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Weightlifting and resistance training have been around for thousands of years as a way to create a stronger and more capable body.

Over time, several specialized forms of weightlifting have become popular sports in their own right.

Powerlifting has slowly gained a foothold as one of the most common training methods for both competitors and general gym-goers.

There aren’t many lifters who aren’t interested in becoming stronger and shifting impressive numbers on the barbell.

This article contains a lot of useful info, tips, and recommendations for those interested in powerlifting training.

It also includes multiple 10-week powerlifting programs for lifters of different ability levels, to increase maximal strength as much as possible.

What is powerlifting?

Related: Powerbuilding Program

powerlifting program

Powerlifting is a competitive sport involving one or all of the big three lifts – the squat, bench press, and deadlift.

Training programs built around improving these three lifts can be considered powerlifting programs.

Competitively, there are different forms of powerlifting. Some include maximal attempts at all three lifts while others specialize in one or two on a given day.

Powerlifting meets also have a range of rules and regulations about competing, regarding weight class, equipment, substance use, and technique.

What are the three main compound lifts?

powerlifting training

Bench Press

The barbell bench press is considered the ultimate upper body exercise in terms of shifting the most weight possible.

The powerlifting bench press recruits not only the chest, shoulders, and triceps but the entire upper and lower back, hips, and legs.

The goal of the bench press is simply to unrack the weight, lower it to the chest, and lock out the arms at the top.

Squat

While the squat isn’t the heaviest lift of the big three, many would consider it to be the most difficult.

The barbell squat also stimulates the entire body, from the muscles around the hips and knees performing the movement to the trunk, ankles, shoulders, and arms stabilizing.

The goal of the squat is to unrack the bar, squat down until the hips are below the knees, and stand straight back up.

Deadlift

The deadlift is a true show of maximal strength and is often the heaviest lift in a powerlifter’s arsenal.

The deadlift demands a lot of work from the entire body, from the posterior chain of the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back to the upper back and grip holding the bar.

The goal of the deadlift is to pick up the bar from the floor to a standing position, hanging in front of the body.

What is the main purpose of powerlifting?

See Also: Why Do Bodybuilders Tan?

best powerlifting program

The goal of a powerlifting competition is to lift the heaviest amount of weight possible in one or all three of these lifts.

In a full powerlifting meet, competitors get three attempts at each lift, to produce the highest total possible.

The three attempts get progressively harder, with the competitors’ third attempt usually being a carefully calculated PR attempt.

The lifts have to be done with strict rules around form, with three judges scoring each attempt.

Once the three lifts have been completed, a special formula is used to combine the total weight lifted with the athletes’ body weight.

This determines the competitor with the greatest relative strength for the meet.

How to Train for Powerlifting

powerlifting workout

The goal of a powerlifting training program is to get progressively stronger in each of the three main lifts.

To put this in terms of a training metric, a powerlifting program is a maximal strength training program.

While muscle hypertrophy, conditioning, and flexibility are all important factors, the central focus of a powerlifting program is increasing your one-repetition maximum (1RM).

The programs below look simplistic on paper but are very challenging when put into practice.

You won’t find many pump-up sets of bicep curls in a powerlifting program. That being said, try finding an elite-level powerlifter with small biceps.

Factors to Consider When Deciding on a Powerlifting Program

Type of Training

As mentioned, powerlifting training is tough. It involves pushing yourself to lift heavy weights consistently, and with excellent technique.

This type of training can also seem slow to those used to fast-paced circuits or interval-style workouts.

There are a lot of long rest breaks in powerlifting workouts, which you’ll need to lift near-maximal loads for reps.

Training Experience Level

Powerlifting training can be done by people of different experience levels, although it will look different for each individual.

Beginners will want to focus on working up to the big three lifts, perfecting technique before progressing the loads.

More advanced lifters will be able to steadily progress in intensity on the big three while adding accessory exercises to bring up any weak aspects of their lifts.

Training Goals

Powerlifting is a very specific sport, with a simple goal – to get as strong as possible.

Pure powerlifters are not concerned with aesthetics, endurance, or agility. They simply want to pick up the most weight they possibly can.

However, a powerlifting program can be beneficial for the general population.

Even if you’re more focused on general well-being or getting a beach body, a powerlifting program can certainly be part of your overall approach.

Recovery Ability

Recovery is a key aspect of powerlifting training. The time spent recovering far outstrips the time spent in the gym.

The effects of powerlifting training are different from the typical DOMS seen in bodybuilding or general fitness programs.

Strength comes from the nervous system. That’s what needs time to recuperate after the stress of lifting heavy.

When starting a powerlifting program, be prepared to prioritize rest and recovery, both inside and outside the gym.

What are the most common powerlifting mistakes?

Powerlifting training rewards discipline, patience, and humility. It is a marathon, not a sprint.

The most commonly seen mistakes of amateur powerlifters mostly revolve around lifting too heavy.

Whether it’s ego lifting, not focusing on technique, or not using autoregulation to listen to the body, people frequently lift too much, too soon.

Unfortunately, this leads to injuries in powerlifting, particularly in the lower back, shoulders, and knees.

Although it can feel embarrassing to go back to basics and strip down to lighter weights, it’s critical to your long-term success to get out of your head and train correctly.

Trying to take shortcuts will simply lead to plateaus, or worse, injury. Those with patience and dedication will hit their goals faster in the long term.

What are the benefits of a powerlifting program?

powerlifting training program

Strength Gains

The biggest benefit of going through a powerlifting program is obviously the gains in your maximal strength.

If you want to see how strong you can get, there’s no better style of training than powerlifting.

The reason the big three lifts are used in powerlifting is because they use the highest number of muscle groups, working simultaneously to move the most weight possible.

Building Mental Fortitude 

In addition to the physical strength you’ll gain in a powerlifting program, you’ll also build a lot of psychological toughness.

It takes mental fortitude to psych yourself up to go into a heavy squat, not being 100% sure that you’ll be able to come back up.

In competition especially, powerlifters use a range of techniques to reach optimal arousal levels for peak strength performance.

Translation to Other Disciplines

These benefits will then carry over into other athletic pursuits you may have in the future.

As the popular saying goes, “Strength is never a weakness, and weakness is never a strength.”

Improving your maximal strength will translate well to other training metrics, whether it be muscle growth, speed, or aerobic power.

Now that we’ve covered many important considerations around powerlifting training, it’s time to take a look at what exercises you’ll be doing.

The Best Exercises to Include in a Powerlifting Program

A powerlifting program will of course be centered around the big three lifts, with other exercises playing important supplementary roles.

The following exercises include the big three first, followed by some of the best exercises for different experience levels.

There are regressive exercises for new lifters looking to build up to the big three, as well as accessory compound movements for intermediate to advanced powerlifters.

These are some of the best exercises that powerlifting programs will include, although there are many more to choose from as you gain experience.

  1. Bench Press
  2. Squat
  3. Deadlift
  4. Close-Grip Press
  5. Front Squat
  6. Rack Pull
  7. Counterbalance Squat
  8. Overhead Press
  9. Romanian Deadlift
  10. Accessory Exercises

10 Best Powerlifting Exercises for Maximum Strength Gains

1. Bench Press

The bench press is the king of upper body exercises and is seen by many as the best indicator of strength.

It doesn’t matter if you can squat double your bodyweight if you have a weak bench.

There’s a reason most people’s go-to question regarding strength is, “How much do you bench?”

Equipment Requirements: Barbell, plates, rack, bench

How-To Perform Bench Press: 

  • Lay on the bench with chin under the bar
  • Unrack the barbell from the frame
  • Inhale and lower the bar to mid-chest level with control
  • Forcefully exhale and use the chest to lift bar until the arms are straight
  • Perform desired number of repetitions
  • Safely re-rack the bar before disengaging body

Benefits: Allows lifting of the most weight for any upper body compound exercise.

Pro Tips: In powerlifting you can perform the straight-line bench or the J-curve bench, depending on your body mechanics.

2. Squat

The squat is respected by powerlifters as the most difficult lift to master.

It’s also the lift of the big three that requires the most mental discipline to train consistently.

There are many moving parts to the squat – literally. You have stances, bar placement, hand placement, and more.

However, take the time to master this exercise and you’ll be a cut above the rest when it comes to overall strength.

Equipment Requirements: Barbell, plates, power rack/squat rack

How-To Perform Barbell Squats: 

  • Approach the bar at shoulder height and load weight + safety clips
  • Step under the bar so it’s across the back of the shoulders with a comfortable grip
  • Unrack the weight by standing tall and stepping back
  • Keep the torso upright and sit the hips back to lower down into the squat
  • Lower until hip crease is lower than top of knee
  • Breathe out and push up to starting position
  • Repeat for reps and carefully re-rack weight

Benefits: Recruits entire body – lower limb for force production and trunk and upper body for stabilization

Pro Tips: The low-bar squat allows more force production, but experiment with what works best for your anatomy.

3. Deadlift

Related: A Detailed Guide To Hook Grip Deadlift

The deadlift is the final exercise performed in a powerlifting meet and can make or break the performance for many athletes.

This is the exercise of the big three that allows the lifting of the most overall weight and recruits the entire body to do so.

It’s critical to get the technique right early on as bad habits can form that are hard to break.

Equipment Requirements: Barbell, plates

How-To Perform Deadlifts: 

  • Stand with shins to barbell with the desired stance
  • Hold the bar with a standard, alternate, or hook grip with straight arms
  • Bend the knees and sit back into the heels
  • Push through the ground, exhale and stand up straight
  • Drive the hips forward into the bar at the top of the movement
  • Slowly control to starting position with a neutral spine
  • Maintain control until final rep

Benefits: Recruits entire posterior chain, utilizes upper and lower body together

Pro Tips: Try both the conventional deadlift and sumo style to see what gives you the strongest platform.

4. Close-Grip Press

The triceps are responsible for locking out the arms at the top of a standard bench press.

Because these muscles are smaller than the pecs and delts, they are often a weak point for new powerlifters.

The close-grip bench press will target the triceps more efficiently, bringing them up to scratch when attempting heavy bench numbers.

Equipment Requirements: Barbell, adjustable bench, plates

How-To Perform Close-grip Press: 

  • Lie back on the bench
  • Use a close grip to hold the bar overhead
  • Slowly lower the bar to the chest
  • After brief pause, use triceps to push bar upward
  • Re-rack the weight after completed reps

Benefits: Strengthens triceps, helps improve elbow extension in conventional bench press

Pro Tips: Sit the bar on the heel of the hand to avoid wrist strain.

5. Front Squat

Some people have trouble squatting deep due to a lack of mobility.

Front squats place the center of gravity further forward, so you can keep the torso upright and drop deeper into the squat.

Be aware that the amount of weight lifted will be less in a front squat due to the increased difficulty of holding the weight in front.  

Equipment Requirements: Barbell, plates, rack, clips

How-To Perform Front Squat: 

  • Set bar in rack slightly below shoulder level
  • Sit the bar across the collarbones, holding the bar with the elbows up
  • Sit the hips back and bend the knees to drop down
  • Push through the heels to straighten back to the starting position

Benefits: More quad-dominant exercise, allows deeper squat due to more upright position

Pro Tips: Keep the knees in line with the feet by squeezing the outer glutes to avoid the knees caving in.

6. Rack Pull

The rack pull is used to get used to pulling heavier weights with less risk than pulling from the floor.

It’s used to develop trap and grip strength, as well as become accustomed to bracing the core for heavy deadlifts.

Equipment Requirements: Barbell, plates, safety pins, squat rack

How-To Perform Rack Pull: 

  • Place the bar on the pins at the desired height
  • Stand with the feet under the hips and hands shoulder-width
  • Keep the eyes forward and extend the hips to lift the weight
  • Control the bar back to the pins and repeat

Benefits: Allows increased weight without risking injury to low back

Pro Tips: Use different starting heights (above knee, below knee) depending on your sticking point with the deadlift.

7. Counterbalance Squat

Before you can perform a good barbell squat, you may need to practice the fundamentals of the motion. 

The counterbalance squat allows you to get deep into a squatting position without the load being placed on your back. 

Holding a weight in front lets you sit back into the heels and work on hip, knee, and ankle mobility.  

Equipment Requirements: Plate, dumbbell, kettlebell, etc.

How-To Perform Counterbalance Squat: 

  • Hold the weight directly in front of you
  • With the feet shoulder-width apart, sit back and down into a squat position
  • Hold at the bottom before pressing back to standing

Benefits: Good beginner exercise to build mobility and work toward a barbell squat

Pro Tips: Spend some time in the bottom position, moving the hips and ankles to get a good stretch under tension.

8. Overhead Press

The overhead press is a transitional movement from powerlifting to Olympic lifting.

It’s also a great supplementary exercise for the bench press and encourages healthy shoulder range of motion.

This move should be done consistently both to build pressing strength and to maintain long-term shoulder function.

Equipment Requirements: Barbell, plates

How-To Perform Overhead Press: 

  • Stand with the bar at shoulder height on a power rack
  • Grab the bar at shoulder width or slightly wider position
  • Unrack the bar to the collarbone
  • Exhale and push the bar up, retracting your head from the bar’s path
  • Inhale and slowly control bar back to starting position
  • Repeat desired reps and step forward to re-rack the weight

Benefits: Targets delts and triceps by decreasing effective angle of the pectorals

Pro Tips: Keep the spine neutral and the lower body strong under the bar.

9. Romanian Deadlift

Finally, we have a secondary deadlift movement that emphasizes the glutes and hamstrings.

In the conventional deadlift, a lot of work is done by the quads and lower back.

Working with this variation allows you to build additional strength that can take some of the pressure off the back and make your deadlift stronger overall.

Equipment Requirements: Barbell, plates

How-To Perform Romanian Deadlift: 

  • Grab the barbell with a shoulder-width grip
  • Keep the head up and back straight and push the hips back
  • Keep the hamstrings taught as you lower the bar to below the knees
  • Only slightly bend the knees as you push through the heels to stand straight

Benefits: Strengthens hamstrings and glutes, reverses conventional deadlift ROM

Pro Tips: Again, hold in the stretched position at the bottom to build strength and mobility at the same time.

10. Accessory Exercises

In addition to the core exercises above, there are dozens of other exercises out there that may be beneficial to a given individual’s powerlifting workout program.

Whether it be isolation exercises for a lagging muscle group or special techniques to bust through a sticking point, powerlifting programs can be altered along the way as needed.

With the main exercises covered, it’s time to get into the powerlifting programs themselves.

10-Week Powerlifting Program with PDF

The following powerlifting programs are designed with different skill levels in mind.

The first program is for those new to the big three lifts and heavier strength training in general.

The next program is for more experienced lifters with a solid grasp on compound lifts and those who know how to lift heavy.

Both programs are progressive in nature, so they can be followed consistently with the outcome of increasing strength in mind.

Take these examples as templates that you can experiment with. Modify if needed to better suit your personal goals.

Powerlifting Program for Beginners

This beginner powerlifting program involves training the full body, three times per week.

The focus is on building up to the big three lifts and being able to perform several heavy sets of each with good technique.

After two phases of preparing the joints, connective tissues, and muscles, there’s a deload week before the final phase of powerlifting exercises.

In each phase, focus on reaching the recommended repetitions with great technique before increasing the weight.

For the squat, bench press, and deadlift – as well as their variants – increase the weight by 5lbs (2.5kg) for the bench and squat, and 10lbs (5kg) for the deadlift.

Weekly Schedule:

  • Monday: Training Session
  • Tuesday: Rest/cardio/recovery
  • Wednesday: Training Session
  • Thursday: Rest/cardio/recovery
  • Friday: Training Session
  • Saturday: Rest/cardio/recovery
  • Sunday: Rest

Weeks 1-3

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Counterbalance squat3×101-2 mins
Push-ups3×201-2 mins
Inverted rows3×101-2 mins

Weeks 4-6

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Squat with banded knees4×82-3 mins
Dumbbell bench press4×82-3 mins
Romanian deadlift4×82-3 mins

Week 7

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Bodyweight squat3×201 min
Bench Press3×201-2 mins
Deadlift3×101-2 mins

Weeks 8-10

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Squat5×53-5 mins
Bench Press5×53-5 mins
Deadlift5×53-5 mins

Advanced Powerlifting Program

This advanced powerlifting program is about one thing – increasing your 1RMs on the big three.

To do this, the three weekly workouts are divided into a squat, bench, and deadlift focus.

Each phase starts with a different accessory exercise, to build up over five sets to perform a final 1RM attempt.

Following this are several supplementary exercises to strengthen the muscle groups recruited in that day’s big lift.

Over the 10 weeks, these phases will culminate in a deload week (week nine), before the final ‘peak’ week where you’ll test your new PRs for the big three.

In each phase, focus on increasing the weight for the first exercise wherever possible (assuming correct form).

You can progress intensity or volume on the other exercises, but regulate them each session depending on your energy levels.

Weekly Schedule:

  • Monday: Squat Session
  • Tuesday: Rest/cardio/recovery
  • Wednesday: Bench Session
  • Thursday: Rest/cardio/recovery
  • Friday: Deadlift Session
  • Saturday: Rest/cardio/recovery
  • Sunday: Rest

Weeks 1-3

Squat Session

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Banded squat5x work up to 1RM3-5 min
Reverse lunge3×6 each side1-2 min
Squat hold3 x 1 min1 min
Speed squat3×81 min

Bench Session

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Banded bench press5x work up to 1RM3-5 min
Incline press3×62-3 min
Pull-ups3xMAX3-5 min
Skull crushers3×81-2 min

Deadlift Session

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Banded deadlift5x work up to 1RM3-5 min
Barbell row3×63-5 min
Barbell glute bridge3×82-3 min
Back extension3×101-2 min

Weeks 4-6

Squat Session

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Front squat5x work up to 1RM3-5 min
Reverse lunge3×6 each side1-2 min
Squat hold3 x 1 min1 min
Speed squat3×81 min

Bench Session

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Close-grip incline press5x work up to 1RM3-5 min
Incline press3×62-3 min
Pull ups3xMAX3-5 min
Skull crushers3×81-2 min

Deadlift Session

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Deficit deadlift5x work up to 1RM3-5 min
Barbell row3×63-5 min
Barbell glute bridge3×82-3 min
Back extension3×101-2 min

Weeks 7-8

Squat Session

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Box squat5x work up to 1RM3-5 min
Reverse lunge3×6 each side1-2 min
Squat hold3 x 1 min1 min
Speed squat3×81 min

Bench Session

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Overhead press5x work up to 1RM3-5 min
Incline press3×62-3 min
Pull-ups3xMAX3-5 min
Skull crushers3×81-2 min

Deadlift Session

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Rack pull5x work up to 1RM3-5 min
Barbell row3×63-5 min
Barbell glute bridge3×82-3 min
Back extension3×101-2 min

Week 9

Squat Session

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Squat3×102-3 min

Bench Session

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Bench press3×102-3 min

Deadlift Session

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Deadlift3×102-3 min

Week 10

Squat Session

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Squat5x work up to 1RM3-5 min

Bench Session

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Bench press5x work up to 1RM3-5 min

Deadlift Session

ExerciseSets x RepsRest
Deadlift5x work up to 1RM3-5 min

10-Week Powerlifting Program with PDF

Pro Tips for Maximizing your Powerlifting Program Results

powerlifting training program

Warm Up

Warming up properly is even more important in powerlifting than in other styles of training.

The risk of injury is highest when attempting to lift maximal weights. You’re putting your body under a lot of stress.

For all of the workouts above, take at least 10-15 for a thorough warm-up routine.

A powerlifting warm-up should consist of a general warm-up to increase body temperature followed by progressively loading the target muscles and joints for the session.

Use the following warm-up templates before the programs above:

General warm-up:

  • Treadmill, stationary cycle, elliptical, etc. 5 mins

Bodyweight warm-up:

  • Arm circles x 10 each direction
  • Torso twist x 10 each direction
  • Side bends x 10 each direction
  • Leg swings x 10 each direction
  • Wrist circles x 10 each direction
  • Ankle circles x 10 each direction

Resistance warm-up:

  • Push-ups x 20
  • Bodyweight squat x 15
  • Side lunge x 10 each direction
  • Banded row x 20

Warm-up sets:

  • 1-3 sets building up to first working set, for first upper body and lower body exercise

Don’t forget your post-workout cool-down, either. Use static stretching, foam-rolling, or other recovery techniques to help your body wind down from the workout.

Rest Periods

Long inter-set rest intervals are an integral part of a powerlifting program.

The nervous system and muscles need several minutes to recover the energy required to repeatedly lift near-maximal loads.

Not taking enough rest is a common mistake in powerlifting training and will lead to decreased performance.

Outside of the gym, some people struggle to stick to their rest days between workouts. 

While it may be tempting to get into the gym as much as possible, the strength gains happen in the days between lifting, so focus on recovery for the best long-term results.

Static Holds

Isometric exercise – maintaining a static position under load – is a useful technique for breaking through sticking points in powerlifting.

Common sticking points include about an inch above the chest in the bench press, coming out of the hole in a squat, or getting past the knees in a deadlift.

Using static holds to build strength in these specific points can be used to break through them at a given weight.

Maintain Good Form

As mentioned, exercise form is critical in powerlifting, not only for competition standards but for safety.

Form is something that quickly gets forgotten about as weights increase, leading to bad habits, and unfortunately, many training injuries.

This is why it’s crucial to build up to and perfect the technique of the big three lifts at lighter weights, progressing slowly to maintain that form.

Frequently asked questions

How many times a week do powerlifters train?

Powerlifting programs come in all different forms, with no one program being perfect for everyone.

Powerlifters tend to train with less frequency than bodybuilders or even general fitness enthusiasts.

Their workouts focus on quality and maximal effort rather than dozens of exercises and light weights.

Generally, powerlifting programs will consist of 3-6 sessions per week, depending on the athlete.

What program do most powerlifters use?

Again, powerlifting programs vary based on the factors described in this article.

The beginner and advanced powerlifting programs above provide a good example of typical powerlifting programs for different goals.

Another important aspect of a powerlifting program at the competitive level is that it should build up to a peak, usually involving a powerlifting meet.

What is a good powerlifting routine?

This depends on the individual looking to start a powerlifting routine.

For beginners, try a program like the one above. They help build a strong foundation in the big three lifts and you can develop strength from there.

For more experienced trainees, a program like the advanced option can help improve your 1RMs, working toward new PRs for the big lifts.

Will I build muscle on a powerlifting program?

As long as your nutrition, supplementation, and recovery are geared toward building mass, you will definitely not have a problem building size with a powerlifting program.

Even in lower weight classes, elite powerlifters are built with solid slabs of muscle.

Focus on feeding your training to avoid overdoing the calories and gaining excess body fat.

Final Thoughts

So, what do you think about our powerlifting guide and programs? 

It’s not your average fitness program, considering lengthy recovery times aren’t optional. But as we’ve learned, it’s one of the best ways to get bigger. 

Let us know your experience with powerlifting – and which program you’ll start with – in the comments.

If you have any training buddies looking to get into powerlifting, be sure to share this article with them as well.