Powerlifting vs. Weightlifting: Which is the Best? - Old School Labs
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Home » OSL Blog » Powerlifting vs. Weightlifting

Powerlifting vs. Weightlifting

July 8, 2019

When considering powerlifting vs weightlifting, do you think one is better than the other?

Can you pick out a powerlifter from a weightlifter the next time you go to the gym?

Do you think one has an advantage that the other doesn’t?

Today we’re going to talk about powerlifting vs weightlifting, their similarities, and their differences. If you missed our article about powerlifting vs bodybuilding, make sure you check it out as well!

Some people, even serious fitness buffs, don’t know the difference between the two words. They think that powerlifting and weightlifting are the same, but really, other than using the same weights, they aren’t.

Weightlifter
A weightlifter focuses on lifting a barbell loaded with weight plates.

A weightlifter is just that – a person who lifts weights. They lift, squat, and press using free weights. For the sake of this article, we’re going to discuss Olympic weightlifting as a fair comparison to powerlifting.

powerlifter
Powerlifters focus on strength in squats, bench press, & deadlifts.

A powerlifter is one who competes in strength on “the big 3” – squat, bench press, and deadlift. The exercises that powerlifters and weightlifters are similar, but they perform for different reasons.

Let’s take a look at the differences between powerlifting vs weightlifting.

The Golden Era of Powerlifting

The Golden Era was definitely more focused on bodybuilding, but there were powerlifters in that time period. Weightlifters too. They just weren’t talked about or recognized as much.

Let’s take a minute to highlight some of the greats from the Golden Era of powerlifting.

Lamar Gant

An impressive powerlifter with an even more impressive resume, Lamar Gant held records from the ‘70s to late ‘90s. He was inducted into the International Powerlifter Federation Hall of Fame in 1980.

Lamar Gant
Lamar Gant scored many world championships in all of the 3 big exercises.

What’s even more amazing about Gant is the fact that he did all of this while having idiopathic scoliosis. To this day, no one has been able to beat his deadlift record in the 123- and 132-pound weight class.

In 1985, he was crowned the first person to deadlift five times his own bodyweight in human history! He used his spinal curvature, along with long arms and a short torso, to his advantage. 

Lamar Grant
Lamar Gant has a deadlift record in the 123- and 132-pound weight class.

Gant was able to secure multiple world championships in all of the big 3 exercises.

If that’s not enough to impress you, he also has won more overall world championships than any other powerlifter.

Ed Coan

Another superstar and world record holder, Ed Coan is considered by some to be the greatest powerlifter of all time. He actually started out as a bodybuilder but quickly realized that powerlifting was more his style. He has a total of 71 world records set in powerlifting to his name.

His career ended in 1996 when he was banned from the IPF for doping after failing three separate times. Coan’s gone on to coach other hopeful powerlifters.

Ed Coan
Coan believes that success in powerlifitng relies on a balanced combination of nutrition & training.

When asked what he considers the best way for lifters to make gains, he lists:

  • Knowledge
  • Genetics
  • Nutrition
  • Recovery
  • Technique
  • Do not overtrain!

Bill “Peanuts” West

Another weightlifter turned powerlifter, West was considered a man ahead of his time. Out of necessity, he opened a gym in CA for himself and other powerlifters to pump iron. 

Bill West was a well known coach in the powerlifting world.

His claim to fame was being the first man to squat 600 pounds weighing just under 200 pounds himself. But what he really has been known for in the powerlifting world is being a coach to others

West trained the likes of Pat Casey and George Frenn. Even bodybuilders like Chuck Collras and Chuck Sipes were able to gain knowledge from him.

The Golden Era of Weightlifting

Here are some notable weightlifters from the Golden Era that you may not have heard of before.

Precious McKenzie

Hailing from South Africa and setting roots in New Zealand, Precious was a formidable opponent in the ‘60s and 70s. Standing just under 5 feet tall, he was a weightlifter who also held powerlifting records as well.

Precious McKenzie
McKenzie was a great competitor during the 60s & 70s.

Banned from representing his home country in the Olympics, he went on to win championships for other countries. He represented England, Britain, and then New Zealand before deciding to retire there.

Precious became a consultant for back injury prevention in New Zealand after leaving the world of lifting. He is thought to have the longest standing record in sports of 37 years from 1979 until this year. Marianna Gasparyan beat his record in the 123-pound weight class at this year’s Kern U.S. Open.

Precious McKenzie
McKenzie broke records in both powerlifting & weightlifting.

In 2006, he was finally recognized and inducted in the South African Sports Hall of Fame.

Franco Columbu

Coming from Italy, Columbu was one who made his way through the lifting sports circuit. He started out as a boxer, and later progressed to weightlifting, powerlifting, and then bodybuilding.

Franco and Arnold
Franco Columbu and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

He was good friends with Arnold Schwarzenegger and they trained together in the ‘60s and ’70s. They competed together in different weight classes and Franco won the 1976 and 1981 Mr. Olympia title. He won them the year after Arnold for each title.

Arnold and Franco
Franco & Arnold competed together in different weight classes during the 60s & 70s.

After retiring in 1981, he went back to being a chiropractor and created men’s workouts. At one point, he was considered one of the world’s strongest men. He attributed his strength partially to his knowledge as a career chiropractor.

Competitions

When it comes to powerlifting, competitions are self-regulated and are done within various federations. The most recognized is probably the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF). Each federation has its own rules and regulations regarding the supplement, drug, and equipment use.

Weightlifting is an Olympic sport and is ruled and regulated by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF).

powerlifting competition
A powerlifter performing the bench press during competition.

A powerlifter performs the “big three”:

  • Deadlift
  • Squat
  • Bench press

An Olympic weightlifter performs two exercises:

  • Snatch
  • Clean and jerk

Powerlifting is a sport of strength whereas weightlifting is a sport of explosive speed. Both are sports of repetition. Lifters on either side work extremely hard to perfect their form and technique for their required exercises.

Atmosphere

When it comes to the atmosphere at a powerlifting comp compared to a weightlifting comp, it couldn’t be more different.

At a powerlifting comp, energy is felt throughout the room. The crowds are loud and enthusiastic and are encouraged to be that way. There is a party atmosphere and lifters feed off the energy. 

powerlifting competition
In powerlifitng competitions, the atmosphere is charged with energy.

You’ll hear a lot of noise from the competitors too. Powerlifters are known to:

  • Grunt
  • Yell
  • Scream
  • Cuss

When they are performing on stage. Some believe that the louder they are, the better their lifts will be.

Compare that to a weightlifting atmosphere, where it’s typically calm and quiet. Lifters step up to the bar with focus and determination, and the crowd respects their concentration.

You also normally don’t hear much noise from the competitors either. 

Competitions between powerlifters vs weightlifters couldn’t be more different in atmosphere. But powerlifters tend to believe that the energy in the room helps them perform. While weightlifters feel it can be a distraction.

Categories

Both powerlifting and weightlifting divide their competitions by weight class, age, and gender. It’s easy to determine which category you as a lifter will fall into.

Currently, the IWF includes ten categories each for men and women. In the IPF, men have nine categories and women have eight.

For some, this is the best way to segment a competition. For those who struggle with keeping their weight in check, it can be frustrating. People who toe the line from one weight class to the next have to:

  • Adjust their diet for weight gain or loss
  • Adjust their lifting schedule as competition gets closer

Judging

When it comes to judging, both competitions are somewhat similar. Mostly in the way the scoring is done. But the structure and sequence of events are different.

In powerlifting, all competitors attempt lifts in the same pattern. They use the following sequence:

Squat > Bench Press > Deadlift

They attempt each lift three times, and their highest score from each are used. From there, their final score is calculated with the highest number from each category. The highest total for each category is the winner.

competition
A powerlifter performing a deadlift during competition.

In weightlifting, the competitors are ordered by their weight progression. The lightest lifter goes first, and then the next weight is added so the next lifter can go. Like powerlifting, each competitor gets three attempts and their highest score for each exercise is used. 

bench press
Exercises during competition like bench press must be completed within a minute.

Competitors are required to complete their lift within a minute from stepping up to the bar. If they want a consecutive attempt, they must complete all three within two minutes. Judges tally up the scores at the end of the category competition, and the highest score is the winner.

Awards go to personal best for the snatch, clean and jerk, and overall total.

Physique

Unlike bodybuilders, powerlifters and weightlifters don’t really care about their physique. They work hard in the gym to make muscle gains to be able to lift multiple times their body weight.

Both types don’t focus nearly as much on the types of foods they are eating either. They eat to fuel their workouts. Due to the amount of training they go through, lifters are able to burn more calories.

physique
Weightlifters & powerlifters have different physiques due to different training & nutrition.

When people watching in the gym, you might not be able to immediately determine a powerlifter from a weightlifter. They are both muscular with sometimes hulking frames, though powerlifters tend to be bigger.

You will also notice that weightlifters tend to have less body fat overall than powerlifters.

Strength

When comparing powerlifting vs weightlifting in terms of strength, powerlifters beat out weightlifters. There is no denying that they are stronger than the average weightlifter.

powerlifter
Powerlifters can lift heavier than weightlifters.

Through strength training, powerlifters are able to build an impressive amount of body mass. The more body mass a person has, the more strength and power they are able to produce. This is to be expected, as a powerlifting competition is based solely on picking up the heaviest weight.

Weightlifters, on the other hand, focus more on speed and technique. They don’t have to lift the heaviest weight in order to win. However, they do have to take the weight from the ground to above their head. Unlike a powerlifter, who only has to lift the bar a few feet off the ground and then set it back down.

overhead press
A weightlifter performing an overhead press.

You also have to consider the types of exercises that each lifter does. Weightlifting exercises are overhead movements, while powerlifters exercises are front-loaded.

Some powerlifters also realize that maxing out every single time they lift isn’t the key to gaining strength. What is? Lifting a moderate weight you can handle for four to six reps without reaching failure. This way, you are actually able to gain more strength.

Increasing strength through training involves stressing the muscle cells to make them grow. Working through the reps at slower speed causes the muscles to be under tension for a longer period of time. That stress stimulates a cellular response to thicken the muscle to handle the load. 

Powerlifting vs Weightlifting for Fat Loss

Not only can lifting moderately without going crazy build strength, but it can also help with weight loss.

If you are someone who struggles with losing fat, you’ll want to pay attention here.

Eliminating body fat is possible with weightlifting.

With the right program and knowledge, weightlifters and powerlifters can eliminate body fat. Gone are the days of thinking that powerlifters are only thick, fat brutes. 

The true secret, besides fueling properly, is to reduce weight and increase volume. You don’t want to lift for failure every single time if your goal is fat loss.

Powerlifters especially have a hard time with this concept. They believe in order to be a powerlifter, they have to go as hard as possible every time they workout.

powerlifting
Powerlifting can be aid in weightloss.

It’s not true and honestly, that’s dangerous. Unless you are being closely monitored by a knowledgeable trainer, you can really hurt yourself.

When it comes to weight loss, the only way you are able to really lose the fat is to eat in a calorie deficit. That means that you need to burn more calories than you consume. 

If you want to get serious about fat loss, here is a free program to consider trying. We can’t say whether it works or not, but it’s free, so it can’t hurt to try it out. What do you have to lose? Except for fat. And that’s kind of the whole point.

Injury Risk

When it comes to powerlifting vs weightlifting, the risk of injury is real. The harder you punish your body for gains and building muscle mass, the more likely you can hurt yourself.

Consider this. From 1995-2000, 110 men and women lifters were surveyed twice over a five year period on injuries they sustained lifting. They found that weightlifters most often sustained low back and knee injuries. For powerlifters, it was shoulder injuries. 

For every 1,000 hours of activity, an average of 2.6 injuries occurred. That may not sound like a lot, but any injury can potentially derail your lifting goals. The most significant increase from 1995 to 2000 was shoulder injuries in powerlifters.

injury
Injury is possible for weightlifitng & powerlifitng.

<<insert image of injured lifter or another person from the gym>>

While collectively, the chance of injury is small for both weightlifting and powerlifting, it’s still a possibility. Both of these studies on numerous powerlifters found the most commonly injured areas from most to least:

  • Shoulders
  • Low back
  • Elbow
  • Knee

And as many as 43 percent of people complained of some type of problem during a routine workout. The longer you train your body, the more likely you’ll injure yourself at some point. And if you don’t provide enough time for your body to fully recover, your chance of reinjury is high.

9 Studies Analyzed

Out of nine studies included in a systematic review, there was a slightly higher chance for weightlifting injuries. Also, as you age, your anaerobic muscle performance reduces over time. 

injury
working out in a smart way will prevent injury in both competitive sports.

According to this study, the peak age of performance and power is quite different in powerlifters vs weightlifters. Using data from World Championships and Olympic games, the average peak age was determined for each. Men in powerlifting peak at 35 and weightlifting is 26.

While the likelihood of you being injured is small, especially compared to other sports, work out smart. It’s okay to go hard some of the time, but doing it consistently week after week increases your chance of injury.

Diet

When it comes to diet, does it really differ much between powerlifting vs weightlifting?

Not really. Due to the sheer amount of training and power exerted by lifters, they have to consume large amounts of food. Many are consuming 3,000+ calories per day.

As we know, not all calories are created equal. In order to maintain lean muscle mass, a high amount of protein should be consumed. This study suggests anywhere from 2.3-3.1 grams per kilogram of body weight.

We’ve talked about the keto diet before, which is high-fat, high-protein, low-carb. Evidence shows that eating this way up to 12 weeks prior to a powerlifting or weightlifting comp has benefits.

lifting
Lifting in general is known for decreasing body far when coupled with a balanced diet.

It can decrease body mass for the all-important weigh-in while keeping lifting performance unaffected. This is true whether you are a powerlifter or a weightlifter.

When it comes to nutrient timing, it is best to consume both carbohydrates and protein post workout. This will help you replenish your depleted glycogen stores and aid in muscle recovery.

When it comes to diet, being a powerlifter vs weightlifter is not much different.

What do you think when it comes to powerlifting vs weightlifting? What’s your preference and why? Let us know in the comments.

Disclaimer: None of the individuals and/or companies mentioned necessarily endorse Old School Labs or COSIDLA Inc. products or the contents of this article. Any programs provided for illustration purposes only. Always consult with your personal trainer, nutritionist and physician before changing or starting any new exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.
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