Powerlifting Programming 101: How to Train for Strength for English Speakers
The main function of programming for powerlifting is to meet two specific criteria:
- Hypertrophy for muscle
- Strength adaptations
This means that your program is going to have enough volume to drive hypertrophy, at an appropriate intensity rate, with enough movement specificity to produce strength increases in the competition lifts.
These three factors are what’s necessary to create monster lifts. Volume, intensity, and specificity.
The other elements that you can manipulate outside of these three factors to improve the results of your training are:
- Sensitivity to Training (more sensitive > more gains)
- Calories and protein intake (maximizing muscle protein synthesis)
- Body-fat percentage
- Sleep (better sleep > more gains)
You already know how dietary and lifestyle factors can influence your progression, but let’s talk about some other elements that we can leverage to increase the effectiveness of your programming.
Powerlifting Programming Glossary
One of the most important factors that will dictate the results (or lack thereof) derived from training will be your sensitivity to training.
There are many, many factors that can improve or hinder your sensitivity to training. Some of these I’ve mentioned, but since this is a programming article, we will spend the most time focusing on how training can be adjusted to improve sensitivity to training.
How sensitive to training you are will amplify the results derived from a training session. This means that muscle or strength improvements will enjoy a greater rate of progress.
Being sensitive (to training) will necessitate less training stress to produce results.
Resistance to training will be marked as requiring more training stress to stimulate the desired adaptations.
There are factors that affect your sensitivity (by way of making more/less anabolic) that don’t have to do with training, such as:
- Body composition
- Dietary habits
- Sleep quality and / or duration
- Current level of training sensitivity
- Biological sex
Let’s run through some examples.
There’s evidence that suggests a leaner body (12 ~ 15% bodyfat) will be more sensitive to training. Perhaps as a function of more favorable nutrient partitioning, sleep quality, improved hormonal profiles, etc.
Sleep habits (as mentioned before) can also impact your progress in a major way. Hormones are released and secreted into the bloodstream during the deep stages of sleep. This means that not sleeping enough (with enough uninterrupted hours of this deep sleep) will generally dampen your response to training.
Less sleep and / or lower quality of sleep are both generally bad for building muscle or recovery.
There are conditions that can affect the quality of your sleep such as:
- Neck Circumference
- Different Classifications of Apnea’s
- Pulmonary Disorders
Making sure you are in good health overall will also lend to more favorable anabolic conditions, not just improving the quality of your sleep. Although sometimes, external circumstances outside of your control, may impact said quality.
Such as, but not limited to – kids, noise, work hours, someone mowing your lawn at 7 AM, and other such “life” things.
Dietary habits also play a pivotal role in your response to training: eating 4-5 times per day, at 3-5 hour intervals with at least 5g of leucine per meal is necessary to maximize your muscle protein synthesis response.
In doing so, while being in a caloric surplus, will ensure that additional skeletal muscle mass is built.
On the other hand, not consuming enough protein (or maximizing your protein synthesis) will make you more resistant to training – meaning, you’d have to do more in the gym to make up for poor nutrition habits.
Age & Training History
Being younger is also favorable for sensitivity to training, as is being a male.
Novice / newer trainees are also far more sensitive to training than more advanced athletes. However, this is more complex than that.
“Going to the gym” does not automatically qualify as training. Deliberate (and intelligent) training produces far better results, and in turn, desensitizes you to training to a greater degree.
Going from 315 lbs for 5 to 405 lbs for 5 on your Squat in 3 months will desensitize you more than going from 315 to 345 in the same time frame.
Deliberate training = better results.
Training Adaptations & Sensitivity
Past training sensitivity, we have the “SAID Principle”. The SAID Principle states (in English) that your body will create adaptations that are specific to the imposed demands
In other words, your body will respond in direct reaction to the stress that training imposes upon it.
This means that if you want to get a huge deadlift, you need to train movements that very closely assimilate to the deadlift, in the appropriate intensity ranges, and with enough volume to satisfy hypertrophy needs.
Take, for example, this whole week of deadlift programming:
Day one: 3X5 @ RPE 8 – Competition Deadlift
Day two: 4X6 @ RPE 7,8,9,9,9,9 – Paused Deadlift
Day three: 4X7 @ RPE 8 – 1.5″ Deficit Deadlifts
This is 67 weekly reps at an average of 80% intensity with movements that are very specific to the deadlift.
This style of training should allow you to continue a growth path of over 5 lbs per week on your main lifts, on command.
In fact, I was able to put on 100 lbs on SQ & DL and 80 lbs on Bench in an 11-week period when I first started training like this with a bodyweight gain of 9 lbs.
The goal of your body is to make the adaptation process as efficient as possible.
This means not only creating adaptations specific to the current stress, and thereby dampening the stress response from that single event, but also making each subsequent bout of that event even less stressful than the previous one.
This is called the “Repeated Bout Effect” and it is exactly as it sounds. The more of a “stress event” your body is exposed to, the less of a stimulus effect it will have.
However, your training needs to still remain specific in order to effect the adaptations we’re after (strength & hypertrophy).
Because of this, there will be a necessity in your training programs to adjust based on this reality.
If you keep doing the same rep-range, at the same intensity, with the same movement – the overall response derived from the program will diminish rather quickly.
Even though a “static program” with an affixed rep scheme for the entirety of the training sessions will work well for beginners, it will not be so for more advanced trainees.
The reason being is that beginners are far more sensitive to training than more experienced athletes. This means that they can make substantial progress even in the face of diminishing returns from the Repeated Bout Effect.
For intermediate and advanced athletes — who are more resistant to training, having workarounds for “The Repeated Bout Effect” and the principle of “Sensitivity to Training” will be of far greater importance in programming than simply volume numbers and intensity.
The reason why I bolded “intermediate and advanced athletes” above is because of this next point: that same logic applies to anyone who is resistant training.
Including, but not limited to:
- People of advanced age
- People who have less than ideal health conditions
- People with limited anabolic responses (short of sleep, poor dietary habits, virtually no appetites)
And so forth.
Appropriately enough, there are both short-term and long-term applications for beginner, intermediate and advanced trainees to incorporate into their training to maximize their results.
Factors that will need to be taken into consideration in creative effective programming include:
- Exercise selection (varying specificity to combat desensitization & injury management)
- Periodization (Daily & Long-Term Block Periodization)
- Volume (Measured on a weekly basis)
For short-term programming considerations, Daily Undulating Periodization (DUP) has been shown to be an effective way of improving the results from a training program. It does this by changing the volume and intensity ranges on a particular movement from session to session.
The implication being that by altering the specific stress imposed on your body per workout, it could lessen the effect of the Repeated Bout Effect.
Short-Term Programming Periodization
As a short-term consideration, it’s an excellent programming tool. So, for squats, you could have a scenario like this:
- Monday: 4 (sets) X 5 (reps) Competition Squats
- Wednesday: 5 (sets) X 4 (reps) Paused Squats
- Friday: 5 (sets) X 8 (reps) Safety Bar Squats
20 (reps) at 80% (intensity) + 20 (reps) at 85% (intensity) + 40 reps at (75%) intensity.
This comes out to 80 total weekly volume (reps) at an average intensity of 78.75%.
Within a structure of this nature, what is imposed from your body on a workout-to-workout basis changes, thereby retaining some level of “sensitivity” to training from week to week.
Consider the following scenario:
- Monday: 5 (sets) X 5 (reps) Competition Squat @ RPE 8
- Wednesday: 5 (sets) X 5 (reps) Paused Squat @ RPE 8
- Friday: 5 (sets) X 6 (reps) Safety Bar Squats @ RPE 8
25 (reps) at 80% (intensity) + 25 (reps) at 80% (intensity) + 30 (reps) at 78.6% (intensity).
This comes out to 80 total reps per week with an average intensity of ~79%.
Sets @ RPE 8 are generally repeatable across the board with some degree of fatigue mounting through the workout.
But let’s assume that the lifter would follow a programming structure like this which is very common in beginner and even post-novice online programs.
In the second scenario, because there isn’t as much variance in terms of volume and intensity ranges, this would mean that the Repeated Bout Effect would have a greater influence on the general progression of the trainee.
In other words, over a 3-6 month training period, the second program would prove to be less effective because the trainee would become more resistant to training, as a result of the Repeated Bout Effect.
In other words: the diminishing returns curve would curtail the progress at a much earlier point.
To add on to that, the tertiary movement generally is performed at 70 ~ 75% intensity, which allows for the addition of more volume to the program.
Which also improves training outcomes.
Long-Term Programming Periodization
Ultimately, as you advance through your powerlifting career, the inevitable will happen: you will become increasingly more resistant to training, and your gains will slow down.
This occurs as a function of less potent muscle protein synthesis responses to training, among other factors.
This requires more attention to detail in terms of dieting (maximizing daily muscle protein synthesis), sleep (7~8 hours), body composition (12 ~ 18% bodyfat percentage), but also in terms of training – there are continual adjustments to be made.
For one, training stress has to increase. The more “advanced” you are, the more hypertrophy will play a role in strength performance.
So, as you progress as a lifter, more training emphasis will be placed on volume. Volume, as the primary driver of hypertrophy, will become the variable that needs to be analyzed the most for continued growth.
But just adding more volume isn’t specific enough, since not all volume imposes the same demands on your body. Consider the following scenario:
- 6 (sets) for 4 (reps)
- 3 (sets) for 8 (reps)
Even though the volume is almost the same at (24) vs. (24) – the stress isn’t the same.
The intensity in the first workout is ~83.7% and the intensity range in the second rep scheme is ~73.9%.
This is without taking RPE into consideration. But the added complexity wouldn’t be necessary in this argument.
So consider a lifter that is trying to increase their volume for the next training block, he wants to increase the volume on squats by 20%. This is the current template:
- Monday: 4 (sets) X 5 (reps) @ RPE 8 Competition Squats (405 lbs.)
- Wednesday: 5 (sets) X 4 (reps) @ RPE 7,8, 9, 9, 9 Paused Squats (365 lbs.)
- Friday: 5 (sets) X 8 (reps) @ RPE 8 Beltless Squats (315 lbs.)
Total weekly volume: 80 @ at average intensity ~80%.
Goal weekly volume: 96 @ at average intensity ~80%.
How should the lifter increase their volume in this scenario?
Note that each lift will have a different “fatigue” effect. We want to train productively, at high volume, for a long period of time. Therefore, we want to manage the training volume & intensity continuum to avoid accumulating fatigue too quickly.
This means we simply have to be more mindful of not adding too many fatiguing reps. Adding an extra set of 5 @ 8 on the competition squats is more fatiguing than adding an extra set of 4 reps on the paused squats.
Because pure volume can also accumulate fatigue very quickly, it means that just adding two extra sets on the Beltless Squats (+16 reps) could also be problematic.
In this instance, having a recorded training history would aid the lifter in making the decision.
Knowing which exercise or which specific workouts are the most fatiguing. In my case, I would add (two) sets of 4 reps @ RPE 9 on paused squats, and (one) set of 8 reps @ RPE 8 on beltless squats to achieve 96 reps per week.
In this instance, the average intensity would stay relatively the same, and I would continue to make some more progress on the following block.
However, training in this fashion at such a high volume would mean that the lifter would incur more fatigue throughout the duration of the training program.
For this reason, using block periodization would help tremendously when it comes to fatigue management (and in turn: avoiding injuries).
By assigning different training blocks throughout the year, the lifter could manage periods of high stress (high volume @ high intensity) with periods of lower stress (less specific exercise selection & lower intensity) while continuing to make gains consistently.
However, the concept of “training blocks” is outside the purview of this post.
This article should have created a vision for what deliberate programming looks like in the face of:
- Training Sensitivity
- Repeated Bout Effect
- The Principle of Specificity
And what all of that entails in the face of intelligent powerlifting programming for continued progress.