Programming for Powerlifting: Complete Guide with Practical Examples
There are two types of people when it comes to powerlifting programming, those who oversimplify it, and those who make it sound so complicated that you need a PhD in Liftology to get stronger. As with all things, the truth is somewhere in the middle. In this article, we're going to be starting with a birds-eye view, looking at long term planning and periodisation, and then moving in closer to look at the 6 key principles of powerlifting programming, before pulling out our magnifying glass to look at the specifics of exercise selection, sets, reps and loading. We'll then finish with three practical powerlifting programme examples so you can see how everything fits together. Let's get started, shall we?
Long Term Planning and Periodisation for Powerlifting
When you hear terms like 'periodisation,' 'macrocycle' and 'mesocycle' it's easy to end up thinking that the topic is way more complex than it actually is. Periodisation simply refers to the ways in which we plan to change the stress applied to the body over time.
At its simplest level, if you do 3x5 squats at 100kg one week, and then 3x5 squats at 102.5kg the next, you're using periodisation, because you've changed the training stress slightly.
So periodised programming doesn't always have to mean some super-complex 52-week plan. But, for the sake of argument, let's say that you're a higher level powerlifter, or that you're coaching a higher level powerlifter. Simply adding 2.5kg per workout is no longer going to cut it. So you have to start thinking in longer terms.
The longest term. Within powerlifting this might refer to a 12 or 16 week programme, or it might refer to an entire training year leading up to a major competition. For para-powerlifting, it could even refer to a full 4-year plan leading up to the olympics.
The middle term. These are your training 'blocks' if you were. Within powerlifting, these tend to be 4-6 weeks in length, and often end with some form of rep max test followed by a deload week.
The shortest term. These are your regularly repeated training arrangements. Within powerlifting (and almost all sports) a microcycle is 7 days long, just so that it fits neatly within a week.
So you'll have multiple microcycles in a mesocycle, and then multiple mesocycles in a macrocycle. Just like you have millimetres in centimetres or inches in feet.
Principles of Powerlifting Programming
There are 6 key principles of training, each of which I've written a full-length article on in case you wanted extra information. These principles should guide your programme design...
Which essentially states that your training should be closely related to your intended outcome. So if you want to set a new powerlifting total, then doing things like heavy squats, bench presses and deadlifts is very specific, whereas running 10k's or doing bodybuilding for sets of 20-30 reps is very non-specific.
This means that you need to stress your body enough so that it adapts and grows stronger. if you can currently bench 120kg, then doing 3x5 at 60kg isn't going to be anything like enough stress or 'overload' to cause further progress.
Fairly self-explanatory. Training damages your body, and you need to allow enough recovery time to actually grow stronger. So you can't do maximal deadlifts 6 times per week.
Turns out, if you do exactly the same thing over and over again indefinitely, your body eventually gets incredible used to it, and stops responding how it originally did. That means we need to occasionally vary things like exercises, sets and reps to keep progress coming.
No two people are exactly the same, we have different ages, training histories, body structures etc. Good programmes should reflect these differences.
This just means that if you do nothing for long enough you'll start getting weaker. So if you randomly decide not to train for 2 months, don't go expecting to come back and be able to pick up exactly where you left off.
Again, notice how a lot of fancy-ish sounding words actually have very simple definitions. That's sort of a trend within sports science. At the end of the day though, these are all pretty understandable things that you can apply to your own training and coaching.
The Powerlifting Programme Training Week
Alright so now that we've got the long term plan and we know the principles we're working with, we need to take a closer look at the details of the training week.
Well, based on specificity we know that we need to include squat, bench press and deadlift, or at least some close variations of those lifts.
Then based on individualization we probably also want to include some assistance and accessory exercises to address weak spots. For example, if you're someone who really struggles with deadlift lockout, you might want to include some block pulls as assistance and some glute bridges as an accessory.
Frequency / Placement of Exercises in the Week:
This is a balance of overload versus recovery. We need to provide stress to get stronger, but no so much stress that we can't recover. Generally speaking, deadlifts take the longest time to recover from, then squats, and then bench. So a typical frequency might be... Deadlift 1x per week Squat 2x per week
Bench 2-3x per week
Ideally with lifts of the same type being placed on non-consecutive days.
You can of course deadlift or squat more frequently if you wish, but you would have to reduce the overall stress of each session to compensate.
Sets, Reps and Loading
For specificity, we know that we're going to need some heavy work in the programme, things like singles @ 90%+ of 1 rep max and doubles and triples @ 80%+ 1 rep max. However, for variation, we can't just do this all the time, so we'll also want to have some sets of 5 reps at 70-85%, and maybe even some sets of 8-10 reps at 60-75%. Plus for individualisation, you're not going to be maxing out glute bridges or tricep extensions (because that's just dumb) so you'll also be including some sets of 8-12 reps as well. Now, in terms of structuring these different set and rep schemes, you've got 2 options... a) Bits of each all within the same week (Concurrent training)
b) Blocks in which you focus on specific set/rep schemes before moving on to the next.
And generally speaking, both methods work great, so it's largely a matter of personal preference.
Powerlifting Programme Examples
What Does a Beginner Powerlifting Programme Look Like?
3 non-consecutive days per week, with all three lifts trained each day. Each day: Squat 3x5, Bench 3x5, Deadlift 1x5
And as the lifter gets stronger, the second training day can be made slightly lighter, especially for deadlifts, to allow for more recovery.
Beginners can progress incredibly fast, and need very little variation to progress, so keep things as simple as possible.
What Does an Intermediate Powerlifting Programme Look Like?
4 days per week, in an upper/lower split format.
Monday: Squat 5x5, Deadlift 1x5
Tuesday: Bench Press 5x5, Tricep Pushdowns 4x10
Thursday: Squat Heavy set of 5, Deadlift 3x5 light to moderate
Friday: Bench Press Heavy set of 5, Pull-Ups 3xMax
Intermediate powerlifters could use this programme to progress each week for a number of weeks. When progress stalls, they could change the rep schemes to 3's or 8's, or they could use some simple exercise variations like pause squats or stiff leg deadlifts.
What Does an Advanced Powerlifting Programme Look Like?
5-6 days per week in a lift-focus format.
Thursday: Rest (or extra Bench if needed)
Sets and reps could follow a simple linear progression, with specific blocks dedicated to...
Hypertrophy: 4 weeks of 8-10 reps
Strength: 4 weeks of 4-6 reps
Peaking: 2-3 weeks of 1-3 reps So the full programme would end up being around 10-11 weeks long. With new 1 rep maxes being set at the end of the programme and used to help calculate weights for the next programme.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the Best Powerlifting Programme?
Realistically there's no such thing as the 'best' powerlifting programme, instead, what you're looking for is the best powerlifting programme for your individual characteristics and training level. Generally speaking, the best programme will carefully consider everything we've discussed so far.
How Long Do Powerlifting Programmes Last?
This depends on the programme set up and your ability level. For example, a beginner programme might only be 1 workout or 1 week long, but you might be able to successfully get stronger using that programme for six months. Whereas an advanced programme might be set up to be 8, 12 or even 16 weeks long.
How Long Should I Do Powerlifting Programmes For?
For best results, you should aim to stick with a powerlifting programme for as long as possible, provided that it is generating progress in the appropriate timeframes. Try not to be a programme hopper!
Can I Use a Powerlifting Programme For Mass?
Absolutely, powerlifting programming is a great way to add mass, and since muscle size contributes to around 50% of your total strength, the two work hand in hand. Just be aware that heavy, low rep work isn't as efficient at building muscle as moderate weight, higher rep work, so don't go choosing a powerlifting programme that only has sets of 1-3 reps. Instead, aim for one with plenty of 5x5's, 4x8's and 3x10's.
Summary - Programming For Powerlifting
When you write a programme for powerlifting, take a top-down approach that starts with long term goals and breaks training down into macro, meso and microcycles as and when appropriate. Try to only use as much complexity as you actually need for your training level, and not overdo it just for the sake of creating something fancy. When structuring your training week, consider how exercise selection, frequency, sets, reps and loading match up with the principles of training, especially in relation to your current training ability.
Hopefully, that's given you a decent sense of what programming for powerlifting involves. There are, of course, plenty more nuances, and with some of my higher-level lifters there are extra things that I would need to consider, but I wanted to keep this article useful, actionable, and not 10'000 words long. If you find it helpful, feel free to join my mailing list for coaching tips and sample programmes. (Sign up at the top of the page)
And if you want me to write a custom powerlifting programme for you, along with monthly check-ins, you can sign up right here.
'Til Next Time Alex
MSc Strength & Conditioning
British Weightlifting Tutor & Educator