Five Things Bodybuilders Can Learn from Powerlifters, Part 1

No matter what niche your lifting passion falls into, there are a few universal truths on which every lifter can agree. However, once you dive into the rabbit hole that is strength training, opinions begin to branch off in every direction like Bugs Bunny’s secret hideaway. Fortunately for the lifter who pursues intelligence and education as avidly as he pursues physical progress, there are places like elitefts™ and T-Nation to shine a light on the commonalities that benefit all walks of strength sports.

In this two-part series, I will discuss a few of the lessons that bodybuilders and powerlifters can learn from each other. I preface this with a warning—I'm a physique oriented athlete and I realize that I'm stereotyping here. If you're the rare bodybuilder who is the exception to any of these tips, congratulations. You’re probably a pretty good bodybuilder! Without further ado, here are some common powerlifting truisms that can help physique athletes bust through those plateaus!

Strength matters

Let’s admit something from the start—physique athletes aren't judged on their strength. Whether they compete or not, the goal is to look good. Unlike powerlifters, the success of a competition or a single training session doesn't depend on the amount of weight lifted. That said, if a physique athlete fails to realize the importance of strength progression, he is doomed to the same fate as the cardio bunnies who show up in commercial gyms every January. The greatest physiques of all time boasted some serious strength. Guys like Ronnie Coleman, Dorian Yates, Sergio Olivia, and even Arnold could walk into most gyms and easily be the strongest lifter there. Too many aspiring physique athletes under eat, train like sissies, and remain the same year after year. This is especially true with males. Younger guys have become obsessed with leanness and abs. I have to steal a quote from the great Shelby Starnes: “Abs on skinny guys are like boobs on a fat chick—they don’t count!” They sabotage their grains and progress in an effort to maintain perpetual leanness, and they don't have a clue how to actually train, get stronger, and grow. That drop set with a stack of tens would actually look as cool as you think it does if you were stripping plates!

Get yoked for big benching

Even though strength isn't judged, every physique athlete wants an impressive bench press. But for some unknown reason, bodybuilders and physique athletes think the answer lies in more pressing, even at the cable crossover station. Powerlifters, especially raw lifters, have long known the importance of the “yoke” muscles for big presses. And you have to admit—that thick yoke makes any lifter look more impressive. So this lesson actually has two benefits—bigger presses and bigger upper back and traps! Steal a page from the powerlifting playbook and hammer that yoke with band pull-aparts, shrugs, face pulls, rack pulls, and Kroc rows, and don’t forget to hammer those rear delts with some heavy hang and swings a la John Meadows. Come to think of it, didn’t Mr. Meadows spend some time at a gym known for their powerlifters? Guess he learned a thing or two!

Exercise efficiency

Bodybuilders are famous for hammering body parts into submission. They train every muscle from every imaginable angle in hopes of achieving ultimate detail and separation. I’m not saying variety is useless, but there comes a point when three types of reverse curls in one biceps session is overkill. Powerlifters have been known to hit their main movement for the day and leave the gym. Can you imagine the horror in a bodybuilder’s mind if he could only perform one movement in a training session? I imagine something like a robot sizzling and exploding. Jim Wendler wrote quite a bit about exercise efficiency in the assistance exercise portion of 5/3/1. It should be required reading for physique athletes. Bodybuilders have the luxury of never repeating the same workout. Pick a few exercises for one session and save the rest for future sessions. Your chest actually grows when you drop five pressing exercises and three flyes down  to a volume from which you can actually recover!


Nice segue, wasn’t it? At least it was until I ruined it by pointing that out. Anyway, tell me if this sounds familiar—a bodybuilder walks into the gym. He goes straight to the squat rack or a flat bench (Monday) and throws 135 on the bar. He hits a few reps and stands up rubbing that sore shoulder. Then it’s 185 and 225 and on to dumbbell bench presses. He's been doing the same workout routine for the last four years with the same weight. Many bodybuilders spend zero time preparing their bodies for the punishment they're about to endure. Again, take a note from powerlifters and work on recovery. Foam rolling, lacrosse ball rolling, dynamic warm ups, mobility drills, massages, and stretching can prolong your lifting career and enhance progress beyond your expectations. Every serious lifter gets beat up over his lifting career. If you fail to take care of yourself and ignore this tip, prepare for a body that revolts against you.

Get a grip

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. If you can’t hold it, how the hell can you lift it? A better grip will lead to more strength in every exercise in which you hold the weight in your hands. As an added bonus, new tools like the Grip4orce handles are leading to anecdotal evidence that squeezing the bar harder yields better bicep recruitment. Translation—better grip = bigger guns!!

So there you have it—five lessons that bodybuilders can steal from the world of powerlifting to enhance even the most stubborn physique. Next time, we’ll turn the tables and discuss the lessons that bodybuilders can share with powerlifters…