It is perfectly natural to want the best of both worlds. Who wouldn’t want to be both rich and happy? What about intelligent and good looking? And, as lifters, who would be against looking strong as well as being strong?
For all your lofty strength ambitions and the necessity of bulking-related modesty (I see you, training in a hoody and sweatpants in December!) it’s fair to say nobody gets into lifting weights to look worse.
And yet, too often we see those chasing truly big numbers who abandon all hope of looking good and accept that their fate is to waddle around, with gut extending over their belt and all their hard-earned muscle hidden under a layer of blubber.
Similarly, we also see ripped, lean bodybuilders who can get out-benched by a high school footballer and couldn’t hit a parallel squat if their protein shake depended on it.
Enter powerbuilding. As you can probably guess from the name, powerbuilding is a hybrid of bodybuilding ethos with a powerlifting base. Or, to put it more simply: be strong, look muscular. Sounds good? Read on.
History of powerbuilding
As we have mentioned many times on this site, the history of strength sports was intertwined with the history of bodybuilding and in the early days of the 30s, 40s and 50s competitors were expected to be both strong and aesthetic. This era spawned men like Tommy Kono, who was both Olympic weightlifting champion and a competitive bodybuilder and Chuck Sipes, one of the strongest men in history who was also a champion bodybuilder with insane aesthetics.
In the 60s, the two sports went their own way, with powerlifting becoming more formalised and focused solely on putting up the biggest numbers possible, and bodybuilding going to further and further lengths to find the ideal physique even if this meant starving and dehydrating oneself to the point of collapse in the run up to a competition.
There was no longer a necessity for powerlifters to look good, or bodybuilders to be strong, and competitors in both camps were happy to abandon this part of their training to focus on their key competition skill.
Rebirth of powerbuilding
However, some never lost sight of the joy of being both strong and jacked. In his Encyclopaedia of Bodybuilding, Arnold extolled the virtues of testing your strength on one lift at least once a month. Dorian Yates, the archetypal mass-monster, sneered at the 10 or 12 reps so common in bodybuilding at the time and focused on moving much heavier weights for sets of 6 – 8 with maximum intensity. Renegade bodybuilding personalities like the Barbarian Brothers pushed the envelope even further with insane lifts like a 320lbs behind the neck press, all the while being incredibly jacked.
So, powerbuilding clearly has pedigree and has stood the test of time. Let’s look at how to incorporate it in our own training.
Implementing powerbuilding in your routine
Firstly, when designing a routine based around powerbuilding principles, you are going to need to prioritise strength as a marker for progress. Hopefully you do this to some extent anyway, but if you are coming to it from a pure bodybuilding outlook then you will need to shift your mindset slightly.
Strength work comes at the start of each session – powerbuilding is not the time for things like pre-exhausting the muscles. It makes sense to order your sessions around the ‘big 4’ – squat, bench, deadlift and overhead press – as each of them can have an associated ‘bodypart’ attached to them in a bodybuilding-style, respectively – legs, chest, back and shoulders.
Progressive overload, as ever, is key for your strength work and following a basic 3×5 or 3×3 protocol for your strength section is a good idea. Ensure that you are progressing and moving the dial forward with this. If your top lift is 3×5 at 200lbs for 6 weeks in a row that is stagnation, not progress. Keep inching forward.
Remember that pure strength is built and measured in single reps and you should test these occasionally, but anything between 3-5 will still develop your strength and it is in these parameters you should mostly work.
After the strength portion of your session, you will need to think about the other two variables; power/assistance and hypertrophy. For power/assistance, think in terms of 6-8 reps and for hypertrophy 10-12 (although you can do more if you are a sadist!)
Your assistance work should be focused around getting you stronger in the big 4, not necessarily muscle-building. Hypertrophy is based solely around muscle-gain, so think and plan accordingly. This is where you can indulge your bodybuilding knowhow and attack the muscles from obscure angles.
Below is an example of two powerbuilding routines I have used to good effect. One for bench/chest, and one for deadlifts/back.
|Strength||Bench Press 3×5||Deadlifts 3×5|
|Power / Assistance||Incline Dumbbell Press 3 x 8 Weighted Dips 3 x 8||Barbell Rows 3 x 8 Back Extensions 3 x 8-10|
|Hypertrophy||Dumbbell Pullovers 2 x 12|
Cable Crossovers 3 x 10 Incline Flys or Pec Deck 2 x 20
|Lat Pulldown 3 x 12 Seated Cable Row 3 x 12 Facepulls 3 x 20|
The key to successful powerbuilding is exercise order. You start with the heavy lifts and work down to chasing the pump. As you get more fatigued this will be a welcome relief. Your muscles will progressively tire and this gives us the opportunity to put a different stimulus through them.
Notice how in my routine above there are some 20 rep sets. I leave these until the end as a finisher. Partially because it’s a great way to leave the gym, pumped full of endorphins and with your skin feeling like it’s about to tear, but also because this is probably the lightest weight I will use in the session and therefore I want to make sure it will be done with perfect form and precision.
Doing this gives an extra challenge when considered in light of the tiredness creeping into your muscles now, but it’s important to remain focused all through the session and not slip into autopilot, even at the end.
Is exercise the fountain of youth? Fascinating new study
The fountain of youth is real and its name is exercise, according to a new study out of the University of Copenhagen.
Researchers there found that older adults who remained physically active had muscles that were more resistant to fatigue and, importantly, had more stem cells, which help to regenerate muscles.
The researchers studied 46 older men with an average age of 73 and placed them into one of three categories: young sedentary males (15), elderly lifelong exercise (16), and elderly sedentary (15).
During the study, each participant used a mechanical chair to perform knee extensions. The researchers measured the force each man produced before taking blood samples and muscle biopsies from both legs.
The results revealed that the elderly lifelong exercisers outperformed both groups of sedentary men. These active men also had a higher number of muscle stem cells in their bodies, which play major roles in muscle regeneration and growth, and also protect the nerves.
Click here to read more about this fascinating study
Powerbuilding is the ideal training modality for most people. Unless you are a competitive powerlifter or a competitive bodybuilder there is no reason to go to extremes in either of those disciplines. By focusing on powerbuilding you ensure that you are working on being stronger than most, and in better shape than most too.
Balance in training is hugely important and you should strive to be an ‘all-rounder’ as much as possible. If powerbuilding is good enough for some of the strongest men in history, and some of the most impressive physiques in history, then it is good enough for you.
If your training is currently powerlifting-dominant, throw some sets of 8/10/12 in and see how your body responds. You might be pleased with the results. If your training is currently bodybuilding-dominant, then working up to some strength milestones may help you pack on more mass which you can later sculpt to perfection. Either way, give it a try and enjoy the process.
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