The Novice Powerlifting Program

If getting strong as hell is your primary goal, knowing that size and symmetry will mostly come along for the ride anyway, then you need a strength training program that will emphasize that for you. 

This Novice Powerlifting Program taken from our Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid book is a three or four-day program built around developing skill and strength with the competition lifts, while also developing a base of muscularity to aid further strength development.


The Novice Powerlifting Sample Program Overview

How To Use The Program

You will see a 3-day and 4-day option to choose from. Training volume is the same in both versions.

If you have no issue with the cumulative fatigue of performing the main lifts first and don’t mind dedicating more time to longer training sessions, go with the three-day version. If you would prefer shorter training sessions but one more session per week or find that the fatigue of the main lifts is detrimental to your accessory work, choose the four-day option.

Spread your workouts out across the week and try to have no more than two sessions back to back. This is better for recovery. Example for the 4-day option: Train-train-rest-train-train-rest-rest, or, Train-train-rest-train-rest-train-rest.

Rest ~2–3 minutes between sets.

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.

Choose movements you enjoy, that you can feel the target muscles working during, and that you have equipment access to. Take this program and run it as is, or customize it to your needs. I have a further guide to exercise selection for you here.

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

The Novice Powerlifting Sample Program

The 3-Day Option
Day 1 (Hypertrophy)
Exercise Sets x Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Back Squat 2 3 x 8 70% NA
Bench Press 3 x 8 70% NA
Vertical Pull 3 4 x 10 NA 8
Day 2 (Power)
Exercise Sets x Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Bench Press 3 x 3 80% NA
Deadlift 4 3 x 3 85% NA
Vertical Push 5 4 x 10 NA 8
Day 3 (Strength)
Exercise Sets x Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Back Squat 3 x 4 85% NA
Bench Press 3 x 4 85% NA
Horizontal Pull 6 4 x 10 NA 8
Single Leg Variant 3 x 8 NA 8

 

The 4-Day Option
Day 1 (Hypertrophy)
Exercise Sets x Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Back Squat 7 3 x 8 70% NA
Bench Press 3 x 8 70% NA
Day 2 (Power)
Exercise Sets x Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Bench Press 3 x 3 80% NA
Deadlift 8 3 x 3 85% NA
Day 3 (Strength)
Exercise Sets x Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Back Squat 3 x 4 85% NA
Bench Press 3 x 4 85% NA
Day 4 (Accessory Work)
Exercise Sets x Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Single Leg Variant 9 3 x 8 NA 8
Horizontal Pull 10 4 x 10 NA 8
Vertical Push 11 4 x 10 NA 8
Vertical Pull 12 4 x 10 NA 8

For convenience, I made these two images to save to your phone:

 

Follow me on Instagram for more useful graphics like this.


How To Progress with the Novice Powerlifting Program

In it’s simplest form you just need to choose a weight you can lift for the number of sets and reps written, add a little weight each session, and avoid training to failure (which is the point where you can no longer move the weight or suffer any break down in your form).

Choosing an Initial Weight to Lift With

The %1RM notation stands for percentage of 1-rep maximum. It is a guideline for how much you should load the bar the first time you start the program (only) and we will use this with our main compound barbell competition lifts. 

So, where you see Squat 3*8 (70%), this means you should put 70% of the weight of your maximum single-rep squat on the bar, and then perform 3 sets of 8 reps. If you don’t know your 1RM you can use this calculator I created for our book readers which will show you how to calculate your 1RM.

So, let’s say that your current 1RM in the squat is 180 lb (~80 kg). You’ll load the bar so that the total weight is 70% of that, 125 lb (57.5 kg) and then perform 3 sets of 8. This might feel relatively easy, but resist the temptation to do more. Some people can get substantially more than 8 reps at this percentage, but our goal is to be submaximal as you’ll be making linear increases in load every time you repeat this session. Your second and third sets you will more than likely find to be a harder than the first due to cumulative fatigue. Move onto the next exercise, the bench press.

Now, let’s say your 1RM for the bench press is actually a little higher than the squat, 200 lb (~90 kg). It is not an uncommon situation for many, typically male, lifters to be more proficient and stronger at bench pressing than squatting when they first get serious about powerlifting. Have no fear if this is your situation, it will be corrected quickly. Load the bar so that the total weight is 70% of that, 140 lb (~62.5 kg) and then perform 3 sets of 8.

If you don’t have a lot of experience with the lift, you are new to it, or you are coming back after time off, just warm up adding weight to the point where you can comfortably squat 3 sets of 8. Then for each successive session add a little weight each time while maintaining good form.

The 1st Set RPE notation is there to tell us the intensity of effort with which we should lift. It is a guideline for how much you should load the bar every time you train.

‘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.

You’ll notice the RPE values for the novice programs are always “1st set RPE 8”. Meaning, you should be able to do all the prescribed sets for the day by sticking with your initial set’s load if it matched up correctly with the target RPE (close to an 8 RPE). If you “miss reps” on subsequent sets at the same load as the RPE climbs past 10, you either started too heavy, didn’t rest long enough, or perhaps made a technical fault; all of which are learning experiences for your next session.

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

This is the method that powerlifting legend Mike Tuchscherer uses to consistently put his clients on the podium at the IPF world championships. My co-author Eric Helms, recently got his PhD. studying this. So, even if this seems new right now, it’s worth learning a little about as you will find it useful.

After reading this make sure you read the novice section of my detailed guidelines to training progression which will give detailed examples. 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.

Is This Too Little Training Volume?

Savvy readers may notice that this program has changed a little since the program in the first edition of the book and I wish to address this before I receive a new deluge of comments screaming that this is too little volume.

The weight of the evidence suggests 10–20 hard sets per muscle/group or movement is an appropriate volume to prescribe when no foreknowledge of individual needs/tolerance/genetics exist.

Previously, the first edition programs were based on a 12-year old systematic review (Wernbom 2007) that looked at reps per body part, per week vs. the current meta-analyses we have today, based on ‘hard sets’ per body part/movement per week. Thus, in the present programs, there were instances where we decided to reduce the volume as the first edition programs had volume that was too high based on current evidence.

We have brought volume in line such that the novice programs provide a number of sets per movement/muscle group towards the low end of 10-20, intermediate towards the middle, and advanced towards the upper end.

This may or may not be less volume than what you are already doing, what you like to do, what ‘feels’ right or compared to other popular programs or what your favorite athlete or influencer does or suggests. But, unless you are an experienced lifter who knows from well-recorded observations over years what your specific volume needs are, I’d advise at least trying to progress using similar volumes to what we recommend first, before deciding it’s too low.

If you don’t make progress and it’s too easy… fantastic, just do more volume and now you know more about your body’s needs. But in my experience as a coach, it’s just as likely (if not more likely) that you could progress just as well, if not faster, with a lower volume. If that ends up being what happens for you, you also just learned something very valuable; and when you do stall moving forward, you know you’ll easily be able to handle a volume increase to keep progress going as it was an amount you used to (unnecessarily) perform.

Why We Built It This Way

Programming is different for novice, intermediate and advanced lifters. However, the primary differences are simply the rate of progression that is attempted, the total volume of work that is performed, and the structure of the program related to organizing these differences in volume. Most of the other aspects of programming remain the same.

As a novice, complex approaches are not necessary to maximize the adaptive response. Thus, unlike the intermediate and advanced programs, you won’t see the same elements of block or linear periodization. Rather, a simple single progression model where increases in load occur session to session is used. (More on this below.)

However, that doesn’t mean training should completely lack variety and be highly monotonous. You will see that the program is built on the framework of a daily undulating model where hypertrophy, “power” (essentially heavy technique work), and strength are trained.

Additionally, training with a lack of variation in load or volume is not only psychologically monotonous but also has been shown to increase the chance of overtraining, degrade performance, increase the frequency of illness; and when training that is highly monotonous (little variation in load and volume) is made less monotonous, increases in performance occur.

For these reasons, different rep and load combinations are used on different days.

If you use the three-day version, Day 1 is dedicated to higher-rep, moderate-load work to accumulate a relatively high volume (hypertrophy). Day 2 is dedicated to low-rep, moderately-heavy work at a low volume (power). Day 3 is dedicated to low-rep, heavy work at a moderate volume (strength).

If you use the four-day version, the structure is the same, except only the main lifts are trained on days 1–3, while day 4 is dedicated to accessory work.


An Important Concluding Note

This is just one example of many that will work for a novice powerlifter. 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 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

Read Next:

Always Training To Failure?

That's probably not the best way to optimize your gains.

Learn why, and learn how to auto-regulate your training intensity. Subscribe to our updates and get our free email course.

I take your privacy seriously. No spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

  1. Good job!

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

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

  9. Bulgarian Split Squats, Lunges, or Single-leg Squats with a Kettlebell or Dumbbell (also known as Pistol Squats).

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

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

  12. 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.

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.

84 Comments

  1. Benny says:

    Hello, did the routine change? I’ve been doing the novice that had day one Back Sq (2×8), Bench (3×8), Front Squat (2×5). I love it, crawled into, on week 21, definitely feel like i’m starting to top out, hope to head to int program soon.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Benny,
      Yes. See the new section titled: “Is This Too Little Training Volume?”

  2. Raphael says:

    Hi Andy,

    Two question regarding deadlifts: Why is that volume rather low (3×3) compared to other compound movements? And would it be possible (or recommendable) to do 3×5 or 3×6 with a RPE 8 for example?

    Thanks,
    Raphael

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Due to the overlapping body parts with the other exercises, it’s necessary to keep this lower and maintain the balance of ~10 sets per body part.

      I’ve stripped out the volume breakdown table which we have in the book from this article to keep it simple, but it’s similar to what you see in the intermediate program just will lower global volume.

  3. Raphael says:

    Hi Andy
    Just bought your books and have a question: I often read not to do powerlifting routines when dieting. Im now doing IF (16:8) and would like to start with your novice powerlifting program, however, Im just on a slight caloric deficit. What is your recommendation on dieting and powerlift routines?

    Thx and best regards from Switzerland,
    Raphael

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Raphael,

      Training volume needs to be sufficient to drive adaptations, but not so high that you fail to recover and grow.

      The difference between cutting or bulking is the amount of volume you can handle. You can more volume when bulking; less when cutting. So, as you switch from a cut to a bulk the addition of more sets to your current exercises or adding exercises (possibly one or two compound movements per session and an accessory movement or two), is a good idea.

      When you switch to a cut, if you find yourself failing to recover, reducing sets or the number of exercises performed is a good idea.

      This all depends on your personal needs, which depends on what you are currently adapted to. So it’s not possible to say that a routine is for cutting or bulking, because what might be an appropriate volume level while cutting for one person might be too much for another. Thus, I suggest you start with the training program templates above and the adjust from there as per your needs.

      More on this here: How to Choose the Most Effective Training Program for YOU

  4. Matt says:

    Andy,

    I just started this program… and am just wondering when would be the best time to do ab/core work, if I should be doing that at all?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Matt,
      Unless there is an identified weakness, we don’t consider it necessary as they’ll get trained indirectly anyway. More on this in the last but one section here.

  5. Zach says:

    Hi – love the Pyramid Books and super excited 2.0 was just released. Comparing the novice powerlifting programs between 1.0 and 2.0 and had some questions:

    1. The 2.0 book has SL Variant on both Days 2 and 3, but this page only has it on Day 3. Is the book incorrect?

    2. The 1.0 book used 2×8 or 3×5 for accessories, while 2.0 uses 4×10. 15/16 reps to 40 seems like a huge increase, just curious why?

    Thanks!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Zach, thank you for the questions.

      1) Yes, that was a typo which we missed. We have a full list of updates since the release here. If you’d like updated copies just email the support address and say Andy mentioned you could get them in a comment.
      2) We’re no longer counting volume by total reps but ‘hard sets’, as this appears to be a better way to calculate volume. We’ve adjusted the rep ranges to keep within the new VIF guidelines we have developed. (See the VIF chapter.)

  6. Ricardo says:

    How long should one rest between working sets?

  7. Mohammad Assad says:

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks for putting this program out.

    If I were to start with just the bar for squats and BP and lets say 40 kgs for Deadlift, would this program be better or the Big 3 routine?
    I am starting low as I am coming back to regular training after several months off due to work/life issues and dont want to start heavy and get too sore that I end up quitting.

    (For reference my earlier PRs were 110 kg squat, 130kg Deadlift and 70kg bench)

    Thank you so much again for putting this out for free. I had another question about doing this while dieting, but it has already been answered in Q 10. above so thank you for that as well

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      The big 3 routine is for someone without barbell lifting experience (or confidence with those lifts), this routine is for someone who feels comfortable with them. So, if you feel comfortable, just get stuck in.

      Start with whatever loads you need to start with in order to feel comfortable.

      Most welcome.

  8. Wes says:

    Hi Andy,

    Many thanks for these resources. I used to train with powerlifting program and bought into the CrossFit craze. After almost 2 years, I’ve realized it’s time reconsider. What’s your opinion on CrossFit? Like any theoretical reaosns to why or why not folks should train that way? Thanks.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      This is beyond the scope of the comments, Wes. If you have a question relating to any specifics in my articles however, I am happy to answer.

  9. Sean says:

    Hi Andy

    How do you structure warm up sets?
    Say for a 2×5 @ 220kg or a 3×3 squat @ 220

    Many thanks

    Sean

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Sean, check out the FAQ section titled, WARM UP: What should I do?.

      1. Sean Dunn says:

        Cheers Andy I missed that article. Much appreciated!!!

  10. Vedang says:

    Does the order of the training days matter? For example can strength be day 1, power day 2, hypertrophy 3 and then accessory day 4. Also would this program be effective for teenagers, as I’m trying to gain muscle and strength simultaneously? Thanks in advance.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      1. Yes, the order matters for recovery reasons, but you could do it that way because the power day (which is a relatively lighter day) comes between the two harder days.
      2. Yes.

Questions welcomed. (Over 16,000 answered)

For the sake of other readers, please:
  • Keep questions on topic,
  • Write clearly, concisely, and click reply when responding,
  • Don't post diet calculations or full training plans asking me to critique them as it depends too heavily on context.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.