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If you are reading this article, that means you want to get big fast!
Powerbuilding is a great way to build muscle. I’ve outlined powerbuilding as one of the most interesting and important approaches in articles before.
Today, I am going to take you through a full description of powerbuilding and how it works.
In this article, I go deeper about how powerbuilding works and why becoming a powerbuilder is an interesting path. The powerbuilding definition I have might not be everyone’s definition, but I think we can all learn something about strength and size, regardless of the jargon!
I want to look at how powerbuilding has developed and how it overlaps with some of the things I’ve seen when working with the best natural bodybuilders out there. We’re going to look at what you can take from powerbuilding and the major lessons from the big, strong folks of powerbuilding!
Table of Contents
Quick recap of what powerlifting is:
Before explaining what powerbuilding is, I thought it would be interesting to recap on powerlifting.
Powerlifting and bodybuilding will always have a tense relationship but share the same love of hard work and progress. In powerlifting, your first goal is to build strength. You’re not really worried about building muscle. The main movements are squat, bench press, and deadlift.
These are the competitive lifts for powerlifting, and they structure all of a powerlifter’s training. Everything else is about getting better at these 3 major movements.
Powerlifters train repetitively on these movements most of the time with relatively low rep schemes. Hypertrophy isn’t usually the main focus – and may only take up a small amount of focus during the early weeks of a powerlifter’s program. It’s a long way from the constant muscle-building focus of bodybuilders.
They really work on their technique and on low rep ranges to build strength and lift heavier loads overtime. Powerlifting is also about nervous system adaptation, which is the other major contributor to strength – along with muscle size.
Quick recap of what bodybuilding is:
Bodybuilding is all about the traditional approach to hypertrophy: higher rep-range scheme and pretty high volume training. Your goal is to build muscle and look good on stage.
You want to have the best symmetry and proportion, which means working on both your strong and weak parts, so you stand out the day of the competition. It means you like to dig into details and work on bringing up small, but important, muscles. You will focus on muscles like your brachialis for your biceps peak, unlike powerlifters who might not care about these fine details of what they look like.
Stereotypically, bodybuilders are described as the ones who lift moderate loads and do a lot of volume to build muscle as explained above. There’s an idea that bodybuilders don’t care about strength, but that’s not true, and that’s a big part of what powerbuilding exists to respond to.
Crucially, while being as strong as a powerlifter is not necessary to build muscle, the bodybuilder still has to get stronger and improve performance over time.
What is ”powerbuilding or “power-bodybuilding”?
This word has pretty much been invented to describe people doing powerlifting and bodybuilding together.
In my opinion, this word doesn’t only describe someone who only does the 3 powerlifting movements mixed with bodybuilding but rather someone who goes heavy and try to improve strength on all sorts of movements. It’s not only the focus of hypertrophy but also the focus on strength performance at lower reps to drive training response as a bodybuilder.
At least, this is how I personally see powerbuilding. Someone who likes powerlifting movements but will also like to try and implement strength work in all sorts of movements mixed with their hypertrophy focus. These are basically lifters who will try to build muscle as much as possible and as much strength as possible.
Also, I feel like the word powerbuilding has never really been necessary. For many of us – guys like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronnie Coleman were doing powerbuilding before there was a word for it. They were bodybuilders who simply put their massive muscles to use!
Why do I say that?
In my opinion, any good bodybuilder is actually a powerbuilder by definition.
Any good natural bodybuilder usually trains like a powerbuilder – at least in some of their movements.
One famous person in the fitness industry who popularised power-bodybuilding is Mike O’ Hearn. While he’s clearly not natural, it does not mean we can’t give credit for this man’s hard work and dedication and way of training his body. To look great – even compared to steroid users – suggests that his training has some merit!
The titan Mike O’hearn practices powerbuilding.
He goes heavy, gains strength, and then performs a lot of volume and more hypertrophy orientated sessions to build muscle. Even if not natural, we can clearly see that his physique is greatly built and better than many pro bodybuilders’ physique, yet he practices “power-building”.
Most bodybuilders do strength and hypertrophy training together.
A lot of the high-rep training that has come to define bodybuilding is built around the injury risk associated with heavy lifting while on steroids. The muscles develop long before the tendons and this can cause risks of tears in heavier lifts for “enhanced” bodybuilders.
The word bodybuilding is then associated with lifting light weights and doing pumping sessions. We see more and more people training this way, not getting results, and we sometimes also see enhanced individuals who do get results from training this way but thanks to the drugs rather than the method.
Natural bodybuilders need to do heavier sessions mixed with serious hypertrophy work, and not fluff, because they don’t have the same steroid-enhanced recovery. Each session has to challenge the muscle – ideally with some heavier lifts to start with and then lighter, higher-rep work afterwards.
This confuses beginners and a lot of people will copy this method and be confused when it does not work. When we talk about bodybuilding, we should automatically think about the methods behind powerbuilding: build muscle, get strong, practice heavy lifts, and use high-rep hypertrophy training.
The idea behind powerbuilding is exactly what bodybuilding should always have been: using a mixture of reps and weight to get the most from your training!
What are the main benefits of powerbuilding?
There are a lot of benefits to powerbuilding. First, you’re cutting out the fluff and focusing on the things that we know build muscle. Proper training for muscle and strength gains will obviously overlap and change how your body responds.
By doing powerbuilding, you also teach yourself on how to do the right movements and focus closely on improving in a narrower range of movements. I’ve mentioned before that I believe consistency and pushing a few lifts to their maximum is an important habit to develop.
Bodybuilders will often vary movements without getting the most out of them. The strength-focus of powerbuilding helps build long-term consistency and make sure you’re squeezing all the gains out of your exercises over time as you add weight. You’re going to practice the squat, deadlift, and bench press until you’re good at them – which adds serious muscle.
At the very least, you need to practice squat, bench, and deadlift (if these exercises are adapted to your body-morphology). These are the major movements of powerlifting and their overlap to bodybuilding is huge! There’s a reason you’ll see these 3 movements in every gym around the world.
You don’t need to get as locked into the technical specifics as a powerlifter. We don’t want to worry about competitive performance 100% of the time – you don’t need to pull sumo or overly work on your arch in bench press. We want to do more mechanical loading, so we need to keep to the hypertrophy side of things, too. Keep a good basic technical form, and worry about moving well, and for longer ranges, and with good weight.
By starting to practice powerbuilding from the get-go in your bodybuilding journey, you are setting yourself to make great gains in one of the fastest ways possible. Building a strength base is a great way to prevent injury in the long-term and continue to progress consistently into the future.
You will be able to prove that bodybuilders aren’t only building muscles, they can also be very strong. It’s great to look and be strong at the same time!
Who is power bodybuilding for?
Anyone getting started with the gym whose goal is to build muscle should actually practice powerbuilding.
Everyone is different and even though it is likely that you will improve faster by mixing strength and hypertrophy training, it does not mean you cannot improve by only doing high repetitions. The secret most people miss is that most things work – some just work better than others!
For example, if you have been injured in the past and going just a bit heavier hurts you, then you have to find new alternatives to training. High repetition training is great in that example because you’re never fully loading a single repetition – and it actually helps to rebuild strength and get pain-free after injury. Serge Nubret was a good example of doing high reps. Even though Nubret was not natural, he was incredibly strong and still used high-rep, low-weight training to develop his iconic physique.
Beginners also need to be careful and not push the reps or weight immediately. The important thing for beginners is developing technique and familiarity with the movements. It’s about developing the mechanical and neural skills necessary to get the most out of your training.
Powerbuilding is for everyone who wants to get big and strong quickly – but only if you have the experience with the movements to start pushing them. Powerbuilding is all about overload and you need to make sure that process is a safe and healthy one.
What kind of body shape will you get by practicing power-building?
Most people (mostly unexperienced lifters) will associate bodybuilders/powerbuilders doing their bulk as big powerlifters that we see on TV who don’t always look in shape. It’s easy to mix up who looks strong and who is strong. We can use powerbuilding to get both.
I’ve heard – so many times – that I “wasn’t shaped like bodybuilders” when bulking.
The vast majority of lifters who are inexperienced think that bodybuilders look lean all year around and that a bodybuilder/powerbuilder being bulky is ignoring their diet. At least partially, that’s due to the way that PEDs have formed our expectations of what a bodybuilder should look like during off-season.
When we’re looking to get stronger and bigger, these are the sacrifices we make. At least we’re not stuck worrying about size and conditioning together – which is the fastest way to stay exactly the same!
Powerlifters might not look the best when they cut down because they aren’t focused on building muscle like bodybuilders/powerbuilders are. But that doesn’t mean they’re not jacked!
Powerlifters never lack muscle – they’re just not as concerned with proportion as bodybuilders. They’re not worried about the feathering of triceps and their V-taper because those triceps and lats are about big lifts. You’ll rarely see an elite powerlifter cutting down to super-shredded because:
- It impacts on performance to go through a hard cut
- They’re only leaning down for the weight class before a competition.
While we don’t always expect powerlifters to look as aesthetic as bodybuilders, the strength and volume work they’ve put in lead to large muscles and an amazing foundation for a commanding physique. Powerlifters look great when they cut – you just don’t see it as often.
Powerbuilding will make you look good. It covers all the basic things that make bodybuilders look great, but with a greater focus on the go as well as the show!
While the idols of powerbuilding like Mike O’Hearn aren’t natural, it’s clear that he still looks better than many bodybuilding contemporaries. Obviously, the way that he trains has produced great, aesthetic proportions – with both the proportions of a bodybuilder and great strength numbers.
Powerbuilding is just the way that bodybuilding existed for a long time before we got into the high-rep pump stuff that seems most popular. It’s where bodybuilding came from with Eugen Sandow. Strength will never make you a worse bodybuilder – and it’s important to remember that elite bodybuilders didn’t always train like they do now!
How to perform powerbuilding?
Powerbuilding is about getting as strong as possible while building as much muscle as possible.
Mixing strength and hypertrophy training is a great way of doing that. In powerbuilding, one popular way of training is simply to start strength work at the beginning of your session and to finish with hypertrophy work towards the end. This structures sessions according to both your priorities and how your body works.
You can also do sessions where you only focus on strength and other sessions where you only focus on hypertrophy. This is common in powerlifting programs, too, where “accessory” exercises offer a significant hypertrophy stimulus but also a way of addressing weakness and imbalance.
My recommendation goes for starting your session with strength work and finishing with more hypertrophy, that’s what I personally like. It also depends on the program itself – if you’re training full-body, then you might want to spend a 4th session (Saturday, e.g.) on proportion and areas that are important for aesthetics – like lats, calves, and bicep (of course!).
In terms of repetitions, strength work is usually about lower repetition ranges and hypertrophy work towards higher rep ranges. The article “how many repetitions to build muscle”” is great to understand how repetitions work to build muscle. The important part is understanding which is suitable for which exercise/muscle group.
Strength blocks can be implemented for strength work or simply sticking to low rep schemes. For hypertrophy work, you can simply use rep ranges from 8 repetitions and more, as well as other schemes like training to muscular failure and using rep goals.
Evolving rep ranges like 8-12, 12-15 are interesting too. You start your hypertrophy work using 8 repetitions aiming to reach 12 and once you reach 12, increase the load and go back to 8 to reach back to 12, etc…
Mixing strength work and hypertrophy work and keeping progress in sight
Mixing strength work and hypertrophy work and keeping progress in sight and help you avoid plateaus. It’s also a great way to make sure your joints and connective tissues develop with your muscles.
You should always try to think about progression. If you follow the methods described above while programming, eating well, and all the good practices, you should improve without a problem.
However, it’s important to remember that strength isn’t linear and sometimes you’re stronger or weaker. Stalling progress happens to us all, even when we get everything right – sometimes it’s just not there yet.
But I also want to remind that lifting heavy or light is subjective. There is no such thing as “heavy or light” when you understand progression.
When you perform strength work, it relates to what’s heavy for you at the moment and hypertrophy relates to higher rep ranges which means using lower weights than your strength work at the moment. But this lower weight you use does not mean it has to be light weight, it should be challenging.
When you think progression, I don’t want you to think in terms of light and heavy. If your strength work is a 5×5 at 70kg on the bench press, it is heavy for you, but it will be light in the future if you keep improving.
For someone who can perform 5x150kg on the bench-press, 70kg is very light. His hypertrophy, high rep ranges sets will most likely be around 110-120kg. The important part is that these individuals are using the right weights for their current strength levels and goals.
Powerbuilding Natural Flex style at a more advanced level
This article might be slightly different than most of the articles out there about powerbuilding because most of them will mostly advise mixing strict powerlifting with bodybuilding.
By that I mean that the advice might just be to do the classic: compound powerlifting movements and then volume on the isolation movements. And that is right, but to push power bodybuilding a bit further, you can focus on progression in the isolation movements, too. The 5×5 article on biceps and triceps is a good example of that philosophy – where I discuss using this classic strength method for isolation exercises.
Take this with a pinch of salt! Of course don’t want anyone to risk injuries. We don’t want to push ourselves beyond what we can handle, but we should push ourselves to the point where there is a real challenge to keeping form strict – it doesn’t have to be 100% perfect and working at the edge of what you can do is crucial.
If you are used to only doing 15-20 reps on exercises like chest flies or preacher curls, try to go for 6-8 reps. Changing the stimulus is an important part of continuing to develop strength and muscle mass: sometimes, variety is more important than overload.
This requires of course a serious warm-up and following what’s explained in the article on warming-up. You can definitely practice inclined curls in the 6-8 reps range for a couple of sets and then finish them with a 15-20 rep range for another couple of sets.
If you warm-up enough, you won’t face much risk. During the warm-up process, do some visualisation. Visualise yourself going heavy on these inclined curls – treat them like any other heavy exercise. Being more aware helps preventing injuries. This lower rep range practice on isolation exercises can be very rewarding.
High volume of low repetition sets for advanced lifters
That’s the way I have been training at a more advanced level which I would recommend mostly to late intermediate or advanced lifters.
It’s the philosophy which sticks behind performing 10×3 rather than 3×10. You are actually doing strength and volume/hypertrophy at the same time. You’re basically going heavy most of your sessions and doing a larger number of sets.
The number of reps performed is going to stay relatively low, but the amount of weight you can use is significantly higher. There will be less metabolic change in the muscle and you won’t build muscular endurance the same way, but it offers you a chance to build serious strength in some movements you might be neglecting!
Doing that many sets ends up having its benefits in terms of volume and hypertrophy. This is the best way I’ve found to continue progressing at an intermediate level and it helps maintain both the overall amount of work you’re performing and your ability to handle heavier weights. I would not neglect higher rep ranges either towards the end of the session but at least half of my session would result in a lot of sets with low reps.
It’s not without it’s challenges. This method can put real strain on your joints – which is why I recommend it for intermediates and advanced lifters. Beginners should work above 3-rep ranges for most of their training to help practice movement and develop the connective tissues.
Good technique is required for precaution and good warm up. Be gradual when implementing this technique. If you’re a late intermediate, start very gradually with this type of method, and it may be a real change to the way your training drives progress!
Example of a powerbuilding program:
In this powerbuilding program, I will take the example of someone who mixes strength and volume in the same session. I will also try and show you how I specialise with good exercise selection to only focus on specific movements instead of trying to do too many exercises which is pointless.
Note that this program is for the intermediate/advanced lifter:
Dips: 4×6 / 1×10-15
Upper chest flies: 2×6-8 / 2×10-15
Overhead press: 4×6-8 / 1×10-15
Lateral raises: 5×15-20
Keeping it simple, yet effective!
Preacher curls: 4×6 / 1×10-12
Hammer grip pull-ups: 4×6-8
Inclined curls: 3×6-8 / 1×12-20
Skull crushes: 4×8-12/1×12-15
Triceps extensions: 3×15-20
Heavy crunches: 8×6-8
Lateral crunches: 4×15-20
Bench-press: 8×3 / 1×10-15
Cable flies: 3×20-25
Seal rows: 3×8-10 / 1×15
Pull-ups pronated: 3×6-8
Overhead press: 5×5
Rear delts raises: 3x 20-25
Squat 6×3 / 2×10-15
Bulgarian split squats: 3×10-12 / 1×15-20
Romanian deadlifts: 3×10-15
Calve raises on the smith machine: 3×10-12 / 2x 25-30
Adjust it to your current level. If you are a beginner, simply do less volume. If you are advanced, you can do a bit more if this sounds too easy!
Are there cases where you should not practice powerbuilding?
The question is not really whether you should practice powerbuilding or not. You should!
But it does not mean you have to follow the exact rule of powerlifting movements and bodybuilding mixed at the same time. If you at least respect the idea that you should mix strength and hypertrophy/more volume together, then I’ll be happy with this article!
To be a perfect powerbuilder, you’d probably have to be competitive in both – or at least aim to. It’s not about only using the squat, bench, and deadlift to train those muscles – the training of both powerlifters and bodybuilders is much more varied and interesting.
There are many alternatives where you can still go heavy. One of my favourite back exercise examples talked in another article about seal rows and how you can still build a great back and which reminds you that the deadlift is not an indispensable exercise!
You should then practice powerbuilding and see it as implementing both strength and hypertrophy work with the best exercises for yourself while keeping progression in sight.
If you have any questions, we can help you with your routine.
Let us know in the comment section!