What Is the Difference Between Weightlifting and Powerlifting

by USA Weightlifting

What Is the Difference Between Weightlifting and Powerlifting?

Using the strength of our bodies has been a part of human history from the very beginning. Early on, it’s how we survived—hunting, fishing, gathering, building shelters, traveling, and protecting ourselves. At that time, you were either strong enough or you were not.

While things have changed drastically since that time, we still use the strength of our bodies for many different things, including competing with one another. This is done through many different sports and competitions, but two of the main ways we determine strength today are through Weightlifting and Powerlifting. In this article, we’ll explain the differences between Weightlifting and Powerlifting.

Similar, Yet Different

While the two sports of Weightlifting and Powerlifting are incredibly similar, there are a few key differences that separate them from one another. Weightlifting—which refers to Olympic Weightlifting, and will be referred to as such throughout the rest of the article—is the competition we see performed at the Olympics. Powerlifting is also a popular strength competition, but it hasn’t met the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s criteria yet in order to be included in the Olympics, mainly because it lacks international participation and has many different disciplines that must be standardized.

Even though Powerlifting still doesn’t have the international participation that Olympic Weightlifting has, they do both have an international body for competition. For Powerlifting, there’s the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF); for Weightlifting, there’s the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF). However, the main thing that separates these two sports is the types of lifts that are completed in competitions. Let’s look at the specific lifts used in each sport.

Olympic Weightlifting vs. Powerlifting: The Lifts

Olympic Weightlifting previously contained three different lifts, but one of them (the Press) was dropped from competition in 1972, leaving behind the Snatch, and the Clean and Jerk (C&J) as the only two lifts used in Olympic Weightlifting events. Here’s a look at the lifts involved in Olympic Weightlifting:

  • The Snatch - The Snatch is the first event completed in Weightlifting competitions and involves lifting a barbell—which weighs 15 or 20 kilograms on its own—with both hands from the floor and extending it arm's length above the head in one swift motion.

  • The Clean and Jerk - The Clean and Jerk is the second event completed in Weightlifting competitions and involves lifting the barbell overhead with two motions. This lift is not as swift as the Snatch, but it is the lift where the most weight can be lifted. Here are the two motions:

  • The Clean - The first motion is the “Clean,” which brings the bar up to the shoulders, where the lifter pauses.

  • The Jerk - The second motion is the “Jerk,” which uses the legs and the arms to raise the bar overhead, where the athlete holds it until the buzzer is sounded by the official.

The reason these two lifts are used in Olympic Weightlifting is that they are two of the most difficult lifts to perform. They not only require strength throughout the whole body, but they also require proper technique and form. These lifts generate an incredible amount of power through the weight that is lifted and the speed it is lifted at. Because of this, Olympic lifts not only require strength, but also speed and flexibility, too.

While Olympic Weightlifting dropped to two lifts decades ago, Powerlifting still contains three lifts—the Squat, the Bench Press, and the Deadlift. The major difference between these three lifts and the Olympic lifts mentioned above is that none of them involve vertical overhead lifts, while both Olympic lifts do. 

Additionally, Powerlifting lifts do not require quick, precise movements in the same way that Olympic lifts do, and they are often performed at a slower tempo. Instead of focusing on explosive power, they are more concentrated on lifting the most amount of weight possible. Here’s a more detailed explanation of the lifts used in Powerlifting:

  • The Squat - The Squat involves holding a barbell on your upper back and shoulders and squatting down into a deep, seated position, then using the strength of your legs and core to return to a standing position.

  • The Bench Press - The Bench Press involves lying on your back on a bench and lifting a barbell above your chest with both arms. The barbell is lowered all the way to your chest and then pushed back up again until your arms are nearly straight.

  • The Deadlift - The Deadlift involves bending slightly and grasping a barbell on the floor with both hands, then using your strength to pull the barbell straight up until your body is completely straight, including your arms holding the barbell, which is usually just above your knees.

Olympic Weightlifting vs. Powerlifting: Scoring

Both Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting competitions are scored by judges. This scoring differs slightly between the two competitions as "misses"—failed lift attempts and improper technique—play a bigger role in Weightlifting, often affecting whether a lift attempt is scored. While there can still be misses in Powerlifting, they are less common since the lifts are not performed as quickly.

In both sports, a competitor’s total score is the combination of their highest weight successfully lifted in each of the specific lifts. So for Olympic Weightlifting, the score is the combination of the competitor’s highest successful Snatch attempt and their highest successful Clean and Jerk attempt. For Powerlifting, the score is the combination of a competitor’s highest successful Squat attempt, highest successful Bench Press attempt, and highest successful Deadlift attempt.

Are Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting Similar to Bodybuilding?

Both Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting are different from bodybuilding, which is a somewhat related, yet different competition. Bodybuilding is not about lifting the most weight in a competition, but is instead about the contestants' overall physical appearance.

USA Weightlifting aims to strengthen the weightlifting community at every level—from amateurs up to the Olympic Team. We believe that weightlifting is everyone’s sport, and through it, we can strengthen individuals, communities, and our country. We are dedicated to keeping the sport clean, safe, and focused on challenging individuals physically to help build strength within.

We are committed to building a diverse, inclusive, and safe space for everyone, and we continue to work to remove barriers to entry and encourage personal growth and transformation for all.

Our work also goes beyond the athletes, as we aim to educate the educators. Through the development of coaches and technical officials, we are constantly working to ensure excellence throughout the sport.

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