One of the latest buzzwords in the fitness world is powerbuilding. Much like any subject, there’s a lot of love and a lot of hate surrounding the training style and like anything, the reality is more complex than it’s either good or bad.
What is Powerbuilding?
First of all, what is powerbuilding? Simply a marketing buzzword?
Cynicism aside, the term may not have always been around, but to a certain extent the training style has existed for a while now. Since it describes a style of training that combines powerlifting and bodybuilding.
What separates it from traditional powerlifting and bodybuilding programs? It’s a lot easier to differentiate it from a bodybuilding program, as there is a higher focus on lower rep ranges and will include heavy singles in the squat, bench, deadlift. A powerbuilding program also would not really have body part days, i.e., there’s no leg day or shoulder days, there are potentially body part specific movements, such as bicep curls, but a lot less emphasis is placed on isolation type movements.
With regards to the powerlifting template, the differences will be a bit more subtle. There will be less of a focus on lower rep training, with some higher volume training introduced. Rather than purely relying variants of the big three, slightly more exercise variation will also be used, since there is no need to maximize one rep max performance. There will also be some cardio introduced to a program.
Being a hybrid style program, templates will try to incorporate the best aspects of both training styles, by using low reps to build strength and higher reps to build size. Who doesn’t want not only get strong, but look strong too?
Best of both worlds?
It would be nice to say that combining both training approaches leads to a completely positive and synergistic outcome. Unfortunately, with the trade offs between a great strength focused program and a great bodybuilding program, it probably won’t result in you winning a powerlifting meet and winning a bodybuilding show. I don’t think I’ve ever known any professional athlete to accomplish both tasks within the same year. It’s not possible to do both at 100% due to specificity and opportunity cost. A new training program won’t change the economics of fitness & health.
The two main outcomes compliment the other nicely, like burger and fries. You could eat a bigger burger if you didn’t eat any fries, and vice versa, but you could get an overall (subjectively) better experience if you ate them in combination. Unlike other goals that are potentially at odds, such as marathon training and powerlifting, powerbuilding has the potential for the creation of some synergistic training outcomes, provided you’re okay with the costs.
Hypertrophy is driven mainly due to your ability to lift a relatively moderate weight (over 60% of your one rep max) multiple times. This can range from 6-12 reps over 10-20 sets per week. The wide variation is because different muscle groups require different levels of stress and different movements produce different levels of stress.
This is where strength comes into the picture, since strength, in this context, is simply your ability to lift a weight once, having more muscle mass to recruit, should allow you to lift more weight – given similar skill & technique. This is why there are weight classes, the heavier guy (all other things being equal) will lift more than a lighter guy. Unless you’re Ed Coan.
Strength & hypertrophy are like two heads of the same coin, and we’re trying to live on the edge and get both. Strength will help push hypertrophy and hypertrophy will help build strength. A prosperous strength cycle if you will.
General Program Considerations
Periodization should be a consideration for any program, which is simply creating different phases to achieve a goal. Many powerlifting programs follow a periodization structure that would be something along the lines of:
- (Meet day)
A great training program won’t be static – the first week should look different to the last week. There should be some sort of progressive journey built into the program, the simplest form of this would be to add an arbitrary number somewhere – increase the weight lifted by x amount or add one more set each week.
More complex programs will attempt to drive certain adaptations over the course of the 10-12 weeks. This will be achieved by balancing the progressions on weights and reps performed. The first few weeks will be there to establish baselines and build in work capacity for the rest of the program. The midpoint of the program will start introducing heavier loads for certain exercises, whilst adding reps/sets to others. The program should end with a ‘peak’ of sorts, where it will drive lower volume, but higher intensities for the three big lifts and a continued increase in volume for the ancillary exercises.
This type periodization structure, would be to increase work capacity, use that work capacity to increase hypertrophy, use the increased muscle mass to push heavier weights. Rinse and repeat.
Since we’re still able to use the same training modalities, such as training with barbells, dumbbells, machines. The variation mainly comes in the form of rep/set schemes and exercise selection. We don’t have to seek out specialty gyms or equipment to train. Nor would a program prescribe three hours on the stairmaster. We are able to introduce exercise variability. but it’s not a necessity.
What About Nutrition
This is a component of most training programs, that I feel gets left out of the mix. I would say a large proportion of people who train and want to look good, would agree that a low body fat is a vital component. Somebody’s diet and calorie balance will play a huge effect on whether or not they have a low body fat percentage, since you can be quite thin and not be ‘jacked’.
So a balance must be reached, since any program could be used to lose weight, provided there is a caloric deficit and any program could be used to gain weight given a caloric surplus. This can be a forgotten piece of the puzzle if you aren’t getting the results desired.
I think the powerbuilding program style is best suited for people who:
- Want to get strong in the big three powerlifting lifts, but don’t plan on competing in a powerlifting event
- Value aesthetics, but don’t plan on stepping on the stage
- Are bored with either their current powerlifting/bodybuilding program
- Do compete in powerlifting/bodybuilding, but are in the offseason
- A powerlifter that is in a hypertrophy phase
- A bodybuilder that is in a strength phase
Because there are so many different situations where a powerbuilding program is applicable, I think is the reason for its popularity. You can almost have your cake and eat it too. Based on your goals, you can make short-mid term progress without too many compromises from your long term goals.
Even if somebody wants to get as strong as possible, unless you’re a competitive powerlifter. You are leaving a lot of potential on the table by only following a strict powerlifting training structure. This is because to drive up the one rep max numbers, you’ll mostly forego things like, supersets, hypertrophy, direct arm/ab movements, cardio (which doesn’t kill strength like I used to believe), isolation movements. Added variation to a training program can be a great mental refresher for most.