Building muscles, getting stronger, losing weight, toning your body – all are common and valid reasons to start working out with weights as part of your exercise program. But while weight training should always improve your general fitness levels, different types of workout routines are better for different fitness goals.
At it’s most basic level, these different styles of working out with weights can be divided into three basic areas – bodybuilding, powerlifting and weightlifting. It can get confusing to those first starting to work out, both because of the vast array of workout routines and because even the mainstream fitness magazines tend to use the category names interchangeably. So before you start working out with weights, it’s important to know the differences between these three and when each style is best for you and your fitness goals.
While often used generically to refer to any exercise using weights, bodybuilding is specifically aimed at building the biggest lean muscle mass possible given that athlete’s genetic makeup. While some strength gains and body fat weight loss will usually occur, especially at first, these are neither the main goal nor the primary function.
Exercise repetitions for this goal usually range in the 8 – 15 reps range, repeated for 3 – 5 or more sets of reps. Time between sets should be kept short, in the 30 – 45 seconds range. This style of training focuses mostly on increasing sarcoplasm, the liquid component of each muscle. Latest research indicates time-under-tension is emerging as the most important part of this process, hence the short breaks between sets. Also, some bodybuilding style variations include moving the weights more slowly, either in both directions or just on the negative(lowering) half of the exercise in order to increase the total time under tension.
Symmetry is very important in bodybuilding, so bodybuilding routines are designed to work the entire body with an eye to correcting any imbalances in size or appearance. While some muscle size imbalances are due to genetics, focusing more on the smaller, undersized muscles while going a little easier on those that develop quickly for you can help you achieve a more symmetrical appearance. Generally speaking, bodybuilders use a mix of compound exercises and isolation exercises to keep their muscles working constantly to adapt, forcing them to grow in the process.
Unlike bodybuilding, powerlifting workouts are less concerned with building muscle mass and focus much more on building strength. Getting stronger requires lifting heavier weights – growing to lifting MUCH heavier weights as a powerlifter’s abilities and strength progress. Lifting very heavy weights for fewer reps builds the myofibrils, or ‘strength cords’ that run through your muscles.
If you’ve ever watched a strongman competition you already know of the incredible poundages these people are lifting, and the powerlifting sport is not limited to men – more and more women are enjoying the sport as well! But along with the much heavier weights comes a lot more responsibility to yourself to ensure your form is perfect and that you use every safety precaution available. No matter what your level, it is never advisable to do a powerlifting workout by yourself – if your training partner and spotter doesn’t show up, use higher reps and lower weights for that day’s workout.
Powerlifting routines also require more rest between reps, sets and workouts due in large part to the effect of that extreme exertion on your central nervous system. That applies to nutrition and sleep as well – you’ll need a lot more calories and at least 8-10 hours of sleep a night while on a powerlifting cycle to avoid overtraining and overtaxing your system.
Powerlifters do as many or more sets than bodybuilders, but due to the heavier weights, by necessity the reps are limited. Normal powerlifting rep ranges are in the 3 – 6 rep range, and it’s not unusual to see a powerlifter doing 1-rep-max sets, or single reps using as much weight as they can manage while being too heavy to allow them a second rep in that set. Leave the 1RM sets to the experienced powerlifters though – they hold far too great a risk of serious damage or death for even an intermediate athlete to make it worth doing them.
You may well see some muscle size increase and burn some body fat, especially at first, but don’t expect lean muscle mass gains to keep pace with your strength increases – powerlifting is all about strength and any other benefits are ancillary.
Weightlifting is the most generic of the three titles, and can also be applied to powerlifting and bodybuilding routines, especially when either is just part of an overall long-term weighlifting plan. But for the purposes of this article, we’ll use weightlifting as the type of routine aimed mostly at achieving a better overall fitness level – getting somewhat stronger, building some lean muscle mass, toning your body and burning some body fat.
As such, general weightlifting plans help reach the fitness goals of a much wider slice of the general population – those not looking to become professional and/or competitive athletes. While all workout plans should start with light weights, general weightlifting routines should never hit the weights used in powerlifting and usually doesn’t require drastic adherence to specific sleep and nutrition plans required of serious bodybuilders and powerlifters.
Since your goals are less extreme and cover a broader scope, it should be easy to see the weight used will usually remain below the other two types of routines, and the rep range will be between the two. Using moderate weights for 8 – 12 reps per set with 3-4 sets for each exercise will keep you evolving to be closer to your goals. Pay strict attention to proper exercise form and only increase the weight you’re lifting on any exercise when you can complete all your reps for every set in perfect form.