The bench press is a staple workout for bodybuilders and powerlifters. It’s designed to train the upper body (specifically the chest, arms, and shoulders) using a combination of weight and repetitive movement. Both powerlifters and bodybuilders use the bench press frequently as part of their workouts. However, these disciplines use the bench press in different ways to achieve specific results.
In today’s article, we’ll be covering the 13 key differences between the use of the bench press for powerlifting versus bodybuilding. We’ve briefly outlined each of the differences below to give you a rough overview of the areas that differ, but be sure to scroll down for an in-depth discussion of each point.
The 13 Differences: An Overview
- The Goal
- The Rules
- Training Frequency
- Workout Split
- Bodily Positioning
- Grip Position
- Rest Periods
1. The Goal
Bodybuilders and powerlifters have different goals when it comes to using the bench press. For powerlifters, these goals are more specifically strength-focused, while for bodybuilders, using the bench press has more of an aesthetic purpose in terms of physique. To summarize the goals for each discipline in short:
- Powerlifters use the bench press with the goal of building up the amount of weight they can lift in a single repetition.
- Bodybuilders use the bench press to increase their chest mass and size.
The bench press is a key exercise for powerlifters because the ability to lift weight in this position is one of the 3 areas tested in powerlifting competitions. Since the goal in powerlifting is to lift as much weight as possible in one repetition, it makes sense that this is also the goal for powerlifting training on the bench press.
There is no weightlifting requirement for bodybuilding competitions, so when bodybuilders use the bench press to train, they aren’t aiming to lift a certain amount of weight. Instead, bodybuilders use the bench press to build the muscles in their chest (particularly the pectoral muscles) so that they are in proportion to the rest of their physique. While a bodybuilder’s upper body training program encompasses several weightlifting exercises and machines, the bench press is a core component.
2. The Rules
The rules surrounding the use of the bench press for powerlifting versus bodybuilding are very different.
- Because powerlifting is a weightlifting contest, there are rules in place that powerlifters must follow in order for their bench press to be accepted by competition standards.
- Meanwhile, there are no rules surrounding the use of the bench press in bodybuilding.
When completing the bench press movement in a powerlifting competition, there are several rules that competitors must adhere to. First and foremost, neither the competitor’s head nor buttocks should lift off the bench throughout the movement. There are mandatory pauses (see section 12) in powerlifting, so powerlifters need to hold the bar against their chests and wait for the referee’s instruction before pressing the weight. The bar must not move downward at any point after the referee has given the instruction to press. The competitor must keep their feet planted on the floor while lifting. These rules are in place to ensure that the competition is completely standardized and fair for all participants.
While there are, of course, important benefits to completing bench press movements with the correct form as a bodybuilder, there are no concrete rules. Bodybuilding competitions don’t involve any weight lifting outside of training, so at no point are the competitors’ movements adjudicated by referees. Because of this, if you watch bodybuilders in training, you’ll see a lot of different forms and techniques being used.
3. Training Frequency
Because there are different goals for powerlifters and bodybuilders when it comes to using the bench press, the frequency varies as well.
- Powerlifters use the bench press with what can be described as a moderate to high level of frequency.
- Bodybuilders make use of the bench press less frequently than powerlifters on average.
Building strength takes time and effort, so powerlifters need to dedicate themselves to the bench press if they want to see results in this area.Generally speaking, 2 or 3 days of the average powerlifter’s training week will involve the bench press.However, for more high-level powerlifters, the frequency can often increase to between 4 and 5 days weekly. This might sound like it doesn’t leave much room for any other form of training but remember: powerlifters only need to use 3 lifting techniques competitively. Therefore, they can afford to spend more time on the bench press.
Bodybuilding involves a lower frequency of training surrounding the bench press. Usually, bodybuilders will work on the bench press about once or twice a week. The reason why bodybuilding is less bench-press focused is partly that bodybuilding requires a focus on all areas of the body to build a proportional physique, while powerlifting only relies on 3 movements. Therefore, bodybuilders need to set aside more time for other exercises, leaving less time for the bench press.
4. Workout Split
The way that powerlifting and bodybuilding training regimens are split up varies between the sports according to the different requirements and goals.
- Powerlifting workouts are split into different movements according to what will be required in competition settings (bench press, deadlift, and squat).
- Bodybuilding routines are focused on areas of the body as opposed to specific exercises.
The powerlifting workout split will have specific days dedicated to different movements. For example, in the case of the bench press, powerlifters will have certain days centered around this single movement. In addition to practicing the movement itself, powerlifting regimens will also focus on something called ‘accessory movements’. These are movements that facilitate the performance of another movement. So, for instance, a bench press involves locking out of the movement, which requires the extension of the arm through the tricep. If this were a specific weak area of a powerlifter’s performance, they might dedicate workout time to developing the tricep area so as to improve this accessory movement.
Bodybuilding training sessions work differently from powerlifting sessions because the focus is on specific areas of the body as opposed to movements. For bodybuilders, the bench press would be a part of ‘chest day’, which usually incorporates various exercises designed to target and build the chest muscles. On chest day, in addition to the bench press, bodybuilders might perform chest press exercises, cable crossovers, and any number of chest-focused movements to develop this area.
The load (amount of weight) used by both powerlifters and bodybuilders is significantly different.
- Because the focus of powerlifting is on physical strength, powerlifters will use greater loads when performing the bench press.
- Bodybuilders will use comparatively lighter loads than powerlifters for the bench press.
The load used by powerlifters during training is usually measured according to the individual’s maximum bench press for a single repetition. In most cases, this will be between 80% and 95% of the maximum load, and powerlifters will usually start this routine up to 12 weeks before a competition.
Even though bodybuilders aren’t adjudicated according to the amount of weight they can lift, they will know their maximum bench press load. This is so that they can train safely and efficiently. Bodybuilders train with lighter loads than powerlifters, usually lifting between 65% and 85% of their single-rep maximum. This is partially because bodybuilders do more repetitions during training, and also because they enter a caloric deficit in the lead up to a competition, which impacts their physical performance.
6. Bodily Positioning
If you watch bodybuilders and powerlifters using the bench press, you’ll probably notice that they position their bodies differently.
- Powerlifters position themselves on the bench press with the aim of limiting their range of movement as much as possible.
- Conversely, bodybuilders strategically position their bodies for maximum muscular engagement in the chest area.
Remember, there are rules in powerlifting pertaining to the competitor’s position during the bench press. As we mentioned previously, the buttocks and head need to maintain contact with the bench throughout, and the feet must remain planted on the floor.However, the one area of the body that is permitted to leave the bench is the back. Powerlifters arch their backs while lifting in the bench press to make their chests rise higher. This reduces the distance that the bar needs to be lifted. Powerlifters will also position their arms, specifically their elbows, to make the movement easier. The elbow is usually angled to protrude further forward than the bar, which helps to engage the triceps and pectoral muscles for greater efficacy.
In bodybuilding, the range of motion during the bench press isn’t so important because, again, they aren’t judged based on their ability to lift weight. Instead, bodybuilders are assessed on physique, so the bodily positioning in training is geared towards optimal muscle engagement for increased growth. That’s why, in contrast to the powerlifting position, the bench press for bodybuilding involves keeping the back flat against the bench. This position demands more from the chest muscles, enhancing muscle growth in that area. Additionally, bodybuilders tend to keep their elbows lined up with the bar instead of further forward. Again, rather than making the lift easier, it makes it harder on the pectoral muscles and encourages the development of the chest.
7. Grip Position
In addition to the bodily position, bodybuilding and powerlifting also differ in terms of the positioning of the competitor’s grip on the bar.
- The standard grip position for powerlifting is to have the hands wide apart on the bar.
- Bodybuilders will grip the bar in a variety of different ways, but a narrow grip position is more common.
Maintaining a wider grip on the bar during the bench press limits the range of motion and distance required to complete the lift. Because the aim in powerlifting is to lift as much weight as possible in a single rep, strategically making the lift easier to complete is key to powerlifting. That’s why you’ll often see powerlifters using a very wide grip for the bench press.However, powerlifting competitions do have rules in place to prevent competitors from relying too heavily on this strategy. Most of the time, there is an 81 cm limit to how far apart powerlifters can place their hands. So, for the most part, you’ll see powerlifters placing their hands roughly 80 cm apart on the bar.
Bodybuilders are usually trying to increase the range of motion for each repetition to make sure their chest muscles are fully engaged. A wider grip prevents this from happening effectively, so it’s rare that you’ll see bodybuilders using a wide grip during training. Instead, bodybuilders will use a narrower grip. How much narrower the typical bench press grip is for bodybuilders is difficult to quantify because there are no competition-enforced regulations regarding this. However, in bodybuilding, it’s common for competitors in training to change up the width of their grip in order to target different muscle groups in the chest. This is the most effective way for bodybuilders to achieve a proportionally muscular physique.
8. Press Angle
We now know that powerlifters and bodybuilders use different body positions and grips during the bench press. However, they also work with different press angles to achieve their desired results.
- Powerlifters train and compete using a flat bench.
- Bodybuilders will use different bench press angles depending on which muscle group they are trying to target.
Because the bench press in powerlifting is performed on a flat bench, this is also the press angle that bodybuilders will use for training. The only time a powerlifter will usually set the bench to an incline would be if strength is lacking in specific muscle groups. For example, if their shoulders are feeling too weak to efficiently execute the required movement, they might incline the bench press to target and build strength in the shoulders.While it’s not unusual to see a powerlifter using the bench press on an incline, what you won’t see is powerlifting training taking place on a press decline.
Bodybuilding requires competitors to build a proportional and highly muscular physique. This involves targeting many different muscle groups in all areas of the body. The flat, inclined and declined bench press all have benefits for various muscle groups. For this reason, bodybuilders will typically use the press on each of these angles to work as many different muscle groups as possible. Performing the bench press on an incline targets the upper pectoral muscles, while the decline bench press works the lower pectorals. By focusing on each of these areas specifically, bodybuilders can ensure that their chests are built and defined proportionally.
As we’ve established, powerlifters train with higher loads than bodybuilders. Because of this, the number of repetitions they do during training also differs between the sports.
- Powerlifters do fewer repetitions with more weight.
- Bodybuilders will do more repetitions per session with less weight.
Although powerlifters will occasionally have training sessions where they will perform higher repetitions, this isn’t the norm. Usually, powerlifters will perform fewer reps with a higher load. The reason for this is that lower repetitions with more weight are proven to build strength more effectively than the alternative.
On the other hand, bodybuilding requires the exact opposite of powerlifting in terms of the repetition to weight ratio. Rather than prioritizing heavier loads, bodybuilders will do more repetitions with lighter loads. It’s quite common for bodybuilders to perform between 6 and 12 repetitions at a time, with higher repetitions building up closer to competition time. The more repetitions a bodybuilder does, the more hypertrophic adaptations will occur, and the more effectively muscle can be built – which is the whole point of bodybuilding, after all!
10. Rest Periods
No matter how dedicated you are to your sport, it’s always important to take breaks between sets. Powerlifters and bodybuilders both need to take rest periods during their workouts, but the length of the rest break is different for each sport.
- Powerlifters typically rest for longer periods between repetitions on the bench press.
- Bodybuilders don’t need to rest for as long between sets compared to powerlifters.
Because powerlifters lift heavier loads for each repetition and set, it makes sense that they need to rest for longer to prevent injury. In between each set, powerlifters will usually rest for anywhere between 3 and 5 minutes. This is longer than the rest period of bodybuilders (see below) because powerlifters are exerting themselves more during each repetition. The nervous system, therefore, needs longer to recover. Part of the need for a longer rest period in powerlifting comes from the need for more mental build-up to the next lift due to the greater effort required.
Bodybuilders don’t need as much rest between sets as powerlifters, but it’s still important for them to take a quick break to prevent injury. The typical rest period for a bodybuilder is 1 to 2 minutes. This is because bodybuilders have more muscle groups to work out in the same space of time, so they can’t afford to take longer breaks. Additionally, exhausting the muscles is key to achieving hypertrophic adaptations for muscle growth, so keeping rest breaks short is essential.
Pacing, also referred to as tempo, is another key difference between powerlifting and bodybuilding training sessions.
- Powerlifters will lift at a faster pace than bodybuilders.
- Bodybuilders use the bench press at a slower pace than powerlifters.
Powerlifters aim to lower the bar down to their chests during the bench press quickly and efficiently. This is because they want to save most of their strength for the eccentric phase of the bench press (the upward lift), so they don’t want to waste any of their energy on the concentric phase (the lowering motion). Powerlifters also try to drive the bar upward as quickly as possible to put more momentum behind the movement and increase their chances of lifting it all the way.
A slower pace in the eccentric phase of the bench press has been shown to result in greater hypertrophic adaptations (muscle growth). Because of this, bodybuilders will take their time more when lifting the bar compared to powerlifters. It usually takes a bodybuilder between 2 and 4 seconds to complete the eccentric phase on the bench press, which is much slower than the average powerlifter but yields better results specifically in terms of muscle growth.
Not to be confused with rest periods, pauses during powerlifting and bodybuilding workouts constitute a significant difference between the disciplines.
- Powerlifters, in accordance with competition rules, pause the bar on their chests before lifting.
- There is no requirement for bodybuilders to pause the bar on their chests during the bench press.
Because competitive powerlifting requires competitors to pause the bar on the chest before completing the eccentric phase of the lift, this is the norm during training. Not only does the bar need to be paused on the chest, but a specific touchpoint needs to be identified and memorized to facilitate the movement. Pausing the bar in this way is much more difficult than it looks because it requires a lot of control during the concentric phase to avoid injury. In fact, powerlifting training often involves specific drills dedicated to pausing the bar safely.
Instead of pausing the bar on their chests, bodybuilders will usually briefly touch the bar to this area before pushing up into the eccentric stage of the lift. With bodybuilding, most of the muscle control goes into the slower eccentric phase of the bench press as opposed to the concentric phase.
Finally, a major difference between powerlifting and bodybuilding is the precision involved in each movement. As you might already have gathered from the information provided in our previous sections, one sport has much more of a focus on precision than the other.
- The bench press in powerlifting is a much more precise operation, and more attention is paid to the small details of the movement.
- For bodybuilders, precision and attention to detail aren’t as important when it comes to the bench press.
Powerlifting requires a lot of attention to the smaller details. This is not only because of strict competition rules surrounding form but because lifting such heavy loads requires care and precision. Additionally, powerlifters are always looking for small ways to improve their efficiency and lift more weight. Grip width is something that powerlifters are very particular about, as is the angle of their feet and the arch of their backs.
Safety and correct form are, of course, important for bodybuilding, but bodybuilders tend to be less concerned with the minor details than powerlifters on the bench press.It’s important to remember that bodybuilders need to be proficient in a wide range of movements so that they can develop their muscles proportionally. This doesn’t leave a lot of time to obsess about small details. The areas of the bench press that bodybuilders will be most focused on are how to isolate particular muscle groups in the chest and how to maximize hypertrophic adaptations. Beyond that, because of the lack of competitive regulation surrounding the bench press in bodybuilding, there’s very little need for preoccupation with minor details.
There are 13 key differences between powerlifting and bodybuilding when it comes to the use of the bench press. Ultimately, in powerlifting, the focus is on getting stronger by increasing the load you can lift in a single rep. For bodybuilding, the aim is to develop isolated muscle groups to build a muscular physique. As a result, there are more rules and small details surrounding the bench press for powerlifters than for bodybuilders.