Powerlifting vs. Weightlifting - What is the Difference?

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Powerlifting vs. Weightlifting – What is the Difference?

Powerlifting vs weightlifting: two completely different sports whose names are too often used interchangeably.

Strength vs power, force vs technique, and brawn vs beauty.

These are the differences between these two great sports, and they couldn’t be more different!

A weightlifters least favorite question is “so how much do you bench?”.

This is a classic (and all too frequent) mistake that people make, thinking that weightlifting and powerlifting are one and the same.

powerlifting men

What is Powerlifting?

Though the name sounds like it refers to a sport requiring more power and speed – that is, the technical meaning of the word ‘power’, which is force over time- it actually refers to a strength sport.

Powerlifting is made up of what are called the “big three”: Squat, Deadlift, and Bench press.
  • Squat – the back squat is a classic show of overall, full body strength. The powerlifter performs the heaviest back squat possible. A complete, acceptable lift is measured by the depth of the squat; the athletes hip crease should be in line with the knee, creating the parallel line a judge looks for.
  • Deadlift – the lift is done using a variety of different techniques, based on the body type and limb length of the athlete. The athlete simply lifts the heaviest barbell up off the ground and stands up with it, just for a moment, to receive a signal from the official.
  • Bench Press – Lying on a flat bench, the athlete picks up the bar with a relatively wide grip, descends the bar, and waits for the judge to give the signal to push. The heaviest press must be locked out fully to count.

The heaviest of each three lifts is then added up to give the athlete a total, which is their score.

Depending on the federation, there are at least 8 weight classes for men and 7 weight classes for women, and athletes compete within their category.


What is Weightlifting?

Weightlifting is a speed sport. It is also called “Olympic weightlifting”, “oly lifting”, and simply, “lifting”.

These terms are used to differentiate the sport from the fitness of “lifting weights”. It is considered the most explosive speed sport. Weightlifting requires the most force over the shortest period of time.

The object of the sport is to lift the most amount of weight over your head.

There are two lifts in weightlifting: the Snatch, and the Clean and Jerk.
  • Snatch – in this lift, the athlete uses a wide grip to pull the bar, snatching it off the ground in one smooth motion, and catching it in an overhead, locked position. To be a successful lift, the bar must not stop moving until the arms have it locked overhead. Once the bar is overhead, the elbows may not press or bend under the bar. The athlete stands still with feet and hands parallel to get a “down” signal from 3 officials.
  • Clean and jerk – this is a two-part lift, starting with the clean. The athlete brings the bar to the shoulders first, then Jerks the bar overhead using their preferred technique. Similar to the snatch, tight technical rules must be followed; the bar may not stop along its journey overhead (except between the clean and the jerk itself) and the arms may not press out the bar overhead. The officials signal the lift is acceptable or not when the athlete stops moving and the hands and feet are in-line.

The score is the sum of the highest successful attempt of each lift. Athletes are also organized into weight classes to compete in a fair playing field.

There are 8 weight classes for men, and 8 for women.

Strength vs Power

Now that you’re familiar with the lifts, consider the difference in the requirements in powerlifting vs weightlifting. While both require a degree of strength, powerlifting is purely based on strength.

The stronger the athlete, the more they will lift. In weightlifting, the strongest athlete is not necessarily lifting the heaviest bars.

Strength is a simple measure of how many pounds of pressure a muscle can contract. A deadlift, the perfect example of a pure strength movement shows this, and the strongest athlete wins.

On the other hand, weightlifting is a speed sport, which requires a very mobile athlete to pull a barbell upwards, then stop and maximally contract in the opposite direction.

The movement is analogous to a throw and catch. The power generated means placing a force on the bar which causes it to accelerate. The athlete then moves under the bar to catch it, requiring precision and perfect timing.

Which is better? Well, that would be up to each individual to decide if they value strength over speed and agility…

Force vs Technique

Now, it goes without saying that both powerlifting and weightlifting require technique to move the bar safely, correctly and efficiently.

However, weightlifting takes technique to another level. Without technique, there is no weightlifting.

The sport is based upon the constant mastery of technique, and athletes who get lazy with technique never come close to their potential, and usually give up when they cannot break through a plateau.

Powerlifting, on the other hand, relies on some decent technique and a solid program to get an athlete to see improvement over the long term.

Brawn vs Beauty

By simply watching the two sports performed by the world’s bests, you can see the difference in lift styles.

Weightlifters typically approach the bar with calm focus, while powerlifters use adrenaline and excitement to lift massive weights. The raw strength and determination to deadlift 1000lbs is evident.

Watching a snatch in slow motion, you can see the strength, speed, power, and perfect grace required to lift.

In Chinese training methodology, it is believed that the lifts should look beautiful to be a perfect lift.

Considerations when Choosing Powerlifting vs Weightlifting

  • both sports require specific weightlifting shoes, a lifting belt for ‘just in case’, and a singlet – most lifters train in some sort of spandex bottoms and a t-shirt
  • all your weaknesses and imbalances will eventually show themselves over the next year.
  • weightlifting requires more patience for technique
  • powerlifting requires more patience for soreness
  • both sports are incredibly repetitive (can you do the same 2 – 3 movements multiple times per week, month after month?)
  • weightlifting is a recognized Olympic sport governed by the rules and regulations set by the IWF. Affiliated athletes at all levels are subject to WADA standards on anti-doping.
  • Powerlifting is self-regulated under multiple federations. The IPF is the most popular, and has it’s own rules regarding supplement use and equipment use.

Both sports are great for what they do, but next time you see a weightlifter, be careful not to ask them how much they bench!