Q & A: Training for Mass vs. Power

Q: My first question is a classic one: how do the training programs of a body-builder and a "strongest man" competitor differ? In short--mass vs power. And why does the body-builder appear stronger than, for instance, the **German who clean and jerked 565lbs for his deceased wife? Ive heard so many different theories on this stuff...

A. First of all, for those of you reading who haven't seen the video referenced in the question, please see below. Doing so will automatically raise your testosterone levels by 150% (don't worry ladies, you can still benefit as there's a romantic side to the story).

It's important to note that:

A) Powerlifters and Olympic Lifters ("O-lifters") each care about one thing: the maximal amount of weight they can move for the FEW key lifts in their respective competitions (squat/bench/dead for powerlifters, and clean+jerk/snatch for O-lifters). Their end goal is to find the most efficient way to move the weight through the desired range. For example, powerlifters often create a huge arch in their back during a bench press so they don't have to move the bar as far up and down, and O-lifters learn to keep the bar as close to their body as possible so it doesn't "arc" out in front of them.

B) Bodybuilders, on the other hand, also only care about one thing, but it's entirely different: Aesthetics. Put another way, hypertrophy (hy-PUR-truh-fee), which simply means increasing the size of the muscle fibers.

(Note: Pardon me as the above points may seem very obvious, but it's important to note nonetheless.)

Training Differences

One could argue that the primary difference in training for these two respective goals (power vs. mass) comes down to the development of the nervous system. The German who clean+jerked 565lbs for his deceased wife trained his nervous system to "drive" the muscles to be able to contract+produce power as quickly and efficiently as possible. In an Olympic lifting context, this is typically done by moving sub-maximal weights at maximal speeds using low reps. An example of this would be executing power cleans for 5 sets of 2 reps at a weight than can be moved quickly and smoothly by the lifter. You can use this same principle with deadlifts, squats, and bench presses, too. In fact (as you may be well aware), many powerlifters use a high set/low rep at a low % to work on pure speed/power development. They are teaching their nervous systems to produce maximal force in as little time as possible. The faster one can do this, the more weight they can typically lift, or throw overhead.

Basically: you can become extremely "neurally efficient" without necessarily becoming big.

Heck, look at Tom Martin (180lbs) who set the world record for the deadlift in his weight class. He pulled 771lbs, yet appears wayyy less muscular than your average bodybuilder!

Let's briefly discuss training programs. If you take the program of a powerlifter and compare it to that of a bodybuilder, you'll immediately notice how much "simpler" the powerlifting program is compared to that of the bodybuilding program. Let's take a look at a sample "Leg Day:"



1)   Deadlift 5x2

2)   Glute-Ham Raise 3x8

*3)   Split Squat 3x10/side

4) Weighted Plank 3x :20


1)   Squat 4x10

2) Deadlift 5x5

3)   Leg Press 4x15

4a) Walking Lunges 4x10/side

4b) Seated Leg Extensions 3-4x10

5a) Lying Leg Curls 3-4x10

5b) Seated Calf Raise 3xInfinity

Elite-level powerlifters and Olympic lifters know how to "trim the fat" in order to do enough so that their main lift improves, but NOT so much to the point where their body has to recover from a bazillion supplementary exercises. This will depend on the lifter of course (some powerlifters find that their body responds to slightly more assistance work than others), but the common theme is that they do the minimum required to see their competition lifts improve.

Bodybuilders, on the other hand, are known for their extremely voluminous training sessions, often spending 90-120 minutes in a single workout. They'll also do whatever it takes in their training to maximize how large their muscles grow, examples including (but not limited to):

-manipulating their form to maximize tension on a particular muscle

-using a slow tempo (during both the lowering AND lifting portion)

-using machines to isolate a muscle (taking that muscle's "helpers" out of the equation....ex. in a squat the hamstrings+glutes are still going to help the primary mover - the quads - do the lift....but in a leg extension machine you can isolate the quads to a much greater degree).

-"supersetting" exercises for the same muscle group (ex. walking lunges paired with seated leg extensions) to "exhaust" a particular muscle

-choosing lifts that take the muscle through a greater range of motion (ex. doing a dumbbell bench press instead of a barbell bench press)

-etc. etc. etc.

It's also shown that the higher rep/volume style of bodybuilding leads to development of what's called sarcoplastic hypertrophy, or, in laymen's terms, increasing the size of the non-contractile portions of the muscle cell (muscle cells have both contractile and non-contractile tissue within them). This is another method through which they can look very very big but not necessarily possess the strength of powerlifters.

An Important Caveat

The immediate conclusion most people draw from this is that if their goals strictly lie in the sphere of aesthetics, then they should train like bodybuilders with a very high volume, high repetition approach. Which leads me to this:

The two training methodologies aren't necessarily mutually exclusive of each other, ESPECIALLY when it comes to training for aesthetics. 

For example, my wife, Kelsey, earned her Pro Card in bodybuilding by primarily using a powerlifting-style approach in her training!

WBOW KelseyDoucette
WBOW KelseyDoucette

In fact, this is sometimes the biggest setback I see in people training solely for the goal of lookin' good: they aren't strong enough. I strongly feel that most people - even those with bodybuilding aspirations - should begin with (and continue to cycle in) "powerlifting'esque" training tools as many will be surprised at how much they grow simply by getting stronger on the compound lifts (squats, overhead presses, deadlifts, bench presses, chinups, etc.).

The "Illusion" of Bodybuilding

Alright, this is Q & A is already significantly more prolix than I was anticipating, so just one more point: Diet and creating an "illusion" are HUGE factors in making bodybuilders look bigger. Bodybuilders will diet down to insanely low bodyfat levels, and strategically manipulate their nutrition, to make themselves appear more "full" right before a competition. Not to mention, the spend hours practicing their poses in order to make their muscles appear larger than they actually are.

Going back to the example of my wife, many girls may look at the picture of her above and think "No way would I ever want to look manly and bulky like that!".

Guess what? Do you think that's how she looks walking around the street? Nope. Despite the fact that she has set American records in powerlifting (hint: she is very strong), she actually, *gasp,* looks very feminine, and sexy to boot, walking around day to day. The picture from her bodybuilding show is the result of very meticulous nutrient partitioning and hours of hard work practicing her poses and routines.

Here's a picture I found, via a quick desktop search, of us at a Lord of the Rings showing with a live orchestra. Which goes to say: bodybuilders don't look like they do on stage year-round.


And yes, the show was as cool as it sounds.

I bet if Matthias Steiner (the German O-lifter from the beginning) were to diet down to a very low bodyfat and manipulate his carbohydrate/water intake, he would look very, VERY muscular, too.

Another example: see the before/after photos of Dave Tate, a powerlifter who went on a "bodybuilding kick" and got his nutrition in order. I hope this helps prove my point.

Whew, anyway, I hoped this help elucidate some of the differences between training for mass vs. power. It was far from comprehensive (the topic can literally be discussed for days), but hopefully at least gets you started on the right track.

**On a side note: Matthias steiner should technically be considered one of the most powerful men in the world, as opposed to strongest - because he moves weight at a higher velocity - when compared to powerlifters who are some of the strongest people in the world. Kinda ironic how powerlifting actually involves moving heavy weights at a slow velocity, whereas Olympic lifting is all about moving it fast......