Written by Dr. Mike Israetel
Recently, there have been some very good discussions about how powerlifters can benefit their results by incorporating elements of bodybuilding training. Phases of higher rep training, focusing on building muscle to create a basis for future strength gains, and targeting weaker links with bodybuilding assistance work have been mentioned, and all of them work quite well.
For this short article, I’ll be flipping the discussion around a bit, and focusing on training tips that bodybuilders can take away from powerlifters and really benefit. By incorporating these approaches into your bodybuilding training, you can add more muscle over the long term, and keep more muscle on when dieting down. Let’s start off with the first tip:
Insight 1: Proper Technique
In general, and this is indeed a sad state of affairs, powerlifters have much better technique than most (not all) bodybuilders. Powerlifters know that technique is critical to aligning the body in such a way as to both produce the most force and to stay safe while doing so. Put simply, with the weights powerlifters lift, they can’t afford to get too lax on their technique. Those that do so too often just don’t last in the sport because they get hurt.
Some bodybuilders, however, try to get away with some pretty nasty technique. Sets of 12-15 aren’t likely to get you hurt, so you don’t need perfect technique to survive. The problem here is that months and years of bad technique lead to chronic joint damage (which WILL shortchange your career eventually) and also doesn’t let you target the muscles you’re supposed to be targeting, which leads to poor development given any certain volume of training. That is, if you do 3×10 in the squat correctly, you might get the benefits of doing 4×10 incorrectly, which means you’ll accumulate less fatigue and be able to train harder and longer for more benefits!
By emulating the technique-obsession of powerlifters, bodybuilders can get better muscle development and less damage to joints at the same time. The simple changes are the most important: use a full range of motion for the exercise, and control the weight on the way up AND down. I’ve seen squats done by bodybuilders that look like some sort of seizure. No lockouts, no standard depth, and all sorts of back rounding. Keeping a tight lower back and doing full range squats is the most straightforward and safe way to get bigger quads… yes, you’ll have to reduce the weight at first, but it’s worth the change right away.
Insight 2: Progressive Overload
SO LONG AS YOU HAVE GOOD TECHNIQUE, the concept of progressive overload is incredibly useful to bodybuilders. Powerlifters use it all the time. They squat 500 in the first week of a training cycle, 525 the second week, 550 the third week, and then deload. It’s that small increase in weight (and thus volume if reps stay the same) that provides the stimulus for strength increase. Using a similar progression with higher reps and more sets provides a great stimulus for muscle growth by ensuring you that you’re doing enough in the gym.
The overload principle states that to grow more muscle, you must train with heavier weights and higher volumes over time, especially in succession. Your body doesn’t really get too excited about growing muscle today if last week’s workout was harder! It irks me to no end when bodybuilders, who treat their diets and training so seriously, miss this point in their workouts. Guys will come in and just kind of randomly pick exercises, weights, sets, and reps and just crank it out. But here’s the thing… how do you know you did more than last workout? Unless it’s a deload, THIS workout must be harder than the last if muscle growth is to be maximized. By using progressive overload and adding 10lbs and 1 extra set to each exercise, you’re ensuring that your stimulus today is harder than last time. When you can’t keep pushing it of course it’s time to deload, but until then, progressive overload allows you to design your workouts in such a way as to grow more and more muscle reliably. But only 10 more lbs each time? Come on… muscle is grown in a slow and steady manner over months… you already knew that!
Insight 3: Objective Progression
Related to progressive overload and thus a much shorter discussion is the powerlifting concept of objective progression. Powerlifters know that the only way to bring up a lift is to either get bigger PRs on the lift itself, or to bring up assistance work PRs. If your dumbbell bench, your close grip bench, and shoulder press are all up by 15lbs, your bench is sure to follow. Maybe not right this week, but the strength base is there.
Just the same, bodybuilders can use this concept to target bodypart improvements. How do you get a bigger back? If you bent row 275 for 10 reps now (with standardized, good technique), training until you can do 300 for 10 is the surest way to a bigger back and an OBJECTIVE way as well. You can look at your back in different lighting and yeah it might look bigger, but if your bent row goes up 25lbs for sets of 10, your back got bigger. There’s really just no other way to accomplish this feat without back growth. When I was younger, I saw a video of bodybuilder Dennis James incline pressing 500 for reps and doing strict incline flyes with the 80s. He also had probably the best upper chest of all time. How should bodybuilders go about getting their best possible upper chests? Chase Dennis! Give that “quality peak contraction” stuff a break, and lift more weight for more strict reps. You will grow EVERY TIME.
Insight 4: No-Nonsense Lifts
While powerlifters occasionally dabble in fancy frou-frou lifts, they generally know (and practice) that getting stronger in the big 3 lifts means doing hardcore assistance work as well. Shoulder presses, stiff legged deadlifts, front squats, you name it. Some bodybuilders could really take a hint from this approach. I’ve seen guys train in such a way as to make me think they are intentionally avoiding doing any actual work. Non-injured bodybuilders doing cable crossovers, then machine presses, then a hammer strength drop set, BRO. Just a couple sets of strict dumbbell flyes and bench presses will stimulate far more growth than any number of chest machines, and the biggest and best bodybuilders know this. Ask any top bodybuilder how to get big legs, and every single one (but for a handful of oddballs) will tell you that squats are the ticket. Yes, they are super tough, and no you won’t always feel like doing them, but dieting is much the same way and bodybuilders have mastered that!
Show up to the gym with a plan, pick the tough and effective movements (save the cables and machines for later in the workout), use more weight and sets than last workout, keep track of your progress and push the limits while using proper technique so you know it’s the muscle getting bigger and stronger, not the squat depth getting shallower. Give it a shot, and I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Born in Moscow, Russia, Mike Israetel is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri. Additionally, he is a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder, and has been the head sport nutrition consultant to the US Olympic training site in Johnson City, TN. Mike is currently the head science consultant for Renaissance Periodization, and the Author of “The Renaissance Diet.”