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Powerlifting vs. Weightlifting for Sports Training

Powerlifting vs. Weightlifting for Sports Training

July 13, 2016



When Powerlifting first began to gain popularity and pick up steam in the 70s, people referred to it as “Weightlifting for the unathletic,” and since then, the divide between the two camps has only seemed to grow. While Powerlifting is probably still a more recognized sport throughout the US, it hasn’t been experiencing the rapid growth that Weightlifting has in the past five years, and some say it may even be on the decline. If things continue the way they have been, it may not be long before Weightlifting returns as the dominant strength sport it once was. Here is a quick breakdown between the differences between the two sports:

  • Powerlifting
    • Events
    • Physical skills necessary
      • Maximal Strength
        • Particularly in legs, low back and chest
      • Rigidity
        • Being able to maintain specific positions under heavy load
      • Breathing
        • Executing proper breathing to maintain stability and generate force production
  • Weightlifting
    • Events
    • Physical skills necessary
      • Flexibility
        • To achieve proper start an receiving positions (the overhead squat as in the snatch, is considered a bench mark for flexibility)
      • Maximal Strength
        • Particularly in the legs, low back, and shoulders
      • Speed
        • Quick changes of direction are necessary in Weightlifting
      • Coordination

On top of requiring different skill sets, the competition setting, training protocols, equipment, and even trends vary greatly between the two sports. To the average observer the two sports may be quite similar. They both suffer from the stereotype of being contested by overweight, brutish and brainless men, despite both sports having numerous weight classes, and very feminine female competitors. It’s rare for a Weightlifter to transition to Powerlifting (though some do after their Weightlifting career has ended), and even more rare for a Powerlifter to transition into being a Weightlifter (despite this, one of the best American Weightlifters of all time, Shane Hamman, started in Powerlifting). This is simply because of how truly different the two sports are.

Here’s a video of Olympian Shane Hamman doing a backflip at about 350lbs body weight. Do you think he is this athletic from his days of Powerlifting or his days of Weightlifting?


Strength Training for Non Strength Sports

Some where along the lines, someone figured out that being stronger really helped with, well, just about everything, and that meant if you were a hockey player, basketball player, tennis player, etc… being stronger would help you win. World famous sports scientist Tudor O. Bompa has said “Regardless if a sport is anaerobic, aerobic, or an equal combination of both, the development of maximum strength is considered the foundation on which all other abilities are maximized.

All you have to do is look at the athletes of 20-40 years ago compared today. Athletes in 2016 are bigger, stronger, and faster than ever before. Many people are quick to give credit to anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing drugs, and while drug use is probably at an all time high in all sports, that is hardly the reason for today’s super athletes. You can take steroids, but if you don’t put the time in at the gym, your progress will be minimal.


So if we know that being stronger is a benefit for all athletes, should we choose the methods employed by Powerlifters, or the methods used by Weightlifters? Afterall these two sports crank out the strongest people in the world.  On the surface, the answer is clear, and it is Weightlifting. What physical attributes come to mind when you hear the word “athlete?” Surely speed, agility, flexibility all come to mind, and these are skills necessary for a Weightlifter to succeed, skills that a Powerlifter can lack and still do very well on the competition platform. The answer may not be that simple however, for a few reasons. One of the reasons why I believe Weightlifting fell out of favor with the public, and why a lot of young men don’t gravitate towards the sport, is because it has a high barrier to entry, which Powerlifting does not. While Powerlifting is known to use its fair share of speciality equipment, most gyms, even “globo gyms” will have the bare essentials you need to train: A barbell, weights, racks and benches. And while an elite Powerlifter or Powerlifting coach could wax on for hours about the technical aspects of the squat, bench press, and deadlift, at their root they are fairly simple exercises to understand and execute. I can teach someone good deadlift mechanics in about 15 minutes, it may take me upwards of 8 weeks or more to teach someone a sufficient snatch. On top of that Weightlifting requires not just a barbell, but an “Olympic” barbell, which is a specific diameter, and made with special sleeves that rotate freely as to avoid injury when receiving the bar overhead. Weightlifting also requires the use of “bumper plates” which are rubber coated weight discs, that can absorb impact without breaking or damaging the floor, since both the snatch and clean & jerk are “dropped” from overhead back to the floor after the lift is completed.

On the one hand we have an activity that seems to develop a whole host of athletic traits, on the other a training methodology that has low barrier to entry and can be learned more quickly. Which is the best choice? In my opinion: Neither.

Why Powerlifting is Not the Answer

One of the most popular training methodologies in sports is the “conjugate system” which was developed by Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell. It has been said that WSBB has had a bigger influence on strength training in America than any other single system, and that’s probably true. But what’s also true, is that Louie developed almost all of his methods from old Soviet Weightlifting and athletics texts from authors like RA Roman, Alexey Medvedev, and Yuri Verkoshansky. What’s more is if you talk to any modern era Weightlifters from Russia, they will tell you the methods described in these books are scarcely used today.  In the Powerlifting world, many people seem to be on one side of the fence or the other when it comes to Westside training. What’s interesting is when high school and college strength and conditioning programs model their athletic training after Westside. What that means is a system which was developed for the sport of Weightlifting, was applied to the sport of Powerlifting (with which its results have been highly questioned), and then people took that adapted methodology, and applied it to sports training. It reminds me of the movie Multiplicity, when the clones make a clone, and they get the “copy of a copy” effect….the picture just isn’t clear anymore.


What you get is a watered down training program that has been changed and manipulated so many times it doesn’t at all resemble what it originally was, and thus makes you question why you would base your training off of it anyway, instead of just starting from scratch. But the ultimate goal in Powerlifting is to lift the most possible weight in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. There is no other sport where that is the goal and good Powerlifting programs will do everything that is necessary to achieve that goal, even if it comes at the sacrifice of other physical attributes, including aerobic capacity, flexibility, and agility. Now without a doubt, someone reading this is going to drudge up an example of a great Powerlifter that owns these skills, and that’s great, but just like there may be a handful of vegetarian or vegan strength athletes, it is the exception, not the rule. At the end of the day, rigidity is such a big part of Powerlifting, it doesn’t make sense to me to train it for “traditional” athletics. Football, baseball, soccer, etc…are all dynamic sports, which require unilateral strength and stability, rotational power, and quick change of direction, none of which exists in Powerlifting, nor will Powerlifting techniques develop, beyond the very beginning stages of training.

Why Weightlifting is not the Answer

As a Weightlifting coach, this may come as a surprise to some people, but I don’t think classical Weightlifting techniques are appropriate for many of today’s athletes. Just like there are people on both sides of the Westside Barbell issue, there are people on both sides of the Weightlifting camp when it comes to athletic training. There are some of those that just assume that snatching and clean and jerking are the best ways to develop athleticism, there are those that completely disparage the idea them, although usually those people are in favor of Powerlifting in its place. While proponents of Weightlifting for athletic training love to cite statistics about outrageous vertical jump numbers of elite Weightlifters, few consider the fact that elite Weightlifters are elite because they are explosive athletes, and not the other way around. Weightlifting also suffers from some of the same problems as Powerlifting, in that almost all of its movement is bilateral, save for the split jerk, but that alone isn’t enough to develop the unilateral and rotational strength needed by most other sports. Weightlifting does have a quick change of direction, but that is from ascending to descending, where many sports require change of direction laterally. As previously mentioned, the time element should also be a consideration. Most athletes should do the bulk of their strength training in the off season. You can’t spend all of your off season time learning new skills, when that time can be used to…get stronger. Weightlifting is an extremely dynamic sport, but in a different way from many other sports, and especially team sports, which is why I don’t recommend it for most athletic training.

Positional Strength

Being strong is not a universal thing, individuals tend to excel in different parts of their bodies (any ladies out there feel like their upper body strength isn’t on par with their legs?). But not only can our bodies be uneven, our orientation in space can effect our strength. A classic example is deadlift to clean ratios. To the untrained eye a deadlift (as performed in Powerlifting) looks very similar to the clean in Weightlifting, but the position of the body in relation to the barbell is different in each lift, as is the sequence in which the muscles fire and contract. There’s a reason why the world’s best deadlifters, pulling near 1,000lb lifts aren’t hitting 400lb cleans. It makes you wonder, if two lifts that look almost identical and vary by only a few inches of position don’t relate to each other, how much do either these lifts translate to the playing field?

So what is the answer?

Many people reading this are probably shaking their heads thinking “But I did squats and deadlifts and got faster!” Hey that’s great, I’m happy for you, but that probably happened because you were weak, and being weak isn’t good for being an athlete. I’d also like to point out that doing snatches doesn’t make you a Weightlifter, and doing deadlifts doesn’t make you a Powerlifter. If you’re an athlete, you probably do some running, but you wouldn’t tell anyone you’re “training track & field.” Many of these bilateral strength exercises can and should be used for a number of sports, but manipulating these techniques to lift more weight in those movements doesn’t necessarily make you stronger, it simply makes you more efficient at those movements, and if you’re a hockey player, what’s the benefit of being a more efficient bench presser? While there may not be such a thing as being “too strong,” there is a point of diminishing returns, where you’ll have to sacrifice time which could be used developing other skills or attributes, to continue getting stronger, and that is a complete mistake for any athlete. Many gyms, trainers, and programs will boast that their programs are “for athletes” but in reality, the training for each sport, and even each position within each sport, should be different. Look at a football lineman compared to a wide receiver. You can tell just by their body types that the skills each needs are extremely different from one another. There are many other sports where these examples can also be made.

All training should be periodized, and it should go from simple to advanced, from low intensity to high intensity, and of course from general and specific. The further out you are from your season, the more liberal you can be with your exercise selection. As the season draws closer more sport specific drills must be included for the athlete to peak at the appropriate time (which is the season!) Most athletes (and people in general), need whatever it is they don’t already have. As painfully obvious as this sounds it is often ignored. The athlete that spends the majority of their training time pounding the pavement could probably benefit greatly from some serious strength training, and those gym rat athletes that are just following along with whatever powerlifting program they found on the web should spend some more time working on their conditioning and speed. The individual weaknesses of an athlete should always be addressed before their weaknesses relative to their sport.

At Arkitect we’ve worked with Powerlifters, Weightlifters, Volleyball, Soccer, Lacrosse, Football and Hockey players, track & field athletes, Obstacle Racers, police, military, and beyond. Each of their programs looked different, because we train them based on their individual needs. If you’re curious about our programs and would like to improve your athleticism for your sport, contact us for a free consultation, to see if Arkitect can help you.


Dr. Brett Scott


Arkitect Fitness

“We Help Athletes And Active Adults
Lose Weight, Get Fit, And Optimize Performance.”