#73: 5 Key Elements To A Powerlifting Program

#73: 5 Key Elements To A Powerlifting Program

There are no shortages of powerlifting programs that can help you build strength, from beginner programs designed for those who are just getting started, to advanced programs for those who have years of strength training under their belt.  

Regardless of whether you’re implementing a beginner or advanced powerlifting routine, you’ll see the following elements included: 

  • - Powerlifting Specificity
  • - High-Intensity
  • - “Weak Point” Training
  • - Block Periodization
  • - Recovery  

  • In this article, we’ll discuss each of these points in more detail and explain what makes a powerlifting program unique. 

    Let’s get started!

    5 Things Every Powerlifting Routine Incorporates


    1. Powerlifting Specificity 

    The principle of specificity states that strength gains are specific to the type of training we perform. 

    In other words, if you want to get stronger at performing bicep curls then you need to implement bicep curl training into your program.  You cannot expect, for example, to become stronger at bicep curls by doing chin-ups.  

    Of course, however, you will work your biceps by doing chin-ups, but it’s not as specific as doing bicep curls.  Therefore, the priority that you place on bicep curls versus chin-ups isn’t going to be equal.  While you’ll still include both exercises into your program,  you will spend more time bicep curling than doing chin-ups. 

    In a powerlifting program, the same principle applies.  Since the primary goal is getting a stronger squat, bench press, and deadlift, you’ll place more value on those three movements over any other exercise.  

    Therefore, most powerlifting workouts will start by having the first exercise being one of the three powerlifting movements.  After this first exercise, you’ll do some form of variation of the powerlifting movements.  You’ll end with a dumbbell or cable exercise that works one of the same muscle groups as the squat, bench press, or deadlift.

    1. High Intensity 

    Any powerlifting program will need to incorporate high levels of intensity in the squat, bench press, and deadlift.    

    Intensity is defined as a percentage of your 1 rep max: 

    • -  Sub-Maximal Intensity: Less than 50% of 1RM
    • - Low intensity: 50-65% of 1RM
    • - Moderate intensity: 65-85% of 1RM
    • - High intensity: 85-100% of 1RM

    When you expose yourself to high-intensity training, your brain tells your muscles to fire every single motor unit all at once in order to meet the necessary loading demand. As a result, you become more proficient at producing maximum force, which will allow you to lift more weight over time. 

    High-intensity training needs to be used sparingly though.  This is because it's more demanding on the body.  Therefore, most powerlifting programs use what’s called a ‘top set’ and ‘back off set’ approach.  

    This is where you begin the workout by building to 1-3 heavy sets.  These are your ‘top sets’.  They are performed first in the exercise order when fatigue is at a minimum.  The top sets are then followed by 1-3 ‘back off sets’ that fall within the ‘moderate intensity’ zone.  This is where you can accumulate more volume that helps build muscle and reinforce proper technique.  


    1. Focus on “Weak Points”

    Most powerlifting programs will incorporate exercises that improve weak points within the range of motion.

    To analyze where you’re weak within the movement, segment your lifts into ‘bottom’, ‘mid’ and ‘top-end’ ranges.  Then, determine where within those ranges you have a sticking point.  This is usually determined by where you fail under heavier loads. 

    For example, in the bench press, do you fail just off your chest, at lock-out, or somewhere in between?  

    Based on this analysis, you can begin to program exercise to help build strength in those lagging ranges of motion.  If you fail off the chest in the bench press, it may mean that you have weaker pec muscles.  If you fail at lockout, it may mean that you have weaker triceps.  As a result, you can implement bench press accessories that prioritize those muscle groups. 

    1. Block Periodization 

    Powerlifting programs generally follow a “block periodization” model.

    Periodization refers to the strategic implementation of specific training phases.  These phases make up the ‘overall training plan’, not just an individual program.  As a result, periodization takes into account months of training, which can include several programs. 

    The concept of block periodization is that each block, usually lasting 3-6 weeks each, increases in intensity up until the point you test your 1 rep maxes.  

    The first block is called the ‘accumulation phase’, which incorporates loads between 60-75% of your 1 rep max.  

    The second block is called the ‘transmutation  phase’, which incorporates loads between 75-90% of your 1 rep max.  

    The final block is called the ‘peaking phase’, which exceeds 90% of your 1 rep max.  

    At the end of the peaking phase, you will be in an optimal position to test your maxes.  After you test, you will hopefully set new personal records, at which point the block periodization repeats itself with higher baseline numbers. 


    1. Recovery

    All powerlifting programs will incorporate many recovery elements so that lifters continue to progress without risking burn-out or injury.  

    One way that recovery is managed is through the idea of ‘progressive overload’.  This means that training variables slowly build up over time, either through the number of sets, reps, or load. 

    For example, on week 1 of a powerlifting program, you might start at 80%.  Then, on week 2, build to 82%.  This would be a slow and steady progressive overload.  You would never aim to progress rapidly, such as jumping from 80% to 90% from one week to the next. 

    Another way that recovery is managed is through the training split itself.  There will always be an optimal number of squat, bench press, and deadlift sessions throughout the week, which limit the amount of fatigue that you carry from one workout to another.  

    For example, you would rarely, if ever, perform a heavy deadlift one day, followed by a heavy squat day the next.  If you do perform deadlifts and squats back-to-back, one of those workouts would usually include lighter weights.

    Outside the gym, several powerlifters use Electric Muscle Stimulation (EMS), which is a tool like PowerDot that increases blood flow and circulation, which wards off inflammation. This helps lifters reduce muscle soreness and recover more quickly between workouts.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    I commonly get questions around the differences between a beginner and intermediate powerlifting program.  

    The elements discussed previously are still used whether it’s a beginner or intermediate powerlifting program; however, the difference usually lies in how many times per week they do the powerlifting movements and how many sets per exercise is programmed.  

    What Does A Beginner Powerlifting Program Look Like? 

    A beginner powerlifting program will usually incorporate a lower frequency of the powerlifting movements.  For example, as a beginner, you would only be expected to squat, bench press, and deadlift 1-2 times/week.  As well, the amount of volume that you do will be lower, usually only incorporating 3-5 sets per powerlifting movement.  

    What Does An Intermediate Powerlifting Program Look Like? 

    Intermediate-level powerlifters will increase their squat and bench press frequency, but typically leaving their deadlift frequency alone.  Therefore, an intermediate powerlifting program will have lifters squat and bench press 2-4 times/week, while still deadlifting 1-2 times/week.  As well, intermediate powerlifting programs will have increased levels of volume, with upwards of 6-10 sets per powerlifting movement.   


    Final Thoughts

    Powerlifting programs need to have a high level of specificity, with most of the exercises programmed involving the squat, bench press, and deadlift, and their close variations.  As well, powerlifters need to lift with high-intensity and address their weaknesses within their range of motion.  Important elements of the powerlifting program also include how they progress from one block to the next and how they manage their recovery.  

    About The Author

    Avi Silverberg holds a Maser’s of Science Degree in Exercise Science with a research focus on powerlifting training.  He’s been the Head Coach for Team Canada Powerlifting since 2012.  As an athlete, his claim to fame was always his bench press, competing at the World Bench Press Championships on three occasions and winning a bronze medal in 2010.

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