Powerlifting Versus Weightlifting for Athletic Performance
  • Powerlifting Versus Weightlifting for Athletic Performance
    Both powerlifting and weightlifting have merit in the training of athletes for enhanced performance, and should not be considered competing, but rather, complimentary methodologies.
  • NSCA Classicshs_weight_training

    Essential Reading


    Chris Moore, MS, CSCS
    Human Performance Laboratories, The University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee

    Historically, dissimilarities between weightlifting and powerlifting have been drawn since the inception of powerlifting during the 1960s. Unfortunately since that time, a divide has developed between the two sports that has had a relatively wide influence, especially in regards to the strength and conditioning profession. Many coaches and researchers would consider training methods and modalities for weightlifting to be superior in terms of developing a dynamic and powerful athlete. However, such positions may be based upon antiquated notions of how powerlifters train.

    One performance variable that correlates positively to athletic success is muscle power. Many researchers have been quick to point out that despite its name, powerlifting is inherently a low-power activity, and thus may not yield an optimal power training adaptation. While a fair observation, recent data and modern training theory would indicate otherwise. Specifically, despite the maximal loads utilized, powerlifters become more powerful at any training load given the intention to move maximal loads as quickly as possible (3). However, many beneficial training adaptations are velocity specific. Evidence suggests that the most powerful athletes utilize explosive exercises with submaximal loads (1). As such, many powerlifters have adopted periodization models utilizing maximal and submaximal training loads concurrently in order to maximize favorable force generating capabilities, specifically improved rate of force development.

    For athletes to reap the most from training, it is appropriate to incorporate various training loads and subsequent training velocities into the training plan. However, one cannot overlook the importance of maximal strength development in terms of athletic performance. Following performance assessment of the elbow extensors, Moss et al. (3) reported strong correlations between 1 repetition maximum (1RM) strength and maximal power (R = 0.93, p < 0.0001), as well as between 1RM strength and power at a load of 2.5 kg (R = 0.73, p < 0.0001).

    These data suggest that maximal strength does play an important role in performance, regardless of external load. Moreover, in weightlifting, which involves high-power activity and is performed with relatively lower loads compared to powerlifting, it is well understood among coaches and athletes that maximal strength, particularly in the squat exercise, contributes significantly to performance. Training methods for powerlifting are well suited for the development of maximal strength, and thus it appears appropriate to include aspects of powerlifting training into the athletes overall program.

    In addition to various kinetic considerations, it is also important to consider the kinematics of each sport. If one analyzes common sporting actions, a frequently recurring position is the “power position,” characterized by the athlete standing with slightly flexed hips and knees similar to the starting position of a vertical jump. This position has favorable leverages, allowing the athlete to move quickly in response to a given stimulus during competition. One benefit of weightlifting exercises is that during the second pull phase of both the clean and snatch, a position similar to the athletic power position is achieved. Therefore, extending the hips and knees under load from this position would serve as a highly specific training stimulus.

    While this is more than likely true, it is not clear as to whether or not this training effect is limited to weightlifting movements. For instance, during the powerlifting squat and deadlift, the power position may be achieved under both maximal and submaximal loading conditions. In addition, utilizing partial range of motion exercises common in powerlifting training, such as partial squats and presses, can be used to apply highly specific overload stimuli necessary for many sports.

    Regarding explosiveness and weightlifting exercise, any exercise, given appropriate loading, can be performed explosively (1). For instance, McBride et al. (2) looked at the training effect on sprint and agility performance associated with the performance of maximal effort jump squats. The authors concluded that maximal effort jump squats utilizing submaximal loads were shown to effectively improve movement velocity.

    While not entirely conclusive, this study demonstrates that exercises other than the weightlifting exercises can be utilized to improve critical performance variables. It follows that derivatives of the bench press and squat, which emphasize acceleration throughout the range of motion, such as bench press throws and jump squats, may be effectively combined with the weightlifting exercises to offer the best training stimulus for improving explosive strength generating qualities.

    Recently, powerlifting training has evolved such that it is much more similar to weightlifting training than may have been previously thought. Despite differences regarding technique and specific rules regarding equipment regulations, etc., both sports aspire to develop extremely explosive and strong athletes. As the only sports designed to test 1RM lifting ability, delegates from each sport should aspire to work together to provide the strength and conditioning professional with the information necessary to optimally prepare their athletes for competition. Surely it is agreed that, sporting skills being equal, an explosive and strong athlete is a better athlete. 


    1. Haff, GG, Whitley, A, and Potteiger, JA. A brief review: Explosive exercises and sports performance. Strength and Conditioning Journal 23(3): 13–20, 2001.
    2. Mcbride, JM, Triplett-Mcbride, T, Davie, A, and Newton, RU. The effect of heavy- vs. light-load jump squats on the development of strength, power, and speed. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 16: 75-82, 2002.
    3. Moss, BM, Refsnes, PE, Abildgaard, A, Nicolaysen, K, and Jensen. J. Effects of maximal effort strength training with different loads on dynamic strength, cross-sectional area, load-power and load-velocity relationships. European Journal of Applied Physiology 75: 193-199, 1997.


    Mike Favre, MEd, CSCS
    US Olympic Training Center, Colorado Springs, Colorado

    A majority of sports require the expression of power to be successful. More specifically, success often comes down to producing the greatest amount of force in the smallest amount of time. Unless the strength can be expressed quickly, it may not result in sporting success, regardless of how strong an athlete is. Power = force ×velocity. Therefore, to be optimally powerful, both force and velocity must be trained.

    The exercises involved in powerlifting (squat, bench press, and deadlift) are more closely associated with maximal strength. Maximal strength training, also known as peak force development, is associated with the ability to lift heavy objects. Maximal strength training increases the high-force end of the force-time curve.

    Maximal strength is the foundation from which many other athletically important physical qualities are developed. Beginners often experience gains in strength, power, and rate of force development from maximal strength training. Although squats, bench presses, and deadlifts do increase an athlete’s ability to produce force, and as such are valuable tools in maximal strength development, they are performed too slowly to be considered primary power-developing exercises.

    The highest power outputs for these lifts are observed with intensities between 30 – 50%. To elicit these higher power outputs, the powerlifting lifts are usually modified from their original form (i.e., jump squats and bench press throws) and at these lower intensities they also no longer offer the maximal strength-developing qualities. The weightlifting movements, on the other hand, must always be performed quickly with triple extension, regardless of intensity, if the lift is to be successful.

    The exercises involved in weightlifting (snatch and clean and jerk) are closely associated with explosive strength. Explosive strength training, also known as peak rate of force development, is associated with the ability to accelerate objects. Explosive strength training enhances the initial rate at which the force is developed. Explosive strength can also be defined as movements in which maximal or near maximal rates of force development are attained.

    Examples of explosive activities where the previous statement is evident include sprinting, throwing, jumping, hitting, weightlifting, and quick changes of direction, all involving triple extension of ankle, knee, and hip. Explosive strength and maximal strength training are both extremely important in the development of athletes. It is the combination of both maximal strength training and explosive strength training in a sequenced manner that elicits the best results in power development (1,2).

    Success in athletics, especially weightlifting, often involves producing the greatest forces in the shortest amount of time. The weightlifting movements require both ingredients for power, force, and velocity. Research shows that the clean and jerk and snatch all have power outputs far greater than those of the squat, bench press, and deadlift (3). Weightlifting movements are ground-based multijoint, multi-muscle group exercises that stress the vital action/reaction principles important in sports. The weightlifting movements must be performed quickly, especially as the intensity increases.

    The weightlifting movements also require great balance, coordination (inter- and intramuscular), and flexibility, which are physical qualities imperative in almost all sports. The rapid displays of speed, quickness, agility, power, and strength observed in many sports are executed in coordinated, full-body actions. These are also qualities that need to be trained to be enhanced. Weightlifting movements allow the athlete to train in such a manner in a controlled environment. If an athlete wishes to compete explosively, then they must train explosively.

    Safety has also been a concern for coaches when confronted with using the weightlifting movements. There is no current research that supports this concern. Injuries are more often associated with little or no supervision by qualified coaches, poor equipment or facilities, and improper technique. Actually, injury rates are among the lowest when compared to all other sports and related activities (1). If specificity of training is important, then you must train your athletes according to the demands of their competition.

    The time intensiveness of teaching weightlifting technique is another often cited argument. These lifts do require great skill to master. This skill does not come easy or quickly, but neither do sporting skills or championships. Proper exercise technique is the foundation for future development. If proper technique (sporting, lifting, or otherwise) is not established, the development of the athlete will not be optimal. An experienced, certified coach can establish the beginnings of sound technique in the power clean and or power snatch with as little as 15–20 minutes each workout the first week.

    In conclusion, maximal strength training is only half of the equation (Power = force ×velocity). Rather than one or the other, it is the combination of both maximal strength training and explosive weight training, in a sequenced manner that will elicit the best results for the strength and conditioning professional. 


    1. Stone, MH, Lamont, H, and Stone, M. Explosive exercise. International Society for Biomechanics in Sport: Coaches Information Service. 2002. Available at http://www.coachesinfo.com/category/strength_and_conditioning. Accessed: August 1, 2006.
    2. Harris, GR, Stone, MH, O’Bryant, H, Proulx, CM, and Johnson, R. Short term performance effects of high speed, high force and combined weight training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 14: 14-20, 2000.
    3. Garhammer, J. A review of power output studies of Olympic and powerlifting: methodology, performance prediction and evaluation tests. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 7: 76-89, 1993.

    Read the Article
  • Disclaimer: The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) encourages the exchange of diverse opinions. The ideas, comments, and materials presented herein do not necessarily reflect the NSCA’s official position on an issue. The NSCA assumes no responsibility for any statements made by authors, whether as fact, opinion, or otherwise. 
  • Add Comment

    Text Only 2000 character limit


    Page 1 of 1