Powerlifters and bodybuilders are like quarreling brothers. Some differences they can never fully bridge, and yet, for better and worse, they remain closely related. They do many of the same exercises. Bodybuilders squat, deadlift, and bench press, just as powerlifters likely crank out sets of triceps extensions, barbell rows, and dumbbell flyes. A few pro bodybuilders—most especially Johnnie Jackson, Stan Efferding, and Ronnie Coleman—combined powerlifting and bodybuilding to great effect. They’ve ended the tiff and used a lower-rep, power-intense approach to bodybuilding to become both stronger and bigger. Let’s explore how you can do the same.

RAISING THE DEAD 

The powerlifting and bodybuilding connection has been long and strong. Two-time Mr. Olympia Franco Columbu started as a European weightlifter and powerlifter in the ’60s. Columbu’s 735-pound deadlift in an exhibition is remarkable when you consider the 5’5” Sardinian strongman competed at around 185 pounds. His best friend, Arnold Schwarzenegger, also powerlifted competitively. In his last meet in 1968 when he was only 20 but already Mr. Universe, Arnold deadlifted 683 lbs., which was near the world record then.

Let’s zero in on the deadlift, because unlike the squat and the bench press, deads have had an uneasy relationship with bodybuilding. In fact, if you look at the routines of most champion bodybuilders before the ’90s, deadlifts are rarely there. To dead or not to dead was one of the chief things that separated powerlifters from their bodybuilding brethren, and it was mostly the rare hybrid powerlifter-bodybuilder who pulled weights from the floor yet also worked to widen his back. But with the 14-Olympia-winning streak (1992-2005) of Dorian Yates followed by Ronnie Coleman, both of whom included deads in their workouts and had arguably the two greatest backs ever to unfurl, deadlifts became very much a bodybuilder thing.

And so they have been ever since. Deadlifts have risen dramatically in gym popularity this millennium. Following Yates’ lead, some bodybuilders do deads last in their back routines, so they don’t need to go so heavy. But a power-bodybuilding routine places a premium on increasing strength in the three powerlifts, and thus schedules each of them—squats for legs, bench press for chest, and deadlifts for back—first in their respective workouts.

POWER GRAB 

In addition to focusing on the three powerlifts, the other thing that distinguishes power-bodybuilding is its emphasis on heavy sets of relatively low reps. Most sets should be in the 6-8 rep range. Strength is the goal, not the pump, so skip techniques like drop sets and supersets. Instead, rely on forced reps or cheating to eke out another rep or two. Watch power-bodybuilders Branch Warren and Johnnie Jackson charge through a brutal session, and you’ll quickly understand that—on exercises like pulldowns, dumbbell laterals, and EZ-bar curls—they’d rather loosen their form to keep a set going than stay strict and miss out on that extra rep. After all, it’s those extra reps over the course of a workout that are crucial to growth.

Pyramid at least one exercise in each routine, progressing to an apex set of 4-6 reps. The three powerlifts are ideal candidates for pyramids, as are military presses, barbell shrugs, barbell and T-bar rows, and EZ-bar curls. Throughout each workout, emphasize free-weight basics, and select the exercises in which you can move the most metal. So skullcrushers are better choice for triceps than one-arm pushdowns or dumbbell kickbacks.

ACTION JACKSON 

power bodybuilding
Johnnie Jackson stares down the bar between sets of T-bar rows.

This century, Johnnie Jackson competed in 13 Mr. Olympias while also, occasionally, powerlifting competitively at an elite level, including a 2127.4 pound total and an 832.2 pound deadlift. He explains his philosophy of combining the two iron sports and how a continuous quest for power has led to continuous growth:

“Over the years, some exercises have come and gone in my routines, but I’ve continued to use powerlifting and power movements for bodybuilding. I don’t think you can be a consummate bodybuilder without them. Anyone who goes only for the burn will never build impressive mass or thickness because his criteria are subjective. I want an objective goal. Powerlifting gives me that. Show me the numbers. My personal record, in pounds, for a given lift is the one I have to break. If I exceed it, that proves I’ve grown. There is nothing more motivational than that. Power-bodybuilding is not for everyone. You have to be somewhat of a masochist, in the sense that you have to appreciate the value of positive pain. You have to enjoy the pull on the body of all that weight, but what’s important about that struggle is that it generates even more motivation to work harder the next time. If you’re not testing your limits, it’s hard to be aggressive and have a good workout. I want to bring everything I’ve got to every workout to get both stronger and bigger.”

POWER-BODYBUILDING BASICS

⚡️ Include the three powerlifts—squats, deadlifts, and bench presses—in your workout program.

⚡️ Do the powerlifts first in your leg (squat), back (deadlift), and chest (bench press) routines.

⚡️ Pyramid the powerlifts, going as low as four reps.

⚡️ Do most other exercises for sets of 6-8 reps.

POWER-BODYBUILDING TIP SHEET

⚡️ Emphasize free-weight basics like barbell rows, military presses, and dumbbell incline presses.

⚡️ Continuously strive to use heavier weights. Switch in a different exercise if you’re not progressing.

⚡️ Do mostly straight sets, but have a spotter assist you with forced reps.

⚡️ Work calves and abs with sets of 10-15 reps.

POWER-BODYBUILDING BACK ROUTINE

Deadlift     5 x 10-4 reps

Barbell Row   4 x 6-8 reps

T-bar Row     4 x 6-8 reps

Front Pulldown  4 x 6-8 reps