The Differences Between Powerlifting and Weightlifting | Sarah Wyland
Fitness | Strength Training

The Differences Between Powerlifting and Weightlifting

The Differences Between Powerlifting and Weightlifting | Sarah Wyland

I received an email from a follower recently in response to a reference I made on Instagram about “my first weightlifting meet” back in October. The part relevant to this post:

I’m curious as to why you say this was your “first” weightlifting meet. You competed in a few powerlifting meets, didn’t you? So how was this your “first” meet?

That’s a fair question.

She’s right. I did compete in a few powerlifting meets – two were charity meets and one was sanctioned. I chronicled training and competing for the sanctioned meet here, here, and here. I also competed in a Strongman competition two summers ago and recently told someone the best part of that experience was “how they used rock tape to wrap my hands during the truck pull.” One and done on the Strongman front, this girl.

The question she’s actually asking is this:

What is the difference between powerlifting and weightlifting?

They both involve a barbell loaded with weights and unfortunate singlets, after all. The competitors are all strong and they all train hard. There are certainly some similarities.

But ultimately, they’re very different.

Let’s discuss the difference between powerlifting and weightlifting – and why I prefer weightlifting these days.

The Gym Charlottesville Sarah Wyland


Powerlifting covers the “big three” – squat, bench press, and deadlift. In my opinion, powerlifting more closely aligns with activities of daily life. You squat when you sit down. You press when you push open a door. You deadlift when you pick up a toddler. You can see how these lifts align with how strength training improves your day-to-day life. I program these lifts, or variations of them, for most of my 1:1 clients.

In a powerlifting meet, you attempt each of these lifts three times with each lift including specific markers – below parallel in a squat, lock out of the deadlift, for example – to “white light” them. Your best lifts in each event counts towards your overall total.

Sarah Wyland Weightlifting


My coach gave the best description I’ve heard of weightlifting: “It’s the sexy strength sport for the average human.”

Weightlifting – or Olympic weightlifting – consists of two lifts: the snatch and the clean-and-jerk. There are certainly elements of powerlifting if you look for them, but they are more technical lifts. I’m a walking example of having a lot of strength, but with a powerlifting background, my technique is still catching up.

In a weightlifting meet, you attempt both lifts three times. Like powerlifting, there are elements to each lift – no press out, elbows don’t touch the legs in a clean – the judges look for to declare a lift “good.” I’m actually a certified USAW judge these days.

Sarah Wyland Weightlifting

Scientific Differences

If you like to nerd out a bit, this section is for you. Let’s talk about some of the scientific differences between powerlifting and weightlifting – the physics of it all.

The term “powerlifting” is actually misleading. Power is defined as being able to move weight with speed. Being strong doesn’t necessarily mean having power. Powerlifters move a lot of weight, but often at a slow velocity (speed) due to load (weight). If you go to a powerlifting meet, you will see lifters “grinding out” a lift, moving the load inch by inch until they reach completion.

On the other hand, weightlifting is about power. The idea is to move a lot of weight at a quick rate. It’s explosive. I was reading an article recently about how the number of missed lifts in weightlifting is substantially higher – one stat said 50% of lifts at the weightlifting world championship were missed – due to that: a lot of power/explosiveness is required, but the technique has to be just right to complete the lift.

As mentioned above, power and strength are often confused. Strength is defined as the ability to exert maximal force against resistance. This is what is measured by a 1 rep max. The main difference here is speed – those slow, shakey deadlifts at a powerlifting meet, for instance, are a showing of strength. The explosiveness of a snatch or clean-and-jerk is an example of power.

For a more detailed explanation, read articles here and here.

Sarah Wyland Weightlifting

Why I Chose Weightlifting

Here’s the thing. I was never going to be competitive in powerlifting.

I could have been if I wanted to, I suppose. But powerlifting requires a certain level of aggression, a “grip and rip” mentality that I, described by more than one person as “sweet,” just don’t possess. And that’s okay.

From almost the moment I walked in the door at CrossFit Local, a few of the coaches pushed me towards Barbell Club. I avoided it for six months before Kelly, in response to a goal-setting session that went something like “I want to do this Halloween meet, but I don’t know, maybe I should, but I probably shouldn’t, my snatch isn’t great, and I’ve only clean-and-jerked a few times…” basically put her foot down, informed me I would be in Barbell Club that week, and did everything but pay my entry fee to the meet to make sure I competed. We had a legitimate SMART goal behind it all, but this was the jest of it.

And so I took myself to Barbell Club, focused on making my snatch “suck less” and my clean-and-jerks be a thing, and I competed in my first weightlifting meet in October.

I was hooked.

I can’t really put my finger on it, but I enjoy all of it. I love training with a goal in mind. I like competition days – weigh-in, eat a Panera blueberry muffin, warm up, snatch, eat some Jelly Belly jelly beans, clean-and-jerk, done. It’s just fun. Powerlifting meets, charity or otherwise, felt stressful and somehow both rushed and like they lasted forever. By the time we got around to deadlifting, my back would always tighten up and no amount of stretching or mobility would would get me back to 100% in time to lift. Sanctioned meets felt overwhelming with weigh-ins and equipment inspections. I didn’t feel like I quite “fit” in those scenes.

Weightlifting meets are efficient, which my efficiency-loving heart loves. Within two hours, all of my lifts are done, and I’m free to hang out, cheer on my friends, and make new ones. I’ve found the community at the local level meets I’ve done to be supportive and welcoming. And honestly? I just have a lot more fun with the lifts. I’m a lot more comfortable in the weightlifting scene. I find myself looking for opportunities with USA Weightlifting to volunteer, referee, maybe even coach one of these days and wanting to help them further their mission to bring more women and youth into the sport.

Powerlifting and weightlifting are similar in some ways, but overall vastly different. This post only begins to touch on the differences between the two, but I hope this cleared up the question for some of you. If you still have questions, leave a comment or send me an email!

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