The Intermediate Powerlifting Program

This is a sample powerlifting program from our Muscle and Strength Pyramid training book. The explanation section there is fairly detailed, so I have cut it down to give just the overview, relevant notation, and exercise selection explanations. This, along with the Intermediate Bodybuilding Sample Program and Detailed Guide to Training Progression articles bring the site up to speed with the level of training programming that I typically find myself using with coaching clients nowadays. I hope you find them useful.


The Intermediate Powerlifting Sample Program Overview

The Intermediate Powerlifting Program is a four-day program that builds upon the base that was established from the novice program. Volume is increased globally, with a greater increase coming in the form of lower-body and upper-body pushing volume.

Additionally, a second horizontal pull (I advise a free weight option for the heavier rowing session) and a bench and squat variation are added to round out development and ensure that no “weak links in the chain” occur now that the foundations of technical skill have been established.

Four days are utilized to accommodate the increased volume. Unlike the novice program, there is no three-day option.

Heavy loading still accounts 70% of the volume while lighter loading accounts for 30%. Similarly, nearly the same proportion of volume comes from the competition lifts and accessory movements, respectively.

A daily undulating model is still the approach used on a week-to-week basis in a similar manner to the novice program.

Higher volumes of moderate-intensity work are performed on Day 1 with a squat variation (I advise a variation that allows you to say upright to give your hips a break if you squat low bar, e.g. front, high bar, or safety bar squat) and bench press. Accessory movements are trained for both strength and hypertrophy on all days, and Day 2 is dedicated to heavy technique work with the competition lifts.

Strength work is spread between Day 3 and 4 with squats and bench press being trained for strength on Day 3, and then the deadlift trained for strength on Day 4 with some moderate load work on a bench variation (if you bench wide, I advise a close grip variation, or you can do a weak point specific variation — see Level 4). Ideally to allow recovery between heavy competition lift training, place a day off between Day 3 and 4 if possible.

As an intermediate, a periodized approach to progression is utilized rather than the single-factor progression model that was used as a novice. A linear periodization model is utilized in a wave loading format for all lifts on a week to week basis.

Savvy readers will realize that they can create versions of this program geared more towards accumulating volume or more towards intensification (determined by the time point in the season) by simply increasing or decreasing the rep range and loads. For example:

  • To make this program more volume focused a lift performed for 3 to 5 repetitions at 82.5 to 87.5% of 1RM could instead be performed for 4 to 6 repetitions at 80 to 85% of 1RM.
  • To make this program more intensity focused, a lift performed for 3 to 5 repetitions at 82.5% to 87.5% of 1RM could instead be performed for 2 to 4 repetitions at 85 to 90% of 1RM.

The breakdown for the Intermediate Powerlifting Program is summarized in the table below:

Exercise Selection Guidelines

Skill development is more important to a powerlifter than a bodybuilder, so the variety of exercises used is fewer by comparison. Sometimes you will have options and in that case, I have added little buttons like this which you can click to see them1. I’ve included links to tutorials on the exercises where I thought this might be particularly useful.

Have a look at the program below and then I’ll explain the meaning of the ‘%1RM’ and ‘1st Set RPE’ notation.

The Intermediate Powerlifting Sample Program

Day 1
Exercise Sets Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Squat Variant 2 3 7 to 9 NA 7
Bench Press 3 7 to 9 67-72.5% 7
Vertical Pull 3 3 7 to 9 NA 8
Day 2
Exercise Sets Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Back Squat 3 1 to 3 80-85% 5
Bench Press 3 1 to 3 80-85% 5
Deadlift 4 3 1 to 3 80-85% 5
Vertical Push 5 3 4 to 6 NA 8
Day 3
Exercise Sets Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Back Squat 3 3 to 5 82-87.5% 8
Bench Press 3 3 to 5 82-87.5% 8
Horizontal Pull 6 3 4 to 6 NA 8
Leg Curl 3 12 NA 8
Day 4
Exercise Sets Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Bench Variant 7

3 6 to 8 NA 8
Deadlift 3 3 to 5 82-87.5% 8
Horizontal Pull 8 3 8 to 12 NA 8

Rest ~2–3 minutes between sets.


How to Progress with the Intermediate Powerlifting Program

Now with some weight training experience under your belt, RPE based on RIR can be more accurately used; you should be able to tell with reasonable accuracy how many reps you have in the tank. For this reason, load progression will be based more on RIR than it is percentage of 1-rep max (%1RM). The %1RM is more used as a reference.

As a reminder, ‘RPE’ stands for Rate of Perceived Exertion based on Reps in Reserve. It is a means of managing fatigue which can help recovery and growth, telling you how many reps, ideally, you will stay short of failure.

While you will aim to add load each session, on a scale of 1–10, a 7 means to stop the set when you could perform 3 more reps, an 8 means to stop when you have 2 more reps in reserve.

RPE Number Meaning
10 Could not do more reps or load without form failure
9.5 Could not do more reps, could do slightly more load
9 Could do 1 more rep
8.5 Could definitely do 1 more reps, chance at 2
8 Could do 2 more reps
7.5 Could definitely do 2 more reps, chance at 3
7 Could do 3 more reps
5-6 Could do 4-6 more reps
1-4 Very light to light effort

If you would like to learn more Eric and I have put together a free email course which you can sign up for in the box at the end.

Progression Rules

Primarily you will be following the intermediate, “Wave Loading Progression” model for all lifts. Intensity will go up over the course of a four-week cycle, while volume will come down. Like the novice program, each day of each week is progressed independently, meaning, you will not compare Day 1 to Day 2 or Day 2 to Day 3, but each exercise progression continues from the same day the previous week.

I’ve published a detailed set of progression rules for you on the site here and that is where you will find the Wave Loading Progression model explained fully.

An Important Note on Sample Training Programs

It’s important to note that the primary purpose of this program is actually not for you just to take it and use it exactly as written.

By definition, a sample program cannot be optimal for you, because it is not specific to you and your needs. The programs in our book can get close, as they allow you to match up your goal (powerlifting or bodybuilding) and your experience level (novice, intermediate, or advanced) to the program, and in some spots they allow you freedom to choose a variation on an exercise or the schedule to fit your needs, but they still aren’t truly individualized programs.

Individuality is key to long-term success, and just like it’s not a good idea to use someone else’s diet regardless of whether your maintenance calorie intake or initial body-fat percentage is similar to theirs or not, it’s also not a good idea to jump into a program regardless of how the volume, intensity, or frequency of the program compares to what you are currently adapted to.

The idea behind presenting multiple sample programs in the book is that instead of readers seeing them as “the be all end all” that they just jump right into, they use them primarily as learning tools. The programs are the synthesis of the entire Training Pyramid, combining the concepts presented throughout the book into usable systems. By examining the sample programs they are looking at only a few of the possible iterations of the concepts embodied in the text. Trainers will be able to use the sample programs to help them learn how to create customized programs for their clients, and athletes will use the programs to help them design a more individualized plan for themselves.

The Muscle and Strength Pyramid: Training v2.0

If you have found this helpful, you might be pleased to know it is just a small section taken from my Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid book, written with my co-authors Eric Helms and Andrea Valdez. The second edition, along with the Nutrition companion book, was released this January 3rd, 2019.

Join 16,000+ other readers, get your copies here.

Thank you for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments.

– Andy, Eric, and Andrea


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  1. Good job!

  2. Barbell Back Squats (either low or high bar position), Front Squat, Zercher Squat, or Safety-bar Back Squats.

  3. Chin-ups or Pull-ups (Use bands to assist you if too hard to reach the required number of reps, add weight if they are too easy), Lat-pull Down.

  4. Conventional Deadlift or Sumo Deadlift. Choose one or the other and do it consistently on all training days you deadlift.

  5. Overhead Barbell Press or Dumbbell Press (standing or seated), Landmine Press.

  6. Cable Rows, Dumbbell Rows, Barbell Rows, Seal Rows, TRX Rows.

  7. Bench variants refer to alterations to your competition bench, such as a closer or wider grip, board presses, flat back or feet up, longer pauses (e.g. 2 count bench), or bench press with accommodating resistance. Close-grip bench press should not be performed with an extremely close grip, rather just closer relative to your competition bench press grip width. The closest the grip width should be is a width similar to that of a push up performed with the elbows tucked at your sides.

    If you are a powerlifter and you aware of any specific technical faults well suited to a specific bench variant (see the weak point discussion in Level 4 of our book) this is a good place to use that variant.

  8. Cable Rows, Dumbbell Rows, Barbell Rows, Seal Rows, TRX Rows.

About the Author

Eric Helms, Andy Morgan and Andrea Valdez

Eric is a coach, athlete, author, educator, and researcher. Andrea is a lifelong athlete, experienced coach, and content creator. Andy is an online training and nutrition coach. Together they are the authors of The Muscle and Strength Pyramid books. RippedBody.com is Andy's website, his sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire him to coach them, which he has been doing full-time, online, for the last seven years. If you're interested in individualized, one-on-one coaching to help you crush your physique goals, find out more here.

63 Comments

  1. Jake says:

    Hi Andy,

    If I fail to get the prescribed amount of reps on an exercise, do I repeat the same weight and same reps the next session, or do I drop the weight and perform the same number of reps? For example on day 3 if I’m benching 4×4 and I get 3×4 then only 3 reps on the last set. Also, should bench press reps be paused or touch and go? Specifically wondering about this for the higher volume work.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Strength will fluctuate with built-up fatigue and life stresses. So, you just have to see how you feel after warming up. If you feel fine, use the same weight (or consider progressing it slightly).

      should bench press reps be paused or touch and go?
      I don’t know what you mean by this, but every rep should touch your chest, preferably without significant bouncing, with a slight pause if you wish to practice specifically for getting it off your chest during competition.

  2. Marvin says:

    At how many weeks do we up the weight? And by how much, 2.5lbs?

  3. Dec says:

    Andy, is it possible to use different squat variations for days
    1, 2, and 3. I see you’ve prescribed opposite squat for day 4.
    I’m a low bar squatter. So day 4 will be high bar. But, could I do paused squats or tempo squats on the other squat days? Or do you want me to stick to 3 low bar sessions and 1 high bar.
    Same question would apply to bench press.
    Thanks

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Skill improves with the specificity of practice and is a component of strength. So, while you can absolutely vary things like this, the closer you are to competition, the more of your competition style lift you should probably be doing across your training week.

  4. Uriel ramirez says:

    Can you make a 3 day split intermediate program? Please!! Thank you!!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Take Day 4, split it across the first three days. Boom.

  5. Karl O'Donoghue says:

    When you say take a break between day 3 & 4 did you mean 2 & 3?

    Thanks

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Yes. Can you tell me where you read that? I’ll correct it.

      1. Allen says:

        Andy, it’s the last line of the paragraph on periodization describing the focus of each day.
        “Ideally to allow recovery between heavy competition lift training, place a day off between Day 3 and 4 if possible.”

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          Ahh yes, I forgot this. Thank you for pointing it out.

          Ideally, the training week will be: On-On-Off-On-Off-On-Off.

  6. JESSE E HARLAN says:

    How many weeks is this for?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      As many weeks as you continue to progress using the progression rules.

  7. Molly Crawford says:

    Hey, the program is great but I feel like I’m training squats much more than deadlifts (4x squats and 2x deadlifts). What’s the reason for this? And doesn’t this mean that deadlifts aren’t being trained enough in proportion?

    Also, having the deadlift at the end of day 4 means I’m not as strong for it so I feel I could lift more if it was first for example. Is there a reason for this?

    Thanks

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Deadlifts are harder to recover from and aren’t suited to as high of a frequency.
      There’s arguably less impact on the deadlifts with those last than if it were the squats that were last.

  8. John Merryman says:

    Hi Andy,
    I enjoy the powerlifting program so far. I have been wanting to increase my squat and bench press for awhile now. I have a couple of questions in regards to warm ups. What do you recommend for warm ups in general on these powerlifting days? Second, what do you recommend for the warm up weight for each individual workout? Also, do you recommend doing anything on your off days like running, yoga, etc.?
    Thanks,

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi John,
      1. You’ll see warmups covered in the FAQ.
      2. Not without a specific reason.

  9. Alexander Walton says:

    Hi Andy,

    In my third week of the programme and seeing some good strength gains already which is great. I’m enjoying every session except Day 2, which feels quite unchallenging. I’m loading the bar with the correct weight, and doing the max number of reps in each set (3), but at an RPE of 6-7, I’m getting to the end of the workout really not feeling that tired/pumped/satisfied. Is there a reason for this? Or am I just being impatient?

    Thanks!

    Alex

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      This is purposefully a low-volume, low-rep, ‘technique practice at high load’ strength focus day, and it’s natural to not feel as challenged.

  10. Vladislav Maletic says:

    I need a little clarification regarding this program. l Just started it, so far so good, but my question is, when can l throw in other exercises such as dumbbell curls or any other isolation exercises? Can l add isolation exercises and when, or do l have to stick just to those stated above?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Any time you wish, as long as it does not interfere with the progression of these main lifts. If you wish to have more of a physique focus though, consider this program instead.

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