Strength & Physique Sports Explained

There seems to be a lot of confusion afoot about just what it means to be a bodybuilder.  And how that’s different from a powerlifter.  And a strongman competitor.  And a figure competitor.  And… well lets just dive in.

What is a strength sport?

For the purposes of this post, I am considering a strength sport to be any competition where the winner is determined by some objective measure of weight lifted.  These include powerlifting, Olympic weight lifting, and strongman competitions.

What is a physique sport?

A physique sport is one where the winners are determined by a panel of judges using a set of subjective criteria, generally based on looks alone.  These include bodybuilding and figure competitions.

The Strength Sports

Let’s break them down one at a time.

  • Powerlifting - Powerlifters compete in three exercises: bench press, squat, and deadlift.  There are individual winners in each exercise as well as overall total winners.  Competitors are divided by weight class and gender.  Some powerlifting competitions allow the use of equipment such as bench shirts and squat suits which increase the amount of weight that can be lifted.  Others require that competitors lift “raw,” without the use of such equipment.powerlifter deadlifting
  • Olympic Weight Lifting – Olympic weight lifters compete in only two exercises: clean and jerk, and snatch.  These are the only two weightlifting events performed in the Olympic games.  Competitors are divided by weight class and gender.  Melanie Roach at the Olympic Trial
  • Strongman - Strongman competitions, such as the “World’s Strongest Man” competition, involve a variety of unconventional lifts such as tire flipping, stone carrying, truck pulling, and many more.  Events vary among competitions.  Competitors may or may not be divided by weight class and gender.  The World’s Strongest Man competitions do not include women and do not have weight classes.atlas stones

The Physique Sports

  • Bodybuilding - Bodybuilding competitions are judged events focused on muscularity of physique.  While in the early days of bodybuilding, the “aesthetics” of the physique was held in high regard, events today are usually decided on muscular size and definition alone.  Use of steroids is extremely prevalent in bodybuilding competitions, resulting in extreme levels of muscularity.   Some competitions are “natural” and use strict testing procedures.  Competitors are divided by height and gender.Britt Miller BodybuilderDexter Jackson Bodybuilder
  • Figure - Figure competitions are judged events for female competitors only.  Figure is different from bodybuilding in that it emphasizes aesthetics over muscle size, making it much more accessible for many competitiors.  Competitors are often somewhat muscular and very lean, but not as large as bodybuilders.  Figure competitors often pose as fitness models in the off season – in fact, I have posted many a picture of figure competitors on this blog…
  • Jelena Abbou Figure CompetitorFitness - Fitness competitions are judged events for women only.  They are quite similar to figure, in that there is a judged physique-only round; however, fitness competitions also include a performance round, where the competitor performs some kind of aerobic or gymnastic performance.

Performance Enhancing Drugs & Competition

As mentioned above, the use of performance (or physique) enhancing drugs in very prevalent in certain strength and physique sports.  High-level bodybuilders of both genders often take extremely high doses of androgens (chemicals which promote male characteristics) to promote extreme muscle growth.  There is some controversy over the practice, as the physiques have gotten so large that many people find them unattractive.  This has resulted in some negative associations with the strength training community, particularly among women.

Ronnie Colement and Jay Cutler

Ronnie and Jay: you don't get this big without 'roids.

There has been some backlash against the extensive use of drugs, which do cause health problems at such high doses.  Many people also feel that the aesthetics of the sport would be improved if they were combated.  Some bodybuilding competitions are considered “natural,” and competitors are tested for steroids and other drugs before they can compete.

steve reeves

Steve Reeves, Golden Age bodybuilder. Fewer roids.

Drug use also crops up in the other competitions, although not as obviously as in bodybuilding.  Figure competitors may use certain drugs to increase muscle and leanness, although this practice can backfire due to the aesthetic component of judging.  Many judges will deduct points for physiques that lose femininity.  Some powerlifting and strongman federations test for drugs, but others do not.


In recent years, the popularity of figure competitions has increased among amateurs.  The community of women who compete in amateur (and professional) figure competitions has grow substantially, as many women find the preparation empowering, not to mention body-transforming.

Many people also take advantage of the variety of natural bodybuilding, powerlifting, and strongman competitions, which are more accessible than the non-tested variety.  Many different levels of competition are available in each of the sports, from very local events with many amateurs to national competitions full of professionals.


I hope this post clears up some of the confusion around the various strength sports.  If any of them have peaked your interest, check online for listings of local events in your area.  The communities around these sports tend to be very inclusive, and more experienced competitors are usually quite willing to help a newbie enter the fold.