This may be the most controversial post you ever read! So let the games begin!
It’s time to measure these 3 exercise philosophies and see which one wins: Bodybuilding vs Powerlifting vs Crossfit!
But here’s the kicker…we’re going to measure all of them to see which one is best for these 4 things…
- Building lean muscle mass
- Getting stronger
- Anabolic response (boosting testosterone)
Now, some answers may seem obvious right off the bat. But hang in there, because we’re going to really dig in and do our research together (you may be surprised at what you and I find!).
Here’s what you will learn in this post:
- I will define bodybuilding, powerlifting, and CrossFit
- The primary goal of each training method
- The ratings of each method (for lean muscle, strength, conditioning, and hormone response)
- Side-by-side comparison
- Which is truly best?
- Ways you can combine all 3!
First, let’s start out by defining bodybuilding, powerlifting, and CrossFit, as well as the focus for each.
What is Bodybuilding?
The goal of bodybuilding is to build muscle size. But it doesn’t stop there. The ultimate purpose is to make those muscles as visible as possible (aka having big muscles with low body fat).
You’re familiar with terms like ‘ripped’ and ‘shredded.’ Add some size to that, and you pretty much sums up what bodybuilding is.
To build ripped muscle, there’s much effort that must be put into training. It requires a combination of compound exercises using heavy weights and supporting, or isolation exercises with more reps.
But no matter how hard you train, it’s even more important to pay close attention to your diet. Remember, bodybuilding isn’t just about gaining mass. It’s ripped and shredded size that wins competitions.
Bodybuilding is tough if you do it, or aspire to do it professionally. You must dedicate your life to it and everything you do, from your eating to even simple activities, will revolve around muscle growth and keeping your body fat down.
The bodybuilding diet is tricky because you have to eat enough calories to grow, but you also have to make sure you don’t gain body fat that covers up your muscles. There’s a fine balance and that’s why many will pursue recreational bodybuilding as a hobby over becoming a pro bodybuilder.
To keep fat at a minimum, bodybuilders also have to do cardio (yes, I said the evil word cardio!). This is in addition to weight training.
Danijela Crevar also explains the health benefits that come with the bodybuilding lifestyle in her article ‘What is Bodybuilding? Overall Benefits are Absolutely Amazing!’ on bodybuilding.com.
What’s the best training method to build muscle? It’s important to note that there are several training philosophies. For example, some bodybuilders swear by high volume workouts where others are fans of shorter, more intense workouts. Without getting into all of that, the one thing that will lead to success in building muscle is consistency.
Here’s what it takes to be a bodybuilder…
- Train with heavy weights to build dense muscle mass
- Also, do plenty of isolation exercises to build and define those secondary muscles
- Do a mix of high and low reps to work the different muscle fibers (you cannot have a weak area)
- Often eat a strict diet, balancing protein, carbs, and fats
- Eat 6-7 meals per day (this has been the most effective diet for bodybuilders for decades, despite what the new trendy diets recommend)
- Do cardio several times a week (some bodybuilders will bump up cardio to 2 sessions per day if they’re close to their competition time)
As you can see, bodybuilding is almost a full time job on its own. It takes extreme dedication, even if you do it recreationally.
What is Powerlifting?
The goal of powerlifting is to be as strong as possible. Your purpose is simply moving weight from point A to point B with brute force and effort.
Traditional powerlifting focuses on 3 main lifts, referencing powerliftingtowin.com:
- Bench Press
Although these 3 lifts are the core focus of strength, powerlifters will often expand their training with other exercises that will support these lifts.
For example, many powerlifters will do barbell rows in their workouts. Doing heavy barbell rows targets your back muscles, and can help you get stronger on your deadlifts.
Another common lift powerlifters will throw into their workouts is the overhead barbell press (standing). Per barbend.com, doing overhead presses will strengthen your shoulders and triceps, which will help increase your bench press.
Unlike bodybuilding, powerlifters aren’t concerned with how their physique looks. To get strong at a competitive level, you have to eat. There’s no way around that.
Cardio is often neglected as well, although many powerlifters may walk 3-4 times a week to stay healthy. You can keep your body fat at a reasonable percentage, but you can’t cut it too much.
Here’s something you didn’t know, is that to be successful at powerlifting, you have to be flexible. Powerlifters have to do a lot of stretching, and many will practice Yoga in addition.
Some will also take ice baths and get regular massages. There’s much that goes into recovery and protecting your joints in this strength sport.
Powerlifting is an extremely competitive sport. Yes, you’re trying to win the competition against your peers. But it’s more of a competition with yourself, pushing yourself to be stronger today than you were yesterday.
If you study bodybuilding, you may notice that the majority of Mr. Olympia winners started out with powerlifting, not bodybuilding. Why? Because powerlifting helped them build that initial foundation of muscle mass and strength, and that strength was later leveraged to push them ahead in the bodybuilding world.
Here’s what you need to do to be a powerlifter:
- Be ready to train with heavyweights
- You must study basic form and make sure you’re lifting the right way (this is crucial for lifting heavy weights; if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can hurt yourself pretty bad)
- Eat a lot of calories, and eat often (like bodybuilders, you’ll need to eat 6-7 times a day, but more food than bodybuilders eat)
- Must learn to be strong mentally
- You have to constantly push yourself beyond your limits (this is too tiring for most people!)
- Requires daily stretching and other methods for recovery and to prevent injury
I’ve heard many define powerlifting as a spiritual experience. There’s also a true bond that powerlifters have with one another.
What is CrossFit?
CrossFit is based on functional movements. Founded in 2000 by Greg Glassman, it’s one of the few exercise trends that quickly blew up and became a household brand, so to speak.
The actual definition of CrossFit is quite board. Here’s a quote from the actual CrossFit website:
CrossFit is a lifestyle characterized by safe, effective exercise and sound nutrition. CrossFit can be used to accomplish any goal, from improved health to weight loss to better performance. The program works for everyone—people who are just starting out and people who have trained for years.crossfit.com
Although CrossFit is far from both traditional bodybuilding and powerlifting, this exercise philosophy does incorporate weight training.
Below are what CrossFit calls the foundational movements (there are more, but I’m just listing the ones based on weightlifting):
- Front squat
- Overhead squat
- Shoulder press
- Push press and push jerk (these are modified shoulder presses)
- Sumo deadlift high-pull (for you bodybuilders, this is basically a deadlift that turns into an upright row)
**I may have missed some exercises but these are the ones I got from the CrossFit website.
Unlike bodybuilding (and more along the lines of powerlifting), CrossFit movements are explosive. However, the goal isn’t to lift super heavy weights, although many do get stronger.
One of the things that separates CrossFit from bodybuilding and powerlifting is you’re moving quickly between exercises. You’re not taking long periods of rest between sets. In fact, you’ll often be going from one exercise to another.
With the above note, CrossFit exercises are also goal-oriented in the sense of time it takes you to complete a circuit, or how many repetitions you can perform.
Nutrition is also a crucial part of CrossFit. Refreshingly, they’re recommended diet is a sensible diet with a balance of protein, carbs, and fats. Nothing crazy. Rather, providing your body with the nutrients it needs to function, recover, and give you the energy you need to plow through the grueling workouts.
Here is something to know about being a ‘CrossFitter’…
- CrossFit needs to become a lifestyle; you probably will not be successful or reach your goals if you half-ass it
- It’s extremely competitive
- Has a cult-like following so it’s a great way to meet other like-minded health-conscience people
- Workouts are high-intensity (you will indeed sweat!)
- You’ll increase flexibility, balance, and coordination
- You can expect to gain explosive power
- It’s great if you’re prone to get bored with traditional workouts
- You’ll be doing a variety of exercises, many of which you’ve probably never heard prior to CrossFit
CrossFit is known to have a cult-like following. Bottom line is it’s addictive to many (which is a great addiction to have!).
Lean Muscle, Strength, Conditioning, and Anabolic Response Ratings
Now it’s time to rate each workout method for the 4 areas below:
- Lean muscle
- Anabolic Response
I’ll rate each one below by giving it a 1-5 rating.
- 1 – Not effective (sucks!)
- 2 – Somewhat effective
- 3 – Effective
- 4 – Extremely effective
- 5 – This is the primary focus
I probably won’t be handing out too many 5’s!
**This is just my opinion, so don’t take it as gospel. My opinions are based on my own experience, which has mainly been geared towards bodybuilding workouts, but also the experience of experts I know for powerlifting and CrossFit, and my own research done while compiling this post. I will do my best to be as unbiased as possible!
Lean muscle: 4.5
If your goal is building lean muscle, bodybuilding cannot be beat. And I’m talking both workouts and diet. Remember, the sole focus is ripped, shredded muscle mass.
It’s true that bodybuilding is probably the best workout method to gain lean muscle. So you may be wondering why I gave it a 4.5 rating instead of 5.
Bodybuilding is quite complex in nature. It’s not as simple as just going to the gym, training hard, and eating right.
Though many bodybuilders are strong, bodybuilding doesn’t focus on strength gains. You should still be incorporating compound exercises for building mass, but the bodybuilding will only allow you to go so far.
*There are some that go through bulking and cutting phases, and in the bulking phase you can work on strength. However, you stand to lose a lot of strength during the cutting phase due to the caloric restriction and added cardio.
Make no mistake, you can get into great shape with bodybuilding workouts, especially when you’re in a cutting phase in which you’re doing more cardio and aerobic activity to reduce body fat. But overall, your physique will take precedence over conditioning.
Anabolic Response: 4
When you lift weights, you naturally increase your testosterone levels, temporarily. Bodybuilding workouts are built around weight training. And typically, your workouts will start out with a heavy compound movement in the lower rep range followed more exercises that include more reps. So you have both volume and intensity, which Parker Hyde, CSCS, CISSN says boosts testosterone naturally on bodybuilding.com.
Lean muscle: 3
Building the muscle tissue and gaining size isn’t the goal of a powerlifter, despite the size of most powerlifters. It’s true that muscles will naturally grow larger lifting heavyweights.
But you may notice that many powerlifters do not have good muscle tone or definition. You’re not typically going to see vascularity or striations in a powerlifter (though a small percentage are pretty ripped, and more powerlifters are becoming more health conscience these days).
At first, it made sense to give powerlifting a 5 for strength. I mean, it’s almost like ‘duh!’ But I had to take a step back and think about the big picture. Yes, there’s no doubt you’ll get strong with powerlifting workouts. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean overall strength.
Powerlifting limits you to focusing only on certain lifts (purposely), and the exercises that support those lifts. For example, a powerlifter may deadlift 600 lbs, but he/she may not be able to do more than 2 pull-ups. I’m still giving it a high score for strength, but not quite a 5.
Although stretching and flexibility should be part of every powerlifter regimen, powerlifting is not based on conditioning. This doesn’t mean you should aspire to be completely out of shape.
And some aspects of powerlifting will temporarily increase your heart rate. But the typical powerlifting workouts aren’t enough volume to get conditioned to the extreme.
However, there’s more to a true powerlifting workout than just moving a bunch of weight. There’s the work of supporting muscles and a ton of stretching involved if you’re doing it right. All of those elements do play a role in conditioning and helping you burn fat.
*Don’t be one of those people who are super strong but out of shape and unhealthy. At the least, you should walk for 30 minutes, 3-4 times a week.
Anabolic Response: 5
One of the best and most natural ways to increase testosterone and trigger an anabolic response is lifting heavyweights. And that’s what powerlifting is all about.
The exercises in powerlifting require the most effort and output, and these are best for boosting testosterone.
The simplest alteration you can make to your training program to boost Testosterone is by incorporating complex, compound movements. But not just any compound movement: the bigger, the better.Char Waterbury, 5 Ways to Boost Testosterone, t-nation.com
To add, Dark Iron Fitness talks about a study performed by The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research showing how squats and deadlifts significantly increase testosterone and growth hormone. The article is called ‘Do Deadlifts and Squats Increase Testosterone?’ on darkironfitness.com.
In addition, you may not think of powerlifting as high-intensity training. But if you take a look at a true powerlifter workout program, you’ll clearly see that HIIT (high-intensity interval training) plays a huge part. There’s a forum conversation on t-nation.com with some interesting angles on this.
Lifting heavy in general is a form of HIIT. Think about it, when you’re lifting super heavyweight, your taxing your body and central nervous system, and also making your heart rate go up. You rest, then you go back to the max effort lifting (lower reps).
I must also add that strongman and powerlifter Brian Alsruhe does a form of supersets or giant sets in his strength training routine. This takes HIIT to another level. You can check out the YouTube video below going through a linear progression strength program using giant sets. This type of workout is a true natural testosterone booster!
I could keep citing multiple sources and studies proving the anabolic response from powerlifting, specifically from lower-body movements like squats and deadlifts. So in this category, powerlifting clearly earns the highest rating.
Lean muscle: 3
Can you build muscle with CrossFit workout? Sure you can, but that’s not the goal of CrossFit. You’re going to be doing exercises that are considered functional, and that can help support multiple sports and activities.
When I think of ‘building lean muscle’ the first thing that comes to mind is an image of a bodybuilder. Again, CrossFit is not designed for bodybuilding.
Part of what builds lean muscle size in bodybuilding is the exercises targeted at specific muscles, the volume (pumping out reps), and the concentration on the muscle during the movements. The movements in CrossFit consist of explosive movements and you’re not targeting specific muscles for growth.
Here’s the thing, if you’re new to working out and start CrossFit, you will more than likely pack on some lean muscle. However, if you’ve been doing bodybuilding style workout and/or already have decent muscularity, you may not see much change in lean muscle size with CrossFit.
For starters, don’t think that ‘3.5’ is a bad score. It’s above average. The reason I didn’t give it a higher score is that CrossFit isn’t built on max lifts like powerlifting.
This doesn’t mean you won’t get stronger with CrossFit. Of course, you will. But you’re not going to as much strength or at the accelerated rate than you would if you were solely focused on upping your max on specific lifts.
Although you’ll perform several weight training exercises in CrossFit, the way you perform those exercises (for the most part) and what you’re pairing them with is not geared towards max effort lifting.
The same concept for lean muscle gains applies here for strength. If you’re a powerlifter coming over to the CrossFit world, you probably will not experience strength gains, at least not the substantial gains you’ve built up to with powerlifting.
Rather, you’re experience with lifting heavy weights may support your success in CrossFit. On the flip side, if you’re new to training in general, you can expect to get stronger with CrossFit workouts.
Here’s where CrossFit shines, and it’s practically impossible not to give it the highest score for conditioning. If you want to up your cardiovascular strength and endurance, CrossFit is golden.
With CrossFit, you’re moving almost the entire time. This is much different from both bodybuilding and powerlifting where you’re resting between sets.
CrossFit can be considered a hybrid workout. There’s some muscle and strength building going on, but you’re also burning some major body fat. And you’re training your body to be conditioned to sustain more activity.
That said if you’re not used to this style of workouts, and even if you’re coming from bodybuilding or powerlifting, you’re going to be winded with CrossFit. That’s ok because you will be surprised how quickly you build up stamina and endurance, as long as you stick with it.
I’ve had a few friends go from regular bodybuilding workout to CrossFit, and most of them love it, and have never looked back. One in particular is still just as strong, if not stronger, but has cut his body fat way down and is in the best shape and condition ever.
Anabolic Response: 4.5
The score for CrossFit’s anabolic response and ability to boost testosterone naturally is in line with bodybuilding workouts, perhaps slightly more (which is why it got a half-point higher score).
One of the keys to boosting testosterone in the gym is intensity. And CrossFit is just that; high-intensity workouts (or as many refer to as HIIT – high-intensity interval training). There’s an article on theboxmag.com that digs into this further by stating that CrossFit workouts can actually reboot the body’s hormonal system (testosterone).
It gets better. Kelly Scott backs up the fact that high-intensity interval training also stimulates the release of growth hormone, on trainforeverstrong.com. If you’ve been in any facet of weight training long enough, you know that boosting testosterone and growth hormone are top priority to longevity.
There’s one aspect that kept me from rating CrossFit a 5 for anabolic response and boosting testosterone. And it’s why powerlifting received a higher (the highest) rating. Heavyweights using compound exercises.
The majority of CrossFit exercises are modified versions of traditional compound movements. This isn’t a bad thing. But it’s not going to quite trigger the same anabolic response as performing a traditional heavy deadlift or squat for max effort reps.
Nonetheless, 4.5 certainly isn’t a weak score!
Final Verdict: Bodybuilding vs Powerlifting vs CrossFit
This section is just my personal preference, so you may disagree. And it’s ok to disagree! Because it all comes down to what YOU want!
Seriously, what are your goals? Do you want to get stronger? Or build more ripped muscle mass? Are you out of shape and need to focus on conditioning?
Here’s a valuable tip: You DO NOT have to choose just 1 workout program! I tell people all the time don’t be a zealot! Here’s a 12-week program you can do instead:
- Weeks 1-8: Powerlifting workouts
- Weeks 9-16: Bodybuilding workouts
- Weeks 17-24: CrossFit workouts
- Weeks 25: Deload (you can read more about deload schedules and programs here on themuscleprogram.com)
Now, I have something that may work even better for you below…
Can You Combine Bodybuilding, Powerlifting, and CrossFit Workouts?
Now you’re just going to think I’ve gone off the deep end. But to be completely transparent, I think all of these workout methods will work for you if you put effort into them.
You see, each workout method has pros and cons. But each one is also slightly lacking in a few areas. So you may find you get the best results combining certain parts of each program.
Here are some examples…
- You’re a bodybuilder but want to get stronger, so you incorporate some powerlifting techniques at the beginning of your workouts
- You’re religiously into CrossFit but you want to look good with bigger muscles and more definition, so you do a few bodybuilding exercises after your CrossFit workout.
- You’re a powerlifter but you know you’re out of shape, so you may join a CrossFit gym to workout at on your off days from powerlifting.
- Or maybe you just want it all, so you do a hybrid of powerlifting and bodybuilding workouts 3 days a week, and CrossFit 2 days a week.
The cool thing is you can cater to each workout to focus more on one or the other. If strength is your focus right now, then start your leg workouts with heavy squats, back workouts with heavy deadlifts and rows, and chest with bench press.
From there, you can incorporate 2-3 bodybuilding style methods. And instead of doing a normal cardio session, integrate some CrossFit training (either after your workout, or another time that day, or on your normal rest days).
Actually, I’m a firm believer that no matter what your goals are, you should start your workouts with compound movements. I’m not saying you have to do a low-rep powerlifting routine with them.
But exercises like squats, deadlifts, bench press, rows, and overhead press are your core muscle and strength builders. Even if you’re just doing CrossFit, start your workouts with a compound movement.
As we have both learned here, there are endless ways to create your workout program by mixing these techniques. Or if you scroll up a little, I gave you a 25-week workout schedule using all techniques. That’s a great option too!
I think the ultimate goal for all of us is to simply be better today than we were yesterday. Whether it’s stronger, more muscle, or being better conditioned, it’s a battle of you against you!
I hope you enjoyed this post! If you found it helpful, please SHARE it! And also feel free to leave any comments below.