People have been lifting weights for as long as humankind has existed. From survival to recreation, lifting weights is part of our DNA. Ever since your ancestors entertained themselves by seeing who could lift the heaviest rock, we’ve become fascinated with feats of strength and names like Hercules, Samson, and Schwarzenegger have become well-known.

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A lot of confusion exists in the fitness industry with people training the wrong way for their goal - not everyone needs to train like a bodybuilder. There are several different so-called “strength sports” which, to the average person, can seem very similar. However, each training style is unique and offers different challenges and benefits.

Olympic weightlifting

Olympic lifting is a very old sport that dates back several centuries. It featured in the first modern Olympics, back in 1896, and used to involve a variety of lifts where a weight was taken from the floor to overhead – sometimes using just one hand.

This eclectic mix of contested lifts was boiled down to just three – the clean and press, the snatch, and the clean and jerk but, because of safety concerns and judging difficulties, the clean and press was dropped from competition in 1972 leaving just two contested lifts.

Lifters get three attempts at each lift, and the winner is the person with the biggest combined weight total. Lifts are judged by a panel of referees and each one has very specific rules that must be adhered too.

Olympic weightlifting can best be described as gymnastics with weights. Although the lifters are undeniably very strong, they are also supremely fast, powerful, and agile. Both lifts require high levels of skill, flexibility, and technique. For this reason, Olympic lifting has been adopted by many athletes to developing sport-specific strength and power. If you’re looking for weight loss, this is not the primary style of training you should be using.


Powerlifting is an offshoot of Olympic lifting that contests the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Lifters can compete “equipped” where they wear supportive gear to help them lift more weight, or “raw” meaning only a belt, and maybe light knee sleeves are permitted. Rules on what is and what isn’t permitted to be worn vary from one federation to another. In some federations, raw means no belt or sleeves/wraps at all.

This is a much newer sport that came into being during the 1950s. Because it involves common gym exercises, powerlifting is considered more accessible than Olympic lifting.

In competition, each lifter gets three attempts at each of the disciplines and, carrying their best lift forward; the winner is the person with the highest cumulative total. However, if a lifter fails the same lift three times, they are eliminated from the completion.

There are several different powerlifting completion formats including single lift meets where just the squat, bench press, or deadlift are contested, and push-pull events that only contest the bench press and deadlift.

Powerlifting, contrary to the name, is all about maximal strength. The weights lifted are often huge meaning they move very slowly. In contrast, in Olympic weightlifting, the movements are performed very quickly which is the epitome of power.


The sport of strongman is enjoying a resurgence in popularity and, as the name suggests, is a competition designed to test all-around strength. While lifts from both Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting are contested, strongman competitions also include some unique tests of strength.

Unlike both powerlifting and Olympic lifting, strongman competitors do not only perform single rep events but also maximal rep events, timed events, and events for distance. Examples include:

  • - Farmer’s walk for distance

  • - Deadlifts for maximum weight, reps or time

  • - Squats for maximum weight, reps or time

  • - Overhead press/log press for maximum weight, reps or time

  • - Yoke walks for distance

  • - Carrying/loading medleys

  • - Keg toss

  • Tug of war

  • - Vehicle pull/push

  • - Stone lifting

The events vary from competition to competition and are broadly divided into static strength, i.e. the deadlift, and moving strength, i.e. loading races. This means that successful strongmen must be all-rounders and, in many instances, the winner is not the strongest or biggest competitor but the person with the greatest all-round ability. Despite the name, the sport of strongman is also enjoyed by women.

Because strongman develops a high degree of all-around, functional strength, this type of training is becoming increasingly popular in sports conditioning circles.


Unlike Olympic lifting, powerlifting, and strongman, bodybuilding does not involve any contested lifts. In fact, bodybuilders usually have very little interest in the amount of weight they can lift. Instead of training for performance, they train purely for appearance. That is not to say bodybuilders aren’t strong – of course they are – but this is more of a by-product of their training and not the main aim.

Bodybuilders use weights to build and sculpt their muscles to create a muscular, aesthetic physique. It’s not enough to be big; bodybuilders also need to be well-proportioned. They must then be lean enough for their muscles to be clearly visible.

Not all bodybuilders compete and, in fact, many people who hit the gym are training for bodybuilding even if they never have the intention of showing off their physiques on stage. Almost all the online training programs you will see are for bodybuilding, even though they might not state it - this is not the most effective way to train for weight loss as it’s very time consuming and focuses a lot on isolation movements.

Strength training

Strength training is often confused with all the sports listed above. While strength training may include elements of Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding, and strongman, it is not a competitive sport and is pursued only for its individual benefits. Strength training is very general and will result in increased general strength, increased muscle mass, increased bone mass, stronger tendons, ligaments, and joints, better posture, a healthier heart and lungs, increased flexibility and mobility, and can even lead to fat loss. It can be pursued for the sake of its general benefits or to improve performance in sports. It all depends on the type of program followed.

Just like cardio, strength training is a crucial form of exercise that most people should include in their weekly workouts. The key to strength training is specificity - the program must be specific to your goal and should be tailored as such.

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