How To (Properly) Combine Powerlifting And Bodybuilding Training

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Conventional wisdom suggests that your pathway to success in the gym is narrow and linear. If you want to get strong, you have to train for strength. Want to build muscle? Hypertrophy has to be your only priority.

While this may be more true than false, especially the higher you climb on your fitness journey, the reality isn’t as black-and-white. Powerlifters could learn a thing or two from their posing-trunk-clad colleagues, and bodybuilders shouldn’t shy away from strength.

Man performs standard back squat in gym
Credit: BLACKDAY / Shutterstock

If you want to enjoy the best of both worlds, you’ll need a handy guide to light your way. Here’s how to mix powerlifting with bodybuilding and actually pull it off.

Combining Powerlifting and Bodybuilding: Do’s and Don’ts

Like most types of program design, there’s more than one way to skin the cat. If you want to mold your powerlifting workouts to accommodate some pump work, or want to bodybuild while also getting stronger, your best bet is to develop an understanding of the principles at play.

Once you know the do’s and don’ts, you can move forward in a way that meets your specific training needs.

Do: Decide Your Priority

Combining the two sports doesn’t necessarily mean doubling your workload or performing both in equal measure.

Instead, you should clearly define which of the two will be your “primary” focus. Decide whether you want to supplement your powerlifting training with bodybuilding, or vice versa, and proceed accordingly.

Don’t: Stretch Yourself Thin

Once you’ve figured out which of the two will be your main focus, remember to program accordingly. If you attempt to cover all the bases in either sport or run two full routines in tandem, you might stretch or overwork yourself.

Mixing two styles of training is all about managing your volume, effort, and expectations equally.

Do: Utilize Different Equipment

Mixing up your training is the perfect time to dabble in different equipment. If you’re primarily a powerlifter who wants to add some physique work to your training, you have a prime opportunity to utilize dumbbells, kettlebells, or cables during your accessory exercises.

Conversely, if you bodybuild, training like a powerlifter will help acclimate you to the rigors of heavy barbell training in a way you may not already be familiar with.

Don’t: Stray Too Far From the Barbell

No matter how you’re going to organize your combined training, remember to include the barbell in at least some portion of your weekly regime.

Barbell work can serve as the bridge between powerlifting and bodybuilding. For powerlifters, it’s a necessary facet of the sport. For bodybuilders, barbell training is often the bedrock of both classic and modern muscle-building routines.

Do: Continue to Compete

You should continue to compete in powerlifting even if you’re mixing in some bodybuilding work. Regular competitions, even if you “train through” them (as in, not specifically peaking for a performance on the day), keep you in tune with the atmosphere of a powerlifting meet.

On the other hand, a bodybuilder may not be able to properly prep for a show while training like a powerlifter, especially if they aren’t dieting down. However, there’s no mandate that you show up at every physique competition peeled to the bone.

Don’t: Have Unrealistic Expectations

Whether you choose to compete while mixing modalities, you should keep your expectations in check. Most athletes, whether they train for strength or size, will perform at their best if they focus squarely on one or two specific goals.

As such, you shouldn’t necessarily expect to hit a lifetime personal record in the squat if a third of your training involves isolated hypertrophy work.

Do: Focus on Nutrition

Diversifying your training is no excuse to let yourself be lazy about nutrition. Powerlifters need to stay on top of their intake if they want to make a specific weight class. Bodybuilders must track their nutrition to cut down for a show or bulk up in the off-season.

Therefore, it is just as important to be mindful of your eating habits even if you aren’t specifically working towards a weight or body composition-related goal.

Don’t: Aim for Perfection

It’s essential that you not get in your own way when you combine powerlifting and bodybuilding. While you may be able to make significant gains after you acclimate to your new program, things will likely feel a bit rocky in the beginning.

As long as you’re enjoying your workouts, the gains will follow.

Do: Periodize Your Training

Although powerlifters and bodybuilders have different approaches to structuring their training, both rely on some form of periodization. If you decide to add one to the other, you should still periodize your workouts to ensure that your training is structured and productive.

competitive powerlifter prepares to unrack squat attempt
Credit: sportpoint / Shutterstock

Haphazardly throwing bodybuilding work into your routine is a good way to run into a plateau or induce unwanted levels of fatigue.

Don’t: Try to Peak

It may seem obvious, but you shouldn’t try to peak if you’re mixing bodybuilding into your powerlifting training or vice-versa.

A powerlifter who is going heavy on accessory work may have too much fatigue accumulated from bodybuilding work to properly peak for heavy single-rep sets.

Similarly, too much heavy barbell work could make you too tired to effectively focus on your subsequent bodybuilding movements.

Sample Workouts for Combining Powerlifting and Bodybuilding

The hardest part of combining two different modalities is ensuring that the two styles of training work synergistically. You don’t want your powerlifting work to negatively impact your bodybuilding exercises, or vice-versa.

Fortunately, the best way to mix the two disciplines is more straightforward than you might think. Here’s a general overview:

Powerlifting Focus

Adding hypertrophy work to your powerlifting routine is easy. All you’ll need to do is dial back a little bit on your sport-specific training while still putting it first chronologically and philosophically.

For example, a “lower body” strength training workout with some leg hypertrophy built in might look something like this:

  • Back Squat: 5 x 3
  • Deficit Speed Pull: 6 x 2
  • Hip Thrust: 3 x 8
  • Walking Lunge: 2 x 10 steps per leg
  • Leg Extension Machine: 2 x 15

This kind of workout puts the most important and technical exercises at the front, ensuring that you get high-quality practice in. Afterward, you can expand your horizons with different equipment and auxiliary movements that are better suited for growing your wheels.

Note: If you follow a template program for powerlifting, you should be able to transplant the set-rep progression for your competition movements into a “hybrid” routine. Pay attention to how it affects your overall training quality and fatigue levels.

Bodybuilding Focus

Getting stronger while building your body is all about balancing your fatigue. Your training will generally look similar to that of a powerlifter who adds bodybuilding work, but your specific workouts should have a tighter focus than, say, “pull” or “lower body.” For example:

  • Rack or Block Pull: 8 x 3
  • Kroc Row: 3 x 6
  • Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown: 3 x 8, 12, 15
  • Dumbbell Pullover: 3 x 12-15
  • Face Pull: 2 x 15-20

This back workout will torch your lats, traps, and erectors, but it also helps you develop your deadlift lockout and general pulling power.

More importantly, your bodybuilding workouts should be just that — centered around building your body. The bench press, squat, and deadlift (or their many variations) should accompany the same body parts you’re hitting on that day.

You might find it difficult to properly train your chest for mass if you started your workout with heavy back squats.

Other Methods

You can look beyond individual workouts and toward your overall training week if you want to combine powerlifting with bodybuilding as well. One alternative method of combination program design involves dedicating one day solely to powerlifting or strength-specific work, and then performing a physique-focused workout on a separate day.

For example, this two-day leg training scheme puts that idea into practice:

Day One (Strength Focus)

  • Back Squat: 5 x 5
  • Sumo Deadlift: 3 x 3
  • Good Morning: 2 x 10
  • Weighted Plank: 2 x 30 seconds

Day Two (Hypertrophy Focus)

  • Front Squat: 6 x 3
  • Romanian Deadlift: 3 x 6, 8, 12
  • Bulgarian Split Squat: 3 x 8-10
  • Leg Extension: 2 x 15
  • Leg Curl: 2 x 15
  • Calf Raise: 3 x 15

You’re still training legs twice per week. In fact, you’re also squatting twice to ensure high-quality skill development. The key difference being that both workouts have a distinct and clear focus, and should also “feel” quite different from each other.

The first session is par-for-the-course powerlifting, while the subsequent workout trains a variation of the competitive back squat and then hammers your legs with all manner of accessory work.

Benefits of Combining Powerlifting and Bodybuilding

You might not get as strong as a career powerlifter who only cares about their Total. In the same vein, full-time physique development is probably the best way to bulk up.

However, there are some unique benefits to mixing your methods and dabbling in both powerlifting and bodybuilding simultaneously.

Bigger Muscles Are Stronger Muscles

There’s a synergistic relationship between muscular cross-sectional area (which is to say, how jacked you are) and strength potential. If you remove other factors like technical efficiency, training experience, or fatigue, a bigger muscle will be stronger than a smaller one. (1)(2)

Muscle Reduces Injury Risk

There’s no foolproof way of 100% eliminating the risk of injury in the gym. Luckily, strength training isn’t particularly injurious, especially when compared to ballistic exercise or contact sports. (3)

However, adding muscle to your frame may help reduce the risk of injury or sports-related accidents in the gym, at least partially. (4)

Strength Helps You Grow

Powerlifting is all about teaching you to push your limits. After all, you can’t casually set a new 1-rep max. As such, the sport-specific demands of powerlifting might also help you be a better bodybuilder.

There’s a dose and, particularly, effort-response relationship between resistance training and hypertrophy. Put simply, the longer you’ve been in the gym, the harder you’ll need to work to grow. (5)

High-intensity strength training will teach you to apply effort across the board, instead of sandbagging your “smaller” isolation exercises.

More Novelty to Your Workouts

Dedicated and focused programming is a fantastic way to hit a specific goal. On the other hand, strict periodization — whether you’re trying to add pounds to your bar or inches to your arms — is monotonous by nature.

If repetitive workouts tend to make you feel bored or burnt out, mixing up your methods can remedy the issue and keep you moving forward at the same time. There’s no harm in enjoying variety in the gym.

Your Takeaways

To succeed at the absolute highest levels of any athletic discipline, you’ll probably have to specialize. Barring that, it is both possible (and potentially beneficial) to combine powerlifting and bodybuilding into one comprehensive training plan.

  • Understand that you won’t be able to perform both as well as if you’d focused solely on either.
  • Keep the barbell in the limelight, but don’t be afraid to experiment with non-sport-specific exercises while you can.
  • If you’re a strength or physique athlete, it might be wise to compete casually during periods of combination training.
  • Put your strength work first during your workouts, or dedicate an entire day to it exclusively.

The physiological effects of combination training can benefit you whether you prefer powerlifting or bodybuilding. Bigger muscles are stronger muscles, and the musculoskeletal stimulation of bodybuilding can make you a more robust and resilient strength specialist.

Strength, Size, and a Whole Lot More

If you follow bodybuilding, you might notice a recent trend — a lot of the top athletes aren’t afraid to lift heavy in the gym. Many, in fact, credit max-effort training as a boon to their physique development.

Conversely, the modern powerlifter isn’t afraid to look the part. Many of the strongest athletes in the world are jacked out of their mind, and rightly so. Does this mean that they all mix training styles? Not necessarily.

Are successful powerlifters and bodybuilders afraid to borrow and learn from one another? Absolutely not. You’d be wise to follow in their footsteps — your Total, and your physique, will thank you.

References

1. Jones, E. J., Bishop, P. A., Woods, A. K., & Green, J. M. (2008). Cross-sectional area and muscular strength: a brief review. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 38(12), 987–994.
2. Akagi, R., Kanehisa, H., Kawakami, Y., & Fukunaga, T. (2008). Establishing a new index of muscle cross-sectional area and its relationship with isometric muscle strength. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 22(1), 82–87.
3. Calhoon, G., & Fry, A. C. (1999). Injury rates and profiles of elite competitive weightlifters. Journal of athletic training, 34(3), 232–238.
4. Shaw, Ina & Shaw, Brandon & Brown, Gregory & Shariat, Ardalan. (2016). Review of the Role of Resistance Training and Musculoskeletal Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation. International Journal of Clinical and Experimental Medicine. 1. 1-5.
5. Peterson, M. D., Rhea, M. R., & Alvar, B. A. (2005). Applications of the dose-response for muscular strength development: a review of meta-analytic efficacy and reliability for designing training prescription. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 19(4), 950–958.

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