10 Sep 2019

How to Design a Powerlifting Program

Fitness and workout advice

Ok for those not in the know from the get-go, let’s differentiate powerlifting from weight lifting, as they are two different sports, however with similarities in training objectives and operations on competition day. 

Powerlifting is a strength sport where you are judged on three lifts, the squat, bench press, and deadlift. You have three attempts to lift the most amount of weight. The winner of the competition in their respective weight categories is the one who over the three lifts accumulated the highest total combined weight amongst their three best lifts for each movement. 

Weightlifting, on the other hand, is more widely seen in the Olympics. Weightlifting also requires strength; however, power is more important, which is not the case for powerlifting. The naming of the sport can be a little misleading for this reason. There are only two lifts in weightlifting, the snatch and the clean and jerk. Both are overhead movements not seen in powerlifting. Weightlifting is also judged the same way on competition day, three attempts per lift and whoever has the highest total amount of weight lifted in the winner.

Program designs for powerlifting need to focus on reps and sets to increase max strength both in the upper and lower body. Like any training you should do a pre-exercise screening appraisal to:

  • Find your starting point,

  • Set a realistic goal

  • Find the appropriate amount of training days

  • Determine the style of training

  • Identify any postural abnormalities that may affect your technique

In the initial pre-screen conducting testing to obtain your 1RM in all the lifts is a must

  • Bench press

  • Squat

  • Deadlift

From this point when you retest periodically, you can determine the success of your exercise selection and program design. It is all about improving your 1RM. Having said that, you should not test your 1RM every week. Now, again, everybody is different so some people will be able to train at 100% more often than others. Incorporating heavy singles into your routine is more than okay, but avoid trying to hit 100% of your 1RM every session. This is how so many people hurt themselves or burn out too early.  

A challenge of writing an article of this nature is addressing as many of the important factors as possible. Especially for those new to powerlifting and, or have recently started a formal powerlifting program of their own. A point I have raised with all of my students and clients over the years is; if you want to train a specific way, then go and train with that specific coach. For example if you want to learn how to punch and box correctly then go and join a boxing gym and get a boxing coach/or PT who has a fighting background. So as you are reading this article and getting tips to maybe write or source your own powerlifting program, as this is a specific type of sport, you would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t go and seek the advice of a powerlifting coach.

There are many ways to periodise your strength-training program such as linear, undulating, and block programs. Each method is specifically designed to increase strength and to allow the body time to adapt and grow stronger. Programs of this nature require patience as strength is the long-term goal. This is one of the most technically demanding sports one could pursue. Like golf, or motorsport, technique is king and the proper technique must be employed at all times for success. Technique for this type of training requires time to master making this a cornerstone of the sport. As the correct technique is achieved increases in strength will be mirrored.

Attention needs to be paid to exercise selection, as many people are drawn to bodybuilding-style programs where isolation exercises such as Triceps extensions are performed with high reps per set. Powerlifting programs do not require this type of emphasis on singular muscle groups. Considering the big three lifts that makeup powerlifting, any program worth its salt should revolve around compound movements. Anything that recruits multiple muscle groups to move as much weight as possible is the goal. 

So let's look at the other elements of an exercise program for powerlifters:

Rest periods:

Need to be longer in nature ranging from 2-3 minutes on average, however near-maximum effort lifts may require longer periods than this. The reason for this is you require time for the energy system being targeted (Anaerobic Alactic) to replenish its fuel source. Each set requires almost full recovery so that maximal effort can be performed.

Exercise Selection:

As mentioned previously the three lifts for competition are the bench press, squat, and deadlift. You can imagine these, and variations of would form the foundation of your programming along with other exercises to target the muscle groups involved in these movements. Variations of these lifts and exercises that address all muscle groups within these three exercises should be programmed

Here are a range of exercises you can select to provide variation.

  • Rack Pulls

  • Front Squats

  • Pause Squats

  • Box Squats

  • Spoto Bench Press

  • Romanian Deadlift/ Stiff Leg Deadlift

  • Bulgarian Split Squat

  • Dumbell Bench Press

  • Block Bench Press

  • Incline/ Decline Bench Press

  • Overhead Press

Within your training cycles paying attention to the muscles that both push and pull is a must. For example, in the bench press, it is not just the triceps and pectoral muscles that are involved in the movement. Your back, your biceps, and your shoulders are all critical elements for each stage of the lift. From the unracking of the bar to the completion of the lift, your entire upper body is being used when focusing on exercises that will strengthen and target the back muscles as well.

This will assist not only in providing good posture but will assist in supporting the agonist muscles during training and competition. Muscle balance between opposing muscle groups is also important in injury prevention.

I hope this article has assisted a little in your understanding of powerlifting and knowing what is required to enter the sport and achieve the goals you set. For a comprehensive review of other powerlifting programs, please have a read HERE - it includes 24 reviews on various powerlifting programs!

Safe lifting all!

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