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Weightlifting, powerlifting & bodybuilding: what's the difference?

Building, lifting, power, weight. Four words all synonymous with weight training and a combination of which is used for three different styles that are all closely related. But, despite what most might think, weightlifting, powerlifting and bodybuilding all have their own distinct training regimens and goals. They take lifting weights to a new level. Taking athletes to the Olympics, international competitions and conferences. Gaining worldwide recognition and pushing themselves to the limit.

And whilst this might all be a bit too serious for the average gym-goer, there’s a lot to be learnt from these styles. weightlifting, powerlifting and bodybuilding are all surrounded by amazing communities, with specific gyms all over the world where you can give them a go. Also, there are of course elements you can incorporate into your gym routine to take your results to a whole new level. So, let’s take a look through what makes the three sports different and see if one of them might be for you.  

Weightlifting 

Weightlifting AKA Olympic Weightlifting rings true to its name - it is the only barbell sport currently in the Olympic programme. It not only tests strength but balance, skill, coordination and speed. All competitors are categorised by weight and compete to perform two core lifts: the snatch and the clean and jerk. Each is performed only once with the maximum amount of weight possible. 

What you’ll work on in training: 

  • You’ll work on movements and patterns that will strengthen your snatch and clean and jerk. 
  • Snatch: a wide grip singular movement bringing the barbell from the floor to overhead in a squat position. The aim is to increase power, speed and explosive energy. 
  • Clean and jerk: a close grip two-part movement, bringing the barbell and your body to the front squat position before powering up to push overhead. Again the aim is to increase power and explosive energy but crucially control and technique. 
  • Overall, you’ll see a mix of exercises that not only improve positional strength for the two main exercises but some general bodybuilding principles too. This will help further develop muscular strength. 

    Train alone or with others? 

    This of course can be something you can work on in the gym - following a program or guide from a coach. However, if you’re keen to challenge yourself, there are a huge range of Olympic Weightlifting gyms out there. These not only give you support and live coaching but also often offer internal competitions. Great if you’re goal-oriented. 

    Powerlifting 

    Powerlifting may be the closest to what most would associate lifting weights. Focusing on the three compound lifts: squats, deadlifts and bench press. Again, competitors are categorised by weight but in addition, age. Every competitor attempts the three lifts three individual times. The heaviest weight from the three attempts is then added to the running total. This total is used to rank athletes and name the winners of each category. So, the key here is that you need to be strong at all three lifts to make a success of competitive powerlifting. 

    What you’ll work on in training: 

    • Of course, you’ll work on your squat, deadlift and bench. This will not only be focused on adding weight but improvement of technique. At competition level, your squat and bench press depth will be closely watched, and your deadlift has to reach a sufficient height to be counted. 
    • Almost all of your other training will be based around accessories. This means training secondary muscles used in each of the compounds, muscle isolation exercises and hypertrophy training (higher rep ranges) to build endurance. 

    Train alone or with others? 

    Similarly to weightlifting, powerlifting can be a style you work with at the gym with a program or coach. This is awesome if you’re motivated by pushing yourself and love to keep track of your progress. In similarity to weightlifting, you can also join a specific gym. They have a positive atmosphere and often host meets to test your one-rep max. 

    Bodybuilding 

    Finally, we have bodybuilding. And whilst the previous two styles focus on strength, bodybuilding is all about the development of a specific aesthetic. Bodybuilding comps centre around different gendered categories which have different parameters. For example, ‘Physique’, ‘Bodybuilding’ and ‘Bikini’. Each looks for different levels of muscle development, balance, proportions and lines. It’s pretty brutal, but something a lot of people still invest their whole lives into. 

    What you’ll work on in training: 

    • This will really depend on the category, but in general, your week will look to hit every single muscle throughout the week. 
    • Your program will seek to work on underdeveloped muscles more to provide balance and proportion. 
    • Often weightlifting is paired with cardio to increase fat loss running up to the competition. 

    Train alone or with others? 

    This is much more of a solo pursuit. You’re looking out for yourself, and sticking to your own set program and goals. However, there are plenty of gyms where you’ll find fellow bodybuilders. It can be a source of much-needed support when training gets tough. 

    Picking the right style of training for you

    Now you might have scanned through this and thought - “None of this is for me really. I just want to lift weights”. We get it. However, as we said before, if you’re not keen on signing up for a specific gym or bothered about competitions, you can take on some of the training principles. 

    Olympic weightlifting: if one of your goals is to increase your mobility, power and speed, you could try out a few of the exercises or invest in a coach to show you the ropes of the snatch and clean. 

    Powerlifting: if you’re looking to get seriously strong, why not give a powerlifting program a go. Working on the three core lifts consistently is a fantastic way to gain strength and progressively overload your muscles. 

    Bodybuilding: if you have aesthetic goals, working on your less developed areas, and even adding in some light cardio could help if you’re looking to lose fat. However, bodybuilding is pretty extreme, so if you’re thinking of dipping your toe in this training style, ask a pro first. 

    We hope this gave you a bit of insight into the different types of weight training out there, and how they could help you achieve your goals! 

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