October 11, 2021
Pure strength with no exceptions or unnecessary gimmicks. That’s what the best powerlifting program should focus on as that’s what the sport requires. In this article, you’re going to learn:
- What powerlifting is
- Important variables of a powerlifting program
- The best exercises to build strength for powerlifting
- The strongest powerlifting routine you can follow
If you’re ready to double your numbers, carry on…
What Is Powerlifting?
Before we talk about the best powerlifting program, we need to clarify what we’re talking about. The first topic of confusion that needs to be cleared up is powerlifting contains zero power movements. None. To be clear, in the world of strength and conditioning, “power” and “strength” are two distinct variables.
“Power” describes the ability to move weight relative to time. In other words, it refers to lifting fast. The most obvious choice to illustrate power movements are the Olympic lifts, the snatch and clean. In these movements, the athlete must generate a lot of force quickly to propel an object in the air. Another typical example is jumping (have you ever tried to jump slow?).
On the other hand, “strength” simply refers to the ability to move a maximal amount of weight. As this is the goal, these movements don’t move fast. Think big movements like the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Wait a minute, those are the same movements used in powerlifting!
There are some other physiological differences and alterations to training variables, but the easiest way to think about these is that “power” is fast strength and “strength” is slow strength.
So now that we know powerlifting isn’t really powerlifting, what is it? As stated above, powerlifting consists of lifting maximal weight across 3 different movements. Collectively, these movements are known as “The Big Three”.
The Big Three of Powerlifting:
You have probably heard the term “The Big Three” before, and it comes from the sport of powerlifting. These are the 3 biggest movements that are a sign of pure strength. Sure, there are some arguments on if these are the “best,” but we’re not here for semantics. These three movements allow you to move a lot of weight and are great predictors of overall absolute strength. These movements are:
- The Squat
- The Bench Press
- The Deadlift
What’s The Objective Of Powerlifting?
In the sport of powerlifting, the only goal is to lift the most weight you can in these 3 big lifts. Nothing else matters. The only factor that must be addressed is bodyweight as athletes compete in weight classes. To be clear, this has nothing to do with aesthetics; it’s merely to keep things as fair as possible as it obviously doesn’t make sense to have a 150lb athlete compete against a 200lbs athlete. However, some athletes may perform better by competing in a lower weight class while others perform better when moved up.
In a competition, you will have 3 attempts to execute one lift at a time with the heaviest lift going towards your total. The total number of the heaviest attempts of all three lifts are added together and that’s your score. The order of these exercises are as above; The squat, the bench press, and the deadlift. Generally, this is how the lifts will look in a meet.
1) The first lift will be heavy but something known as an “everyday max”. Simply put, this is a weight that you 100% know you can get any day of the week. The purpose of this lift is to just get some points on the board.
2) The second lift will be pushing the envelope some. This is closer to your “true max” which is a lift you can hit if everything is going well.
3) The third lift is usually reserved for a PR. If you miss it, you still have the weight from the second lift, so it’s no loss.
While a full meet will include all 3 exercises, some other powerlifting competitions may only include one or two lifts. Plus, there are dozens of federations that all have different rules on how they hold meets. Regardless, that’s the basics of powerlifting.
Training Variables For Powerlifting
When it comes to training for powerlifting, the #1 rule is to improve your lifts. Therefore, if an exercise isn’t going to support one of these 3 movements, you’re not going to do it. With this concept in mind, this powerlifting program is going to use a 4-day split. Three of the days will consist of the squat, bench press, deadlift, and variations. The fourth day will consist of accessory work (aka assistance lifts) to support the 3 main movements and support an all-around program. By support, we mean improve those lifts.
Simple yet effective.
The three main lift days will utilize a quasi-form of DUP, or daily undulating periodization. DUP is a form of periodization that alters the intensity or focused training variable daily rather than a traditional block program. The three main lifts and their variations will rotate through these three training variables over the three days (that’s a lot of three’s). Therefore, each lift and it’s variations will hit every training variable. Below is how that looks like w/ the lifts:
- Power/Max Velocity (Lift Variation)
- Strength (Main Lift)
- Hypertrophy/Volume (Lift Variation)
Using a DUP, either traditional or modified, have been found to be extremely effective in various powerlifting programs (study). It allows you to train every aspect of the spectrum simultaneously which should mitigate fatigue and allow for continual gains. Plus, it’s just more fun to train with some variety in your program.
The 4th day will include smaller exercises and isolation work. The main focus of these is for mobility, injury prevention, and strengthening the secondary muscles involved in the main lift.
Test Week For Your Powerlifting Program
In order to run an effective powerlifting program, you will need to find your training 1-rep max for each of the three lifts. So, what’s a training 1-rep max? Remember above, we spoke about it a little but let’s recap. A training 1-rep max is a maximum load you can confidently lift any day of the week. It’s definitely tough, but you are 100% sure you can do it. This differs from a “true max” in that a “true max” is a load you have purposely trained for. Or, it’s a freak accident when the stars aligned and everything just went right.
We want to use a training 1-rep max because we want to be sure the number is low enough to give a suitable number to start with. Often, trainees start too heavy on a program which leaves them nowhere to go. That being, you’re not straining so hard your popping blood vessels; you’re merely looking for an approximate number.
Now that we got that out of the way, here’s a workout routine to find your 1-rep max.
- Perform a proper warmup that includes a general warmup, specific warmup, mobility, and muscle activation (see below).
- Perform 2 sets of 10 using only the bar.
- Place 50% of your estimate 1-rep max and perform 1 set of 10 reps.
- Add 50% of that weight (so now at 75% of your estimated 1-rep max) and perform 1 set of 5 reps.
- Add 20% of that weight (now at 90% of your estimated 1-rep max) and perform 1 set of 2 reps.
- Now add 5% of that weight (now at 95%) and perform 1-rep.
- Now, continue to add weight performing only 1-rep. The jumps will depend on the weights you have available as well as how hard you think it feels.
You will want to wait 3 minutes between each set up to step 5 (90% est 1-rep max) and then 5 minutes thereafter for all of these sets.
A COMMON MISTAKE IS STARTING TOO HEAVY!!!
You are not killing yourself on the experimental week. The purpose is to get used to the lifts and get a starting point. You are way better off starting 10-20 lbs too light then 10-20 lbs too heavy. You are going to work into it so don’t rush it.
The Best Powerlifting Training Plan To Build Strength
So now you know everything that’s involved in getting strong for powerlifting. Therefore, we’re going to go through the most effective exercises to produce massive power. We’re going to go through each of the main lifts and it’s variations you will use. Next, we’ll go through the exercises you’ll use on the fourth day to address specific muscles and tissues vital for optimal performance. Let’s do this.
But first, let’s take a deeper dive into the 3 training variables. Here, you’ll understand they’re purpose more so that you understand the accompanying lifts. Plus, you’re going to learn the method of progressive overload you’ll use.
The Main Purpose of The Different Training Days Of The Week:
As mentioned above, each of the main lifts will train 3 different aspects of performance on different days. Before listing all of the exercises, we will go over the details of what the goal is for each day.
The purpose of this day is to increase force and power output. While above, we mentioned that strength and power are actually two distinct variables, there is also overlap as they both rely on improving the function of the neuromuscular system. Still, if you are able to generate high levels of force and improve your force development rate, you will be able to move weight easier when you train for strength.
That being said, this day will implore two tactics for their lifts; resistance bands and maximal intent.
Attaching elastic bands to a barbell is a form of variable resistance that aims to accommodate the strength curve that exists when we lift. The strength curve simply refers to the phenomena where our body’s strength can vary depending on our biomechanics and joint angles.
For example, during the squat, we are weakest at the bottom of the lift. However, as we begin to stand and extend our joints we become stronger. Therefore, theoretically, we don’t train the muscles optimally through an entire movement using a constant load as the load is determined by our weakest position. Using an elastic band for squats addresses this as the band will begin to stretch as we stand causing more resistance. Using variable resistance is a very powerful tactic to increase strength, and numerous studies have shown elastic bands to produce greater force outputs (study).
Set For Set offers extremely high-quality Power Bands that would be perfect for your banded movements on this day. There are 5 different bands to choose from, with loads ranging from 10-170lbs. You can buy them separately or buy a package to save some money.
- Yellow: 10-35lbs
- Black: 30-60lbs
- Blue: 40-80lbs
- Green: 50-125lbs
- Gray: 65-170lbs
When choosing what band to use, you will want the bands to account for 20-40% of the total load. There can be some variance as you will have a limited number of bands and weight plates to choose from, so you’ll be ok as long as the total percentage is somewhere between there.
You notice that the load of the band has a range. When adding the weight of the resistance bands to the total load, you are going to want to add the highest number. For example, if adding the yellow resistance band to the total weight, you would add its max resistance of 35lbs by two, since you will use two bands. Therefore, if you add two yellow bands, you will have added 70lbs.
Remember that you only have so many combinations with bands and weight plates so the % may not be exact; you just want an approximate. You may even find that 70lbs is higher than 40% of your lifts; if so, go ahead and use it anyway and adjust the weights as necessary. As usual, spend a little bit of time to find a suitable band or combination of bands but don’t stress all day over getting it exact.
To get a more detailed explanation of using resistance bands for resistance training, check out this awesome piece from Set For Set: How to use bands for barbell exercises.
The other tactic we will use on this day is the concept of maximal intent. This basically means that when you lift, you will focus on pushing as hard as you can. Think about when you throw a ball or perform an Olympic movement where you complete the lift as powerfully as you can; same idea. As power is determined by the speed of a lift, this should theoretically produce greater power and force output. Further, this intent should cause demand for higher activation of the muscles. While there haven’t been many studies on this concept, the theory behind it is scientifically solid, and the experiments that have been performed show promising results.
To improve power, you are going to use a lighter load. Again, power is related to time so using a lighter load that can be pushed faster will generate a higher force output. This exact load will vary slightly for movements, but it lays somewhere around 60-70%1RM.
While this is light, you are going to use low reps. This is because you want every rep to be conducted at 100% effort. If you are fatigued, creating maximum power will be impossible, making the training useless. But don’t worry, you will make it up with high sets. Every exercise is going to use a 6X3 rep scheme with 2:00-3:00 rest.
You can add a very small amount to the bar each week for progressive overload, such as 5lbs. However, the progressive overload from here will ideally come from faster barbell speed. This is obviously hard to measure without the correct equipment so you’ll just need to do your best. You can also videotape yourself to see how you look.
The strength day is to build strength in the competition movement. On this day, you are going to perform the traditional movements as is with some small caveats. For the squat and bench press, you will give a full 1-second pause at the bottom. This serves two purposes:
- Lessen the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC), thus demanding more output
- Prepare for a powerlifting competition as they require a full stop after the descent of the bar before pushing back up.
To progress on strength day, you will use a 5/3/1 rep scheme. What this means is that the first week you will train with 5 reps, the second week you will use 3 reps, the third week you will use 1 rep, and the fourth week will be a deload. In total, the rep scheme with load will look like this:
- Week 1: 5×5 @ 85% 1RM
- Week 2: 3X3 @ 90% 1RM
- Week 3: 5X1 @ 95% 1RM
- Week 4: 5X5 @50% 1RM
For each set (other than the deload) you will rest 3:00-4:00
The main purpose of this day is merely to get in some high-volume work. These lifts will be slight variations in an attempt to target a primary mover.
On this day, you will use a load of 60-70% at RPE 7 to judge your volume. RPE is a form of auto-regulation that uses a scale of 1-10 to guide your lifting based on how hard it feels. An RPE 7 means that something is getting hard but you could easily do more. The best way to explain it is to imagine lifting you 10RM seven times.
RPE is an awesome way to manage fatigue so that you don’t overexert yourself. Again, the purpose of this day is just to get volume in, not exhaust you.
Progressive overload from here will simply come from ideally adding more reps. However, this again is based on RPE so don’t add reps if you feel fatigued.
You will use a rest period of 2:00.
Squat And Squat Variations
Power/Max Velocity Session: Banded Back Squat
For your squat power/max velocity session, you’re going to perform banded squats with elastic bands. When performing squats, the optimal load for power occurs when using around 56%1RM. To make things simpler, you’ll just use 60%1RM for your total load.
Again, you will want to use resistance bands to account for 20-40% of the total load. For example, if your max squat is 200lbs, 120lbs is 60%. 20-40% of 120lbs would be 24lbs-48lbs. You only have the yellow bands which add up to 70lbs so you would just use that. Therefore, you would use 50lbs of resistance from bars and plates and 70lbs of resistance from the bands.
Rep Scheme: 6×3 @ 70% w/ 2:00-3:00 rest
Strength Session: Back Squat
For strength, you’re going to simply use the back squat, just like in competition. The purpose of this day, other than obviously get better at squats, is to optimize the training from the other two sessions. Therefore, this is an important session as this will allow you to maximize your potential.
Rep Scheme: 5/3/1 @ 85%/90%/95% w/ 3:00-4:00 rest
Hypertrophy/Volume Session: Safety Squat Bar w/ Hold
For your volume day, you’re going to perform squats with a safety squat bar (SSB). Using an SSB is a great option to add in volume while saving your back. There’s nothing dangerous about back squats if you do them properly. However, in this program, you’ll be doing them three times a week. This volume can be a lot for some people to handle; actually, it can be a lot for anyone to handle if you’re training hard.
The SSB will allow you to still get in volume with similar body mechanics while saving your back. However, you’ll take that safety measure one step further by setting up another barbell at about chest level. After unracking the SSB, you will grab the barbell and use it for support as you perform your lifts.
Rep Scheme: 3XRPE7 @ 70% w/ 2:00 rest
Related: The Complete Guide to Squatting
Bench Press And Bench Press Variations
Power/Max Velocity Session: Board Press W/ Bands
For the bench press max velocity session, you’re going to use bands with the board press. The board press is a variation where a board of desired height is placed on the chest, thus limiting the range of motion. However, it’s main purpose is to address sticking points in the bench press.
Because you are not coming down to a full stretch, the advantage of the stretch-shortening cycle will be limited. You will be required to generate enough force to get through the sticking point in limited space. One common sticking point is a few inches off the chest and this is the area that this movement will address.
You are going to want to use a board that’s a couple inches thick so that it’s just below this area. Doing so is going to teach you to generate enough force to be able to push through this point.
You are also going to implement the bands as well. However, because the ROM is a bit smaller, use 70%1RM with 20-40% load from bands.
Rep Scheme: 6×3 @ 70% w/ 2:00-3:00 rest
Strength Session: Bench Press
The strength session is going to look very similar to the squat strength session; except you’ll be performing the bench press. Obviously. Therefore, the same rules are going to apply as when the barbell hits your chest, you will pause for 1 second before pushing.
Rep Scheme: 5/3/1 @ 85%/90%/95% w/ 3:00-4:00 rest
Hypertrophy/Volume Session: Triceps Board Press (Close Grip) w/ bands
For the bench press hypertrophy session, you are going to use the triceps board press or close grip bench press, and utilize bands again and board again. While everyone associates the bench press with the chest, the triceps actually play a significant role as they are the primary movers from midway to lockout. To be clear, the triceps are involved in the entire movement, it’s just this section where their role increases. Regardless, if your triceps suck, you’re not going to complete the bench press. You don’t want that to happen, which is why you’re going to build the triceps muscle up with this movement.
When you choose a board, you want to use one that places the bar just below midway of the lift. As mentioned above, this is where the triceps start to become a major mover.
Rep Scheme: 3xRPE7 @ 70% w/ 2:00 rest
Related: The Complete Guide to Bench Pressing
Deadlift And Deadlift Variations
Power/Max Velocity session: Banded 2” Deficit Deadlift
The 2” deficit deadlift has you stand on a 2” block when performing this movement. Being a little bit higher will alter the biomechanics and lengthen the range of motion, both of which will make the movement harder. However, harder is a good thing as it will require much more effort to get the weight off the ground. Then when you return to the ground, the weight is going to feel easier.
One major benefit of the deficit deadlift is that it addresses the hardest part of the lift for most people; getting the weight off the ground. Another bonus is the deficit deadlift is going to train you to use leg drive. A common error in beginner errors is they pull too much and neglect to push. This means that they neglect to use their quads to push down into the ground when they pull the weight off the floor. However, as the deficit deadlift will require higher flexion in the hips and knees, the contribution of the posterior muscles will be lessened. This leaves the quads to pick up the slack.
After training with deficit deadlifts, you will have:
- Improved the strength of your hamstrings and gluteus maximus
- Increased your power output and force production
- Improved hip extension
- Learned to engage your quadriceps correctly.
All of these factors will contribute to increasing your 1RM.
The deficit deadlift is harder than conventional so use 60% 1RM.
Rep Scheme: 6×3 @ 60% w/ 2:00-3:00 rest
Strength Session: Deadlift
The traditional deadlift. Nothing fancy here. Just the king of exercises.
Rep Scheme: 5/3/1 @ 85%/90%/95% w/ 3:00-4:00 rest
Hypertrophy/Volume Session: Barbell Romanian Deadlift
For the hypertrophy/volume session, you’re going to use the barbell Romanian deadlift. While the deficit deadlifts will target the quads, the Romanian deadlift will target the gluteus maximus and hamstrings: in fact, it’s one of the best posterior chain exercises you can do (study). This is awesome as the deadlift obviously depends on these muscles for maximum strength.
When compared to the deadlift, the Romanian deadlift tends to be a much better option for muscle hypertrophy regardless. This is mainly attributed to the range of motion, increased muscle tension, and ability to perform higher volumes. The deadlift is an awesome movement, but generally speaking, it’s not the best movement for high volume.
This is the only exercise you’ll need to discover a good weight to use rather than base it off your 1RM. Find a weight that you can do 12-15 times. You’ll work into it so it doesn’t matter if it’s a little light.
Rep Scheme: 3×12-15 reps w/ 2:00 rest
Related: The Complete Guide to Deadlifting
For Sessions 1-3: The Barbell Rollout
For all three sessions, you are going to train your core with barbell rollouts at the end of the session. The barbell rollout is the single greatest exercise to strengthen your core (study). Every muscle in the core is activated to a significant degree to brace the spine and torso during the movement. As the core is heavily engaged in all of the above movements, you need to be sure yours can take the beating. Therefore, perform the barbell rollout after each exercise.
Session 4 (Accessory Work)
The fourth session will be smaller exercises and some isolation work to hit some specific areas, improve mobility, and provide an effective all-around program. Further, none of these movements are going to be performed with a heavy load. You do not want this day to impact the training of the other three days. Regardless, here are the movements you’re going to perform. While the movements look like a lot, you will move through them much quicker than the first three days as you’re only resting 1:00-1:30 between each set.
Further, progressive overload for these movements will come from increasing reps in the range given, and then adding weight. You then increase the reps to the top of the range again and add more weight.
Barbell Hip Thrust
The barbell hip thrust is perhaps the single best exercise to strengthen the glutes for hip extension (study). The glutes are primary movers in both the deadlift and squat, strengthening them vital for performance.
Rep scheme: 4×8-10
The chin-up will address two factors missing from the first three days; vertical pulling and arm flexion. Vertical pulling is one of the bodies primary movements which should be included in any program for symmetry. While there are no pulling movements in powerlifting, a strong back is still necessary for stabilization in the squat and deadlift. Still, the lats are even used in the bench press. The last point is it allows full range of motion at the elbow to strengthen the biceps.
Rep scheme: 4×8-10
Related: Pull Up vs Chin Up
The Z-Press is an overhead press that is performed sitting down on the ground. First, this is going to cover your overhead pressing movement which is absent from the first three days. Secondly, the Z-Press requires significant mobility in the hips, posterior muscles, and thoracic spine. When taken all together, the Z-Press is going to:
- Improve pressing strength
- Increase hip mobility
- Increase thoracic spine and upper back mobility
- Maintain healthy shoulders
Rep scheme: 3X8-10
Bent-Over Barbell Row OR Kroc Row
The primary purpose of these is to add a horizontal pulling movement. You can choose either a barbell row or Kroc rows. While Kroc rows are usually done with higher reps, you’ll just stick with 2×8-10. You will only do 2 sets of these, so get in, get them done, and move on.
Rep Scheme: 2×8-10
Rolling Triceps Extension
As mentioned, the triceps are a prime mover in the bench press. Therefore, it makes sense to give them a little extra attention. For this, you are going to use the rolling triceps extension. The rolling triceps extension to regular laying dumbbell triceps extensions is what the Kroc row is to dumbbell rows; it’s a bigger, meaner version. When you perform the rolling version, you allow your arms to come back over your head and then powerfully come forward. This allows extra momentum to thrust a heavier weight up with arm extension.
Rep Scheme 2X12-15
The main purpose of this is to add more strength to the muscle of the biceps as well as the tendons and ligaments of the joint. It’s essential to keep this area strong and healthy to help prevent injury, especially during the deadlift, where biceps injuries can happen.
It doesn’t matter what curl you use, hammer curl, rope attachment, EZ-bar curl; just choose one that’s comfortable and do it.
Rep Scheme 2X12-15
Leg Curls and Extensions
These are here simply to help strengthen the quadriceps and hamstrings. Nothing complicated here, just get it done.
Rep Scheme 2X12-15
Mobility & Warm-Up For Powerlifting
The last piece of the puzzle is going to be performing a proper warmup. The main goal of a warmup is to:
- Increase internal body temperature
- Improve acute flexibility of the muscle
- Activate the muscles
- Increase mobility of the joints
Below is a warmup that includes mobility and muscle potentiation movements to prime you for your workout:
- 5-10 min .general warmup
- Dead bugs 1×10
- Bird Dog 1×10
- Glute Bridge 1×10
- Lunges 1×10
- Pushups 1×10
- Banded Face Pulls 1×15
- Banded Rows 1×15
- Banded OHP 1×15
- Ballistic Pushups 1×5
- Squat Jumps 1×5
While this looks like a lot, you will jump from one to the next. The whole warmup should last 10-15mins.
The Best Powerlifting Workout Routine For Pure Strength
You now have a pretty good understanding of what you’re going to do so let’s see how it looks. Every day is going to have the same order of variables, it will only be the lifts that change.
Here is your weekly workout plan:
- Warm-up & mobility
- Strength: Back Squat 5/3/1
- Power/Max Effort: Board Press w/ Bands 6×3 @ 70% 1RM
- Hypertrophy: Barbell Romanian Deadlifts 4xRPE7 @ 60%1RM
- Barbell Rollout
- Warm-up & mobility
- Strength: Bench Press 5/3/1
- Power/Max Effort: Banded Romanian Deadlift 6X3 @ 60% 1RM
- Hypertrophy: SSB Squats 4xRPE7 @ 70% 1RM
- Barbell Rollout
- Warm-up & mobility
- Strength: Deadlift 5/3/1
- Power/Max Effort: Banded Squats 6X3 @ 60% 1RM
- Hypertrophy: Triceps Board Press w/ Bands 4xRPE @ 70% 1RM
- Barbell Rollout
- Barbell Hip Thrust 4×8-10
- Chin-ups 4×8-10
- Z-Press 3×8-10
- Barbell Row 2×8-10
- Rolling Triceps Extensions 2×12-15
- Biceps Curl 2×12-15
- Leg Curls 2×12-15
- Leg Extensions 2×12-15
Get Ready To See Your Strength Jump
Now all you have to do is train hard. This program is guaranteed to improve your performance as long as you follow the guidelines.
- Implement progressive overload as laid out for each session
- The “Strength Session” should be your hardest day. The other sessions require intensity and work but should not fatigue you.
- It’s up to you which days of the week you workout and which you rest. You have 4 workouts per week and 3 rest days.
- Do not go too hard on Session 4, the accessory day
- Every 4th week is a deload. While this applies mainly to the strength movement, do not go extra hard on the other movements either. You can even lighten up on those as well
- With a deload week every 4th week, you can continue this program for as long as you are seeing good results. There is no set amount of time. If you want to build strength and power, you can run this until you start seeing diminishing returns (i.e. 3-12 months) or when you just want to start something fresh.
The sport of powerlifting is relatively simple and your powerlifting program should be too. Keep it simple, train with intensity, add more weight, and be consistent. Go get started.
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