Bodybuilding, Powerlifting, and Weightlifting

A weightlifter during the 2012 London Olympics.
A weightlifter during the 2012 London Olympics.. Lars Baron/Getty Images

When you first begin training with weights it takes some time to sort out exactly what each specialized group does and whether the training is interchangeable or not. Olympic weightlifters and bodybuilders have about as much in common as ice and field hockey players, which is very little except vaguely similar tools and movements.

Bodybuilding, Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifting

Within the last 20 years, the traditional fitness and competition applications of weight training and strength training – terms with essentially the same meaning – have changed.

Training with weights is increasingly embraced as a means of facilitating health -- for fat loss, for osteoporosis prevention, for strength, agility, and mobility in older age, for general fitness. Weights are even proposed as a means of managing various established conditions such as diabetes, arthritis, and Parkinson’s disease, to name a few.

The older, established forms of competition weight training are still very popular and they include:

Strongman competitions are also popular within a small community.

Here’s how it all fits together, from the casual fitness trainer to the competition junkie.

Weight Training for Fitness and Health

Most people weight train to improve health, fitness, and appearance, and to prepare for sports competition. Here are examples.

  • Fat loss, weight management and body shaping for health and appearance.
  • General fitness, including strength, balance, aerobic fitness, blood glucose, blood pressure, cholesterol and bone density management, and psychological well-being.
  • Fitness for participation in other activities like sports and the military and related physical fitness requirements.
  • Disease management including type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, arthritis and heart and lung disease.

Weight Training for Sports

Increasing sports performance by building strength, power, and agility is the goal of weight training for various sports.

The best programs to achieve this are widely debated and different approaches are used. Some trainers favor exercises that mimic the dominant actions involved in a sport, while others concentrate on building general strength and power as a base from which performance will be enhanced. For example, doing one-legged squats for cycle sprint training reminds us that power is applied mostly one leg at a time in cycle racing. Yet a trainer who favors a general preparation for strength and power might not consider such specific limb training necessary.


Bodybuilding is a sport as well as a recreation. Competition bodybuilders develop muscular bodies in the extreme and some compete for recognition at formal championships. Their bodies are characterized by extremely low levels of body fat and a very high muscular size and shape.

Bodybuilders use a wider range of exercises, including free and machine weights, than any other discipline because they need to develop even the smaller muscles to enhance body features.

It’s fair to say that bodybuilders concentrate more on muscle size and body features than on actual strength.

Bodybuilders usually do not have much cross-fertilization with powerlifters or Olympic lifters. Yet they seem more familiar with the health and nutrition issues inherent in general fitness and health training. Nutritional aspects play a leading role in bodybuilders’ training programs, especially in relation to achieving a low percentage of body fat.


Powerlifters compete in competitions to see who can lift the heaviest weights in only three exercises:

  • The deadlift – lifting a barbell from the floor.
  • The bench press – pushing a barbell upward while lying on a bench.
  • The squat – squatting down, with thighs parallel to the ground with a barbell on the shoulders.

Powerlifters don’t usually cross over into Olympic lifting (weightlifting) – at least not while they compete in powerlifting. The techniques and culture are substantially different.

Weightlifting (Olympic Weightlifting)

Olympic lifters do only two lifts in competition: the clean and jerk and the snatch, although training exercises are comprised of many more practice exercises. Each is highly technical and requires much practice and training to perfect. Unlike competitive bodybuilders, who must get body fat as low as possible to highlight muscle definition, around 6% for men, competitive weightlifters carry more fat at 10 to 15% of bodyweight. This is not detrimental and may confer an advantage for their sport. Powerlifters probably fall somewhere in between when it comes to body fat.

Where They Train

Most gyms and health clubs have facilities for general weight training with free weights and machine weights. Powerlifters, for example, will usually find racks for deadlift, squat, and bench press in well-equipped gyms. Practicing Olympic lifts with light weights will also be possible if sufficient space is available. For serious professional powerlifting and Olympic lifting, where very heavy weights are required, specialized studios are best, considering the safety precautions required, including teams of spotters and handlers.

Weight Training Culture Wars

On Internet forums, it’s not unusual for heated discussions and disagreements to break out between bodybuilders, powerlifters, and Olympic lifters. That such tribal allegiances exist comes as a surprise to many people who see weight training as a generic activity related to fitness, health, and appearance more than anything else. Yet they all contribute in some way to a rich weight training culture, while the more astute trainers incorporate techniques and tips from across all the various disciplines.

Understanding the different approaches and requirements for these various forms can provide value when setting your weight training goals. Just starting out weight training? Try the beginner resources to get you going. You never know where you might end up.

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