Why are Powerlifters Smaller Than Bodybuilders? Unveiling the Size-Strength Paradox

Many people don’t really know that there is a huge difference between a powerlifter and a bodybuilder.

While they both operate with heavy weights and are absolutely jacked, you might notice that bodybuilders are often bigger than their powerlifting counterparts.

That’s because both sports share some fundamental differences. In powerlifting, the sole indicator of performance is the lifter’s 1RM (1-Rep Maximum) [1]. Powerlifters follow specialized training programs to increase their functional strength and, therefore, their 1RM records.

Bodybuilders, on the other hand, aim to maximize muscle hypertrophy through resistance training. According to research, such a training program is the most effective path to building muscle mass over time [2].

It may get confusing sometimes. After all, powerlifters are supposed to be able to lift more. So, why are they smaller compared to bodybuilders?

Let’s find out in a more detailed manner.

Key Takeaways

  • In powerlifting, the main goal is to build enough strength to be able to lift the most amount of weight in one go [1].
  • Bodybuilding is based on resistance training, which involves more repetitions in a single set. Lower-repetition sets stimulate less muscle growth compared to higher-repetition sets.
  • In powerlifting, exercises are performed at near maximum effort. Low-weight, high-repetition training is only followed sometimes to improve lifting technique [3].
  • Bodybuilders work out while focusing on large and small muscle groups, compound movements, and isolation exercises for better hypertrophy, which is not the case with powerlifting training [4].
  • Bodybuilding programs pay a lot of attention to nutrition. Lifters plan their meals in line with their fitness goals so that their bodies can get better in shape and size.

Why Are Powerlifters Smaller Than Bodybuilders?

Why are Powerlifters Smaller Than Bodybuilders

Now that we understand the basic differences between powerlifting and bodybuilding, it’s time to unravel the big mystery.

There are many different reasons why bodybuilders could appear bigger than powerlifters, even if they don’t have as much strength.

In this article, we’ll talk about the main ones. And rest assured, all of the reasons mentioned are backed by scientific studies and research.

Targeted Muscle Development

Bodybuilding, as a sport, is completely different from powerlifting based on how participants are judged.

For bodybuilders, the physique is the focal point of presentation. Powerlifters don’t care as much about how they look.

A good example is comparing the torso and abdominal region of powerlifters and bodybuilders. On the one hand, bodybuilders appear to be absolutely shredded, with six-pack abs clearly visible on the forefront.

Meanwhile, a powerlifter might not look as refined. Sure, they would have large upper-body muscles. But that’s only because large torsos are shown to improve strength performance during compound movements [5].

Bodybuilders focus on targeted muscle development. They follow the Adonix Index formula to determine the ideal size of each muscle group. According to that formula, the ideal male physique will have a ratio of 1:1.68 for waist and shoulder size.

In simpler words, bodybuilders will strive to have shoulders that are 1.68 times wider than the waistline. Because of these targeted muscle development goals, bodybuilders tend to look larger compared to powerlifters.

High-Rep Sets Produce More Stimulus For Muscle Growth

Research has shown that sets with a larger number of repetitions stimulate more muscle growth [6]. That’s because they activate hypertrophy in Type 1 muscle fibers more efficiently. Compared to Type 2 (larger and more powerful), Type 1 fibers are more resistant to fatigue.

To activate them completely and stimulate muscle growth, they need to spend more time under stress and tension, which is achieved by performing longer sets.

Powerlifters operate in the low-rep range (1-5 reps during training), while bodybuilders focus on high-rep ranges (8-15 res during training). This explains why bodybuilders experience greater hypertrophy gains.

Bodybuilders Focus More On Nutrition

Bodybuilders Focus More On Nutrition

All bodybuilders have a comprehensive nutrition plan. They focus on their micro and macronutrient requirements. All their meals contain proportionate amounts of proteins, fats, and carbs to ensure that most of their body weight comes from muscle mass.

Powerlifters, on the other hand, focus more on getting their daily calorie requirements. As long as they are eating enough, they generally don’t restrict themselves on what to eat based on the micro and macronutrients that they might need.

Bodybuilders Chase Muscle Pumps

Powerlifters mostly lift heavy weights while keeping the number of repetitions low. In the end, all they want is to increase their 1RM capabilities.

Bodybuilders, on the other hand, follow the high-rep routine, something that can prompt muscle pumps fairly often.

And contrary to popular belief, feeling ‘pumped’ up after an exercise is more than just a momentary emotion. In fact, it’s something that can enhance the hypertrophy process.

According to multiple studies, getting muscle pumps while training can lead to increased blood flow, enhanced nutrient delivery, and improved satellite cell activation. All of these are great for promoting muscle hypertrophy [7].

That is why bodybuilders tend to have larger muscles than powerlifters.

Bodybuilders Train To Failure More Often

Bodybuilders Train To Failure More Often

Powerlifters often train near their 1RM capabilities. But they usually do not allow their muscles to fatigue completely unless they want to condition their bodies to grow further in strength.

Bodybuilders, on the other hand, go by the principle of achieving muscular failure after every training session.

When you train your muscles to exhaustion, they experience more muscle activation and motor unit recruitment, leading to significant growth [8].

Their tendency to train till exhaustion is a key part of why bodybuilders tend to get so big.

Use of Advanced Training Techniques

Powerlifters keep their training routines simple – all they need to do is lift heavy weights while performing basic movements like squats and deadlifts to build their strength and prepare for competitions.

Bodybuilders have a more holistic goal – they need to focus on overall growth. As such, they use advanced techniques like supersets, drop-sets, blood flow restriction training (BFR), as many reps as possible sets (AMRAP), intra-set stretching, and so on.

They also focus on the mind-muscle connection factor to further their hypertrophy gains. Moreover, bodybuilders have a highly variable training routine. They do not stick to a single program. They will alternate between different training styles and routines to provide maximum stimulus to their muscles.

Research has shown that this is one of the most effective ways of growing muscle mass [9].

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Muscles Grow Quicker When They Spend More Time Under Tension

One key exercise principle, when it comes to bodybuilding, is to maintain a strict slow momentum while working out. This ensures that your muscle spends the maximum time under tension.

Powerlifters, in comparison, move big weights and try to do that as fast as possible to achieve a new 1RM and prevent their muscles from experiencing any extra strain.

While powerlifters do lift heavier weights, bodybuilders lift lighter weights, but more frequently. They perform more sets with higher repetitions and also take shorter rest times.

At the end of the workout, a bodybuilder will have done more work and consumed more energy compared to a powerlifter. As such, their muscles will have spent more time under stress compared to a powerlifter’s muscle.

Bodybuilding Training Programs Focus On Muscle Isolation

Bodybuilding Training Programs Focus On Muscle Isolation

Powerlifters tend to focus on compound movements like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. Bodybuilders, on the other hand, incorporate all kinds of movements in their workout routines.

They focus on single-joint movements, multi-joint movements, and even machine-based training.

By training a muscle from different angles, you can stimulate the majority of fibers present in your muscles, ensuring maximum hypertrophy gains.

Bodybuilders Train For Size

Although bodybuilders and powerlifters perform many of the same exercises, the manner in which they do so is quite different.

For example, powerlifters use techniques like low-bar back squats, medium-to-wide grip bench presses, and sumo-style deadlifts, as they allow them to lift more weight [1].

Bodybuilders use different techniques, more focused on achieving greater activation and building muscle mass. When measured for EMG, a bodybuilder’s technique will generally show more activation compared to a powerlifter’s technique.

Shorter Rest Times

Powerlifters do not start another set until their muscles have recovered completely. They can take anywhere between 5-7 minutes to move on to the next set or exercise.

Bodybuilders take shorter rests. This is based on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s principle to shock the muscles.

According to research, shorter rest intervals of 2-3 minutes are most suitable for building more muscle [10].

Use of Training Splits

Bodybuilders devise different training splits to make their workouts more efficient. They target one or two muscle groups every day, ensuring that all the muscle groups get sufficient time during each training week.

These splits are designed to ensure the perfect balance between recovery and training while maximizing muscle hypertrophy.

Powerlifters don’t focus on bodybuilding splits. Instead, they have training routines to help them maximize their 1RM capabilities and strength gains.

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Final Words

There are many reasons why powerlifters can appear smaller than bodybuilders, despite having more strength.

Bodybuilding and powerlifting are two different concepts and serve different crowds. One is all about building a physique and increasing muscle mass. The other is about allowing an individual to lift maximum weight.


  1. Ferland, P., & Comtois, A. S. (2019). Classic Powerlifting Performance: A Systematic Review. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 33(1), S194–S201. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0000000000003099
  2. Thomas, M. H. (2016). Increasing lean mass and strength: A comparison of high frequency strength training to lower frequency strength training. PubMed Central (PMC). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4836564/
  3. Androulakis-Korakakis, P., Michalopoulos, N., Fisher, J., Keogh, J. W. L., Loenneke, J. P., Helms, E. R., Wolf, M., Nuckols, G., & Steele, J. (2021). The minimum effective training dose required for 1RM strength in powerlifters. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living, 3. https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2021.713655
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  8. Sundstrup, E., Jakobsen, M. D., Andersen, C. H., Zebis, M. K., Mortensen, O. S., & Andersen, L. L. (2012). Muscle activation strategies during strength training with heavy loading vs. repetitions to failure. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(7), 1897-1903. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e318239c38e
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