What is Powerbuilding?—Powerlifting Meets Bodybuilding
Powerbuilding, as the name implies, is a hybrid training method that combines elements of both powerlifting and bodybuilding. Oftentimes when you attempt to meld any two distinctly different but related concepts, you end up with an ineffective mishmash of both.
At its worst, the so-called “dramedy” loses the best elements of both its dramatic and comedic influences, resulting in a muddied middle ground that’s neither very emotionally engaging or funny. A quality dramedy like M*A*S*H, on the other hand, can leave us crying and laughing all at once. Fusion cooking might be cool and trendy and even delicious when done right, but combine the wrong cuisines and you end up with some foul-tasting gimmick that should have never been paired.
The same holds true in the fitness world. There are ways of combining exercise methods that work well and those that don’t. Powerbuilding done wrong can be a stupendous waste of time that may even cause you to regress in size or strength or both. Done right, it can help you achieve both your strength and aesthetic goals in a way that surpasses pure powerlifting or bodybuilding protocols.
Before we attempt to fuse the two methods, we’ll need to know a bit about their individual characteristics.
Powerlifting is all about building maximal (1 repetition) strength on the Big 3—the squat, bench press, and deadlift. In pursuit of this myopic goal, considerations like hypertrophy, muscular endurance, and aesthetics are secondary at best and are often ignored entirely. The best powerlifting programs include a lot of heavy singles, doubles, and triples on Big Three variations and don’t bother with much in the way of smaller muscle group isolation exercises—a training principle commonly referred to as “specificity.”
Powerlifters also meticulously plan their training anywhere from eight to sixteen weeks out from competitions. These training cycles, as they’re called, often base the proposed reps and sets on a percentage of the lifter’s most recent one-repetition max for each contested lift. Progression may be linear or waved in blocks. Either way, the weight lifted generally increases substantially over the course of the training cycle, culminating in near-maximum single repetition lifts in the final weeks.
Bodybuilding, on the other hand, emphasizes form over function. The contestant with the largest, shapliest, and most well-defined muscles wins, regardless of whether he or she also happens to be the strongest. Ergo, bodybuilders train with the goal of building heavily muscled physiques combined with very low body fat.
Since volume has been shown, both anecdotally and through numerous research studies, to be a big driver of hypertrophy, bodybuilding programs generally include a greater variety of exercises, more sets, and higher repetitions per set than powerlifting programs. Where powerlifters rarely do sets of more than five repetitions and rest up to five minutes or more between their heaviest sets, bodybuilders commonly train with repetitions of ten to fifteen or more and usually limit rest between sets to two minutes or less.
Though bodybuilders certainly plan elements of their training, like when different muscle groups will be trained and how many sets will be completed, rigid powerlifting-style training cycles where every set, rep, and load are pre-planned are not the norm. There’s a more intuitive feel to weight selection and how close to failure to push each set in order to thoroughly work the muscle fibers. Getting a “good pump” and “feeling the burn” may be vintage 1970s terms that are viewed as comedic bro-science nowadays, but they’re still useful in describing the training effect bodybuilders hope to achieve in order to effect physique transformation.
Fusing powerlifting and bodybuilding methods in a powerbuilding approach intuitively makes sense, because strength and size are generally positively correlated. Most people who train for strength also wind up with bigger muscles as a bonus, albeit perhaps not as big as when training with a size focus. By the same token, people who train for size usually gain quite a bit of strength, even if not as much as someone training exclusively with strength as their goal.
By fusing the two methods, we’re hoping to achieve the perfect blend that would please even someone as picky as Goldilocks from the Three Bears folktale—a porridge neither too hot nor too cold, but juuust right. Equal parts size and strength for a physique as powerful as it looks is the Holy Grail for which we’re searching when we employ powerbuilding techniques.
Okay, so what are we keeping from each method and what are we eliminating in order to achieve this elusive powerbuilding goal? We’re going to keep powerlifting’s emphasis on compound lifts but also add to it a healthy dose of isolation work in order to increase our training volume and attack a greater number of muscle fibers.
In line with powerlifting principles, we’ll begin each powerbuilding workout with a compound lift and also keep the rep range fairly low. Five reps per set is considered by powerlifting legends like Ed Coan and Kirk Karwoski to be a sweet spot for simultaneously building both strength and size very effectively. In deference to bodybuilding, we’ll follow that compound with two well-chosen isolation lifts trained at higher rep ranges designed to ensure adequate volume for muscle growth (when combined with proper nutrition).
Finally, though we’ll outline our powerbuilding training in some detail, powerlifting’s 1-rep max peaking cycles won’t be necessary for our hybrid size/strength goal. Within each set, we’ll train more like a bodybuilder, listening to the cues our bodies provide and developing a feel for how far to push each set.
The end result will be a powerbuilding routine that attempts to combine some of the best elements of both systems. The main powerlifting influence is an eye toward strength acquisition through the use of compound lifts and moderately low repetitions per set. Bodybuilding leaves its mark through both exercise variety and increased training volume.
Many find the powerbuilding style of training to be more enjoyable and effective for their training goals than either of its predecessor inputs. The only way to know if a blended system is right for you is to give it an honest 3-month trial.
Sample Powerbuilding Routine
Day 1 — Legs (10 sets)
Squat or Leg Press (4x4-6)
Lunge or Step-up (3x6-8 per leg)
Hamstring Curl (3x8-10)
Day 2 — Chest (10 sets)
Bench Press or Incline Press (4x4-6)
Dumbbell Bench Press or Fly (3x6-8)
Cable Crossover (3x8-10)
Day 3 — Off
Day 4 — Back (10 sets)
Deadlift or Romanian Deadlift (4x4-6)
Barbell or Dumbbell Row (3x6-8)
Chin or Pulldown (3x8-10)
Day 5 — Shoulders (10 sets)
Barbell or Dumbbell Overhead Press (4x4-6)
Barbell or Dumbbell Shrug (3x6-8)
Lateral or Rear Delt Raise (3x8-10)
*Day 6 — Biceps (5 sets) and Triceps (5 sets)
EZ Bar or Seated Dumbbell Curl supersetted with EZ Bar or Dumbbell Extension (3x8-10 each)
1-arm Cable Curl or Concentration Curl supersetted with Pushdown or Kickback (2x10-12 each)
Day 7 — Off
*If you prefer to train only four days per week, the arm work can be moved to other training days rather easily. For example, triceps can logically be trained with chest and biceps with back or shoulders.