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Powerlifting for Bodybuilders

I always find it amusing when bodybuilders make fun of powerlifters and vice versa. I mean when it comes down to it, we’re all into the iron game, just different variations with different goals.

People, people, can’t we all just get along?

Back in the day, a ton of the old-school lifters trained as both powerlifters and bodybuilders. Franco and Arnold are just two names that come to mind, as they utilized hard and heavy training to build some of the most recognizable and aesthetic physiques in the game. In fact, I’d venture to say that a lot of you reading this would rather have a physique like Franco or Arnold than a bloated bodybuilder of today.

This piece is dedicated to the bodybuilder who wants to use powerlifting techniques to improve his physique. Needless to say, a lot of powerlifters have envious physiques with little or no bodybuilding training whatsoever; so what are they doing to get that look? Read on and I’ll show ya!

Decrease the Reps

Chad Waterbury’s discussed the benefits of low-rep training for bodybuilders for quite some time now, but I still don’t think everyone has caught on. If you’re one of those people that dare not go any lower than 6 reps per set, this tip is for you!

Chad hits you hard and heavy with his article, The Science of 10x3; if you haven’t read it yet, you need to. This quote does a great job of summarizing why low-rep training works:

"10 x 3 training utilizes a large load (>80% of 1RM). This load is necessary to recruit the FF and FFR motor units that possess FG Type IIB and FOG Type IIA muscle fibers, respectively. This is very important since the aforementioned fibers have the greatest potential for growth."

Now you don’t necessarily have to use 10x3, but it’s Chad’s preferred method. I’d add that set/rep schemes such as 6x4 and 5x3 will also be of benefit for short periods of time, although they may not give you quite the same hypertrophy gains. However, once you return to higher rep training, the benefits will be self-evident.

The bottom line here is that when we are trying to convince your body to grow, tension is our best friend. If you want to pump away with sets of 8, 10, 12 or 15 reps, it’s only the last couple of reps that are going to convince your body to adapt and overcome. However, if you use lower reps and increase the weight on the bar, the increased tension you produce will more than make up for a few less reps per set.

Squat Deep

We’ve all seen it before: The biggest guy in the gym walks over to the squat cage, loads up 3 plates, and proceeds to hit a "light" set of 20 as his warm-up. Problem is, he’s doing a half squat and for each additional plate he loads up, he’s squatting an inch or two higher. By the time he’s on his "work" sets, he’s not doing much more than bending and then re-locking his knees! Please don’t fall victim to his vicious cycle of ego stroking.

For healthy knees and people with good flexibility/mobility, deep squats are simply the best option available. Current literature shows that the deeper you go, the more total thigh and hip development you’re going to elicit. Quarter squats hit the quads and that’s about it; as you go deep you not only develop the quads, but the hamstrings and glutes as well. Needless to say, the squat is a pretty good exercise for packing on overall body mass too!

Squat heavy and squat deep; if you don’t use anything else from this article, this tip alone will take your physique up to the next level.

Hit the triceps hard and heavy

Unfortunately, it seems as though bodybuilders own stock in the pushdown and cable crossovers machines at their gym. Powerlifters, on the other hand, often have massive triceps and include minimal or no pushdowns whatsoever in their program; what gives?

Those "in the know" understand that to build huge, strong triceps, you've got to move heavy weight. Old-school bodybuilders and powerlifters alike used exercises such as close-grip benches, rack lockouts, and dips. For motivation, here’s a pic of Arnold getting nutty on some dips:

New-school powerlifters have developed exercises to stimulate triceps growth; these include floor presses, board presses, and reverse band benches. These movements are awesome for triceps development because they overload the triceps in the range(s) where they can produce the most tension. Again, more tension equals more growth!

Row your way to a thicker back

When I talk to a lot of bodybuilders, they always want to talk about what they can bench. I’m all for it, but I also want to know what their training program looks like. You’d be amazed at how many say something like this:

Flat Bench, X sets of Y reps
Incline Bench, A sets of B reps
Decline DB, M sets of N reps

So assuming they’re just doing 3 sets on all of these (which is a huge assumption, because most typically do 4 or even 5), they’ve already done 9 sets of bench press in one day. The next question I ask is, "How many sets of rows are you doing?" The answer is almost always fewer than 9, and typically quite a bit less.

In other words, their rowing exercises are typically an after-thought in the training program. Even if they do perform equal rowing and benching volumes, they typically include it after their vertical pulling work, so the quality of their effort isn’t nearly as good. And you wonder why we have so many shoulder injuries out there!

I remember reading an article a long time ago by Arnold. He said that if you wanted a 50-inch chest, quit messing around with all those bench presses and build your back instead! Powerlifters understand that by developing your upper back through different rowing variations, you’ll not only keep yourself healthier but shorten your bench pressing stroke to boot because you’ll be thicker in the torso. Hmmm, injury-free, thicker, and moving more weight; sounds good to me!

Now I know in this ADD generation we all want more options, so I’ve already written an article with tons of different rowing variations you can use in your training program. Wanna Grow? Gotta Row! was written so that you have a ton of options and can keep your body growing and injury-free.

Build a back-side like most peoples’ front-side

Bodybuilders get a bad rap for training all the "showy" muscles that you can see in the mirror: Quads, pecs, biceps, etc. Powerlifters are the exact opposite: They only want to train muscles that promote increases in performance. When you think about it, if you paired the two training philosophies, you could have one freaky looking bodybuilder, or powerlifter for that matter!

The posterior chain of the low body (according to a powerlifter) consists of the hamstrings, gluteals, and spinal erectors. These are the muscles that will allow you to squat and deadlift the most weight, but what exercises are our best options to develop them?

If you look at any powerlifting gym worth its salt, you notice a few key "machines" that most commercial gyms don’t offer. The glute-ham raise has been used since the 1960’s to develop the pulling muscles of Russian Olympic weight lifters. Along the same lines, the reverse hyper has been used since the 1980’s to rehabilitate low backs and improve the strength of the posterior chain. The true benefit of the reverse hyper lies in the fact that it promotes extension of the hip, while most machines focus on extension of the trunk.

But what if you don’t have these machines? Please don’t use it as an excuse; there are still plenty of exercises to choose from. Romanian deadlifts and good mornings can both be performed using only a power rack.

Finally, don’t forget the great grand-daddy of posterior chain work, THE DEADLIFT! There are tons of variations you can spin off of this great exercise (which will be the topic of a future article), but the standard version works very well by itself. Guys like Franco who had a super strong back, had massive muscle development to show for it as well. I’ll leave you with this pic; if it doesn’t motivate you to go out and pick up something heavy, I don’t know what will!

Develop a strong, functional core

Having a strong, functional core is absolutely essential to long-term progress. However, a lot of bodybuilders shoot for a waistline that resembles that of an anorexic supermodel. We all know the big lifts such as squats and pulls can put slabs of muscle on your frame, so why would we want a small waistline that isn’t conducive to moving big iron in these exercises? It makes no sense. Also, people are always quick to say "I don’t want to use weights on my ab exercises because it will make me look fat." This, again, is nonsense. The reason you’ll look fat is because you don’t eat clean and your idea of cardio is watching your pet hamster run on his wheel!

The key to developing an aesthetically-pleasing core is found in proper diet and cardio regimens, along with development of the muscle groups around it. If you don’t believe me, I’ll give you two examples below:

Now I’m no bodybuilding aficionado, but I’m pretty sure these two guys combined have won the last 12 or 13 Mr. Olympia titles, and their "core" muscles are far from small. They both look lean due to proper diet and cardio programs, but "small" is not a word I would use to describe either of these gentlemen. The thickness in the upper back and lats gives them the "V" shape look that most of us aspire for when we enter the gym.

I’m not going to ramble on about the benefits of core training, just know that it needs to be a priority in your training program versus an after-thought. Those of you that are squatting, pulling, overhead pressing, etc. sans belt should already be well on your way. If you want more info on building a strong core, I recommend checking out my 21st Century Core Training article.


Hopefully this article will give you bodybuilders a little insight as to how powerlifters train. I think a lot of the old-school guys had it right; even with inferior training methods, no supplements, and "minimal" drug use (at least by today’s standards), these guys not only had amazing physiques, but a ton of strength to boot.

The fact-of-the-matter is that while some powerlifters aren’t always in the best condition due to lack of cardio and/or poor dietary habits, their muscle development is typically second to none. Now go out and use a few of the tips I’ve outlined here to take YOUR muscle development up to the next level!

About the Author

Mike Robertson, M.S., C.S.C.S., U.S.A.W., is the President of Robertson Training Systems in Indianapolis, Indiana. Mike received his Masters in Sports Biomechanics from the Human Performance Lab at Ball State University. Mike has been a competitive powerlifter for the last 3.5 years and is currently the USA Powerlifting State Chair in Indiana. To contact Mike, please send an email to mikerob022 at

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