The DEFINITIVE Beginner's Guide to Powerlifting [+FREE Program]
In this blog post, we're going to look at how to manage your powerlifting training to set you up for long-term success. We're also going to look at:
- What causes your strength to increase
- The different parameters that your training program needs to meet in order for your strength to continually improve
- How this program aims to do just that.
But first - TL;DR:
- Competition Squat: 3X5 @ RPE 8,8,8 (3 sets of 5)
- 2-Count Pause Bench: 6X4 @ 7,8,9,9,9,9 (6 sets of 4)
- Block Pulls: 4X7 @ RPE 8,8,8,8 (4 sets of 7)
- Competition Bench: 4X5 @ RPE 8,8,8,8 (4 sets of 5)
- Paused Squat: 6X4 @ RPE 7,8,9,9,9,9 (6 sets of 4)
- Press 1.0: 4X7 @ RPE 8,8,8,8 (4 sets of 7)
- Competition Deadlift: 3X5 @ RPE 8,8,8 (3 sets of 5)
- Touch & Go Bench: 6X4 @ RPE 7,8,9,9,9,9 (6 sets of 4)
- Close-Grip Bench: 4X7 @ RPE 8,8,8,8 (4 sets of 7)
- Paused Deadlift: 6X4 @ RPE 7,8,9,9,9,9 (6 sets of 4)
- Pin Press: 6X4 @ RPE 7,8,9,9,9,9 (6 sets of 4)
- Beltless Squat: 4X7 @ RPE 8,8,8,8 (4 sets of 7)
What is RPE?
RPE stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion and is a metric best used for auto-regulation during training sessions. Its aim is to provide the lifter with a framework of designated effort per programmed lift. Rather than a strict prescription which you cannot violate, it should instead give you an idea of what your level of effort should be during your upcoming set. By assigning & managing a lifter’s effort exertion during a programming schedule, one can use RPE as a proxy for stress or fatigue management. The best video I’ve seen on the matter is by Alan Thrall: What is RPE. On the program, where you see: Competition Squat: 3X5 @ RPE 8,8,8 What it means is on each of three sets, the RPE should be 8. What I would consider a moderately challenging effort. Where you see: Paused/Pin Squat: 6X4 @ RPE 7,8,9,9,9,9 It means that the first two sets should be at RPE 7, RPE 8, followed by four sets of RPE 9.
Why No Singles?
I tend to alternate on whether or not I'll do singles during a given block. For ex. during March, 2020 through mid-June 2020 (roughly 14 weeks in duration) - I was following a weight loss protocol. Which saw my strength levels take a hit. This is unavoidable, so I wasn't too worried. When I got back, I wasn't particularly interested in during singles because....I was lifting 30-40 lbs below my previous maxes. I just focused on volume training & getting back to my previous state. However, after 5 weeks, I was able to recover my previous strength levels and again start training towards new PR's. That's when I started doing singles again. Another consideration is "meet programming" - singles are more important during a focused strength phase. A preparatory phase, if you will. If your current training plan is headed towards a meet, then doing singles is important as a skill practice & strength measurement. (Knowing where you are). However, if you're not currently training for a meet, then doing singles is not just as important. This is just part of a much bigger conversation about block periodization, something that beginner trainees not need worry about currently.
Powerlifting, Strength Training, & How to Get STRONG
There's a lot of different ways to measure strength, and many other ways in which strength can be displayed. A big part of your training career as a powerlifter will be learning to differentiate training for & displays of strength. The primary outcome of training for strength is to create physical adaptations that lead to displays of said acquired strength. Training is not the time and place to display strength. Let's run through some examples. A display of strength can be maxing out for one rep on the most amount of weight you can handle. This is not training. Why? Because it doesn't lead to adaptations or improvements. Yes, in preparation for an actual meet, say, two or three days prior to the competition - doing max singles can be considered training because at that point you're practicing for the meet. The purpose of training has changed and therefore that kind of exertion is actually considered a preparatory element for your meet. However, outside of that scenario, maxing out is only a display of strength because it doesn't lead to further adaptations. Let's unpack that.
How Do We Measure Strength?
Why is it important to differentiate between the display of strength & training for strength?? Because displaying strength is generally very fatiguing. And will most likely negatively impact your training. As a powerlifter, when you see your numbers making big jumps week after week you will be tempted to test your strength. While this is generally ok once in a while, doing it every week (or every set) will burn you out quickly. The purpose of training is to stimulate adaptations that lead to strength increases. And if something's interfering with your training - then, what good is it? Displaying your strength is fun. And it's satisfying to see you can pull 20 lbs more than you did a month ago. Or see that in 12 weeks you went from 455X1 to 515X1 @ max effort on your Deadlift. But what if that wasn't the only way of displaying strength? Consider the following scenario: 1. Someone performs a set of 5 at all out max effort RPE 10 for 500 lbs on the Competition Squat. 2. Next week, that person performs a set of 5 at a moderately challenging effort RPE 8 for 500 lbs on the Competition Squat. Did this person get stronger? The answer is yes. Although the weight on the bar didn't increase, the required effort to perform the set went down considerably, demonstrating an increase in strength. In other words, if it takes less effort to do the same amount of work - you got stronger. In order for you to train productively, you might need to forgo the gratification of grinding out sets of 5 or maxing out on a single, so that you can make continual progress over a long period. Because being able to deadlift 700 two years from now is far more gratifying than grinding out 500 next week and making the next week of pulling complete garbage. On the subject of strength increases...
Strength Adaptations & Hypertrophy
The #1 predictor of strength increases during post-novice training is going to be hypertrophy - as long as you continue training in high intensity ranges (75 ~ 85%). Since training volume is the most correlated with hypertrophy, this means that over time your training volume needs to increase. But just doing more isn't enough. Take a second to look at these examples:
- 60 reps @ 50% intensity
- 60 reps @ 70% intensity
- 60 reps @ 80% intensity
In these cases, the total volume (reps) is the same, but the intensity isn't. In the first example, performing 60 reps @ 50% intensity would not contribute to hypertrophy. In any way. Since 60% intensity is generally required for hypertrophy benefits. Then comes the question of 60 reps @ 70% intensity & 60 reps @ 80% intensity becomes more complex. This is where the concept of "stimulating reps" comes into play. (For refutations of this concept: see here). Let's say that these 60 reps @ 70% intensity are performed on two different days. Day one: 1 set of 1 rep @ RPE 8; followed by 4 sets of 8 reps @ RPE 7-8. (33 total reps) Day two: 3 sets of 9 reps @ RPE 8. (27 total reps) Now let's look at the following image: [caption id="attachment_447" align="aligncenter" width="700"] [Source][/caption] In the case above, there are a total of 13 stimulatory reps on day one & 9 stimulatory reps on day two. For a grand total of 22 stimulatory reps out of 60 total reps. Let's also say that 60 reps @ 80% intensity are performed on three different days. (Frequency is a different discussion altogether). Day one: 6 sets of 4 reps @ RPE 7,8,9,9,99. (24 total reps) Day two: 3 sets of 5 reps @ RPE 8. (15 total reps) Day three: 3 sets of 7 reps @ RPE 8. (21 total reps) The average-weighted values of each set & corresponding associated effective reps. Intensity percentages were derived from Mike Tuchscherer's RPE Chart. Actual values may be different from person to person. In the above example (60 reps @ 80% intensity) using the prescribed sets and reps above, the lifter would perform:
- 60 total reps
- 39 stimulating reps
- 80% avg. weighted intensity
That's nearly double the volume of stimulatory reps. And further scaling that volume into more advanced training requires an equally thoughtful approach. Simply adding more reps isn't going to cut it.
So - What’s the Best Way to Program for Strength?
At a glance, the sets and reps schemes might seem a bit odd: I do it like this because I enjoy training in 4’s & 5’s. I'm sure that if you wanted to maximize your effective training volume, you could find a way to do it while training in the rep ranges you enjoy. As long as it's above 70% (required for strength) - although I typically aim for 75 ~ 85%. The most important consideration is managing RPE, weekly training volume, and intensities. The general consensus for strength training is to accumulate enough training volume, in the 75-85% intensity range (of e1RM), during a given period to stimulate a muscular hypertrophy response. With the caveat being that all training must be done in a manner that replicates the movement pattern that you aim to increase strength on. In other words, if you want to squat more, you need to do more squatting. In this case, the assigned training volume for the main lifts is:
- Squats: 64 weekly reps
- Deadlifts: 64 weekly reps
- Bench: 92 weekly reps
- Press: 49 weekly reps
All of these lifts will be done with an intensity range that's somewhere in the vicinity of 81% intensity. This would be perfectly reasonable programming for anyone entering this style of training if coming off of active strength training. I would recommend an iteration with far less volume to someone who hasn't been actively training. If you've been doing other online blanket templates for "intermediate trainees" - you're probably going to find this style of training quite stressful, at first. The effective volume is much higher than what you'd be used to - particularly at these intensity ranges.
How to Build Muscle Consistently to Get BIG & STRONG
With all of this out of the way, as long as you perform all of the prescribed reps at the appropriate RPE (& by proxy: intensity) - the number one predictor of long-term strength development will be your skeletal muscle mass. Which will be most affected by your caloric intake. I have a simple template that I use for macros that goes as follows: Protein: 200g Fat: 70g These two are relatively constant and they come out to 1,430 calories. I will generally fill the rest with carbs. If I want to eat 2,500 calories: that comes out to 267.5g of carbs. If I want to eat 3,000 calories: that comes out to 392.5g of carbs. I started out eating around 2,500 calories to gain weight. And I am now up to 2,700. I weigh & track all the food that I eat for consistency. Although not absolutely necessary, I find that personally I tend to train the best & achieve the most predictable results when tracking and measuring all foods. I try & cook all the food that I eat although I do order fast food at times, but even then I will try to order items that meet the macronutrient profiles that I was looking for in that specific meal. For most people, offering blanket recommendations wouldn’t work, neither will using TDEE calculators or such. While useful for a general population, they can often err by overestimating your calories. This can be due to not being able to account for past dieting history or people overestimating their own activity levels. The best way to figure out how many calories you need to eat to maintain your current bodyweight is to track all of the food that you would eat in a normal week (without altering your food intake), and then tracking your day-to-day scale weight. You then average out the total daily calories after 7 days, and average out your weight. If your weight remained more or less the same, then you have found your maintenance calories. The next step would be to add anywhere from 300 to 500 to your daily calories to supplement this training program. Eat at a 3-5 hourly interval between meals & try to eat all of your calories split in 4 to 5 meals. This will ensure that you’re maxing out your muscle protein synthesis (& thereby growth). As far as supplements go: whey protein, creatine, and caffeine have been shown to reliably improve results from a training program (when compared to placebos). Take those at your own discretion.
What Equipment is Needed for Powerlifting?
The equipment needed for powerlifting will depend on what federation you compete in. Since I’m a raw powerlifter, I will list the equipment that I generally use in training:
For the past year, I’ve been using the Adidas Powerlift 4. It feels extremely sturdy & secure. After one year and more than several thousand reps of squats & benches: I am happy to report that the shoes still feel like the day I bought them. I have had zero issues. And best of all: they are extremely budget-friendly.
It is generally recommended that you use a 4” wide and 10mm thick belt (for beginners). I used this Single-Prong Lifting Belt by Steel Sweat. It performs its job as intended. I use it for both squats & deadlifts even though people with shorter torsos might find their range of motion limited by such a wide belt (on deadlifts). Some might consider using a 3” wide belt: Starting Strength Single-Prong 3” Wide Belt. Advanced competitive powerlifters will often opt for the far stiffer: 13mm belts such as the SBD Lever Belt or the Prime Cut Belt by BestBelts.
Straps for powerlifting can aid in allowing the lifter to pull heavy weights while accruing a substantial amount of volume. Some fear the potential risks associated with alternate grips, some dislike the discomfort of the hook grip. The best option for those looking to do high volume of pulling movements without discomfort or risk of injury is to get their hands on straps. I use the IronMind Straps as do many other high level lifters.
In order to properly deadlift, you need to be using flat & non-compressible shoes. Many will swear by Chuck Taylors. Others will do just fine with vans, indoor soccer shoes, or other such footwear.
Tracking your training is important. Not only does it allow you to keep tracking of progress but also it allows you to estimate future performance or observe patterns. If you notice that squatting too much above an RPE of 9 causes you to have lower performance in the weeks after, you can adjust your training. Similarly, if you notice that the more you do of a certain movement improves your performance in the main movement: you can program so including more of that exercise allows you to progress quicker in the competition lift.