Lifting 101

Weightlifting vs. Powerlifting vs. Bodybuilding (and where CrossFit/HIIT falls in all of this)

So you’ve been cruising through Instagram and you see lots of different weight training fitness programs touted out there: bodybuilding, weightlifting, powerlifting, and CrossFit. They all seem to be weights, but you’re not sure what the difference is, and which you should try to do. Well, good news: I’m here to break it down for you, then discuss which might be best for your goals.

Weightlifting

Focus: clean & jerk, snatch
Average Training Session: 90-120 min

I’m going to explain this one first, because it’s the most frequently (mis)used and abused word when talking about any type of weight training. However, simply “lifting” a weight off the ground does not a weightlifter make!

Weightlifting is shorthand for Olympic-style weightlifting. In weightlifting competitions, the main movements are the clean & jerk, and the snatch. Both of these movements bring a barbell + weight plates from the ground to an overhead position using an “explosive” motion. The overhead position is what qualifies each movement as a “lift” – the weight must be lifted over the head. This is why many weightlifters will insist that the only “weightlifting” that exists in the universe is Olympic lifting. 😉

That said, while weightlifting focuses on training to maximize the performance on those two lifts, they may incorporate other types of movements into their training for strength and conditioning purposes. They might use powerlifting and even some bodybuilding to help target specific muscle groups to enhance their performance on those two lifts. See below as I explain the other two in more detail.

Powerlifting

Focus: squat, deadlift, bench press
Average Training Session: 90-120 min

Powerlifting is a cousin of weightlifting, in that they both use a barbell + plates and focus on moving as much weight as possible. However, as the name suggests, the focus is power – as in, brute strength to carry the bar from the start position to the finish position. For the deadlift, that finish is at hip level, with the back straight and hips extended. For the squat and bench press, that would be back to the starting positions: legs or arms fully extended. The bar is “lifted” but not always from the ground (bench and squat are from a rack) and not overhead (the closest to overhead would be the bench press, which is arguably straight in front of the head, not “overhead”… but I digress).

Powerlifting and weightlifting both require immense amounts of body strength, and in competition, a score is assigned based on how much weight they successfully moved. However, the type of strength is very different. For weightlifting, the body must use “explosive” movements – that is, very fast movement to which uses a controlled “throw” to get the bar into the air, and a fast and controlled “catch.” Powerlifting is often a “slower” movement, which does not involve any “catch.” Instead, it is a more consistent push or pull movement.

Bodybuilding

Focus: isolation exercises & physique
Average Training Session: 60-90 minutes

People will often refer to bodybuilding as weightlifting, however, these two sports are completely different. Weightlifting and powerlifting, though they are also very different sports, have much more in common with each other than with bodybuilding, in that both are strength-focused sports with scores dictated by an actual weight “total” – the sum weight an athlete successfully moved for all of the exercises (example: if your heaviest lifts were 50kg for the snatch, and 75kg for the clean and jerk, your weightlifting “total” is 125kg; same applies for powerlifting movements). Bodybuilding, on the other hand, is focused on the body and its appearance. It does not matter how much the person actually lifts (though lifting becomes a factor for building muscle… we’ll get into that), what matters is how lean a person is, and how nice their muscles look; as in, the physique itself is what bodybuilders actually compete with.

As a result, the main goal for most bodybuilders is to grow the muscles for appearance as opposed to for strength or functionality. Bicep curls are a hallmark of bodybuilding: they isolate a specific body part (the bicep) and through repetition, build up the muscle in that specific group, without much consideration of the functionality of that movement. Strength may come as a byproduct of these exercises, however, it is not a primary goal. Squats, for example, are a strengthening exercise, however, they are valued by bodybuilders for their effectiveness at building nice-looking glutes. 🍑

CrossFit

Focus: highly varied “functional” movements
Average Training Session: 30-60 minutes

The official CrossFit definition is, “constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity across broad modal and time domains.” In other words, each workout will purposefully vary the exercises, duration, rep schemes, and equipment in order to ensure maximal fitness levels. If we distill the philosophy of CrossFit and functional fitness into a plain-English phrase, it’s basically, “be ready for anything life may throw at you.” If you train for a little bit of everything, you can more quickly adapt to new challenges than someone who has only trained for a single specialty.

The key phrase here is “functional” – that is, movements you might actually use in real life. You might throw something into the air, pick something up, run with it, put it back down, pull yourself up and jump onto things. These are movements that would help you… well, do life really well.

Basically, if the zombie apocalypse happened, or if we lost civilization and had to live in the wild, you’d be ALL F***IN’ SET to climb things, throw some sh*t, lift fallen debris, and run TF away from the zombies or other threats (which is what makes it so effective for military, law enforcement, and firefighting tasks)

That said, if you’ve done or seen a CrossFit workout, it’s often incorporated some Olympic weightlifting movements as well as powerlifting, in conjunction with bodyweight movements and/or cardio. The multitude of exercises executed at high-intensity means that each athlete is getting stronger in many different modalities.

Long story short, CrossFit is great for someone who wants to increase their general fitness level with a reasonable amount of time. It maximizes efficiency of your workout time by operating at high-intensity for a lower amount of time (whatever “high intensity” means for each individual: scaling appropriately is a major aspect of CrossFit).

By definition, CrossFitters usually try to be adept at many sports, and therefore won’t necessarily isolate themselves to a single specific sport. That said, CrossFitters have gone on to compete in (and win at) different sports like weightlifting and powerlifting, even bodybuilding, due to the strength they’ve built up over time. But that doesn’t mean that’s all they’re training for.

What about HIIT?

HIIT stands for “high-intensity interval training.” Which means you conduct high-intensity work at prescribed intervals with no rest outside of the prescribed work intervals. Typically these are bodyweight or low-weight weight movements in the interest of maintaining a lower, more approachable weight for everyone in the room (a very different concept to scaling, which insists upon everyone “suffering” the same amount, even though the weight would be very different for different fitness levels), and there is a circuit of some sort where you move from one station to the next. CrossFit may incorporate HIIT into their workouts, however, HIIT may not incorporate all types of CrossFit movements.

That’s not to say it’s not difficult. HIIT workouts have kicked my ass in the past. It’s just a different modality compared to, say, powerlifting.

Which is best for me?

As my answer is for everything fitness-related, it depends on your goals… which is why it’s so important to get your goals as specific as possible when setting out on a fitness journey. If you don’t have a well-defined goal, then you will never have a well-defined sense of your progress.

Now, let’s say your goal is to lose weight and build muscle definition (the most common goal). I’m assuming you’re reading article this because you want to build some sort of muscle, or you’ve heard that weight training is a great way to lose weight. In either case, it’s important to get this one disclaimer out of the way:

If you’re eating just as much as you’re burning while working out (i.e. you eat a donut or 5 after a good workout) then you’re not doing yourself any favors. Here’s a great video on why nutrition makes a bigger impact than any exercise ever will:

Now, assuming your nutrition is dialed in, then you’ll want to think about the following:

  • Does success look like visible muscles (i.e. six-pack abs, biceps, calves)? How important to you is your muscular strength and bone density in the long term? If strength is important to you, then the best way to build strength might be to incorporate powerlifting movements. If you want speed on top of that, you want to look into weightlifting and plyometric movements (explosive sprints and jumps). On the other hand, if you just want a nice-looking body, then bodybuilding movements will help emphasize the “vanity” muscles more. The key is you need to maximize your available time toward your specific goal. Here’s an analogy that might help. If my goal is to get really smart, I would need to define that goal further. Smart in what subject? Math? Or philosophy? If it’s math, I need to focus on studying numbers, doing practice problems. I could read as much philosophy as I want, and it will get me smarter! But it won’t help me get any better at math. The same applies with the body. I can do bicep curls all day, and have glorious guns of steel. But if I want to be a competitive powerlifter, bicep curls won’t do sh*t for me.
  • Do you have a certain level of athletic performance you must maintain or achieve? Or is physique your priority? For people in the military, law enforcement, firefighting, and other public service types of jobs, you may have a certain level of physical performance you need to maintain in order to perform your job. In that case, functional movements make the most sense. However, if your priority is to perform well with certain movements, like picking sh*t up and putting it back down, or running with heavy sh*t on your back, then yeah, you’ll want to ensure your body is strong enough to do that. You’ll want to incorporate powerlifting, sprints, etc. If you want to eventually compete at weightlifting or powerlifting, you’ll want to train those movements specifically. However, if your goal is just to look good in a bikini, then you’ll probably do well with bodybuilding exercises instead so you can maximize the results you get.
  • How much time do you have? A high-intensity weight training workout at a “cardio” heart rate, while not immediately fat-burning, will often lead to greater caloric expenditure and fat loss after the workout in comparison to a workout in the lower, “fat-burning” heart rate zone. If you have the time to walk/jog for 2 hours, and you enjoy that exercise, then by all means, go for it and burn fat for 2 hours. But if you don’t have time, a high-intensity workout is better bang for your buck in terms of caloric expenditure over time. Also, if you are busy working crazy long shifts or work a little more than full-time, then a 2 hour workout may not make sense for your goals at all, and a high-intensity workout would be more appropriate.
  • Finally, how much do you like that style of working out? Let’s look at bodybuilding. Some people love it because they can see results on their body, and feel like they look better naked, within weeks. For me, I am bored to death doing the same rotation of arms, legs, back every f***ing day. Some people love powerlifting because it makes them feel like superman. For me, I’m not as big a fan, because I feel like my eyes are going to pop out of my head or like I’m going to pee myself. When it comes to what makes me feel most powerful, overhead lifts make me feel like the master of the universe, hence why I started diving into weightlifting in the first place. Maybe weightlifting or CrossFit terrifies you and makes you not want to come to the gym. I love it for the surprise every day, it keeps the workouts interesting and not boring.

Sure, your goals will factor into all of this. Maybe you have to do something you hate or are bad at to achieve the goals you have. But if you don’t experience any fulfillment when moving a step closer to your goals, maybe it requires a reassessment of your goals in the first place.

I’m going to channel a quote I once heard that was really insightful

“We are what we repeatedly do.

Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.

Will Durant (misattributed to Aristotle, apparently!)

Sure, olympic lifting looks cool, but that doesn’t automatically mean it’s something you should do. If you love olympic lifting, great! But if you don’t love it, or if it terrifies you, do something else! If you want to look good in a swimsuit awesome, pursue bodybuilding! But if looking at your body fat percentage f***s with your brain, then maybe it’s worth doing some other method of fitness that focuses more on your body’s capabilities.

Regardless what you go with, one crazy hard workout one day a week will not help counter six other days of lethargy. At the end of the day, the best choice you can make is the one can repeatedly make, time and time again. If that means starting lower intensity, then building intensity up, then do that. As long as you’re making steps toward your goal, you’re going the right way.

It sure beats doing nothing.

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