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.

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.

How To Progress

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.

The %1RM is a guideline for choosing the load to use for your first session. The RPE is a guideline for the maximum weight you should use on any given session thereafter. You don’t have to use these right now, but I want to explain them as they can be useful.

The %1RM notation stands for percentage of 1-rep maximum. So, where you see Squat 2*8 (70%), this means you should put 70% of the weight of your maximum single-rep squat on the bar, and then perform 2 sets of 8 reps. If you don’t know your %1RM you can use this calculator I created for our book readers. 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 a weight to the point where you can comfortably squat 2 sets of 8. Then for each successive session add little weight each time without going over the RPE guidelines.

The RPE notation is there to tell us the intensity of effort with which we should lift. The number means how far away from failure we should end each set. 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.

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.

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

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.

The 3-Day Option
Day 1 (Hypertrophy)
Exercise Sets Reps Rep Total %1RM RPE
Back Squat 2 2 8 16 70% 6 to 7
Bench Press 3 8 24 70% 6 to 7
Front Squat or RDL 3 2 5 10 82.5% 8 to 9
Vertical Pull 4 2 8 16 NA 6 to 7
Day 2 (Power)
Exercise Sets Reps Rep Total %1RM RPE
Back Squat 3 3 9 82.5% 6 to 7
Bench Press 4 3 12 82.5% 6 to 7
Deadlift 5 2 5 10 82.5% 6 to 7
Horizontal Pull 6 3 5 15 NA 8 to 9
Day 3 (Strength)
Exercise Sets Reps Rep Total %1RM RPE
Back Squat 3 4 12 85% 8 to 9
Bench Press 4 4 16 85% 8 to 9
Deadlift 3 4 12 85% 8 to 9
Overhead Press 3 5 15 82.5% 8 to 9

 

The 4-Day Option
Day 1 (Hypertrophy)
Exercise Sets Reps Rep Total %1RM RPE
Back Squat 7 2 8 16 70% 6 to 7
Bench Press 3 8 24 70% 6 to 7
Front Squat or RDL 8 2 5 10 82.5% 8 to 9
Day 2 (Power)
Exercise Sets Reps Rep Total %1RM RPE
Back Squat 3 3 9 82.5% 6 to 7
Bench Press 4 3 12 82.5% 6 to 7
Deadlift 9 2 5 10 82.5% 6 to 7
Day 3 (Strength)
Exercise Sets Reps Rep Total %1RM RPE
Back Squat 3 4 12 85% 8 to 9
Bench Press 4 4 16 85% 8 to 9
Deadlift 3 4 12 85% 8 to 9
Day 4 (Accessory Work)
Exercise Sets Reps Rep Total %1RM RPE
Horizontal Pull 10 3 5 15 NA 8 to 9
Overhead Press 3 5 15 82.5% 8 to 9
Vertical Pull 11 2 8 16 NA 6 to 7

 

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

For more useful graphics, check out my Instagram.

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 through 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.

When you’d like to learn more, you can check out our book from which this sample program is taken.

Questions welcomed in the comments. – Andy

Read Next:

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  1. Good job!

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

  3. RDL = Romanian Deadlift. – Choose the movement best suited to your situation. The RDL would be the best choice to develop your posterior chain or aid your deadlift (though the upper back is worked in front squats), while the front squat would be utilized to target your quads or aid the squat.

  4. 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.

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

  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. RDL = Romanian Deadlift. – Choose the movement best suited to your situation. The RDL would be the best choice to develop your posterior chain or aid your deadlift (though the upper back is worked in front squats), while the front squat would be utilized to target your quads or aid the squat.

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

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

  11. 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

Andy Morgan

I am the founder of RippedBody.com, this is my sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire me to coach them, which I've been doing online, via email, for the last seven years. If you're interested in individualized, one-on-one nutrition and training coaching to help you crush your physique goals, let's start the conversation.

27 Comments

  1. Jason V. says:

    Thanks for your responses! Should I be at all concerned about the total weight lifted in each session of the 4-day program? In other words, if the total for day 1 is 5,000 lb and the total for day 2 is 4,500, is that good, bad, or not important? Thanks again!

  2. Jason V. says:

    Will this slowly add size in addition to strength without additional accessory work?

  3. Jason V. says:

    Do you recommend accessory work or is this enough to build strength and slowly add size all everywhere?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Yes. Accessory work has its uses, but not in this novice program.

  4. Cody says:

    On 3 day program What should the weight difference be between day 2 and 3 for example say I bench press 200lbs on day 2. 4 sets of 3 what should my target weight for 4 sets of 4 on day 3 be . Thank you

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      There are formulas for this, but at this stage the best way is to just try and see.

  5. Linda says:

    How many weeks do you suggest training with a program cycle like this before a competition? If one is working out on a reg basis….then change to this program for competition?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Linda, this is a sample program to build strength for novices until they are intermediate lifters. It is not something for those looking to compete.

      Generally speaking, to peak for a competition you’d want to have an intensification phase where volume is tapered and loads raised. This is not something I have written about on the site, but you’ll find it in our book.

  6. Craig says:

    HI, I really enjoyed the article. How much rest time is recommended for between sets of the same exercise and how much between the end of one lift and the start of the next?
    i read in another article on here about having a stopwatch to keep a close eye on this but no time value to go with it.
    Thanks

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Make sure you’re fresh enough to perform the next set without being compromised. This will be 90 seconds at first but quickly become 2-3 minutes.

  7. Art says:

    How much time (days) are taken off between workouts?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Spread your workouts out across the week and try to have no more than two sessions back to back. This is better for recovery.

  8. Piero says:

    Hello Andy, I should increase the weight respecting the RPE right? For example, if a I hit the 5 reps and 7 RPE goals, I only should increase the weight if I know i can do the same reps next session without doing a 9 RPE for example

    Also, do you recommend this program for a cut? Otherwise, which program could be better?

    Many thanks!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Piero,

      1. If you meet the targets this session, increase next session. You won’t know whether it will be an RPE of 9 until you try.
      2. Covered in the latter half of this article: How to Choose the Most Effective Strength Training Program for YOU

  9. Naill says:

    what days would you suggest that i train?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Niall. It would be better for recovery (and thus progression) to have no more than two sessions back to back, so split things across the week.

      Example: Train-train-rest-train-train-rest-rest. Repeat. or Train-train-rest-train-rest-train-rest. Repeat.

  10. Mike says:

    Can I do the 4 day program 4 days in a row then 3 days of rest in a row?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      It would be better for recovery (and thus progression) to have no more than two sessions back to back.

      Here’s a 4-day example in a 7 day training week: Train-train-rest-train-train-rest-rest. Repeat. or Train-train-rest-train-rest-train-rest. Repeat.

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