If you’re just starting out on your strength training journey, and a total newbie, you might be a little bit confused by all the jargon, exercises, programs and types. Or maybe you’ve been casually training for some time, but still lack deeper immersion into the strength sports world to decipher between the different types. This is where we clear up the confusion for you and lay out the main types of strength sports.
Think about strength training like running. Running is a broad category of sports, subsumed by a number of different types from sprinting to marathons. Strength sports are no different, and each different type is like its own animal.
Merriam Webster defines strength training as “a system of physical conditioning in which muscles are exercised by being worked against an opposing force (as by lifting weights) to increase strength.”
The world of strength sports brings out fierce tribalism among followers. Rather than considering each other members of a larger group, strength sport adherents tend to highlight the differences and often vocalize their disdain for opposing tribes.
There are 5 main types of strength sports: bodybuilding, functional fitness, strongman, weightlifting and powerlifting. There are a number of other strength sports on the fringe, like girevoy/kettlebell lifting, gymnastics, etc. For purposes of economy and force, we’ll stick to the main 5.
Merriam Webster calls bodybuilding “the developing of the body through exercise and diet specifically: the developing of the physique for competitive exhibition.” Think Arnold. Yes, that Arnold who singlehandedly lifted strength sports into the mainstream. Bodybuilding largely dominates strength sports, as well as gyms. Bodybuilders train using a methodology that emphasizes muscular hypertrophy and lean body mass.
Hypertrophy means increased growth. A bodybuilder’s training leads to enlarged muscles. To further magnify the effect, bodybuilders follow diets that enable them to be lean. As Arnold famously stated, “It’s simple, if it jiggles it’s fat.” If Arnold says so, that means there’s no jiggling in bodybuilding. Period.
Bodybuilding tends to feature certain muscles that other strength sports don’t emphasize as much: biceps, pectorals, abs and quadriceps. These are known as the “show muscles.” Large biceps tend to be an indication of bodybuilding.
In search of their chiseled, muscular looks and aesthetics, they’ll often eat prodigious amounts of protein, and/or use protein supplements.
The man, the myth, the legend, and the governator all rolled into one.
Greg Glassman and Lauren Jenai created CrossFit in 2000. The sport has been honed and refined over the years, but always focuses on functional movements that cover a broad spectrum of sports and training: strongman, gymnastics, girevoy, plyometrics, weightlifting, high-intensity interval training, powerlifting, running, rowing, and more.
The functional fitness tribe tends to be zealous in their pursuit of fitness. The sport is well known for pushing people to their absolute limit and sometimes beyond. Injuries are not uncommon, along with rhabdomyolysis, which leads to its controversial reputation.
They naturally butt heads with bodybuilders. Earlier this year while voicing opposition to the addition of the bench press to the CrossFit games, functional fitness folks wondered if bicep curls would be next. On the other hand, people who don’t adhere to functional fitness can be heard equating it to a cult.
Strongman is a sport that features numerous events involving assorted aspects of mental and physical strength, speed and endurance. The sport gained popularity in the 19th century, when the term was used to refer to “an exhibitor of strength or similar circus performers who displayed feats of strength.” To this day, when hearing the term, people often conjure images of bulky men in leopard print singlets and bushy mustaches hoisting up oversized dumbbells.
In recent years, events like The World’s Strongest Man competition has brought strongman into the mainstream. The competition includes events that test each athlete’s strength and stamina. Farmer’s walks, truck pulling, the Atlas Stones, axle press, and other standard barbell lifts, like the deadlift are frequently employed.
Strongman’s equivalent of Arnold is Hafthor Bjornsson, the 6’9”, 400 lb+ behemoth from Iceland. Bjornsson is more widely known as “the Mountain”, the nickname for the character Gregor Clegane in Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire. 2018 has been the Mountain’s breakout year as he has won Iceland’s Strongest Man, the World’s Strongest Man, Europe’s strongest man and the Arnold Strongman Classic where he set a deadlift world record 472 kg (1,041 lb).
Strongmen typically consume monstrous amounts of calories daily to sustain their mass. The Mountain sometimes has issues sleeping due to enormous meals. If you’re interested in strongman and learning how to do a circus dumbbell press, one of the best in the industry now is Kalle Beck.
Can The Mountain carry more groceries in one trip than Pudzianowski?
Weightlifting refers to the sport of Olympic weightlifting, although it’s often confused en masse, and used to refer to the act of simply lifting weights. Weightlifting is not a blanket term, so to clear up the confusion, weightlifters usually refer to their sport as Olympic weightlifting or “Oly” for short.
Oly distinguishes itself in 2 ways. First is by the use of overhead lifts. The 2 main lifts are the snatch and the clean and jerk. After these lifts are completed, lifters drop the barbell and weights to the ground, which brings us to the second difference. Oly lifting requires the use of “bumper plates” which are weights made out of rubber. Dropping iron plates to the ground from overhead maybe lasted a minute in this sport.
The sport relies heavily on explosive and powerful movements that other strength sports lack to a degree. All lifts solely employ a barbell. The most recognizable face of Oly weightlifting is former world champion and Olympian, Russian Dmitry Klokov.
Spanish women now scoff at flamenco.
Powerlifting consists of 3 lifts: the squat, the deadlift and the bench press. Powerlifters will train other lifts, known as accessory lifts, to augment their training for the 3 main lifts. The goal is to lift the heaviest possible weight for each of the lifts.
Powerlifters compete in meets, wherein each competitor tallies up their highest total for each individual lift, for an overall total. The highest total for each weight division wins. Powerlifting focuses on your "go muscles.” These are the muscles of the posterior chain or the back of the body. These include your: traps, lats, triceps, glutes, hamstrings and hip mobilizers. By training all of these, and training them to work together, it provides you with unmatched stability, power and total body strength.
Powerlifting tends to be the bad boy member of the strength sports club. If bikers were athletes, they’d be powerlifters. Although the ranks of bikers today are filled with doctors and lawyers, and you'll also find the same diversity in powerlifting.
Even though there’s a little crossover into bodybuilding and strongman with shared lifts, powerlifting doesn’t have anything in common with functional fitness or Oly lifting. If you’re interested in powerlifting, one of the best people to start with is America’s strength spokesman, Mark Rippetoe.
Women powerlift too and they're badasses.
Now that you know the main types of strength sports, you can use this information to decide which one is for you. Which brings us to the secret one for you.
The reason it’s a secret is that only you know the answer. The best strength sport for you is based on your goals. What are your goals? Are you rehabbing from surgery? Fighting the effects of a sedentary job? Trying to lose fat? Your training and ideal sport is based on what you’re trying to achieve. We’ll help you out with that.