Weightlifting Versus Powerlifting: Differences and Comparison
As someone who coaches both weightlifting and powerlifting, one of the most frequent questions I get asked is "what's the difference between the two?" So, it made sense to write an article providing a proper answer. We'll be looking at the main differences in the lifts, training styles and competitions of each, as well as examining the pros and cons, before providing you with some practical recommendations.
Let's get started, shall we?
What's the Difference Between Weightlifting and Powerlifting?
The biggest and most obvious difference between weightlifting and powerlifting is the lifts themselves. Weightlifters perform two lifts, the snatch and the clean & jerk. Powerlifters perform three lifts, the back squat, bench press and deadlift.
The Speed of Execution
Snatches and cleans are performed much quicker than squats, bench presses and deadlifts. A maximal snatch will reach a bar speed of 2-2.2 metres per second, and a maximal clean will reach a bar speed of 1.6-1.8 metres per second, meaning that both lifts are completed in less than a second. In a typical strength lift like the squat, however, bar speed on a maximal effort can be as low as 0.3 metres per second. That's a huge difference.
Practically, it means that you can 'grind out' heavy squats, bench presses and deadlifts and still successfully make the lift, as seen in the video below, something you definitely cannot do with the snatch or clean & jerk.
Another key difference is that the weightlifting movements are more technically complex than the powerlifting movements. If we compare a deadlift and a clean... A deadlift is fairly simple, you set up with the bar on the floor, close to your shins and your back tight. From there you push into the floor, pull on the bar and stand up. Movement complete. A clean involves a very similar set up, but then adds in a double knee bend and an aggressive extension of the hips and quads to elevate the barbell. There's then an equally aggressive pull underneath the bar to catch it, followed by a recovery phase in which you have to squat the bar back up. Practically, this means that weightlifting movements require longer to learn, and more frequent practice.
What's the Difference in Weightlifting Versus Powerlifting Training Approaches?
The training of weightlifters and powerlifters differs considerably in two major ways...
Since the weightlifting movements are more technically demanding than the powerlifting movements, they need to be trained more frequently. Typically, recreational level weightlifting programmes will include snatches, cleans and jerks at least two to three times per week, as well as lighter variations like power snatches and power cleans 1 to 2 times per week. At the elite level, 9 or more sessions of weightlifting movements per week are commonplace.
With powerlifting on the other hand, it's rare to find any movement trained more than three times per week. Sometimes bench press might be trained three to four times, but movements like squats will usually only be trained twice, and many programmes only include heavy deadlifts once per week. You have to bear in mind that the weightlifting movements are significantly less taxing than the powerlifting movements. 6 sets of 2 snatches at 80% is very easy to recover from. 5 sets of 5 back squats at 80% is a whole different ball game.
Weightlifters perform plenty of snatches, cleans, jerks and close variations, along with clean and snatch pulls, back squats and front squats. They'll also occasionally add in some overhead support work like push presses and snatch grip push presses when necessary. Powerlifters perform plenty of back squats, bench presses, deadlifts and close variations, along with a decent amount of hypertrophy (bodybuilding) style assistance work. It's incredibly rare that you'll see any high-level weightlifters performing chest or arm work, as this has very little carryover to their competition lifts. Similarly, it's rare that you'll find powerlifters performing exercises like push presses or overhead squats, as this has very little carryover to their competition lifts.
Another difference you'll see is that whilst powerlifters tend to prefer a low bar back squat (as this typically allows them to lift the most weight) weightlifters tend to prefer high bar back squats and front squats, as the upright position has a better transfer to their snatches and cleans.
What's the Difference in Weightlifting Versus Powerlifting Competitions?
Aside from the obvious difference in lifts performed, the major differences in competition are more to do with governance, bar loading and atmosphere.
Weightlifting is governed internationally by the IWF (International Weightlifting Federation) which sets the rules for competition worldwide.
Powerlifting has multiple individual governing bodies, each of whom has different rules and regulations. The most notable body is the IPF (International Powerlifting Federation)
Weightlifting uses a 'raising bar' approach, which means that the bar continues to get heavier throughout the competition, with lifters called to the bar as their attempt is loaded.
Powerlifting uses a 'lifter order' approach, which means that all competitors attempt lifts in a set order, with the bar being adjusted to match the order of lifting. In practice, what this means is that weightlifting at the higher levels involves more backstage 'gamesmanship,' with coaches changing weight attempts based on how other lifters are performing, as well as to throw off other competitors' timings and rest clocks.
Weightlifting competitions are quiet. There tends to be a bit of music as competitors enter or exit the stage, plus plenty of shouting if the lift is made successfully, but it is silent when the lifter makes their attempt. The idea is that this allows for maximal concentration on the lift.
Powerlifting competitions on the other hand are loud. The lifters and the people watching shout, grunt, scream and generally go nuts as lifts are made. The idea is that the atmosphere hypes the lifter up to make a heavier lift.
Weightlifting Versus Powerlifting Pros
For weightlifting, the list of pros includes things like...
Increased rate of force production and lower body power, making it great for athletes who want to improve their jumping and sprinting.
Complex positions and changes of direction mean that the sport is very athletic.
You get to slam bars and have people look at you for lifting crazy amounts of weight overhead in such impressive fashions.
For powerlifting, the list of pros includes things like...
Increases maximal force production, i.e. you'll get really strong
You'll likely build plenty of muscle
You get to use loads of chalk, listen to heavy metal, and have people look at you for picking up extra-crazy amounts of weight.
Weightlifting Versus Powerlifting Cons
For olympic weightlifting, the cons include things like...
The need for specialised bars, bumper plates and platforms, making it harder to access.
General lack of bodybuilding work (Don't go telling me that you don't care at all about looking good)
Frustrating to learn for some people as it requires a lot of patience.
For powerlifting, the cons include things like...
The lack of athleticism. Powerlifters tend to be very strong, but also quite slow.
Heavy weights are incredibly fatiguing.
The daily grind can become a little repetitive.
Weightlifter Versus Powerlifter Physique
Although there are some incredibly jacked weightlifters (I'm thinking most of team china) I don't think it's fair to say that they're representative of the whole group. In fact, there are plenty of world-class weightlifters with very unimpressive physiques. I think Sohrab Moradi is one of the best lifters of all time, but here he looks more like a dad trying to loosen his belt after a big meal than he does someone who just won an Olympic gold medal.
On average, I'd say that because powerlifting involves more work done with heavier weights for more time under tension, there's more opportunity to build muscle. Plus, since plenty of powerlifters use bodybuilding work as assistance, they've got that going for them as well. Now, these are of course only generalisations, I'm actually a big fan of weightlifters using bodybuilding work as part of their training too.
Weightlifting Versus Powerlifting: Which is Best? (For YOU)
Alright, so we've pretty much covered all the major differences between the two sports. But how do you decide which one is right for you? Well, if you want to lift the heaviest weights possible without having to do loads of technique work then I'd say powerlifting is for you. It's also the best choice for you if you're looking to pack on some extra muscle alongside getting strong, or if you love really hyped up atmospheres and competitions. On the other hand, if you're someone who loves skill practice, and who relishes the idea of improving at and mastering difficult tasks, then I'd say weightlifting is for you. It's also the best choice for you if you like the idea of strength in combination with power and athleticism.
At the end of the day both sports are awesome, I lift as a weightlifter myself but I've coached teams of both weightlifters and powerlifters, and there's an absolute tonne that each sport can learn from the other.
Well, sitting and talking about lifting isn't gonna get you strong, jacked or athletic any time soon (if it was I'd be a world champion by now) So get into the gym and start putting some of this into practice. If you want more coaching tips, free programmes and updates, you can join my mailing list by popping your details in on this page. And if you're looking for some more guided 1:1 coaching and programming, feel free to check out the coaching pages of the website for more details. 'Til Next Time Alex
MSc Strength & Conditioning
Tutor & Educator for British Weightlifting