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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’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)
ExerciseSets x Reps%1RM1st Set RPE
Back Squat

variations»Barbell Back Squats (either low or high bar position), or Safety-bar Back Squatsclose

3 x 870%NA
Bench Press3 x 870%NA

Vertical Pull

variations»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 Downclose

4 x 10NA8
Day 2 (Power)
ExerciseSets x Reps%1RM1st Set RPE
Bench Press3 x 380%NA

Deadlift

variations»Conventional Deadlift or Sumo Deadlift. Choose one or the other and do it consistently on all training days you deadliftclose

3 x 385%NA

Vertical Push

variations»Overhead Barbell Press or Dumbbell Press (standing or seated), Landmine Pressclose

4 x 10NA8
Day 3 (Strength)
ExerciseSets x Reps%1RM1st Set RPE
Back Squat3 x 485%NA
Bench Press3 x 485%NA

Horizontal Pull

variations»Cable Rows, Dumbbell Rows, Barbell Rows, Seal Rows, TRX Rowsclose

4 x 10NA8
Single Leg Variant3 x 8NA8

The 4-Day Option
Day 1 (Hypertrophy)
ExerciseSets x Reps%1RM1st Set RPE

Back Squat

variations»Barbell Back Squats (either low or high bar position), or Safety-bar Back Squatsclose

3 x 870%NA
Bench Press3 x 870%NA
Day 2 (Power)
ExerciseSets x Reps%1RM1st Set RPE
Bench Press3 x 380%NA

Deadlift

variations»Conventional Deadlift or Sumo Deadlift. Choose one or the other and do it consistently on all training days you deadliftclose

3 x 385%NA
Day 3 (Strength)
ExerciseSets x Reps%1RM1st Set RPE
Back Squat3 x 485%NA
Bench Press3 x 485%NA
Day 4 (Accessory Work)
ExerciseSets x Reps%1RM1st Set RPE

Single Leg Variant

variations»Bulgarian Split Squats, Lunges, or Single-leg Squats with a Kettlebell or Dumbbell (also known as Pistol Squats)close

3 x 8NA8

Horizontal Pull

variations»Cable Rows, Dumbbell Rows, Barbell Rows, Seal Rows, TRX Rowsclose

4 x 10NA8
Vertical Push

variations»Overhead Barbell Press or Dumbbell Press (standing or seated), Landmine Pressclose

4 x 10NA8
Vertical Pull

variations»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 Downclose

4 x 10NA8

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).

(Note: This is a novice program but it’s not a “brand new to lifting” program. If that’s you, you’d be better off with The Big 3 Routine until you’ve built competency with the main barbell lifts. For reasoning, see my article on how to choose a training program.)

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


Novice Powerlifting Program FAQ

Can I add (exercises/sets) to the program?

Well, this question ties into the points made in the section “Is This Too Little Training Volume?” above.

If you have good reason to believe (past lifting data, for example) that doing so will benefit you, you can add anything you wish. The key is that you recover sufficiently and progress better than you otherwise would.

Read Next:

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Comments

Please keep questions on topic, write clearly, concisely, and don't post diet calculations.

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Ross Jeffrey
Ross Jeffrey

Hi, I’ve been lifting properly for about 1 and a half years mainly bodybuilding style and recently more powerbuilding for about 3 months. Do I count as a novice as I would really like to try this routine. Thanks

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Hi Ross, I’d say this is a good place to start, yes. For more on choosing a program see my article here.

Jun An
Jun An

Hi Andy,
I have been following your program,it been giving me great results.But I had 1 problem with it as I will be enlisting into the army soon. I will only have the time in the weekend to gym. May I know how should a adjust the training for this program?

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Well, you’ll have your army PT and you won’t know how that affects you until you actually start — you might just need to rest and possibly need nothing more.

Neil Ferguson
Neil Ferguson

Hi Andy,

I’ve been doing this program for a couple of months now and it’s been great. I’ve just realized that I misread the program and on my power day, I’ve been doing heavier weight on the bench than the strength day. Why is it structured so that you do less reps AND less weight on bench on this day? I thought it would have been lower reps, higher weight.

Thank you!
Neil

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

It’s a day for technique work. When you’re training the lifts as frequently as this, you don’t want to do as much as possible at all times.

Christian
Christian

Hey Andy,

If one is finding it hard to recover from the volume of the training and all other factors are in check, ie sleep, calories/nutrition and stress. Should I continue with a lower number of sets and just try to keep progressively upping the weight, or lower the weight and try to build my work capacity with the prescribed sets at a lower intensity. I’d consider myself intermediate and have been using this program with linear periodization, de-loading every three weeks. I’ve been using the novice program because I know the Intermediate program is just too much volume for me.

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan
Claudia
Claudia

Hi Andy,
I am starting to venture in the world of power lifting. Thanks for putting such a great article together!! Is there a reason why deadlift is only once a week vs bench press being on all 3 days (assuming you’re following the three day plan)?
Thanks!

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Hi Claudia. Sure, the deadlift is harder to recover from. If you’re brand new, consider this routine first. (My rationale is explained here.)

Leo
Leo

Hi Andy! We have to add weight even in the power(technique) day? If I add weight and I arrived at an RPE 9, that is too much and it can be unproductive for a technique work, I have to drop the weight and try to progress in the following sessions? Sorry for my English, I’m Italian😁. Thanks for your answer. Your knowledge is very helpfull for novices like me

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Hi Leo, thank you for the question.

There are very few “have to’s” in training, but this is a powerlifting routine, so it’s advisable to have sub-maximal technique practice and we’ve chosen to put it all on the one day to aid with recovery across the week.

If you are reaching 9 RPEs you likely advanced the loads too quickly and need to lighten them. Be strict about sticking to the RPE guidelines for this one in particular.

Eren İzcioğlu
Eren İzcioğlu

how about train-rest scheduling for 3-Day option?

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

A day of rest between two sessions with two days between the third. For example: Monday, Wednesday, Friday.

Eren İzcioğlu
Eren İzcioğlu

Till i found your website and workout technique, i was training nonsensical. Now i figured out how to workout and progress,thanks for that . My next question is, isn’t the bench volume a little few for total amount of workout?

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Most welcome, Eren.
See the very last item on the FAQ page.

junhee
junhee

what does the mean “N/A of % 1rm”?
and How can I set the weight to those case?

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

“Not applicable.” This means you don’t try to gauge by % of 1RM but just use RPE to set the load. (For these exercises, people won’t have a 1RM and the rep max calculators probably won’t be accurate.)

As a reminder, % of 1RM is only used as a guideline for the first weight selected. You use RPE from then onward.

junhee
junhee

Hi Andy,

1) What does “session” mean?

2) How much should I add (5lbs? 10lbs?) and when?

3) I doubt I can progress in every Hypertrophy workout. Is it possible?

I hope you to be Happy!

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Hi Junhee,
1) Session = a workout.
2) Add weight when you can, independently of the other sessions. Here’s my guide to progression.
3) Whether you can add weight linearly is not something I can answer, but this article may help: What is Realistic Progress While Cutting?.

John
John

Andy,

Thank you for sharing this program. I was thinking of adding some accessory work because…

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Hi John, see the last point in the article.

Luke(South Korea)
Luke(South Korea)

I’m qurious about the duration of this program like 6week? 12weeks?

I’m on part-time job in weekend. So I walk about 12 hours(i mean in cannot sit on the chairs abou 12 hours) for serving the foods and carrying some boxes.

And I sleep for 6 hours in weekdays and 3~4hours in weekend is it ok of I do this program?

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Hi Luke,
1. For as long as you continue to progress. That could be many more months.
2. Whatever program you do will be compromised by such a poor sleeping pattern. There is no substitute for sufficient sleep.

Rod
Rod

I’ve never trained with weights before. I’ll be starting this. Just natural exercise pushups, sit up and running. I also do Brazilian jiu jitsu and Muay Thai boxing. I’m 52 so I don’t know anything about this. Thank you for the information.

I don’t know my 1rpm should I just start with an empty bar. Add weight each session. I’m thinking is the right way to go. Or no?

What’s a good site to learn how to do these exercises correctly? Or is their someone that you recommend? I started looking on the internet. Lots of videos. On each exercise?

Any suggestions on supplements? Again thank you

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Hi Rod, do The Big 3 Routine instead as it’s for rank beginners. (I’ve written up how to choose between the programs on the site here if you’re interested in my reasons.

As for videos of how to lift, there are a lot of free videos online of varying quality, detail, and consistency across the lifts. You’ll see I have linked to the best videos available for each (that I know about) in the program above.

However, if you’re serious and looking to learn, I think it’s well worth purchasing a video guide that covers all the important ones with a high quality and level of depth. The Lifting Library, is unbeatable for the price.

Rod
Rod

Thank you I will and also my history of my gains. Again I appreciate it.

Aurélien
Aurélien

Hello, great article. Should I do the 3 days version on monday, wednesday, friday or on monday, tuesday, wednesday ?

Can I add accessory exercises after my work out ? (Such as triceps extension etc)

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Hi Aurélien,

From above: “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.”

The same principle of spreading things across your week likely being better applies to the three-day program.

You can add anything you wish if you have good reason to believe that doing so will benefit your lifts (this is a powerlifting program, after all). If you don’t, then I’d leave things as they are.

Owen
Owen

Should I add weight every time to my 1rm for bench/squad/Deadlift. I don’t really get how to progressive overload because the reps and sets change the whole time.

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Hi Owen,
Did you see the “How To Progress with the Novice Powerlifting Program” section?

After the first session, ignore %1RM. It’s there just to help you choose a starting weight. After that, add a little weight each session. Make sure you treat each day’s loading independently. You’ll see it covered here: How to Keep Progressing as a Novice and Intermediate Trainee.

Neil Ferguson
Neil Ferguson

Hi Andy,

Sorry if I missed it, but what does it mean by “single-leg variant”? Does it mean like a split squat or leg accessory movements?

Thanks!
Neil

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Hi Neil, sorry I should have added the note to the first time that occurs in the article.

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

Thierry
Thierry

Hi
For the Bench on day2, I understand that the load is lighter than on day 3 (80%vs85%) and there is less rep (3vs4). So for the Bench, day2 is “easyer” than day3. What’s the strategy behind this ?

Because instinctively, i would think that When you have fewer rep, you can go heavyer.

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Hi Thierry,

The second day is purposefully easier (the distance from failure is purposefully kept higher through the different RPEs used), as it’s a power day to train technique.

We can always do more load with lower reps, but hammering ourselves each session as hard as we can won’t lead to the fastest progress overall. We’ve written a little more about this in the “Why We Built It This Way” section.

Jonathan
Jonathan

Hi Andy, I had the same question about the day 2 and day 3 bench. However in the tables the value for RPE are “NA”. Am I missing something? Great workout routine. Thanks!

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Yes, you’re using %of1RM to set load for these. However, if that’s harder to understand than RPE, just use an RPE of 8 for all.

Joey
Joey

Hi Andy,

I must say this program is working exceptionally well for me. Unfortunately my arms aren’t growing as nicely as the rest of my body is growing. My quadriceps are growing like cabbage, but my arms are lacking. Should I add bicep/triceps exercises? And if so, which days would be most suitable? At the moment I’m following the 3-day program.

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Hi Joey,

1. Possibly, but it’s more likely you’re just underestimating the time it takes for the arms to grow. Your legs carry a lot more muscle mass than your arms so the changes will be proportional. Plus, most people starting a program like this have historically under-trained legs compared with arms, so the gains will come easier.
2. On the upper-body days.

Tom H
Tom H

When doing the 3 day routine, what days are considered upper body? They all seem like full body days. I’m trying to figure out where to add arm assistance work as well.

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Good point, when I responded to Joey I was thinking this was the bodybuilding program article.

There is no ‘correct’ answer for this. Just put that additional arm work, should you decide to, wherever you can do so and recover and progress.

Edward Leung
Edward Leung

Hello,

The 4 days split can it be done on Mon to Thurs and then rest Friday to Sunday?

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Better for recovery (and thus growth) to have them spread out, if possible.

Mark
Mark

Hi Andy
Firstly I would like to thank you for putting out this great content. I have been reading through the 2nd edition of the muscle and strength pyramid recently and I have a question regarding progression on the novice powerlifting program. After I have established an initial 1rm is there a need to reassess this max in the future after a few weeks/months, or do i just continue to add weight on a weekly basis? I think i may have got confused by the percentages on the sample program and recommendations from the progression rules (after the first training week).

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Hi Mark, you’re right. The %1RM guideline is just a way to initially set load. There’s no need to assess it after.

Bartosz
Bartosz

Hi Andy
I am following this program for over 8 weeks it’s great. Recently I have a little problem with progression on BP on day 3 ( 3×4) but at the same time, I don’t have this problem on day 2 (3×3). Currently, I bench heavier on day 2 than day 3.
How should I react? My guess is that I should just decrease weight on day 2 to allow myself regenerate better.

Andy Morgan
Andy Morgan

Hi Bartosz,
You’ll see progression guidelines here.

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