Donnie Thompson, Ryan Kennelly, Benedikt Magnusson, and Konstantin Konstantinovs are some of the biggest names in powerlifting, and without a doubt, their lifts are impressive.
But no matter how many records they break and titles they win, they will never achieve the muscular shape, size, and definition of the world’s top bodybuilders.
Bodybuilder Ronnie Coleman in his prime is an excellent example of perfected muscle definition. And the four-time Mr. Olympia, Jay Cutler, was definitely onto something when he described how much more muscular he became after training with lighter weights.
The singular goal of a powerlifter is to lift the heaviest possible weight, just once. Their training regimen leaves them resembling freaky-looking beasts. But in fact, these types of muscular gains are far from healthy, sustainable, or desirable.
Many powerlifters are actually considered to be clinically obese, and male Olympic weightlifters tend to be between 10-17 percent fatter than athletes in other sports.
Meanwhile, bodybuilders have consistently been more successful at building up and defining their physique. This is largely due to higher reps, a more fluid tempo of lifting, and a varied approach.
In this article, we take a closer look at the science behind why bodybuilders have bigger and better muscles than powerlifters, to help you achieve the gains you crave at the gym.
Essentials of Muscle Hypertrophy
Muscle hypertrophy, a technical term for muscle growth, is a phrase that you’ve likely heard around the gym but have a few misconceptions about. To start, there are two types of muscle fibers: slow-twitch muscle fibers and fast-twitch muscle fibers.
The slow ones are less likely to grow and produce power. However, these fibers are more resistant to fatigue. Slow-twitch fibers are involved in low-intensity movements done over extended time periods.
Good examples of these are walking, swimming, and other aerobic activities. Slow-twitch muscle fibers have limited ability to generate extreme force or strength and are generally endurance oriented.
When subject to resistance training, they will increase in size, but not as fast as fast-twitch fibers will.
The fast-twitch muscle fibers are the ones that bulk up faster because they have a higher rate of contraction that boosts their strength and power. But unfortunately, these are the muscles that are more susceptible to fatigue after your workouts.
Non-contractile hypertrophy occurs when there is an increase in the muscle cell’s non-contractile elements, such as glycogen, collagen, and other cellular subunits.
Another term used to refer to this condition is “sarcoplasmic hypertrophy,” mainly because force is produced by the contractile units of skeletal muscle fibers called sarcomeres.
While sarcoplasmic hypertrophy will not affect your one-rep max, growth in muscle size will be evident due to the increase in non-contractile elements.
Understanding the Pennation Angle
Another key concept to understand in this comparison is the pennation angle. This is the angle formed by muscle fibers that are in line with a bodily action.
A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared 52 male bodybuilders and Olympic weightlifters and found that the bodybuilders had far greater isometric elbow extension force.
The researchers concluded that the larger pennation angle, the lower the force relative to a muscle cross-sectional area in strength-trained athletes.
So basically, as the pennation angle goes up, the muscle’s ability to generate force goes down. And the training methods of bodybuilders support greater pennation angles compared to powerlifters.
Another study involving men who underwent unilateral resistance training of the triceps brachii muscles for 16 weeks reinforced the fact that the way you train can induce changes in the architecture of your muscles and decrease specific tension.
Tension and Sustained Effort
Because a powerlifter’s training regimen is focused on the squat, bench press, and deadlift, their other muscles don’t have the chance to fully grow and develop.
Building tension is the most effective way to develop muscle, but there are many other factors to consider too. The type, degree, frequency, and duration of the tension you hold make a huge difference when you’re trying to build muscle.
There are several types of muscle contractions that play into how a muscle generates force and begins to grow. Concentric contractions involve a muscle actively shortening, while eccentric contractions are muscles that are actively lengthening.
Meanwhile, a passive stretch occurs when a muscle is lengthened while in a passive state, and isometric contractions involve holding a muscle actively at a fixed length.
Ultimately, passive tension doesn’t pack on as much lean muscle mass as active tension does.
Another factor to consider here is sustained effort through isometric contractions. To increase muscle across a region of the body, a balance between the active and passive length tension relationships must be achieved.
And to achieve the maximum force, eccentric resistance training can alter these relationships by increasing the structural units of myofibril in striated muscles.
Furthermore, increased stiffness in bone-to-bone connective tissues (ligaments, tendons, cartilage, extra-cellular matrix, etc.) can raise muscle-to-bone force transmission and result in improved muscular gains as well.
High- and Low-Rep Training Styles
One of the biggest reasons why bodybuilders pack on muscle better than anyone else is the higher number of reps they do. This is best achieved with a moderate rep range, say between six and 12 reps per set.
A study involving 15 young men that was published in PLoS One concluded that low-load, high-volume resistance exercise is more effective in inducing acute muscle anabolism than high-load, low-volume training.
When you train with very few repetitions because only one lift is required for competition, you increase strength but not necessarily muscle definition.
Powerlifter training also doesn’t allow enough time under tension for the slow twitch muscle fibers to develop. Conversely, bodybuilders expose their muscles to longer periods of stress to help these muscles grow.
Muscle Isolation & Execution Strategies
Muscle isolation is also a key strategy of bodybuilding, including many single-joint movements. Bodybuilding training works individual muscles through their entire range of motion and length to fully activate the muscle fibers inside.
In contrast, powerlifters utilize their entire body to lift a tremendous amount of weight for that one epic rep.
Also, the way you execute a lift makes a huge difference in how it develops your muscles. An important bodybuilding strategy is to position the body so the muscles at work can feel the stress and overcome it.
However, powerlifters generally focus on lifting the heavy weight in the easiest way possible to reach their goal.
Strength is relative to a multitude of factors; however, one that stands out among the rest is tendon insertion.
TNation: Let’s use a biceps curl as an example. Say you’re curling a 60-pound dumbbell and you’re halfway up at 90 degrees and moving very slowly.
To figure out a general estimate of muscle force requirements of the biceps, you divide the moment of the resistance arm by the length of the muscle arm.
This means that you multiply the resistance (60 pounds) by the resistance arm (say 15 inches from the elbow to the dumbbell) and then divide it by the muscle arm (say 1 inch from the elbow to the biceps insertion).
This would give us 900 inch-pounds, a measure of torque. In this example, the biceps must produce 900 inch-pounds of force.
What happens if the individual’s biceps tendon inserts 2 inches away from the fulcrum? Now you divide by 2 instead of 1, which means that the biceps now only has to produce 450 inch-pounds of force to hold a 60-pound dumbbell at a 90-degree elbow angle.
This just goes to show how important tendon insertions are to the amount of external force one can deliver. Two individuals may have the same amount of strength in their biceps, but due to leverages, one can lift twice as much weight as the other.
Genetics come into play because each of us is born with a specific number of slow-twitch muscle fibers and fast-twitch muscle fibers that contribute to muscle hypertrophy.
These types of muscle fibers don’t typically convert into the other type, no matter what form of training you do.
Yet one study that looked at the muscle composition of powerlifters and bodybuilders compared test subjects with extreme hypertrophy to those who had undertaken six months of heavy resistance training.
This European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology study concluded that the elite group had more muscle fibers than the control group did, which means that some athletes may be predisposed to greater muscle growth because of genetics.
It’s also natural for people to gravitate toward the things they are good at, so it’s not surprising to see those with a higher propensity for strength become powerlifters.
In the same way, those who have a higher disposition for size are more likely to focus on bodybuilding.
That’s because bodybuilding focuses more on symmetry, conditioning, muscularity, and overall aesthetics, and powerlifting is all about leverages and technique refinement.
The Role of Supplementation
It’s impossible to ignore the fact that both bodybuilders and powerlifters take supplements, steroids, and other drugs to enhance their performance.
With the same levels of chemical assistance, bodybuilders still overpower powerlifters in terms of muscular development and physique.
Building muscle size and definition has nothing to do with lifting the heaviest weights. Rather, it’s all about technique, contraction, time under tension, and breaking down muscle so they can grow back bigger.
Ultimately, It’s All About Training and Intensity
Although genetics and supplements may play a role in an athlete’s physique, muscular shape, size, and definition is ultimately determined by how they train.
This is because muscular definition is attained through a combination of isolation training, high-rep ranges, mind-muscle coordination, and calculated intensification strategies.
The way you lift weights can impact how your muscle fibers grow and develop, because a high-rep, low-load style of training stimulates slow twitch muscle fibers that are less likely to grow.
It’s also important to note that more reps don’t necessarily translate into more muscle growth, because intensity has a great deal to do with your overall gains.
A final study to point out is a 2015 one published in Physiological Reports.
The researchers found that the test group that performed high-intensity workouts four times per week with four sets of three to five reps gained significantly more muscle than the group that did 10-12 reps in each set with less intensity.
Not only did the group that trained at 90 percent of their one-rep maximum (instead of 70 percent 1RM) gain more strength, but they also gained more muscle.
This was because they activated their muscle fibers in an advantageous way to impact a greater percentage of muscle tissue.
If you look at pictures of powerlifters and bodybuilders side by side, you’ll begin to notice clear differences in their physique and how the “bodybuilder look” is the most aesthetically pleasing and powerful.
So, focus on your intensity and reps more than the amount of weight you have on the bar if you want to achieve it.
And after all this research and comparison, there’s one glaringly obvious fact that stands out: Powerlifters stand to gain more muscle when they begin to train like bodybuilders — it’s that simple!