Powerlifting is an intense sport in which competitors aim to lift the maximum amount of weight possible. They are allotted 3 attempts with each lift; Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift. The goal, get the maximum weight up for the big 3 lifts.  In order to do that, you’re going to have to get really strong. That can take weeks and months of training.

Powerlifters spend weeks, months, and years working on technique and form in order to best harness their bodies abilities to move such heavy weight. A combination of strength and specific techniques are a lifters best friend on meet day.  An important aspect to powerlifting is finding a program that will help you maximize your strength.  That’s one of the great things about powerlifting workouts, the emphasis on strength.

Focusing on building strength has a great carryover into everyday life but also has the ability to pack on metabolically active muscle.  If you want to maximize your strength and at the correct time, it takes a specific structure or program so that you peak at the right time.


Structuring your workouts for powerlifting is about creating a plan in order to maximize your strength gains. It’s also important to decide if and when you are competing because if you’re not competing, then you’re not really powerlifting, you’re just training for strength, which is fine.  Picking a competition date will also go a long way to how your program will be designed.

How to Structure Your Powerlifting Program

When deciding on how to structure and program your powerlifting workouts, you may get a little nutty because there are so many options.  Just looking around Google is enough to keep you busy for a few hours.  Especially if you are just starting out, I would suggest keeping it simple and focusing on developing as much strength as possible.  Now you may be asking yourself “How do I set up my powerlifting workouts?” or “How do I decide what my core & secondary lifts are?”

Within the set-up of:

– Core Lift

– Secondary Lift

– Accessory Lifts

Consider splitting your training into upper and lower body days or you can design a program around a push/pull routine.

Core Lift

Your core lift is going to be your main lift of the day. Since you are training to hit a 1 rep max in Squat, Bench press and Deadlift, these will be your core lifts on the 3-4 days you train per week. The repetitions will vary depending on where you are in your program. The earlier in your training cycle, the more repetitions you may be programming as opposed to later or closer to your meet where your volume may be a bit lower.

As we talked about previously, powerlifters focus on not only strength, but form and technique as well. This would be the time to work out the bugs in your form and play around with new techniques. As you approach your meet, the repetitions will become lower and you will want to stick to whichever adjustments you have made to your lift through to the meet.

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Secondary Lift

The secondary lift of your powerlifting workout is likely going to be one that is different than your core lift.  This could mean several things depending on how you end up structuring your workouts.  For the most part you are going to want to program an exercise that has an opposite joint action for whichever lift you had programmed as your core lift. Where there is a push, the opposing action is a pull, and vice versa. The squat for instance is a going to be more of a hip push, so the opposing action would be a hip pull, like a deadlift.

As for the bench, you’d want to do any form of upper body rowing or pulling movement.  Make sense? As far as reps are concerned, it will depend on the program you choose, however for the most part these reps will vary between repetitions designated for power/strength (1-5) and reps for hypertrophy (anywhere up to 8-12). The amount of reps used will depend on what you used for your core lift and the period in your training cycle that you are in.

And just as your core lift is a barbell movement, you’d want your secondary lift to be a barbell movement as well.  One note of warning is that if you are relatively new to lifting in general, you may want to slowly introduce such a work load so that you don’t end up over training.

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Accessory work

You last section of your workout are going to be exercises done in a circuit type fashion, unlike the core lift and the secondary lift which are meant to be worked on their own until completion. These accessory exercises are going to be ones that will compliment your core lift and to a certain extent, your secondary lift as well of that particular training day.  For example, if you are squatting you may want to do a variation of a squat, whether it’s a goblet squat or a unilateral quad exercise such as a lunge.

When benching you have so many options, you can use presses, rows, flys, face pulls, curls, lat exercises and so many more. These can be unilateral or bilateral. With the deadlift, you will want to program in exercises that will help strengthen your hamstrings and glutes.  These can be as simple as hamstring curls all the way up to single leg glute hamstring raises (GHR) and hip thrusts. These exercises will be high in reps, unlike the lifts prior.

The key is choosing exercises that may enhance or improve any deficiencies or weaknesses you may have.  The great part about this section is that there are so many varieties of exercises that you can choose from that will help you core lifts.  Choose multiple exercises that will support the program you have already written out for the day.

You will also want to include core and conditioning work because your big lifts will require a great deal of core strength and stability along with a greater work capacity.  Your main lifts will provide you with core strength, especially when focusing on your form, but you want to always include one or two additional core exercises.  Although conditioning is not the priority in your program it is still very important.  Powerlifters are meant to peak their performance for one lift at a time. That one lift will not be easy work to perform, so lifters will need a degree of cardiovascular endurance.

By following some of these basic tips in structuring your powerlifting workout, you will have help in developing great strength for the day of your meet. There are various methods and styles of programs to follow and not every one will work for each individual, so when you find a program style that works for you stick with it.  It may take research as well as trial and error before you find one that works best for you, but the only way to find out is to go out and try it.

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Powerlifting is all about being able to lift as much weight as possible, which requires building a ton of strength.  Building that strength requires structuring your workouts and program in a way so that you maximize your strength on the day of your meet.  Now as you get more experience with powerlifting, there is a ton of information out there.

You can follow a 3/5/1 program, a block periodization model where intensity and volume vary depending on how far or close to a meet you are, to more of an RPE model where you base your lifts on how intense they feel that particular day.

If you are particularly new to powerlifting or strength training in general, my suggestion would be to surround yourself with other powerlifters.  It’s only going to benefit you.  I have the privilege of being surrounded by a group of really strong lifters, some of which are nationally ranked, on a daily basis and although I don’t compete as a powerlifter, my strength has never been better.

Remember, an important step to becoming a powerlifter is finding a meet and determining when you’ll compete.  This goes a long way into developing your powerlifting workouts.  After that, train your butt off and have fun with it.  Powerlifting and the workouts that correspond with it is a process, a hard one at that. But the strength and knowledge you gain from it will stay with you a long time.

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