Featured, Programmes, Strength

A powerlifting program for beginners

Start your powerlifting training the right way with our comprehensive 4 day strength building plan

It’s fair to say that as a newbie trainee it makes little difference whether you follow a strength focused workout plan or one more focused on muscle hypertrophy (increasing muscle size).

Provided you cover the key volume, intensity, nutrition and recovery fundamentals you’ll see great results, either way.

But as your experience grows it becomes important that your workouts better match your goals and ambitions.

For instance, there’s little point in following a powerlifting plan if what you really care about is looking great on the beach.

Conversely, if you want to compete at a powerlifting meet, there’s little point in wasting time on the vanity muscles and endlessly chasing a ‘pump’.

Even if you are relatively new to the gym, it may make sense to tailor your training to what you think you’ll want to major in further down the line. 

Or at least try out different training plans to see what you most enjoy and are therefore more likely to stick with.

To this end, we’ve set out below a basic strength focused workout plan that majors on improving the big 3 powerlifting moves. The squat, bench and deadlift.

The workout provides a great off the shelf workout plan. Or a template for you to build on as your training experience grows.

Along the way we’ll also cover some of the key differences between a strength/powerlifting focused workout and those more focused on muscle hypertrophy/bodybuilding.

Who is this workout for and why should I run it?

If you’re more into the competitive side of strength training, or just like pushing yourself to lift the most weight possible, then an out and out strength, or powerlifting, focused training plan may be for you.

The programme aims to build all over full body strength. And, in particular, better demonstrate this strength through increasing the amount you can lift across the 3 big powerlifting moves. The squat, bench and deadlift.

If you are more focused on building a body reminiscent of a Greek God, then this type of training is probably not for you.

In this case, you may be better served following a higher volume plan, such as a 4 day upper/lower split, or even a 6 day push pull legs, that is focused on building size, rather than competitive strength.

That said, most trainees, bar the more intermediate and advanced, will see both strength and size increases by following a powerlifting plan like the one set out below.

So, if you are new to the gym, running this workout will deliver great gains in both muscle size and strength.

But note that muscle hypertrophy is not the primary aim. And the overall training volume of this workout will likely be too low to truly maximise this.

This highlights one of the key differences between strength and bodybuilding workouts. 

The volume, and often the training frequency, is generally lower with a strength focused programme. 

Lower reps are also a feature, as is lifting at a higher percentage of your 1 rep maxes.

This means that even more than with bodybuilding workouts, you have to leave your ego at the door. 

It’s important you get over any macho notion of lifting more than anyone else in the gym, every training session.

Remember, no one cares how much you lift and ‘more’ isn’t always better.

It may seem counterintuitive when the focus of a plan is to lift as much weight as possible. But, when strength training, you have to be controlled and resist the urge to lift more than you can, too quickly.

You want to be an athlete and a scientist, practising, observing and tweaking to maximise your gains. Always doing what is best for you at each specific stage of your training, not what others are doing.

And to lift big you also need to master technique. 

So, again, try to resist the urge of going heavier than you should until you have your form on point.

More workout plans

Training frequency

The workout sees you hitting the gym 4 days per week, alternating between upper and lower focused sessions.

You’ll hit the squat and bench press twice per week but the deadlift just once.

The stress caused by the latter is so high that once a week is usually sufficient to see great progress. Provided it is supported by complementary accessory movements (e.g. good mornings and RDLs).

We’ve set the programme as 2 days on, 1 day off, 2 days on, 2 days off and it is highly recommended that you have at least this one day off after every 2 sessions.

So, if commencing on a Monday your training week would like look this:

  • Monday – Lower workout A
  • Tuesday – Upper workout A
  • Wednesday – Rest
  • Thursday – Lower workout B
  • Friday – Upper Workout B
  • Saturday – Rest
  • Sunday – Rest

Alternatively you could run the programme one day on, one day off.

This would mean that a full ‘cycle’ lasts 8 days, thus you’ll be working out on different days each week. You’d likely benefit from the extra rest day, but it isn’t essential.

Regardless of the approach you take, it’s important to undertake a de-load every 6-8 weeks, or sooner if your overall fatigue dictates.

During your de-load week cut your volume by 25-50%, lower the weight you shift, and/or take additional rest days out of the gym. 

This will allow you to recover and hopefully hit your next training cycle at a greater starting intensity (e.g. higher weight, volume or reps).

Try to learn to embrace de-load weeks and time out the gym. 

You do need to work at a high intensity to see great results. But your body also needs rest and recovery.

Remember, the gains occur when you are out of the gym and you don’t lose them by taking a week out once in a while.

Finally, it doesn’t matter which order you complete the workouts in. You can kick off the week with either an upper or lower session and with either of the respective workouts (A or B).

Training volume

When compared to hypertrophy training, strength training volume is generally much lower, but recovery needs can be much higher. 

It’s not just the stress on your muscles, which we want to promote, but the heightened stress on joints, tendons and your central nervous system. 

For most trainees, these stresses will be higher than with a run of the mill hypertrophy/bodybuilding plan.

To this end, you’ll see that the workouts suggest a moderate/low training volume. 

6-8 working sets per week for the squat and bench press, and just 3-4 for the deadlift. 

We’ve also marked some of the exercises in the plan as ‘optional’ to indicate that more novice trainees may not need to do these at all to see results. 

On the other hand, if you feel you can handle more volume as your training cycles progress, add them in. 

Either way, the sensible approach is to start at a lower volume level and build up based on your feel, fatigue and gym performance.

As a rough rule of thumb, if you aren’t feeling much impact from your training during and after your sessions, you could probably handle more volume. 

At the other end of the scale, if you are struggling to complete your workouts, and 2-3 weeks in are totally destroyed, then chances are you may need to dial things back a little.

A key point to remember is that you should be planning to increase your workload over time. 

The first week or 2 of a new programme should be relatively light to enable your body to get used to the new lifts, frequency and volume. 

And, importantly, to provide some headroom for you to actually increase intensity week on week.

With strength training, it is very easy to jump in at week one with too much volume, or more likely, too high a starting weight. 

The trouble with this approach is that by week 2 or 3 you struggle to complete your workouts and your lifts have plateaued leaving you nowhere to go, or at best just spinning your wheels. 

You have to work hard to see results, so don’t go too easy on yourself. But you want to start a new programme at an achievable level. 

A 7 out of 10 on the RPE effort scale is a great ballpark.

Again, you can and should increase intensity over time and can always add more weight, reps, sets. 

It feels far better to smash your workouts and see the numbers go up week to week, as opposed to having to reduce your workload after just a few weeks due to burnout.

So, start at the lower end of the sets suggested in the template and build up over time.

Rep ranges

Our goal is to safely lift as much weight as possible. Therefore, we practice and hone our skills with moderate/heavy weight for low reps as this translates to better max lifts and heavy low rep PRs.

So, the vast majority of your lifts will be in the 3-6 rep range with some accessory moves going up to 8-10 reps.

Yes, we know there is more recent research that throws some doubt on the rep range continuum, seeming to suggest that similar gains can be made regardless of the weight used, provided a similar intensity is reached.

But logic and countless real world observable results show that if you want to get good at a particular thing, you need to dedicate practice to doing said thing.

Put simply, if you want to get really good at squatting heavy, you will need to spend at least some of your time squatting heavy.

If you compete at a powerlifting meet you won’t be required to complete a 10 rep squat max, you’ll be required to complete three single rep max squats.

This doesn’t mean you need to train at 100% of your one rep maxes to see improvement, indeed you shouldn’t need to go above 90%, but you do have to train heavy.

A slight caveat regarding the accessory moves. Don’t look at the suggested rep ranges as ironclad.

If you get more feel/less discomfort with lighter weights/higher reps, great, stick with what works for you.

Exercise selection

As the goal of this programme is to build strength across the 3 powerlifting competition lifts, it makes sense that most of your time will be spent with said lifts.

The workout sees you hit the bench press and squat twice per week and the deadlift once.

The rest of the plan is built up of accessory moves that support strength development in the core lifts, e.g tricep work to support your bench, RDLs/Good mornings to support posterior chain development which supports the deadlift. etc.

Don’t take our list of accessory moves as gospel, however. If something doesn’t work for you then change it up. E.g. If tricep extension type movements destroy your elbows, try more dips instead.

And feel free to mix up your accessory exercises every few weeks to keep things fresh. But do replace like for like as far as you can. I.e. you want accessory moves that support the development of your major lifts.

We have included a few ‘optional’ exercises on the lower days. Depending on your goals and progress you may not need to utilise these.

If you see gains just performing the core lifts, great, stick with this. If you need more volume or are looking to complete a bit more of a strength/hypertrophy hybrid workout, add in the additional lower exercises.

woman deadlifting
The programme is built around the big powerlifting moves, including the deadlift

Wait, no bicep curls?!

See above.

But if you really want to add in some additional vanity moves you can. 6-8 dedicated bicep sets per week will not impact your overall fatigue too much. The same goes for any direct ab work.

You can either add the curls onto one of your lower days, as they are slightly lower volume, or complete after you back work on an upper day.

Lifting technique

As with all forms of resistance training, measured controlled lifting is the order of the day.

And as you’ll be shifting heavy weights, it’s even more important that your technique is on point.

If you can, spend some time with a reputable strength coach who can show you the ropes and pick up on any glaring errors with your competition lifts.

At the very least take a look at some reputable YouTube technique videos. YouTube bigwig Jeff Nippard has a great series covering the main compound lifts.

Videoing your lifts is also a very effective way to pick up on any weakness in your technique.

When it comes to strength training you also want to have an eye on force generation, particularly for your competition lifts.

To help improve this, take a 1-2 second pause at the bottom of each lift to remove all momentum and then look to explode upwards through the concentric part of each rep before slowly lowering the bar back down for another rep. 

Warm up and warm up sets

Get into the habit of completing a 10-15 minute warm up prior to the heavy lifting.

A 10 minute light intensity cardio spell followed by 5 minutes of dynamic stretching is ideal (save the static stretching for after your workouts, or do them on separate days).

Rowing, biking, incline walk, running are all great, anything to raise your heart rate and increase the blood flow around your body.

It’s also important to make use of warm-up sets, particularly when you are going heavy.

Before your working sets for each exercise, complete 2-3 lighter weight sets, increasing the weight as you go.

This will help ‘oil the groove’ both preparing you for the hard working sets ahead.

There is no perfect number of warm-up sets and you’ll have to learn what works best for you. Balancing the need to warm up with the need to maintain energy for your working sets.

As with your general warm-up, however, don’t go overboard on the number of sets and reps. You should be saving your energy for your working sets.

It varies by individual, but 2-4 sets with gradually increasing weight should be sufficient for most training sessions.

If you are going super heavy you may need a couple more. In this case, stick to very low reps (1-2) for the latter sets to help prep your central nervous system but not burn you out.

Program progression

You should plan your training in 6-8 week blocks, increasing intensity week to week.

An increase in intensity could be via increased reps, sets or weight, for one or more lifts.

As with any new workout plan, you should start at a moderate intensity for the first 1-2 weeks and build up slowly over time.

7 out of 10 on the RPE scale is a sensible ballpark for your first week.

Starting at a moderate intensity is especially important with a more powerlifting focused workout such as this.

It’s all too easy to start too hard, usually with too high a weight on your key lifts, and after just 3-4 weeks hit a wall.

You do have to work hard in the gym to see results, so don’t sell yourself short. But remember that you want headroom to increase your workload over time.

Finding your starting weight

The workout templates below included suggested weight ranges for the key lifts. 

These are set out as a percentage of your one rep max for a given lift.

If you already have an accurate one rep max, great, you are good to go. 

If you don’t, then you can take a week before you start your plan to test them all individually.

Alternatively, particularly if newer to the gym, you can work up to a weight that hits the 7 out of 10 on the effort scale for the suggested sets and reps and build from there over the following weeks.

This isn’t the most accurate way to go. But as the plan will see you increase your workload over time it isn’t the end of the world if you’ve undercooked it a little for the first few weeks.

Increasing intensity

The programme is set up using an undulating periodisation approach. This is just a fancy way of saying that the amount you lift changes each session, for each of the competition lifts.

For example, in the first lower session you’ll squat in the 3-4 rep range and the 2nd in the 5-6 rep range, thus with a slightly lower weight.

Your goal is to work harder week on week, whether that be via an extra rep or extra weight. 

Simply record what you did in session and, if you can, do a bit more the following week.

A simple approach is to keep the reps the same but increase the weight.

Using the squat as an example your progress may look like this –

Week 1  – 3 sets of 3 reps @100kg

Week 2 – 3 sets of 3 reps @102.5kg

Week 3  – 3 seat of 3 reps @105kg

Week 4 – 3 sets of 3 reps @ 107.5kg

…..and so on to the end of your cycle.

Your second squat session of the week would follow a similar pattern but at 5/6 reps and thus a more moderate weight.

If you can progress your lifts in this fashion, great, keep increasing the weight throughout your cycle where you can.

If this process doesn’t work or stalls, however, you can employ a double linear progression. This sees you change up your reps between sessions and alter the weight accordingly.

This is likely a better approach for more advanced lifters.

Again, taking the squat as an example your week to week progression may look like this

Week 1 – 3 sets of 4 reps @100kg

Week 2 – 3 sets of 5 reps @100kg

Week 3 – 3 sets of 4 reps @105kg

Week 4 – 3 sets of 5 reps @105kg

…..and so on as your training cycle progresses.

Rather than just increasing the weight week to week, you’re instead alternating between increases in weight and increases in reps.

You are still increasing intensity but in smaller, more manageable steps.

This may help you progress as you approach the margins of what you can lift.

The process for your accessory lifts is more straightforward.

Just work 1-2 reps short of failure (or 8/9 RPE) and increase reps or weight where you can, staying around the rep ranges suggested.

De-load weeks

After each 6-8 week cycle it is important to take a de-load week. 

This sees you cut your volume by 25-50%, drop the weight, and/or take additional rest days out of the gym.

This down-time will allow your body to fully recover and prepare you for the next 6-8 week cycle at a hopefully increased starting intensity, with higher starting volume and/or weights for one or more exercises.

As long as you are seeing gains in the weight you can lift you can repeat the cycles for at least 9-12 months, if not longer.

If you feel you are hitting a plateau and you can’t add more weight and/or feel your muscle growth has stalled, increase the volume, switch up some of your exercises or move to an alternative programme.

Racoon sleeping in a tree
Recovery time out the gym is important, so learn to love de-load weeks and rest days

Rest and recovery

For your body to do the actual “growing bigger and stronger” part, it needs to be allowed sufficient rest and nutrition for the recovery to take place. 

Studies show a significant part of muscle recovery and growth occurs while you are sleeping. 

So, make sure you are getting that magic 7-8 hours sleep per night and find a sleep routine that works best for you.

Giving your body adequate time to recover is even more essential with out and out strength training than it is with more general bodybuilding or fitness related resistance training.

So, while you can add in some light/moderate cardio 2-4 times per week if you want too, be aware that it will potentially be sapping energy from your workouts and thus slowing/hampering your progress.

Flexibility/mobility work

Book into a regular class at your gym or get online and find a whole-body stretch and flexibility routine you can do at home.

Dedicating just 15-20 minutes a day to improving your mobility and flexibility will pay huge dividends now and in the future. This becomes even more essential as you become more trained and hit your later years.

For maximum gains, health and longevity you should look at mobility and flexibility as an essential part of your training.

Note your mobility work is best done separately from your workout and you shouldn’t static stretch before a workout (cardio and dynamic movements / warm-up sets are better).

Nutrition

As important as the hard graft you put into the gym is, it will all be for nothing if you don’t work equally as hard on your nutrition. 

The amount you eat and what you eat are important.

This means tracking what you eat and knowing your target daily calorie count to ensure you are fueling enough to workout and grow (just 200-400 extra calories per day above your TDEE is sufficient) or, conversely, not over eating and putting on excess fat. 

fruit and veg
When building muscle, the amount you eat and what you eat matters

Stick to natural whole foods and meals you prepare yourself and ensure you are consuming adequate protein to facilitate muscle growth. 

The tried and true benchmark of approximately 1g of protein for every lb of bodyweight is a sensible ballpark. 

It’s a good idea to aim to consume a decent portion of your protein (30-40g) post exercise, within an hour or two, as studies show this helps with recovery. 

But don’t get too hung up on meal timings. The main goal is ensuring adequate calorie and protein intake over a 24 hour period. 

Remember to drink water when you are thirsty and aim to down at least 6-8 glasses (1.2 -1.5 litres) per day.

Due to the high demands of a strength training programme such as this, it is recommended you remain in a calorie surplus while running it. Your mileage may vary, but it’ll be a struggle to see decent and consistent improvement while in a caloric deficit/on a cut

For more in depth nutritional information for muscle growth, take a look at our long read on nutrition for muscle growth.

Workout templates

Day 1 - Lower workout A

Exercise

Sets

Reps

% of 1RM

A

Back Squat

4

3-4

80-85

Take as wide a stance as you need to squat to proper depth (thighs to parallel or slightly lower). Point your toes out 30-40 degrees and sit back and down with your knees moving out laterally

B

Romanian Dead Lift

3

5-6

65-75

Initiate the movement by pushing your hips backwards. Keep your chest up with a neutral neck and maintain a slight bend at your knees

C

Leg Press (optional)

2-3

8-10

A flat or incline machine is fine. Drive each rep through your heels

D

Leg Curl (optional)

2-3

8-10

Flex your toes up towards your shins. This helps to limit calf involvement and forces the hamstrings to work harder.

Day 1 - Lower workout A

Exercise

Sets

Reps

% of 1RM

A

Back Squat

4

3-4

80-85

Take as wide a stance as you need to squat to proper depth (thighs to parallel or slightly lower). Point your toes out 30-40 degrees and sit back and down with your knees moving out laterally.

B

Romanian Dead Lift

3

5-6

65-75

Initiate the movement by pushing your hips backwards. Keep your chest up with a neutral neck and maintain a slight bend at your knees.

C

Leg Press (optional)

2-3

8-10

A flat or incline machine is fine. Drive each rep through your heels.

D

Leg Curl (optional)

2-3

8-10

Flex your toes up towards your shins. This helps to limit calf involvement and forces the hamstrings to work harder.

Day 2 - Upper workout A

Exercise

Sets

Reps

% of 1RM

A

Flat Bench Press

3-4

3-4

80-85

Keep your shoulder blades retracted and down. Tuck your elbows at 45 degrees and imagine pushing your body away from the bar each rep. Pause at the bottom of each rep, with the bar on your chest, for a 1-2 count.

B

Narrow Grip Bench Press

2-3

5-6

65-75

Take a shoulder width grip and keep your shoulder blades retracted and down. Tuck your elbows at 45 degrees. Pause at the bottom of each rep, with the bar on your chest, for a 1-2 count.

C

Barbell Row

4

5-10

Bend at the hips with your torso just above parallel, pull the bar to your lower abdomen by driving your elbows backwards. Pinch your shoulder blades together at the top of each rep.

D

Barbell Skull Crusher

2-3

5-10

Lay on a bench and grip the bar with an overhand, shoulder width grip. Keeping your upper arms fixed, perpendicular to the ground, slowly lower the bar to your forehead, pause then return to the starting position.

E

DB Side Lateral Raise

4

5-10

Focus on squeezing your side/middle deltoids to initiate the movement, keep the dumbbells flat/parallel with the ground throughout each rep with a slight bend at your elbow.

Day 2 - Upper workout A

Exercise

Sets

Reps

% of 1RM

A

Flat Bench Press

3-4

3-4

80-85

Keep your shoulder blades retracted and down. Tuck your elbows at 45 degrees and imagine pushing your body away from the bar each rep. Pause at the bottom of each rep, with the bar on your chest, for a 1-2 count.

B

Narrow Grip Bench Press

2-3

5-6

65-75

Take a shoulder width grip and keep your shoulder blades retracted and down. Tuck your elbows at 45 degrees. Pause at the bottom of each rep, with the bar on your chest, for a 1-2 count.

C

Barbell Row

4

5-10

Bend at the hips with your torso just above parallel, pull the bar to your lower abdomen by driving your elbows backwards. Pinch your shoulder blades together at the top of each rep.

D

Barbell Skull Crusher

2-3

5-10

Lay on a bench and grip the bar with an overhand, shoulder width grip. Keeping your upper arms fixed, perpendicular to the ground, slowly lower the bar to your forehead, pause then return to the starting position.

E

DB Side Lateral Raise

4

5-10

Focus on squeezing your side/middle deltoids to initiate the movement, keep the dumbbells flat/parallel with the ground throughout each rep with a slight bend at your elbow.

Day 3 - Rest

Day 4 - Lower workout B

Exercise

Sets

Reps

% of 1RM

A

Deadlift

3

3-4

80-85

Use you preferred competition stance. Bar over mid foot. Keep your chest up, brace your lats and pull the slack out of the bar prior to each rep.

B

Barbell Good Morning

3

5-6

65-75

Initiate the movement by pushing your hips backwards, maintain a slight bend at your knees. Push out the bottom of each rep by driving your hips forwards.

C

Back Squat

4

5-6

65-75

Take as wide a stance as you need to squat to proper depth (thighs to parallel or slightly lower). Point your toes out at 30-40 degrees and sit back and down with your knees moving out laterally, tracking the same angle as your toes.

D

Lunges (optional)

2-3

10-12 (each leg)

Set your feet hip width apart, keep your pelvis neutral, your chest lifted, and your torso upright. Take a big enough step forward so your front shin is vertical. Drive out of the lunge from your front heel.

Day 4 - Lower workout B

Exercise

Sets

Reps

% of 1RM

A

Deadlift

3

3-4

80-85

Use you preferred competition stance. Bar over mid foot. Keep your chest up, brace your lats and pull the slack out of the bar prior to each rep.

B

Barbell Good Morning

3

5-6

65-75

Initiate the movement by pushing your hips backwards, maintain a slight bend at your knees. Push out the bottom of each rep by driving your hips forwards.

C

Back Squat

4

5-6

65-75

Take as wide a stance as you need to squat to proper depth (thighs to parallel or slightly lower). Point your toes out at 30-40 degrees and sit back and down with your knees moving out laterally, tracking the same angle as your toes.

D

Lunges (optional)

2-3

10-12

Set your feet hip width apart, keep your pelvis neutral, your chest lifted, and your torso upright. Take a big enough step forward so your front shin is vertical. Drive out of the lunge from your front heel.

Day 5 - Upper workout B

Exercise

Sets

Reps

% of 1RM

A

Flat Bench Press

3-4

5-6

65-75

Keep your shoulder blades retracted and down. Tuck your elbows at 45 degrees and imagine pushing your body away from the bar each rep. Pause at the bottom of each rep, with the bar on your chest, for a 1-2 count.

B

Incline Bench Press

2-3

5-6

65-75

Keep your shoulders blades retracted and down.  Imagine trying to bend the bar towards your body as you perform each rep.

C

Weighted Pull Up

4

5-10

Take a shoulder width grip and think about pulling your chest up to the bar. Add weight via a belt, as needed.

D

Dips

3-4

5-10

Keep your shoulders back and down. Lower until your shoulders are below your elbows, then straighten your arms to raise back up.Add weight via a belt, as needed.

E

Kneeling Cable Face Pull

4

5-10

Use a pulley machine with a neutral, overhand grip (your thumbs should point back behind you).

Day 5 - Upper workout B

Exercise

Sets

Reps

% of 1RM

A

Flat Bench Press

3-4

5-6

65-75

Keep your shoulder blades retracted and down. Tuck your elbows at 45 degrees and imagine pushing your body away from the bar each rep. Pause at the bottom of each rep, with the bar on your chest, for a 1-2 count.

B

Incline Bench Press

2-3

5-6

65-75

Keep your shoulders blades retracted and down.  Imagine trying to bend the bar towards your body as you perform each rep.

C

Weighted Pull Up

4

5-10

Take a shoulder width grip and think about pulling your chest up to the bar. Add weight via a belt, as needed.

D

Dips

3-4

5-10

Keep your shoulders back and down. Lower until your shoulders are below your elbows, then straighten your arms to raise back up.Add weight via a belt, as needed.

E

Kneeling Cable Face Pull

4

5-10

Use a pulley machine with a neutral, overhand grip (your thumbs should point back behind you).

Day 6 - Rest

Day 7 - Rest

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Size Guide

Measure around the fullest part of your chest – keep the tape measure close under the arms

Size

Chest – Inches

Chest – CM

Small

31 – 34

78.7 – 86.4

Medium

35 – 38

88.9 – 96.5

Large

39 – 41

99.1 – 104.1

X-Large

42 – 45

106.7 – 114.3

2X-Large

46-48

116.8 – 121.9

Size

Chest – Inches

Small

31 – 34

Medium

35 – 38

Large

39 – 41

X-Large

42 – 45

2X-Large

46-48

Point Blank