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Powerlifting Training Routines

by Gary F. Zeolla

Below are some suggested routines for powerlifters and advanced weightlifters. These routines are effective for those planning on competing or for anyone just wanting to increase their strength in general. Follow the suggested warm-up routines discussed on the Strength Training Routines page, which also has routines for beginner and intermediate lifters.

These different options vary in how often each body part and powerlift is done. Which to use depends on your own recuperative abilities and time available for lifting. You simply need to experiment to see which works best for you. And note, the specific exercises listed are just suggestions. One can easily substitute different exercises that work the same body parts. But these routines will serve as a guide in designing a routine.

4 Day Per Week Routine
(Each Body Part 2x/Week)

This routine is done 4 days per week, such as Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday. Each muscle group will be worked every 3-4 days and each powerlift once per week. But the exact exercises to be used will vary between the two same muscle group days. So all exercises will only be done once a week, with a different exercise that works the same body part done on the opposite day. Such a routine helps prevent the body from adapting too quickly to a given routine.

The outline will be:
Day One: Squat, Upper Back.
Day Two: Bench, Arms, Abs.
Day Three: Deadlift.
Day Four: Bench Assistance, Arms, Abs.

Day One:
Squat
Pause Squats
Barbell Rows
Cable Pulls

Day Two:
Bench
Incline Bench
Curls
Crunches
Bike Ab Exercise

Day Three:
Deadlift
Stiff Leg Deadlifts
Leg Curls
Calf Raises

Day Four:
Band Bench
Close Grip Bench
Reverse Curls
Decline Crunches
Reverse Crunches

The main idea here is to follow up each powerlift with one major assistance exercise, then on bench assistance day to do two major bench assistance exercises. The upper back work on squat day offsets the upper back work on DL day. Arms and/ or abs could be done on squat and DLs days instead. But I have found the above split to work best as it keeps each workout about even in length.

Alternate 4 Day Per Week Routine

The following four day a week routine uses a different split than the one above. This is the type of routine I am currently using , and it is working very well for me:

The outline will be:
Day One: Squat, [Calves], Abs, Cardio
Day Two: Bench, Upper Back, Rotator Cuff, Cardio.
Day Three: Deadlift, Calves, Abs, Cardio.
Day Four: Bench Assistance, Upper Back, Arms, Rotator Cuff, .

Day One:
Squat exercise
[Calves (2 x 8-12)]
Lower abs exercise (2 x 8-12, or as many reps as possible)
Step-ups

Day Two:
Bench exercise
Row-type upper back exercise (3 x 7-4)
Rotator Cuff (2 x 8-12)
Heavy Bag

Day Three:
Deadlift exercise
Calves (2 x 8-12)
Upper abs exercise (2 x 8-12, or as many reps as possible)
Jump Rope

Day Four:
Non-Flat Bench assistance exercise (Incline or Decline Benches, Dips, or Overhead Presses)
Lat pulldown or pull-ups-type upper back exercise (3 x 8-5)
[Triceps exercise]
Biceps exercise (2 x 10-6) alternate one week with forearms exercise the next week (3 x 10-5 or 2 x 8-12)
Rotator cuff (2 x 8-12)

Sets x reps as indicated for the minor exercises. For the major exercises, I would recommend doing 2-3 sets x 4-8 reps. The actual powerlift can be done each week, or alternate the powerlift one week with a major “look-alike” exercise the next, e.g., alternate barbell benches one week with dumbbell benches the next week. All other assistance exercises should also be alternated on a two-week schedule.

Once you decide to enter a powerlifting contest, then gradually drop the reps over a period of 10-12 weeks, peaking with low reps right before the contest. So start with 7-8 reps and finish up with 1-2 reps. Or alternate doing 4-7 reps one week without any gear and 1-4 reps the next week with whatever gear you will be using at the contest.

The step-ups, heavy bag, and jump rope are for what I call “short intense cardio” and speed work. Start with just a minute or so and gradually work up to six minutes for each. The first and last 30 seconds should be done at a slower pace for warm-up and cool-down. That will leave a full five minutes at a high intensity. Once you get to six minutes, work on increasing the intensity rather than the time.

Ideally, all of these workouts should only take about an hour or so. If it is taking longer than an hour and fifteen minutes to finish a workout, you are probably taking too long between sets.

Every Other Day Routine
(Each Body Part Every 4 Days)

For this routine, simply follow one of the above routines, cycling through the four workouts, but only lifts every other day. In this way, each body part is worked every 4 days and each powerlift every 8 days. The value of this pattern is it eliminates the need to lift two days in a row. Even with doing different body parts, some might this overly taxing. But the difficulty with an every other day routine is it changes which day of the week one works out each week. But doing so does keep things interesting.

3 Day Per Week Routine
(Each Body Part Every 4-5 Days)

For this routine, one again follows the above routine, cycling through the four workouts, but only lifts three times a week (such as Monday, Wednesday, Friday). In this way, each body part is worked every 4-5 days and each powerlift every 9 days.

3 Days Per Week
(Each Lift Once Per Week)

Some lifters find that they can only work a given muscle group or powerlift once a week. To accomplish this, the following routine is done three times a week (such as Monday, Wednesday, Friday). But I have to say, personally I find this routine a bit strange. Squats and deadlifts both work the entire lower body to some degree. So to me, this routine works the lower body twice a week but the upper body only once a week. To balance things out some, one could add a light bench workout on Saturday. But with or without this "extra" day, some lifters do find the following routine works for them.

The outline will be:
Day One: Squat, Abs.
Day Two: Bench
Day Three: Deadlift, Upper Back, Biceps, Forearms.
(Day Four: Light Bench)

Day One:
Squat
Front Squat
Calf Raises
Crunches
Bike Ab Exercise

Day Two:
Bench
Band Bench
Incline Bench
Dumbbell Presses
Tricep Pushdowns

Day Three:
Deadlift
Stiff Leg Deadlift
Cable Pulls
Curls
Reverse Curls

Sets and Reps

Some advocate only doing one work set per lift, usually done to failure, while others advocate 4-5 sets, usually done to less than failure. But I have found that one set is not enough while 4-5 sets too easily leads to overtraining. So I would recommend doing 2-3 work sets.

Whether you should train to failure or not is a matter of controversy. I will just say that doing so on all sets all of the time can easily lead to overtraining and psychological burn-out. It would probably be best to work very hard, but stopping about one rep short of absolute failure for most sets.

Reps can be done in a variety of ways. A very effective method on the powerlifts is to cycle the reps down over a period of weeks. This is known as periodization. The higher reps at the beginning help to increase the strength of the tendons to prepare them for the heavier loads to be lifted later.

You start with 3x10 for about 4-8 weeks. Then drop to 3x5 for the next 4-8 weeks. Then finish with 3x3, again for 4-8 weeks. This routine is ideal for "peaking" for a contest. But even if one is not competing, it is a very effective way to prevent stagnation. Then after the contest or at then end of all three cycles, it is best to take a week off before starting over again.

Another possible rep routine is to a use pyramid system on the three powerlifts of 3 sets of increasing weights and decreasing reps. You could start with 12,10,8 for a few weeks, then drop to 8,6,4, then 6,4,2 or 5,3,1. For the assistance exercises, I would recommend 2 sets of 6-12 reps.

Another possibility and one that I have personally found to work very well is to do two heavier (lower rep) sets and then a higher rep "back-off" set, the first two sets with a belt and wraps and the last done without any gear. Specifically, 3-4, 1-2, 6-8 reps.

Or a "drop reps" approach of adding weight and dropping a rep for each set. With this approach, I like to have one more rep in the range than the number of sets. This provides some flexibility and allows one to "miss" a rep without actually falling out of the range. So I write it up as 3 x 7-4, but I may end up doing 7,6,5 or 7,6,4.

Of course, the exact exercises to be done can vary. In fact, one should change exercises, number of reps, number of sets, and/ or  workout frequency occasionally. If you do the same routine in the same way, over time your body will adapt and gains will decrease. If you're stagnating, it's time to change something.

To prevent such adaptation is the one of the reasons for giving three different possible workout routines above. Along with experimenting to see which works best for you initially, when you begin to stagnate on one routine, then try another. But I would recommend sticking with one routine for several weeks. You don't want to change things too often.

Four or five warm-up sets should be done for first exercise: 15, 10, 6, 3, [1] reps. The first set is with just the bar. The last set is with ~10% less than first work set. The rest of the sets are spaced evenly in-between the first and last sets. The final single is only done when the first set is for four or less reps. Two warm-up sets are done for upper back work (8, 4); one set for arms and calves (8-10).

See Squat Assistance Exercises, Bench Press Assistance Exercises, and Deadlift Assistance Exercises for discussions of many of the exercises above, along with many additional exercises that are not mentioned here.

Powerlifting Training Routines. Copyright 2001-2008 by Gary F. Zeolla.

The above routines were posted on this site November 28, 2001.
They were last updated March 21, 2008.

Powerlifting and Strength Training
Powerlifting and Strength Training: Training Routines and Program Design

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