Powerlifting: Where To Start

I was originally going to write a long post detailing two types of starters: people transferring from another discipline and fresh beginners. Due to the first section being near 2000 words, I’m opting out of the “transferring” section. If there’s interest, I’ll gladly write it. For now, here’s the guide for where to start if you’re brand new.

This post will assume you have not spent much quality time on developing a muscular base. As a powerlifter, you want to maximize your muscle to bodyweight ratio; you want as much muscle as possible at a given weight.

Starting Powerlifting From Scratch

So, you’ve been in the gym for a little bit now. You’ve likely made it a habit, which is commendable in itself! If you’ve managed to make consistency a staple in your gym routine, then you’ve already nailed down the most important basic component of success in your lifting career/journey.

For beginners, you will only require about three to four days a week of lifting to make progress. The time needed to progress resembles a bell curve, in that it starts out very moderate (3-4 days a week), increases to being rather high (5-6 days a week), and drops down to very moderate again (3-4 days a week). That’s because you improve very quickly in the beginning and you can’t meaningfully increase your rate of progress. Eventually, you not only need to continue improving your technical abilities in the big three, but you need even more volume to eek out those last bits of muscular gains, and then you become an elite level lifter who lifts such weight that lifting 5-6 times a week would be impossible to recover from, thus you go back to 3-4. Do not rush the process. There’s no special rewards for putting in 6 days a week when 3 days would get you near the exact same results. But, alas, this is not a progression post, but a beginning.

As a beginner, you have two goals:
1) Become proficient in the three major lifts: Squat, Bench, Deadlift
2) Put on as much muscle as possible.

Let’s break these two goals down and look at how each of them are achieved.

Becoming Proficient

Proficiency, in powerlifting, is a matter of technical mastery. There’s far more nuance to each lift than simply moving it from point A to point B. The particular nuances of each lift is out of the scope of this article, but how to approach them is what we’re going to look at.

The way you gain proficiency is by practicing that lift. I once read a phrase that went something like this:

“The goal is to practice the same squat for four reps, not four different squats for one rep each.”

That’s a paraphrase, but that’s the gist of it. I believe it was said by Boris Sheiko, but I could be wrong. The idea here is that when starting out, your goal is not to necessarily add tons of weight every single session. The weight will come, but the technique that develops it is what will determine whether you have any hope for longevity.

Your primary concern early on in powerlifting needs to be your technique.

Get yourself a coach or an honest training partner. You need another person, who isn’t going to lie to you, to watch your form and make sure you’re lifting properly. If you’re new, this might mean looking for someone that is more experienced than you (once again, a friend or a coach).

Grinding out sets of Squats, Bench, and Deadlifts to failure is not a good use of time early on and will teach you bad habits. Failure has its place, but it is not for new lifters. If you do not have excellent motor patterns engrained into your movements, you will put yourself at both a high risk of injury as well as a high risk of getting red-lighted (competitive failure).

With those warnings out of the way, let’s move on to the second goal: building muscle.

Putting on Muscle

Without getting too technical, I want to give you some general guidelines of how muscle growth occurs so that you understand the cause, effect, and what enables that to occur.

The Cause:

Your muscles grow in response to something called a stimulus, which in this case is lifting weights. Volume (counted in terms of sets) is what prompts your body to build muscle. This volume must be strenuous, typically within 4 reps of failure (this means gun to your head, you can do 4 more and then you physically are unable to complete the movement).

These movements should be strict. Using your hips to give you momentum to swing your curls around does nothing except make you look stupid. You aren’t tricking your body, you’re just using your hips to do a curl, which does absolutely nothing for you.

Your body responds to the stimulus that you place on it — this means that whatever you train your body to do, it will develop in such a way that it becomes better at that specific thing. Thus if you’re swinging your hips around, you’ll just get better at that rather than the curls. If you curl strictly, your arms will develop in order to accommodate the weight you are trying to lift, which is a matter of developing more muscle and developing more efficient motor patterns (technical ability). Lifting weights is one of the few things in life that you cannot cheat, no matter how bad you want to. The results cannot be faked; you either did the work or you didn’t. Aim for excellence in all your movements, and you will reap the rewards.

It is imperative that you treat your muscle building exercises with intentionality. You can very easily waste hours and hours that you will never get back. Focus on these movements when you do them, stress the muscle adequately, and you will succeed. If you aren’t sure whether or not you’re close to failure in the beginning, err on the side of overdoing it. You should be using non-main lift exercises to prompt your muscle growth for the most part (as a beginner you’ll get growth from the main 3, but those are not our primary focus when it comes to muscle growth). If you end up going to failure on a tricep pushdown, you are not risking any serious injury. If you go to failure on a bench press or a squat, you have a much higher chance of hurting yourself, especially if you’re new.

The Effects:

When you put this strain on your body, you’re forcing it to change. In the beginning, your body will change quickly. As time goes on, you will realize that the body’s desire for homeostasis (resistance to change) is not your friend in this regard. Your body will begin to develop more motor neurons throughout your muscles to improve motor recruitment, which will result in you getting stronger. Your body will also start to create new muscle in response to the muscle building exercises due to the volume, which will mean more potential locations for motor neurons, motor recruitment, leading to more overall strength. The bigger the muscles, the higher the ceiling of potential strength.

What enables these effects:

Your body does not generate tissue from nothing; everything has a cost and a requirement. There are three boxes that must be checked:

  1. Adequate Stimulus
  2. Adequate Nutrition
  3. Adequate Recovery

We have already talked about stimulus.

Nutritionally, you must be eating enough calories to gain weight at a relatively slow pace (about 0.5lbs per week at the fastest), or at least not be losing weight. If you haven’t built much muscle in the past, chances are you will put on muscle regardless of how many calories you eat. That will change eventually, but if that’s the case, feel free to eat at maintenance (not gaining or losing) and enjoy the body recomposition.

In addition to adequate calorie intake, you must be eating enough protein. This range is 0.72-1 gram per pound of lean body mass. If you’re gaining weight, you can eat towards the lower end. If you’re losing weight, it’s better to stick towards that upper end. Carbohydrates are your friend, and a minimum amount of fat is necessary. Your dietary breakdown should look something like this:

0.72-1g/lb of body weight – Protein Intake
0.3g/lb of body weight – Fat intake
Rest of your calories – Carbs

Fat can be higher if you choose. The main thing here is that you need to be eating nutritious food. Eat whole foods, fruits, veggies, and lean proteins. Basically, eat like you care about your health.

As for recovery, make sure you’re getting at least 8 hours of quality sleep per night (I talk a bit about the effects of sleep here). Do your best to minimize and deal with your life stress. Sleep will be the difference between getting results and spinning your wheels. If you neglect your sleep consistently, you’re just setting yourself up for failure. That being said, one night’s sleep isn’t going to ruin your gains. It’s all about consistent habits. If bad sleep is a hiccup, you’re fine. If bad sleep is a rule, you need to fix it ASAP.

With all that being said, here’s a sample of what your beginning program would look like for a week.

Three Day Split (With Optional Fourth)

Day One
Main Lifts:
Squat: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps @ 70%-80%
Bench: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps @ 70%-80%
Muscle Building Accessories:
Leg Press: 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps @ RIR 3
Horizontal Lat Exercise: 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps @ RIR 3
Chest Exercise: 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps @ RIR 3
Tricep Exercise: 3-5 sets of 12-15 reps @ RIR 3

Rest Day

Day Two
Main Lifts:
Deadlift: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps @ 70%-80%
Bench: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps @ 70%-80%
Muscle Building Accessories:
Hamstring Exercise: 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps @ RIR 3
Leg Press (or other quad focused exercise): 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps @ RIR 3
Chest Exercise: 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps @ RIR 3
Tricep Exercise: 3-5 sets of 12-15 reps @ RIR 3

Rest Day

Day Three
Main Lifts:
Bench: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps @ 70%-80%
Squat: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps @ 70%-80%
Muscle Building Accessories:
Hamstring Exercise: 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps @ RIR 3
Vertical Lat Exercise: 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps @ RIR 3
Chest Exercise: 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps @ RIR 3
Tricep Exercise: 3-5 sets of 12-15 reps @ RIR 3

Rest Day or Optional Fourth Day
Main Lifts:
Deadlift: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps @ 70%-80%
Bench: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps @ 70%-80%
Muscle Building Accessories:
Horizontal Lat Exercise: 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps @ RIR 3
Vertical Lat Exercise: 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps @ RIR 3
Rear Delt Exercise: 3-5 sets of 12-15 reps @ RIR 3
Tricep Exercise: 3-5 sets of 12-15 reps @ RIR 3

Rest Day

As you can see, the main lifts are not meant to be exceptionally strenuous. They should leave you with about 3-4 reps in the tank every set. That’s because there are better ways to develop the musculature that goes into those movements than by grinding out the movements themselves. They cause a good amount of fatigue compared to their bodybuilding counterparts with not as much stimulus. They do, however, teach you to become technically proficient. Becoming proficient leads to more efficient lifts, which leads to bigger lifts. There’s a period of time where you will push much higher numbers on your main lifts, but starting out is not that time.

I hope this has given you a bit of a better understanding about how to approach powerlifting as a beginner.

If you’re interested in coaching, please contact me via the “Coaching” page which can be found here.

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