By Chris Manrodt
just getting started in Powerlifting? Have you heard about lifting but
aren't sure what it really is? Are you interested in playing a sport, but
need to get bigger, stronger, or both to crack the starting line-up? This
section of the Strength On-line Page is devoted to helping the beginner.
A lot of the lifting information out there is written for folks who compete
regularly in Powerlifting meets, or who have a several years of lifting
experience. I will attempt to make this column humorous and interesting
as I try to shed light on the basics of successful, injury free lifting.
The advertising slogan: “Champions
are made in the off-season,” probably holds true in Powerlifting more than
just about any other sport. While many of the sport’s top competitors are
naturally strong, none of them would even qualify without countless hours
in the gym. Powerlifting is a sport where hard work translates into success
more than raw talent or athletic prowess. If you look back into the historic
records of Champion lifters, you see that their Junior totals don’t even
come close to the record lifts later in their careers. Power is not bestowed
or given. It is earned.
If you have spent any time reading or talking to
lifters about training, you will realize that there are more powerlifting
routines than there are lifters, because nearly every lifter will design
his or her routine, then modify it, and then scrap it for something else.
Some will do this between each and every meet. The wiser lifters will tell
you that no matter what methods, philosophies, or scientific research there
is behind a workout, you must review
it and customize it.
Before I list out some of my favorite workouts,
let me cover a couple of basic tactics:
Always keep a training log. Write down every
exercise, every set, every rep, including all your warm-ups, and even notes
like: “Played softball yesterday. Knee still hurts from running the bases.”
The old saying goes, “If we do not study our history, we are doomed to
repeat it.” If you write down all your efforts, you can see clearly what
worked, what didn’t, and what left you injured and cursing. Example: I
recently had some trouble getting a training effect in my triceps. I opened
up my filing cabinet and went over some training logs I wrote way back
in 1995. I discovered that in an 8-week period, I added about thirty pounds
to my 5 rep max for bench by doing burnout sets of close grip bench press
after my regular bench work, before isolating the triceps. Guess what I
added to my last bench workout? My training partner gets much less effect
from close grips, but has made big gains by doing skull crusher supersets.
How do we know what works for us? We wrote it down.
Be patient. In my opinion, the shortest amount
of time you can spend on a routine is eight weeks before evaluating it.
If after two weeks you see nothing, maybe make some small modifications.
But give it some time. Most of the big boys plan out their workouts in
16 week cycles or more. Fred “Dr. Squat” Hatfield’s workout plans
seem to forecast into years. It takes time to build muscle. It also takes
time to figure out how to do a routine correctly. It can take a few weeks
just to understand how individual workout days flow together into a complete
The devil is in the details. Many lifting articles
will provide an outline of the overall structure, usually on a one-week
level, and then on an 8-16 week calendar. These articles tend to describe
the science or simple logic behind the training method, and then draw out
a basic schedule. But in reality, one lifter may really excel with a given
routine, while another flounders. Subtle differences in training that the
author never mentioned often bear the blame. Details like exercise order,
rest between sets, days off, equipment use, time of day, or even when you
eat after a lift: All these can really alter the benefits of a routine.
Keep track of these details so they are constants in your training. Don’t
let them become variables that you failed to account for.
There are no quick fixes. If you haven’t noticed
already, I believe that most training techniques are discovered by experimentation,
and by listening to your body. Research is helpful, and so are other people’s
workouts. But you cannot expect that following routines word-for-word for
USAPL Champion Ray Benemerito will eventually lead you to his 700+ deadlift.
You may have different leverages, different strengths/weaknesses,
or different metabolism. It takes time to figure all that stuff out, and
you have to adapt your routines accordingly. There is a reason that the
Junior level extends until your 24th birthday.
The Bill Starr Power Routine
I was a freshman in college, Bill Starr gave me this routine to follow.
It was designed for off-season football and general strength training.
In the first 16 weeks I was on it, I added about 35 pounds of bodyweight,
and took my total from a paltry 600 to over 950. Of course, I was also
on the dorm’s prepaid meal plan, and ate like it was going out of style.
Plus, I only had four classes that semester, so I spent lots of time sleeping.
|Monday – Heavy Day
||Wednesday – Light Day
||Friday - Medium
|Squat – 5 sets of 5
Bench – 5 sets of 5
Powercleans – 5 sets of 5
2 sets of weighted hypers
4 sets of weighted Sit-ups
|Squat – 4 sets of 5
Incline Bench – 4 sets of 5
High Pulls – 4 sets of 5
Sit-ups – 3 sets
|Squat – 4 sets of 5, 1 triple, back-off
Bench – 4 sets of 5, 1 triple, back-off
Powercleans – 4 sets of 5, 1 triple
Weighted Dips – 3 sets of 5-8
Triceps and Biceps – 3 sets of 8 each
On Monday, the weight for each lift is increased on
each set of 5, from a light warm-up to an all out set of 5. For squats,
something like 135x5, 185x5, 225x5, 275x5, 315x5. The weight should be
increased evenly from your first to last set. If you are working up to
bigger weights, say above 500, you can add a sixth set of 5 just to avoid
making large jumps between sets. I’ll explain how to choose the top weight
in a second…
On light day, Squat the first 3 sets of 5 just as
you did on Monday, and then do a fourth set of 5 with the weight used on
the third set. An extra fifth set at this same weight can be added. Incline
bench is done using the same scheme, working up to 2-3 sets of 5, but with
about 70-80% of the weight flat bench, to accommodate the leverage difference
of the incline. High Pulls are done by feel, but usually pretty heavy.
On Friday, the first four sets are the same as they
were on Monday. The fifth set, done for three reps, should be a jump of
about 2.5% over what you did for your fifth set on Monday. As you become
more experienced with the system, you can experiment with the weight you
use on this triple. This should NOT be a PR triple attempt every week.
In fact, the goal is to come back the following Monday and get the same
weight for 5 reps that you got for 3 reps the Friday before. To avoid missing
reps, pick weights carefully. Take it easy the first few weeks, and don’t
over do it. After the big triple, drop back to the weight you used for
your 3rd set and try to get eight reps.
Deadlifts, or Speed Deadlifts can be substituted with
Powercleans if you so desire. Powercleans are pretty popular among football
players for working on explosiveness. They are not as specific for the
powerlifter, but they can add strength to your traps and shoulders as well
as thicken up your back. They can also improve speed-strength.
I always trained with three to five guys on a single
bar. The rest time between sets was helpful for making an all out assault
on that top set. I also used no gear except a belt, which we used only
for squats and powercleans. Some guys used grip straps on powercleans or
high pulls when attempting heavy 5’s and 3’s.
The dips, bi’s and tri’s are what Bill called “Beach
Work,” in that they tend to have a bigger cosmetic effect than squats or
deads. The scheme for these varied by need and based on what I thought
my weaknesses were. I went very heavy on the dips, for sets of 5, to help
build up my triceps. Other guys did closegrips, or even added in some rowing
movements for the lats. No matter what you pick, try and move quickly though
this stuff, like one minute rests max.
Some research shows that full body workouts tend to
stimulate more hormone production than isolation workouts.
Focus on the big three can help with developing
good exercise technique for the beginner, and the weekly goal setting from
Friday to Monday helps keep you motivated.
The program is relatively simple, and easy to follow.
If you can figure out how to pick your weights, then this can be a very
effective program. By starting out with less than max poundage, you can
work on form, and build good habits as you increase the weight. You
also choose weight week-to-week by feel, instead of calculating reps and
sets way in advance.
Not a lot of exercise variety.
Some people find training the Big three more than
once per week to be too taxing, but the total volume is actually
not that high because there is not much focus on assistance exercises.
This method is good for muscle growth and strength,
but may not be as effective if you are trying to lose weight, or maintain
a weight class.
Beginners that are still learning how to squat and
bench effectively. If you are new to free weights or to lifting in general,
this is a good way to spend a lot of time with real iron learning the basics,
because you can start off slowly and train each core lift more frequently.
Lifters trying to gain both size and strength, who
want to add to their core of muscle mass. If you stick with this for more
than 12 weeks, you will make muscle gains if you keep up with food and
Big 3 Split Routine Training
used this type of routine for many meets over the last few years, and seems
to be the bread and butter type for many lifters, from novice to elite
level. I have read some routines based on this method by Ed Coan out on
the web, but many others have put out published variations as well.
|Monday – Squat
||Thursday – Bench
||Friday – Deadlift
|Squat, 3 warm-up sets, then 2 work sets
Good Mornings 2 x 8-10
Leg Press 2 x 8-10
Leg Curls 4 x 8-10
Sit-ups 3 sets
|Bench, 3 warm-up sets, then 2 work sets
Close Grip Bench 2 x 8-10
DB Inclines 2 x 8-10
Triceps Extensions 4 x 10
DB Lateral Raises 2 x 12
| *Deadlift – Warm-up, then 1 work set
Supported Rows 4 x 8
Shrugs 2 x 8-12
Hammer Curls 4 x 10
The work-sets for the big three are planned out over
8 to 12 weeks, in a method called periodization. The first two weeks are
usually at a lighter weight, for sets of 8 or 10. Then, as you move through
the cycle, the weight is increased, and the reps are decreased. The idea
is that by the end of the cycle you are going for an all-out PR triple
or double, in preparation for a meet. There are plenty of examples of peaking
cycles on the web. Jackyls
Gym has a web interface that will calculate one for you, based
on an eight-week cycle, or on a longer cycle based on Ed
Coan’s workout videos.
The remainder of the each workout is focused on “Assistance”
exercises, which develop component muscles in each of the core lift. So
after squats, you train the glutes, quads, and hams. After bench, focus
on the triceps, pecs, and front delts from different angles. After deadlifts,
work the lats, traps, spinal erectors and grip.
As the weights get heavier, and you get closer to
the end of the cycle, the assistance work changes from sets of 8 to 10
down to sets of 4 to 6 reps. Most assistance is dropped on the day when
you go for your biggest weights, 2 weeks before the meet. Then take a week
off before competing to rest and recover.
Pick all your assistance exercises based on feel,
and based on perceived weaknesses. The movements listed above are just
common examples for reference. Some believe that assistance exercises should
be rotated periodically, like very 3-4 weeks, to prevent boredom and to
help focus on different weaknesses.
Some lifters do deadlifts every other week, because
they tend to over-train their lower back when deadlifting every week.
Helps a lifter get used to big weights as they approach
the meet. This “peaking” cycle can really help the lifter get prepared
for big singles by training form under heavy loads, and getting used to
how to set-up, etc.
The split routine allows a lifter to focus on one
lift for a given workout, and then focus on building up supporting strength
for each lift. For example, if your triceps are weak, do more triceps.
Or, if you have trouble staying stable under heavy squats, spend more time
There is a lot of versatility for training days. For
example, you can switch the order of the bench and deadlift days, and then
add a second bench day on Tuesday. Lifters who have done this like the
second workout to train triceps and delts.
The program is relatively simple, and has been used
by many, many lifters with good success. It is easier to exchange info
with other lifters who train the same way, and this program has been around
a long time.
Training goals can still be met even if your schedule
requires flexibility. If you know you are going to a bachelor party, and
aren’t going to get a lot of sleep the night after deadlifts, then you
can do the core deadlifts, but do a minimum of assistance. You can also
rearrange the lifting days: Mon-Tue-Thu, Mon-Wed-Fri, Mon-Wed-Thu,
Tue-Thu-Fri, etc. as your schedule allows. One rule: Put three days between
the Squats and Deads. Just about anything else can be shifted around and
still work because you are only training each lift once per week. For example,
when I was doing a lot of business travel, I found it easier to sneak in
workouts on this program because I had some room to maneuver.
The heavy loads during the last four weeks of a cycle
can sometimes cause a lifter to feel “stale” or “over-trained.” At the
meet, you may not be fresh. There is also a tendency among beginners to
try for weights they can’t handle those last few weeks. Once they bomb
in the gym, it is hard to rebuild confidence for the platform.
Training sessions require that you to concentrate
on explosiveness. There is no inherent emphasis or focus on speed strength
in this program. If you train with using all smooth, continuous-tension
style reps, this program quickly degenerates into a bodybuilding split
routine. I have observed some big lifters using this method, and instead
of doing specific exercises for speed strength, they train every set, every
rep as a speed strength exercise. You cannot really train this way until
you are comfortable enough with the movements that you won’t injure yourself
doing movements with explosive forcefulness.
By staying with the same assistance throughout a long
period of time, one tends to get really strong in some areas, and neglect
others. Adding and changing lifts is important, but may be difficult to
map out as one shifts from high reps sets down to triples over the course
of a cycle.
I have found that my form will change when I do high
reps, versus my form for max lifts. In the past, I have felt like I was
getting real strong doing 10’s, 8’s and 6’s, and then when I move up to
triples, my form is different and I am not any stronger than I was before
I started the cycle.
To avoid drifts in form, here’s a technique
I learned from Brad Gillingham: Before doing high rep worksets during the
cycle, throw in a meet-like single or two with a weight above 85%. This
is not a workset. It is a warm-up that helps the motor cortex remember
what a max lift should feel like. Then train the worksets using the same
form as you used on the single. For squats, I did this maybe once a month
or so, just to check my balance. For bench, I was doing it every other
I have a persistent problem with high reps, where
the bottom position slides up toward my chin as I train. My levers dictate
that I do max lifts from a lower start position, but for some reason I
wasn’t training that way. This is not something to add every week though,
because the nervous system starts to react negatively to this kind of overload,
and both form and max poundage will degrade over time.
Here’s an example from my training logs:
Last year, I did a 10 week periodization cycle before a meet, starting
with 10’s, and working down to 3’s. On meet day, I had all kinds of form
trouble, and did not set a PR. After reading Big Brad’s training log, I
used this technique in the eight weeks before my next meet. I
came back 35 pounds stronger in the bench at that meet, setting a PR with
room to spare on my third attempt.
Lifters preparing for meets, especially lifters who
don’t usually train with heavy, low rep sets. Half the battle of taking
a heavy single is setting up and believing that you can handle it. The
triples and doubles right before the meet are very excellent preparation
for this. Also, gear can be added as you move throw the cycle, to get used
to using it before the meet.
Lifters who want to plan out a workout schedule in
advance that they can stick to, with specific rep goals each week.
Lifters who need a routine that accommodates unplanned
schedule changes, or need some flexibility in training exercises.
For more information on getting started check out the
archives section here on Strength Online or drop by the Q&A forums.
Reproduction of this article,
in whole or part, for any purpose other than personal use is
prohibited without written consent. Copyright 1999 Chris Manrodt.