Bodybuilding vs. Strength Training: Top 10 Differences

Whether your main goal is to build as much muscle as possible or get as strong as possible, you’ll find that bodybuilding and strength training share many training principles and exercises. 

However, that does not mean that a bodybuilder and a strength athlete should train the same way. If you’re wondering about the differences between bodybuilding and strength training, this article is for you.

What Is Strength Training?

This one is easy. Strength training is any activity that makes your muscles stronger.1

That can mean many things. Most people associate strength training with lifting weights, but you can also use bodyweight exercises or resistance bands to gain strength. Weight training is the most popular and likely the most effective way to improve strength, though.

Strength training comes down to working your muscles against a weight or a force. Over time, you gradually increase resistance to force your muscles to adapt through progressive overload. 

What Is Bodybuilding?

Bodybuilding is the development of the body’s muscles through exercise and diet for aesthetic purposes. Competitive bodybuilding entails displaying your muscular development, symmetry, and definition to judges who compare your physique to other bodybuilders.

Bodybuilding and strength training share many similarities but also many differences.

  • Not everyone who engages in strength training wants to be a bodybuilder.
  • However, all bodybuilders engage in strength training.

The best way to train for maximal muscle growth is not necessarily the best way to train for maximal strength gains. The training practices of a bodybuilder are not the same as those of, for example, a powerlifter. In addition, factors like diet and exercise selection also vary between bodybuilders and strength athletes.

Here are the ten main differences between bodybuilding and strength training.

#1: Bodybuilding Makes Your Muscles Bigger; Strength Training Makes Your Muscles Stronger

Of course, there is a considerable overlap here. Bodybuilding will make you stronger, but that is not the primary goal of bodybuilding. And when you train for strength, your muscles not only get stronger but also grow in size.

In general, a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle. However, the relationship between muscle strength and muscle size is complex. It is possible to gain muscle strength without significant hypertrophy. In several strength-training studies, the lifters get bigger muscles without becoming stronger simultaneously.2 Compared to bodybuilding, strength training improves the quality of your muscle fibers, ultimately leading to greater peak muscular power.3

Over time you will get stronger and build muscle both through bodybuilding training and strength training.

However, if your goal is to look like a bodybuilder, you should train like a bodybuilder most of the time. And, to get as strong as possible, the majority of your workouts should be focused on strength training.

Read more:

>> How to Build Muscle: Exercises, Programs & Diet

>> Five Ways to Get Bigger and Stronger

#2: Strength Training Is All About Lifting Heavy

If you want to get strong, you need to lift heavy weights. Research shows that heavier loads in a lower rep range are superior for muscle strength.4 5

On the other hand, hypertrophy training is not dependent on how heavy weights you use or the number of reps you do. You can achieve comparable muscle hypertrophy using low, moderate, or high loads.6

That being said, there is probably a practical benefit to using moderate loads and between 6–15 reps for most of your bodybuilding training. Training to failure using light weights is painful and mentally challenging, whereas always going heavy increases the risk of injury without any apparent benefits.

#3: Training Volume Is More Important For Bodybuilding

Research shows that muscle growth follows a dose-dependent relationship. The more sets you perform and the higher your training volume, the better results you can expect.7 Up to the point where you can’t recover from even more training, of course.

When it comes to training for strength, things get more complicated. 

There is still likely a dose-response relationship between high volume and strength, but it is not linear and relevant only to intermediate and advanced lifters. How heavy you lift is a more important aspect of your training routine to build stronger muscles than how many sets you do.2 8

Read more:

>> Training Volume: How Many Sets for Strength and Muscle Growth?

#4: Bodybuilding Training Is Less Specific Than Strength Training

The specificity principle states that you become good at what you do. Your body’s adaptation is generally specific to the type of training. In strength training, that means the movement pattern of your muscles and the nature of the muscle action.9

According to the specificity principle, the training of strength athletes like powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters should focus on the competitive lifts. Your training program will provide the best results when centered around those lifts. Powerlifting training is centered around the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. Weightlifters focus on the snatch and the clean and jerk. Those exercises, and variations of them, will give you the best bang for the buck and the greatest improvements in strength.

Bodybuilding, on the other hand, is far less specific. The primary goal of every bodybuilder might be to build lean muscle mass, but individual bodybuilders have specific goals that require very different types of training to attain. Also, you don’t perform any lifts during bodybuilding competitions. Instead, it’s all about appearance, allowing a bodybuilder to shape their training routine according to personal preferences and fitness goals.

#5: Nutrition Is More Important For Bodybuilding

Eating enough of the right foods is a big part of bodybuilding and strength training. However, bodybuilders place far more importance on the details of nutrition than strength athletes like powerlifters and strongmen.

To get strong, you need to eat enough: enough calories, protein, fat, and carbohydrates to recover from your heavy training and allow your muscles to adapt by becoming stronger over time. If you get the calories you need from a reasonably balanced diet, you likely get enough nutrients, too.

Bodybuilding is about physical appearance and showing off the visual results of your efforts in the gym. Strength athletes don’t care about muscle definition, but a bodybuilder trying to lose body fat and get shredded for a bodybuilding competition needs to plan their diet down to the gram.

Don’t get me wrong; without paying attention to what you eat, you’ll be hard-pressed to reach your potential for strength. But diet and nutrition make or break bodybuilding success on another level. Especially when dieting to reach peak conditioning for a competition, an on-point nutrition plan might be even more crucial than the training aspect of the sport.

Read more:

>> Eating for Muscle Growth

#6: Bodybuilding Benefits From Internal Focus, Strength Training Benefits From External Focus

What is an external and internal focus, you might wonder?

  • External focus means directing your attention to the outcome of whatever you’re doing. 
  • Internal focus involves focusing on bodily movements.

Let’s say you’re attempting a heavy barbell bench press. When you concentrate on moving the bar, that’s an external focus. Focusing on your chest muscles working during the lift is an internal focus.

Research shows that external focus improves strength and allows you to lift heavier loads. It also improves motor learning, which is helpful for weightlifting and the Olympic lifts.10 11

An internal focus is likely beneficial for building muscle, though.12 By concentrating on the muscles doing the work, you might limit the amount of weight you can use, but you establish a so-called “mind-muscle connection” which could enhance muscle hypertrophy.

In other words, if you’re mainly into strength training, focus on lifting the bar and moving the weight. If bodybuilding is your game, focus on individual muscles and feeling them working, even if it means less weight on the bar.

Read more:

>> Internal vs External Focus for Strength: New Meta-Analysis

#7: Bodybuilding Includes More Cardio

Athletes training primarily for maximal strength often avoid aerobic exercise, as excessive cardio is thought to hinder maximal strength gains.13 Over the years, with more research, current scientific evidence suggests that cardio does not interfere with maximal strength development, only increases in explosive strength.14 That can be important enough for strength athletes, particularly weightlifters.

In bodybuilding, regular aerobic exercise is more common. According to a 2013 survey of 127 competitive bodybuilders, 44% performed 1–2 cardio sessions per week during the off-season.15 During pre-contest, however, almost all bodybuilders regularly engaged in aerobic training, with close to 60% performing five or more sessions per week.

Every strength athlete, including powerlifters and strongmen, benefit from aerobic and anaerobic fitness.16 However, only bodybuilders regularly incorporate cardio into their training routine to any significant degree.

#8: Bodybuilding Is About Appearance, Strength Training Is About Performance

Bodybuilding is about physical appearance, building bigger muscles, and sculpting a symmetrical physique, not how much you can lift. For competitive purposes, a bodybuilder is judged on muscle size, conditioning, and the absence of body fat (muscle definition). Whether you’re a professional bodybuilder or a first-time amateur physique competitor, both overall symmetry and the development of individual muscles determine the outcome of a bodybuilding competition.

Strength training, on the other hand, is about performance. Competitive exhibitions in strength sports like powerlifting, strongman, or weightlifting entail lifting the heaviest weight possible. How you look doing it is irrelevant. Whether we’re talking about the three main lifts in powerlifting, the Olympic lifts, or a strongman pushing a car, overall strength determines the winner.

#9: Bodybuilding vs. Strength Training: The Exercises

Strength training generally centers on compound exercises that involve several muscle groups, so-called multi-joint exercises. Doing so allows you to use heavier weights, develop functional strength, and train your central nervous system to coordinate your body to perform more complicated lifts using maximal amounts of force—all crucial factors in powerlifting and weightlifting.

Common functional training exercises to improve strength performance include:

Bodybuilding, on the other hand, places greater emphasis on individual muscles. The primary goal of a bodybuilder is to build muscle but also to achieve a balanced physique and eliminate weak points. Bodybuilders use compound lifts like the ones above but also perform isolation exercises as a part of their resistance training plan to a greater degree, including:

Strength athletes typically spend the most time on compound exercises using heavy weights and low reps, then add some isolation work to the workout routine if time and their ability to recover allow it.

Bodybuilders combine compound and isolation exercises to achieve muscle hypertrophy in the whole body and to hit all different muscle groups using lighter loads and high reps.

Read more:

>> Top 20 Bodybuilding Exercises for Every Muscle Group

#10: Bodybuilding Has the Lowest Risk of Injury

Whenever you push your body, you always risk injury. At the highest level, most physically demanding sports have a relatively high risk of injury.

Strength sports, including weightlifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding, strongman, and Cross-Fit, generally have low rates of injury compared to most team sports. Out of those, bodybuilding is the safest, with less than one injury per lifter per year.17

Training for strength requires you to use heavier weights and greater force, sometimes too much weight for your muscles and connective tissues to handle, which increases your risk of hurting yourself. On the other hand, bodybuilding often means training with lighter weights and controlling the movement, leading to a very slight risk of injury.

Summary

While both bodybuilding and strength training might look similar on paper, there are many differences.

  • The main difference is that strength training aims to make your muscles stronger, while bodybuilding aims to make them bigger.
  • Bodybuilding is about physical appearance, while strength training is about improving physical performance.
  • If you train for bodybuilding, you will undoubtedly become stronger in the process. However, strength is not the primary goal of bodybuilding. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a bodybuilder can’t use their muscles for anything practical. Many bodybuilders are tremendously strong, although not as strong as the best powerlifters.
  • If you train for strength, you’ll get bigger muscles as well. Strength training is not optimal for building muscle, though, so you likely won’t end up with the muscle mass of a bodybuilder. Of course, powerlifters and strongmen, especially heavyweights, carry a tremendous amount of muscle. However, it is not as symmetrically developed as a bodybuilder’s physique and is often covered by more body fat.
  • Strength sports in general have low rates of injury, but bodybuilding stands out compared to strength training as the safest type of weight-training.

As you can see, bodybuilding and strength training share both similarities and differences. Neither is inherently “better” than the other. It all depends on your goals. Training like a bodybuilder is obviously the better choice if you want to build muscle and compete in bodybuilding. However, if you’re looking to gain as much strength as possible, maybe competing in powerlifting or another strength-based sport, focusing on strength training is the best way to reach your goals.

The StrengthLog App Helps You Track Your Bodybuilding and Strength Training Progress

Whether you’re a bodybuilder or a strength athlete, the key to fast and consistent gains in strength and muscle is to increase the weight you use in your training or to do more reps. 

It’s almost impossible to keep track of your progress without a workout log. Our app StrengthLog is 100% free to download and use as a workout tracker and general strength training app. All the basic functionality is free – forever.

You’ll also find a bunch of training programs and workouts in the app, including our premier bodybuilding program Bodybuilding Ballet and our popular Powerlifting Polka program. Many are free, but our more advanced programs, like these two, are for premium users only. 

Want to give premium a shot? We offer all new users a free 14-day trial of premium, which you can activate in the app.

Download StrengthLog for free with the buttons below:

Download StrengthLog Workout Log on App Store
Download StrengthLog Workout Log on Google Play Store

References

  1. Merriam-Webster: strength training
  2. Eur J Transl Myol. 2020 Sep 30; 30(3): 9311. Muscle hypertrophy and muscle strength: dependent or independent variables? A provocative review.
  3. Exp Physiol. 2015 Nov;100(11):1331-41. Single muscle fibre contractile properties differ between body-builders, power athletes and control subjects.
  4. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 11 January 2022. Muscle hypertrophy and strength gains after resistance training with different volume-matched loads: a systematic review and meta-analysis.
  5. J Sports Sci Med. 2016 Dec; 15(4): 715–722. Differential Effects of Heavy Versus Moderate Loads on Measures of Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men.
  6. International Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 1(1), 2021-08-16. Resistance Training Recommendations to Maximize Muscle Hypertrophy in an Athletic Population: Position Stand of the IUSCA.
  7. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2019 Jan; 51(1): 94–103. Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men.
  8. Sports Med. 2017; 47(12): 2585–2601. The Effect of Weekly Set Volume on Strength Gain: A Meta-Analysis.
  9. Essentials of Strength Training, 4ed
  10. Sports 2021, 9(11), 153. Acute and Long-Term Effects of Attentional Focus Strategies on Muscular Strength: A Meta-Analysis.
  11. Front Sports Act Living. 2019; 1: 7. A Systematic Review of Attentional Focus Strategies in Weightlifting.
  12. Eur J Sport Sci. 2018 Jun;18(5):705-712.Differential effects of attentional focus strategies during long-term resistance training.
  13. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise: November 2006 – Volume 38 – Issue 11 – p 1965-1970. Concurrent Strength and Endurance Training: From Molecules to Man.
  14. Sports Medicine Volume 52, Pages 601–612 (2022). Compatibility of Concurrent Aerobic and Strength Training for Skeletal Muscle Size and Function: An Updated Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.
  15. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: June 2013 – Volume 27 – Issue 6 – p 1609-1617. Training Practices and Ergogenic Aids Used by Male Bodybuilders.
  16. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: February 2018 – Volume 32 – Issue 2 – p 450-457.
  17. Sports Med. 2017 Mar;47(3):479-501. The Epidemiology of Injuries Across the Weight-Training Sports.
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Andreas Abelsson

Andreas has over 30 years of training experience and is a highly appreciated writer and educator on exercise, fitness, and nutrition. Few people stay more up to date and have a better grasp of the field of exercise science than Andreas.