One of the most common mistakes made by rookie weightlifters is not knowing what they want to get out of their workout. Are they hitting the gym for strength or for size? Although the two may sound synonymous with each other, there is a very distinct difference between the sport of powerlifting and the sport of bodybuilding. Before starting a new workout plan, every gym-goer should decide on their focus: strength or size. While powerlifting may not seem all that captivating to the body-obsessed gym rat, having a little power behind all those glamour muscles should be the goal of anyone who picks up a dumbbell.

“Body building is based more around aesthetics,” Donovan Green, celebrity fitness trainer and author of No Excuses Fitness, told Medical Daily. “The look of the muscles rather than just the strength. A body builder's workout will consist of medium to heavy weights that allow the lifter to complete anywhere from 6 – 15 reps or more. Power lifters are on a totally different scale. They tend to do what’s called 1 rep max. The weight load is really heavy and reps are not the agenda; it’s more about a clean lift. Power lifters also tend to not have a really strict diet as a bodybuilder would. They are not judged on aesthetics, they are judged solely on strength. So most of them tend not to worry about how they look.”

Bodybuilding Exercises Vs. Powerlifting Exercises

To start off, powerlifting is a strength sport in which athletes lift the maximum amount of weight for three exercises: squat, bench press, and deadlift. Yes, bodybuilders do incorporate these exercises into their own workout plan, but a powerlifter’s prowess is his or her respective sport revolves entirely around their squat, bench press, and deadlift. One of the fundamental differences between a bodybuilder’s workout and a powerlifter’s workout is compound movements, which includes squat, bench press, and deadlift, versus isolated movements, such as bicep curls, dumbbell flyes, and calf raises.

Compound movements, like a squat or bench press, force the athlete to engage multiple muscular groups as opposed to just one. For example, with a bench press we’re not only incorporating our chest muscles, but also our triceps and shoulders. When we squat we engage our calves, glutes, hamstrings, and even our lower back, and when we deadlift we engage our calves, forearms, glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, lats, middle back, and traps. To become a successful powerlifter, athletes have to be able to lift a considerable amount of weight in each event. This means low reps of high weight.

“The best workouts for both size and strength would be compound movements,” Green explained. “These are what we call big lifts. The idea behind compound movements is to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible while doing one lift. Some of the best exercises for both size and strength include bench-press, deadlifts, squats, weighted pull ups, barbell shoulder press, and believe it or not, power cleans. The best way to use these exercises for strength is to force your muscles to work on an overload principle. In other words, go really heavy.”

Bodybuilding Training vs. Powerlifting Training

Now that we’ve decided which exercises are best for achieving our workout goals, let’s take a look at how we should be performing these exercises. The amount of weight, reps, sets, and rest time we incorporate into our workout can decide if we’re looking for size or strength. We rarely find bodybuilders who are worried about beating their Personal Record (PR) on the bench press. “Maxxing out” on an exercise — lifting as much weight as possible — is a powerlifting approach to strength training as well as longer rest periods in between sets. Bodybuilders, on the other hand, focus primarily on a weight they can perform between 10 and 25 reps with and shorter rest periods in between sets.

Another factor associated with bodybuilding training that tends to get passed over with powerlifting training is Time Under Tension (TUT). TUT refers to the amount of time a resistance-training exercise places tension on muscle fibers. This increase in tension triggers the repair of existing muscle fibers and produces new muscles cells. TUT is essential for building size, but has little to no effect on our strength. The amount of TUT applied during a workout depends on the eccentric phase of the workout — or the phase of the workout where maximum resistance is being applied.

“Rest time for building strength normally ranges between 3 to 5 minutes after a completed set,” Green added. “On the other hand, to put on size requires more work and more reps. You have to do higher reps to get the blood to pump into that muscle. Your sets should also be anywhere between 6-8 and your reps should be 6-15 and more. Your rest time should be no longer than 60 seconds. On a side note, you will not put on size or strength if you do not eat plenty of calories.”