Bodybuilders. Powerlifters. Olympic weightlifters. Strongman competitors. CrossFit Games athletes. They are all doing similar types of training, so why do they look so different? At competition time, every single muscle on a bodybuilder is chiseled and well-defined, whereas powerlifters or Olympic weightlifters might not have nearly the level of definition, but each can be capable of lifting an enormous amount of weight.

The principle of specificity

The science behind training program design is based on the principle of specificity, which states that the body adapts to the exact types of forces and stresses imposed upon it. This means that muscular strength is developed in response to the amount of resistance and types of movements used in a workout program.

Powerlifting challenges competitors to move the highest amount of weight for one repetition in three specific lifts: the deadlift, the bench press and the squat. Olympic weightlifting challenges competitors to lift as much as possible with one rep in the explosive lifts of the barbell snatch and barbell clean-and-jerk. Strongman competitions require athletes to lift, throw, push, pull and carry heavy weights in a variety of different challenges. The CrossFit Games test skills from strength to power to muscular endurance, so the athletes need to perform different types of movements to prepare for the unknown tasks they will face in competition.

Powerlifters and weightlifters train to lift a lot of weight only once, while bodybuilders, strongman competitors and CrossFit Games athletes use weights for numerous repetitions; the different amounts of weight used and the different activities performed can explain why each athlete has such a different body type.

Lifting a maximal amount of weight like powerlifters do will produce one type of strength. Olympic weightlifters focus on rapidly accelerating a barbell, which results in a completely different type of strength. Bodybuilders use yet another type of strength, as they have to sustain movement at a constant rate of velocity for a high number of repetitions to stimulate growth and definition. Understanding each type of strength and how to achieve it with movement can help you reach your fullest potential.

Which program should you follow?

Are you following the right type of training program to achieve your fitness goals? If you find that you’re stuck on a plateau and not making any gains or if you’re just getting a little stale, tired or bored with your current training program, then you might want to think about changing it up and trying a different training mode or technique.

Listed in the table below are different types of strength training and the effects they have on your body. Changing from one type of training to another every four to six months is a method known as periodization and is practiced by many top athletes, because challenging the body with different types of movement for different periods of time can stimulate growth or gains in strength while minimizing the risk of overuse injuries.

Different Types of Strength
Type of Strength Description Benefits Training Strategy
Agile Strength The ability to decelerate, control and generate muscle force in a multi-planar environment.

Make rapid changes of velocity and direction in reaction to the movement of opponents or teammates.

Traditional strength training focuses on producing a shortening muscle action to move a load through a single plane of motion; however many tasks require the ability to move a mass through gravity in multiple planes of motion.

Making changes of direction while carrying weights in Strongman events or CrossFit Games.

Generate the force required to move a weight from one direction to another.

Improve resiliency of muscle and connective tissue, reducing the risk of injuries.

Performance enhancement for specific sports or activities of daily living (ADLs).

Movement selection:
Multi-planar movements using a variety of free weights (dumbbells, medicine balls, sandbags, etc.) or cable machines.Intensity:
Low to moderate, approximately 50 to 75 percent of the estimated one repetition maximum (1RM) weight for strength training movements.

Four to 10;
The focus is on maintaining body control through changes of direction, NOT a specific number of repetitions.

Variable speeds: slow to fast

Two to five (or more)

Rest interval:
30 to 90 seconds

Endurance Strength The ability to maintain muscular contractions or a consistent level of muscle force for extended periods of time.

Relies upon aerobic and anaerobic pathways to supply muscles with the fuel for contractions.

Examples of strength-endurance include:
High volume bodybuilding-type training; endurance events including 10K, marathon, triathlon or obstacle course racing.

Bodybuilding works to muscle fatigue, which stimulates growth, while endurance training doesn’t localize force into specific muscles resulting in a leaner body type.

When fatigue is achieved by 10 to 15 reps it results in muscle growth and/or definition.

Improve aerobic efficiency of involved muscles.

Enhance ability to perform many functional tasks and ADLs.

Movement selection:
Compound and single-joint movements using a variety of equipment, or  bodyweight exercises.Intensity:
Low to moderate, approximately 40 to 80 percent of 1RM.

10 or more to fatigue for bodybuilding, not necessary for endurance training.

Consistent: slow to moderate

Two to five (or more)

Rest interval:
30 to 60 seconds

Explosive Strength Produce a maximal amount of force in a minimal amount of time; muscle lengthening followed by rapid acceleration through the shortening phase. Focus is on the speed of movement through a range-of-motion (ROM).

Explosive strength is based on the ability of the contractile element to rapidly generate tension while power enhances the ability of elastic tissue to minimize the transition time from lengthening to shortening during the stretch-shorten cycle.

Examples: Olympic weightlifting (the snatch and clean-and-jerk); CrossFit Games.

Improve the speed of motor unit recruitment and muscle fiber contraction to generate higher levels of force.

Reduce reaction time.

Improve the resiliency of muscle and connective tissue to avoid injuries.

Activate the larger type II (fast twitch) muscle fibers.

Movement selection:
Compound and single-joint movements using a variety of different free weights (barbell cleans, barbell jerks, kettlebell swings, medicine ball throws, box jumps).Intensity:
40 to 75 percent of 1RM.

One to six. For greatest amount of muscle power output, the focus should be on fewer reps at a faster, more explosive speed.

Fast as possible

Two to five (or more)

Rest interval:
30 to 90 seconds (or more)

Maximum Strength Highest level of muscle force that can be produced; the ability of a muscle or specific group of muscles to recruit and engage all motor units to generate maximal tension against an external resistance. Requires high levels of neuromuscular efficiency to enhance both intra and inter-muscular coordination.

Examples include: Powerlifting (squat, deadlift and benchpress), and strongman competitions.

Activate type II (fast twitch) muscle fibers capable of generating high levels of force.

Increase levels of muscle-building hormones.

Increase bone density and strength.

Improve performance in many sports and ADLs.

Movement selection:
Compound and single-joint movements using free weights or selectorized machines.Intensity:
90 to 100 percent of 1RM.

One to four.

Slow-to-fast (even though the lifter is attempting to use maximum speed the weight is moving slowly).

Rest interval:
Two to four minutes

Three to four (or more)

While you may have experienced rapid changes to your body when you started a bodybuilding program, after a period of time doing the same movements you may have stopped seeing changes in your body. Changing your workouts from a bodybuilding protocol to either powerlifting or strongman training could be the stimulus your muscles need to start growing again. Making these simple changes could be exactly what you need to move past a sticking point and achieve a change in performance or appearance.

Photo credit: MaaHoo Studio, Stocksy