Powerlifting, Strongman, and Bodybuilding all involve lifting weights. Powerlifting and Strongman perform some of the same events, such as the Squat and the Deadlift. Bodybuilders are widely known for their love of the Bench Press. Mondays are known by many gym goers as “International Chest Day” thanks to them. While there are plenty of similarities, the major differences between each sport arise in competition standards, rules, and judging.
(Featured Image is of Ray Williams Squatting 1052lbs / 477kg Setting a World Record)
1. Three Events Opposed to Five or Six
Powerlifting has three events; the Squat, the Bench Press, and the Deadlift, for maximal lifts. Strongman contests have five to six events. Strongman events consist of Squatting, Deadlifting, Clean and Press, Carrying, Loading, and Pulling or Flipping. On top of that, each of those Strongman events can be different! The Log Press, Axel Bar Press, and Circus Dumbbell Press are all considered Clean and Press events. Flipping events could be a Keg Toss through a goal post or heavy Tire flips.
Aside from the Arnold Strongman Classic, Strongman contests typically have outdoor events, with some contests taking place entirely outdoors. I would imagine that it would be pretty difficult to fit an 18-wheeler inside for the Truck Pull event. World’s Strongest Man typically holds their events on beaches. Additionally, outdoor contests are held rain-or-shine. Most Powerlifting events are held inside. Some federations like the IPF (International Powerlifting Federation) are even more specific, regulating that all lifts must be performed on a carpeted surface.
2. Performance Guidelines with Scoring
In Powerlifting competitions, the lifter has 60 seconds to receive the start command from the head judge and make a single attempt. If the lifter does not make it in time, they will receive three red lights (no lift). Each lifter has three attempts on each lift and the performance guidelines are the same for every competition within the same Powerlifting federation. The best lift from each event is recorded and is added together to form the lifter’s total. If a lifter had a 400lb Squat, a 300lb Bench Press, and a 500lb Deadlift, their total would be 1200lbs for the competition. The lifters total and body weight is plugged into a formula called the WILKS formula. The lifter with highest WILKS score wins.
Strongman competitors are given a start command and have 60 seconds to make up three attempts at a lift. If it is a carry event, the lifter has 60 seconds to go as far as they can with the load. Strongman events are judged on maximal lifts, maximal reps, or maximal distance. Competitors earn points for each event. 1st – 8th place finishes are awarded points from eight down to one toward their total. This means that winner of the competition does not even have to come in 1st in any event to win!
The same event can differ from competition to competition. For instance, two different Strongman contests could have the Deadlift as an event. In one contest, the lifters are judged on who can lift the most weight a single time, just like Powerlifting. In the other contest, the lifters are judged on who can lift a specified weight the most times. So a heavyweight class would be judged on who could lift 500lbs / 226kg for the most reps.
3. Relaxed Rules
The rules in Strongman are far more relaxed than Powerlifting. Powerlifters have strict gear and uniform standards to adhere to. The IPF is one of the strictest Powerlifting Federations. They do not allow lifters to wear attire that is not on an approved gear list. Some rules include, “your singlet (lifting suit) may not touch your knee sleeves, you must wear deadlift socks, you must wear a t-shirt to Bench Press.” They even regulate the type of underwear a lifter is allowed to wear (seriously).
Strongman competitors have gear standards to adhere to as well. Belts, wrist wraps, and sleeves must meet specifications. Attire, on the other hand, is a different story. Competitors can wear almost anything they want as long as it is not offensive and does not give them a competitive advantage. Many Strongman competitors go shirtless, barefoot for the Deadlift, and some even wear kilts for the fun of it
1. Bodybuilders Spend a lot of Time in Front of the Mirror
Powerlifters are encouraged to face away from the mirror. That is right, do not look at yourself in the mirror to judge squat depth. Focusing on yourself in a mirror is distracting, slows your reaction time, and can lead to injury. You will not be lifting in front of a mirror in a Powerlifting competition either. A better way to confirm that you are squatting to depth is by recording your lift from a side angle. Front judges do not judge lifters for depth anyhow, that is what the side judges are for.
Bodybuilders utilize mirrors a great deal. Aside from taking selfies for their Instagram followers, they practice posing and their elaborate stage routines. Mirrors are also used to gauge muscle symmetry. Bodybuilders monitor themselves while performing Dumbbell and Cable exercises in order maintain equal ranges of motion, facilitating muscle symmetry.
2. On Competition Days Bodybuilders are Weak
This is not a jab at Bodybuilders. Powerlifters train to be at their strongest on competition day. They phrase, “Eat to perform” is taken literally. Immediately after weigh-ins Powerlifters “carb-load” (consume foods rich in carbohydrates) in order to have the energy for competition. Powerlifting meets are five to nine-hour long. Typically a lifter will have an hour from his last Squat to his first Bench Press. The same gap of time or longer from their last Bench Press to their first Deadlift. In the time they are not lifting, they are eating to have energy for the next event.
Bodybuilders, on the other hand, compete at their weakest. That is because unlike Powerlifters, Bodybuilders are competing based on their aesthetics, not strength. Contest preparation for them involves intentional dehydration and dietary restrictions decreasing carbohydrate, sodium, and water intake up until the moment they step on stage. They want to be at their absolute leanest when being judged. Most do not eat during a competition. Bodybuilders are notorious for having food, such as boxes of gourmet donuts, waiting backstage for them to be devoured the moment the awards ceremony is over with.
3. Winning is Based on the Opinion of the Judges
Another huge difference is how the contests are judged. In Powerlifting, if a lift meets all of the performance guidelines (squat to depth, pause on the Bench Press, etc) the lift will be good. Best lifter awards and 1st through 3rd placements are based on how much someone weighs and how much they lift. It is pretty simple.
Bodybuilders can not do anything to outperform another competitor on contest day. The physique they bring on the stage comes from their months of training and strict diet regimen. Some claim that there is “political bias” at the highest level of the sport and having certain athletes winning over others is more lucrative for the sport. Whether that is true or not, the outcome of a Bodybuilding contest is the judges opinion of the physique the contestants bring to the stage.
The differences between Powerlifting, Strongman, and Bodybuilding vary from fairly minor to drastic. Those differences allow the sports to cater to competitors with different interests. Not everyone who enjoys lifting weights competitively wants to be a Powerlifter. If you enjoy strength training and lifting heavy, but doing the same three events bores you, Strongman might be for you. If enjoy lifting weights but you care about “looking good” more than strength alone, Bodybuilding might be right up your alley. There are people who do all three! Having fun with the sport you do is more important than any differences between them.