Powerlifting for Muscle Growth

By: Josh Bryant

Ronnie Coleman competed as a powerlifter before he ever set foot on the bodybuilding stage.  Arnold Schwarzenegger started off as a strength athlete and Reg Park had the respect of any elite strength athlete in his day by being one of the first men to bench press 500 pounds. The list of bodybuilders that have effectively used powerlifting in their training regimens reads like a who’s who list of elite bodybuilders. Regardless of who you are—strength is your base! Powerlifting, correctly applied, can take your physique to the next level.  Let’s look at strategies bodybuilders can use to make powerlifting advantageous.

Lift Raw Prior to 2006, powerlifting was contested primarily equipped.  What I mean by equipped is athletes wore supportive squat suits that, in some cases, could literally double a lifter’s max and bench shirts that added hundreds of pounds. To give you an example, the current world record raw in the bench press is 738 pounds, equipped it is over 1100 pounds! Lifting raw in competition means limiting one’s self to a belt and wraps. Take a look at many of your top raw powerlifters, be it Matt McCormick or Eric Lilliebridge, these guys weigh over 300 pounds and look like off-season bodybuilders; contrasted to most (not all) heavyweight equipped lifters who look like they hit the pig but never the pig iron! Supportive equipment mechanically assists lifters by way of elastic-like energy which is stored in the suit on the negative portion of the lift.  This causes a rubber band-like effect catapulting the lifter back to the starting point. Regardless of your feelings toward raw or equipped lifting, I think we can all agree for muscle-building purposes it makes more sense to train to have your muscle lift the weight by lifting raw, not to get efficient at using a supportive suit.  

Equipped champion, Sandy Tepper, benefiting from training raw Deadlift Conventional

For the sport of powerlifting there is nothing wrong with trying to minimize range of motion to lift the most weight possible, it’s part of the game! When it comes to deadlifting, some lifters opt for a sumo technique to reduce range of motion. As a bodybuilder, you want the increased range of motion, the increase muscle tension and the increased time under tension. The goal of using powerlifts for the bodybuilder is not to increase mechanical advantage. Conventional deadlifts are unmatched for building the posterior chain (back side of the body), an area which many bodybuilders lack. Follow in the tradition of Ronnie Coleman and Arnold Schwarzenegger–deadlift heavy with a conventional stance.

Keep Your Bodyweight Up In 2011, bodybuilding pundits gave less than optimistic reports of Johnnie Jackson’s future in the sport—2012 was his best year to date. I trained Johnnie in 2012 and the first order of business was competing in and winning the deadlift championships at the prestigious Raw Unity Meet (RUM). Johnnie deadlifted 832 pounds weighing 264 pounds.     

Johnnie Jackson’s 832 Deadlift Initially, Johnnie was going to compete at 242—needless to say, the powerlifting training packed on some very serious size. Point being, when you are prepping for a show you will be in a caloric deficit and not training like a powerlifter.  Take advantage of the bulk you are going to add by changing your training—you could decide to do a contest, which I highly recommend, as a measurement of your goals and just for the sheer adrenaline rush. Don’t cut weight! First and foremost, you are a bodybuilder; you are using powerlifting as a means to an end—stay big, don’t cut weight.

Squat for Growth Generally, not always, raw powerlifters squat with a narrower stance than their equipped counter parts.  Equipped powerlifters take an ultra-wide stance to maximize elasticity of their suits and minimize squatting range of motion. Narrow and wide-stance squatters have similar EMG (electrical activity of muscles) of the quads—a stance shoulder width or slightly wider will require more mechanical work. As a bodybuilder, you want that work. Think about the mechanical work done if you squat 300 pounds for a set of 10 reps with a 10-inch range of motion, 300 x 10 x10 is 30,000 pounds of work.  What if you squat that same weight with a 20-inch range of motion?  Now it becomes 300x 10x 20 is 60,000 pounds of work. Don’t take this to the extreme the other way by squatting too narrow because you will have to use much less weight; squat with a shoulder-width stance to a slightly wider stance to lift the most weight possible and do work.

Bench Press for Growth Your objective as competitive bodybuilder is to bring your best package to the stage, as a college student it might be to bring that package to Panama City for spring break—either way you need to bench press for growth. All a powerlifter needs to worry about is moving the barbell from point A to point B as efficiently as possible.  Keep your eye on the prize! There is absolutely no need for excessive arching like some powerlifters use, you want a full range of motion because you are after full muscular development. Touch the barbell at the bottom of the lift anywhere between the nipples and the sternum, control the negative portion of the lift and explode on the positive—this will minimize momentum and maximum muscular tension. Excessive arching and recklessly heaving barbells have no place in the training of a bodybuilder. Bottom line: bench press for growth.  

Branch Warren powerbuilding chest training with Josh

Final Thoughts

Aside from in-the-trenches evidence, researchers have also taken a look at the training differences between bodybuilding and powerlifting to determine which is more significantly linked to greater gains in size or strength, or both. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared gains in muscle hypertrophy and strength in well-trained young men. One group performed a powerlifting regimen, the other a bodybuilding one.  The results in hypertrophy were nearly identical in both groups. Want some bro science—think muscle confusion. Powerlifting, correctly applied, can be an effective weapon in your bodybuilding off-season muscle-building arsenal. The Saga of the Tijuana Barbell Club book brought you into a forgotten history of strength and dispensed lessons on lifting and living which serve you in the gym, on the street, and throughout your journey. Now you can broadcast your support for old school physical culture! Inspired by this Amazon-bestselling book, The Saga of the Tijuana Barbell Club, and its tales of hard core training, heavy weights, and mythic lifters down in Old Mexico, this breathable shirt will keep you cool in the weight room or the board room. The shirt comes in heather grey and is made from a comfortable 65% polyester/35% cotton blend. It is soft so your spouse, romantic partner, or short-term fling will want to cozy up next to you. It is form fitting, with a tapered neck and bottom hem, so it accentuates all the right curves and will catch the eye of a potential spouse, romantic partner, or short-term fling. It is the perfect go-to clothing item for the local brewery, bbq or backyard bash! Grab the Shirt Here