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Competitions: Powerlifting vs Weightlifting vs Bodybuilding

 ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Competitions: Powerlifting vs Weightlifting vs Bodybuilding

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Do you have clients who have been thinking about participating in some form of competitive lifting but are not quite sure where to start? Muscle size, muscle strength, body fat, lifting guidelines—it can be a lot to consider.

Here is a quick breakdown that will provide you some insight into the world of powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, and bodybuilding so you can help your client make the best decision!


Competitive powerlifting is a test of maximal strength utilizing three core lifts:

Each competitor is allowed three attempts for each lift (1 rep max). The best (highest weight performed correctly) of each lift is added together for a total score. The highest total score for each category is the winner. Powerlifting categories are separated by gender, bodyweight, and age (minimum age for competitive powerlifting is 13). 

Powerlifters compete using a couple of specific pieces of equipment. All three lifts are performed on a raised platform. The platform can be anywhere from 8-12ft long and no higher than 4in. The bar used for all lifts is no longer than 2.5m, has a diameter between 27-33mm, and weighs no more than 25kg (standard bar + collars) to 30kg (specialized squat bar + collars).

Judging for Powerlifting

There are a handful of things the referees are looking for to ensure proper lifting and safety. They are also watching for cheating behaviors or anything outside of the guidelines that would disqualify the lifter. The following list includes some of the key body positions the refs are looking for to qualify the lift (correct form):


  • Bar rests no lower than 3cm from superior deltoids
  • Hip joint lowers below the knee joint at the bottom of the squat

Bench Press

  • Back, shoulders and glutes must stay in contact with the bench throughout the entire lift
  • Bar lowered to chest or abs with a distinct pause 
  • Press the bar up and fully lock elbows


  • Full extension (locked) knees, hips, and shoulders at the top of the lift
  • Must be motionless before lowering the bar back down to the ground

It’s also important to note, in the event of a tie, the lifter with the lower bodyweight is the winner (1).

Want to learn more about strength gains and building muscle mass? Check out this ISSA blog: Eccentric Training to Increase Muscle Mass.

Weightlifting (Olympic Lifting)

Competitive weightlifting or Olympic lifting consists of two core lifts: 

Both lifts are tests of explosive strength, but they are very technical and require significant preparation with a focus on form and strength training.

Much like powerlifting, the competitor gets 3 attempts at each lift and the highest weight from each lift is added together for a total score. The lifter with the highest score in each category is the winner with a tie going to the lifter with the lowest bodyweight. Categories are broken down by gender, bodyweight, and age. 

Olympic lifts are also performed on a platform. However, the platform is 4m long on all sides and can be no higher than 50mm. The platform also includes a colored line that indicates correct final foot placement. Barbells (20kg for men and 15kg for women), discs, and collars (2.5kg each) are used for both lifts. 

Judging for Weightlifting

Three referees judge both lifts utilizing a light system to indicate whether the Olympic weightlifter performed the lift correctly (good lift) or not (no lift). The snatch is the first lift performed. During competition, an Olympic lifter has 1 minute, for both lifts, to pick the bar up off the floor. The following list includes some of the keys body positions the refs look for in weightlifting movements:


  • Elbows must stay locked out (one fluid movement from start to finish)
  • Body cannot touch the platform (only feet can touch the platform)
  • Elbows cannot touch the knees
  • Feet must end in proper position with platform line 
  • Athlete must be motionless and in control at the top of the lift (referees will indicate when the bar can be released)

Clean and Jerk 

  • Clean portion of the lift is one fluid movement
  • Barbell must not touch the chest prior to final position of clean
  • Knees locked and arms fully extended and locked out at the top of the jerk (cannot press the bar up)
  • Feet must end in proper position with platform line 
  • Athlete must be motionless and in control at the top of the lift (referees will indicate when the bar can be released) (2)


Competitive bodybuilding focuses primarily on aesthetics. Although resistance training is a large component of preparation, judging is based on the shape and overall look of the muscles as opposed to muscle strength. Bodybuilders focus on building muscle and then losing body fat while maintaining as much muscle as possible. Diet and individualized muscle-building techniques are imperative for the bodybuilding athlete. 

Because each individual’s body is shaped differently and has different levels of muscle and fat, preparation time for a bodybuilding competition varies quite a bit. Some competitors may take a year or more to prepare while conditioned athletes can prep in 6-12 weeks.

Bodybuilding competitors are known for their extremely low levels of body fat as they near competition. However, extremely low body fat, especially for women, can be dangerous, so, it is important to work with a coach knowledgeable in bodybuilding training during the preparation process. 

There are other divisions within the sport of bodybuilding where body aesthetics are also the main goal. 

Bodybuilding Divisions

  • Bodybuilding (Men and Women): Large and full striated muscles, muscle and body symmetry, low bodyfat 
  • Classic Physique (Men): Large muscles, balance, and proportion
  • Physique (Men and Women): Large, muscular look but slightly softer than bodybuilding
  • Fitness (Women): Athleticism + muscular, feminine look. Perform athletic routine and posing. 
  • Figure (Women): Athletic, muscular but feminine look. Does not include athletic routine. 
  • Bikini (Women): Lean, toned bikini body. 
  • Wellness (Women): Healthy look geared toward balance and overall appearance. This is a NEW division. 

Bodybuilding divisions are then broken into classes based on gender, age, height, weight (for bodybuilding), as well as open and novice categories. 

There are, however, a handful of different organizations that run the bodybuilding world, (IFBB, NPC, IFBB, etc.). Each has its own set of rules and regulations for competition and judging. Although there are guidelines for judging, the process can be a bit subjective. 

All three competitions are exciting sports that require a great deal of commitment and preparation to compete. They are, however, very different in training regimens and goals. So, it is important to help your athletes choose what works best for their body type, current level of performance, interest, and goals!

Do you enjoy the thrill of competition and performance? Help take your clients to the next level with ISSA’s Strength and Conditioning course



    1. “United States Powerlifting Association: Technical Rules.” (2020). Uspa.Net, Accessed 23 Aug. 2020.
    2. “Technical and Competition Rules.” (2009-2012). Iwf.Net, Accessed 23 Aug. 2020.

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