or even just weight training in general, you should spend the early part of your training career by focusing on how to do the big 3. But not just with sets of max weights – as we’ve established, this will only grow you minimal muscle and you won’t be able to achieve much from your current muscle mass for long.
With a focus on good technique our beginner should have a training plan that incorporates at least one day of a hypertrophy focus on one, or maybe even two, of the big 3 exercises – with one training day that focuses on strength and getting used to hitting higher numbers.
By separating the days out you can focus on training the big lifts under scenarios that are close to a competition – ie heavy singles, which is of vital importance as without including maximal or sub-maximal lifts in your training you may find yourself scared or in need of a massive psyche up to get the big lifts going on the platform and this can be mentally and psychologically fatiguing.
The hypertrophy days are then free to let you build up some muscle without getting yourself absolutely shattered in the process
A beginner should spend a good portion of their initial training focusing on building great technique and getting used to heavier loads while also building a terrific foundation of muscle mass.
The intermediate powerlifter should have already gone through this phase. But in terms of their training past this point a few considerations will have likely arose –
- Weaknesses and imbalances: The difference between most intermediate and elite lifters is that they have a sticking point with one, or more, of their lifts.
- Injury History: Sadly, most powerlifters suffer from at least wear and tear injuries by this point.
- Training History: What the lifter is used to in terms of exercise selection, volume, and intensity.
Once the above points have been considered you might find that they all stem from an over-development of powerlifting muscles and an underdevelopment of certain muscles that aren’t really affected by powerlifting.
While on this point, a very common issue for powerlifters is shoulder discomfort and this can be caused by the over training over the pectoral muscles and front delts from benching without sufficient work done on the rear delts and lats to balance it out.
Related: 8 Lessons I've Learned from the Strongest Lifters at Westside Barbell
An intermediate powerlifter is likely to compete fewer times per year than a beginner, they have competition experience and may now have goals focused around bigger, less frequent competitions. Which means that they are likely to spend a good chunk of the year focusing on good solid muscle building.
This will allow them to reach that sweet spot of 10-15%/20% ish body fat while also training away any postural issues made by powerlifting, with the added bonus of an improvement in all-round performance by fixing the weaknesses they might have.
The remaining third or quarter of the year is likely to fall into the competition season. This time will be spent focusing turning all of that strength potential in the new, bigger muscles into hardened actual strength. This portion of training will be almost purely powerlifting based with a much, much smaller focus on hypertrophy work.
Hypertrophy & Strength: How to Get the Best of Both Worlds
Most powerlifters reading this will have read all about how to gain strength, so you know how to do that. But you’ve plateaued, you’re here now, reading this, because you know you need to increase your muscle mass and get a bit leaner to really perform now.
Some of you might be inclined to just pick up a dumbbell and start curling and lateral raising – that’ll help to an extent, but what do you do week to week, and not just in a session? This is where most strength athletes make their mistakes. They assume all they need to do is throw in some assistance work. But it needs to be targeted and measurable, otherwise you will just be spinning your wheels even further.
You can definitely increase your training volume by adding in variations of the big 3 lifts. The variations may even help with the movement patterns you struggle with in your lifts, but in terms of hypertrophy they’ll elicit a different response from your muscles – and more strength throughout the whole muscle and movements involved is never a bad thing in powerlifting.
In fact, the majority of the hypertrophy work you will commit your time to will be variations of the big 3 with things like –
- Incline bench press.
- High bar/low bar squat (depending on your main one).
- Romanian deadlifts.
- Stiff legged deadlifts.
But after you’ve accounted for these you will then need to include exercises for the lagging body parts mentioned above, particularly the lats and rear delts. Adding in some rows, pullups, lateral raises and rear delt extensions will do your posture and any shoulder or neck niggles you have no end of joy. Don’t disregard these assistance movements and you’ll move and feel better while also be able to get really, really strong.
How Do I Eat to Get that Lean and Muscular?
This is another point where powerlifters can steal a few tips from bodybuilders. To get lean means you need to maintain your current muscle mass while losing any excess (more than 10-15/20% here) body fat, and this is something bodybuilders specialize in better than anyone.
The intricacies of diet are vast, so much so that there really isn’t a blanket answer here. So let us assume that you follow the training suggestions above.
The beginner who is looking at gaining some solid mass in their first few years of training will want to eat in a slight surplus which will fuel them for their training – gaining muscle mass and strength is imperative at this stage.
Depending upon your starting point you will either be fairly lean or just generally a bit heavier by the time you reach the intermediate stage. It isn’t a bad thing to be a bit over the 12-15% body fat range at this point – you’ve still got your whole powerlifting career ahead of you.
If you decide here to cut down to the peak performance body fat range then it would be a good idea to eat at just below maintenance – this will decrease your body fat while giving you enough energy to train sufficiently, all while keeping hold of most, if not all, of your hard earned muscle mass.
After this point it depends on how lean you are, and whether or not you want to try to add more muscle mass or maintain where you are. To gain a bit more you’re best to eat in a slight surplus as above. If you want to maintain then you will want your calories to stay at maintenance as this will give you enough energy to train and allow you to stay in the optimal body fat range.
Powerlifters can learn an awful lot from bodybuilders and the bodybuilding lifestyle in general. Ignoring what they do or even ridiculing aspects of their training can be detrimental to your own training – if you want to get anywhere above intermediate it is highly likely that you will need to go bipartisan in training and include plenty of that bodybuilding stuff in it.
The benefits of including bodybuilding will get you more muscular, leaner, stronger and, most importantly – a better performer on the platform.