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Powerlifters and bodybuilders are like quarreling brothers. Some differences they can never fully bridge and yet, for better or worse, they remain closely related. They do many of the same exercises. Bodybuilders squat, deadlift, and bench press, just as powerlifters may crank out sets of triceps extensions, barbell rows, and dumbbell yes. A few bodybuilders—most especially Johnnie Jackson, Stan Efferding, and, in his early years, Ronnie Coleman—have 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 larger.
The powerlifting and bodybuilding connection has been long and strong. Two-time Mr. Olympia Franco Columbu started as a European champion powerlifter in the ’60s. His best reported lifts of a 750-pound deadlift, 665-pound squat, and 525-pound bench press are remarkable when you consider the 5’5″ Sardinian strongman competed at around 185 pounds. Though not quite as strong, his best friend Arnold Schwarzenegger also powerlifted competitively, deadlifting 710 in his last meet in 1968 when he was already Mr. Universe.
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 mid-1990s, 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-win string (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. 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 power lifts, and thus schedules each of them—squats for legs, bench press for chest, and deadlifts for back—first in their respective workouts.
In addition to focusing on the three power lifts, the other thing that distinguishes power-bodybuilding is its emphasis on heavy sets of relatively low reps. Most sets should be in the six-to-eight-rep range. Strength is the goal, not the pump, so skip techniques like dropsets 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 power lifts are ideal candidates for pyramids, as are military presses, barbell shrugs, EZ-bar curls, and close-grip bench presses. Throughout each workout, emphasize free-weight basics, and select the exercises in which you can move the most metal. So close-grip bench presses and lying EZ-bar extensions are better choice for triceps than one-arm pushdowns or dumbbell kickbacks.
The now-46-year-old Johnnie Jackson has competed in 12 Olympias while also powerlifting competitively at an elite level. He explains his philosophy in 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 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. 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.”