Powerlifting Workouts
By Chris Manrodt

Are you 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 program.
  • 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

        When 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

Key Features: 

  • 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.

Recommended for:

  • 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 rest.

Big 3 Split Routine Training

        I have 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



Key Features:

  • 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 on abs.
  • 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 week. 

    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.

Recommended for:

  • 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.