What Bodybuilders can learn from Powerlifters
By Scott Masson
Photo of competitive natural powerlifter Simon Jurkiw

If you spend any time on bodybuilding forums, you might have noticed some rivalry between powerlifters and bodybuilders. Chances are some armchair 'expert' has told you that all powerlifters are fat and lazy, or perhaps that bodybuilders are feeble and vain!

However, a strange thing happens when you actually set foot in the gym: often, the best powerlifters and those with the best physiques are usually the same people. They pay attention to the benefits of each particular style of training. The reality is, powerlifters and bodybuilders have so much to offer each other. The best bodybuilders take on board elements of powerlifting, and the best powerlifters pay attention to the discipline and diets of bodybuilders.

In this article, we’re going to be looking at 4 ways you can use powerlifting training techniques to reach new peaks in your own strength, size and conditioning.

#1 - The Power of Partial Lifts

Powerlifters do ‘partial lifts’ in addition to normal, full range of movement (ROM) exercises. During a partial lift they only perform a fraction of the full ROM so that they are able to lift much more than their usual 1 rep maximum, allowing them to shock muscles into rapid growth and break through plateaus.

These partial lifts have been proven to dramatically strengthen tendons and connective tissues. Due to the huge cumulative weight that bodybuilders lift during workouts, they are exceptionally vulnerable to tendon and joint damage and long term injury. If you’ve ever spent any significant time training in the gym, I’m sure you know of the impact sustained injuries can have on your training programme. With this in mind, by performing partial lifts on big compound movements like the bench press, squat and deadlift, you’ll strengthen and thicken your tendons and ligaments, reducing the risk of incurring those painful and annoying injuries. As an added bonus, the extra loads will spark hypertrophy as well, resulting in lean gains.

However, partials themselves come with injury risk! Always warm up well beforehand, and it’s good practice to do them at the end of your main working sets, when your muscles have already been primed with heavy weights. Use perfect form and work up the poundage steadily. On some exercises a spotter is crucial to avoid getting trapped under the bar (partial bench presses, for example).

#2 - Balanced Strength

One thing bodybuilders can’t usually learn from powerlifters is muscular balance - after all the main focus in bodybuilding is developing a symmetrical physique. Although powerlifters do also focus on muscular balance, the difference is that their focus is based solely on functional strength, rather than looks. Powerlifters train to develop solely functional muscles which support joints and therefore strengthen lifts.

For bodybuilders, there are numerous benefits to incorporating this training into your existing routines. Firstly, developing your supporting muscles (which are sometimes not even visible) will result in noticeable strength gains, meaning that you will be able to lift much more with much better form.

Secondly, you’ll will be less susceptible to injury when lifting, as the more delicate joints will be nicely supported. Last but not least, especially for bodybuilders, developing balanced strength will result in a more balanced physique, meaning better symmetry on stage!

Some standard exercises to build this balanced strength include:

  • Hip Thrusts
  • Sumo Deadlifts
  • Seated Band Abductions

    #3 - General Physical Preparedness

    Ex-Soviet countries really know their stuff when it comes to weight training, and a few decades ago a big part of their rugged training regimes was General Physical Preparedness (GPP). Infamous powerlighting trainer Louie Simmons has adopted the technique in what is considered to be the greatest lifting gym in the world, Westside Barbell Gym.

    The foundations of GPP essentially combine a variety of differing drills to improve athletic ability, agility and functional strength. The best part of GPP is that training sessions become incredibly varied, meaning that underdeveloped areas of the body get a beating, while tired and overused parts are allowed to rest and recover before they’re next used. Adding some GPP workouts is a fantastic way to prepare for competitions while also building real, physical strength which prevents injuries. GPP exercises are hypertrophic and explosive while burning fat and relying on cardiovascular endurance, so they’re the perfect way for bodybuilders to condition and cut for competitions.

    Some ideas for effective GPP exercises include:

  • Sled running
  • Sledgehammer workouts
  • Farmer walks and stone lifts
  • Gymnastic drills

    #4 - Recovery

    Powerlifters’ muscles, connective tissues and central nervous system (CNS) typically take much more of a beating than bodybuilders due to the enormous single loads they lift. To prevent this from putting too much strain on their health, active recovery is imperative. However, bodybuilders can tend to take a more lax approach to recovery. The most common mistake in amateur bodybuilding and most fitness activity is overtraining. Not only can overtraining limit muscle gains but it can also be ruinous for your joint health and CNS. By using active recovery techniques, powerlifters and any strength athletes can hugely accelerate their recovery time. Therefore, they can continue to train hard with less risk of serious injury. Sports massages, acupuncture and cryotherapy are the best way to speed up recovery, and despite being costly, just a few sessions per year will improve overall health and limit the chance of injury.

    The previously mentioned powerlifting guru, Louie Simmons is a huge ambassador of using foam rollers during myofascial release massages. Rollers have been shown to increase blood and nutrient flow to worked muscles and joint tissue - increasing recovery time and promoting growth. Good quality foam rollers can be a steeply priced investment for what they are, but you can pick them up at a discount here, but if you’re in the mood for a spot of DIY, make your own at home following these instructions.

    These 4 staples of powerlifting training can enhance any bodybuilder’s programme and build real strength while also helping protect those all-important joint tissues and muscles from injuries through overtraining. With more knowledge being shared on sites like Natural Muscle that supports bodybuilding and powerlifting, over time we can hope to see a continued effort to merge the two scenes closer together, and allowing those involved to learn from one another.