Powerlifting is a great way to add strength training to your workouts

What is Powerlifting? A Strength Routine for Beginners

By: Liz Lotts, RDN; NASM-CPT

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD

Fact: if you want to build strength, you have to lift heavy weights. More specifically, you need to lift the heaviest weights you can handle, or whatever gets you to the point of fatigue. It's not an easy concept. In fact, this style of training is so challenging it's become an international sport called powerlifting.

But what if you don't have the time to work out like a professional athlete every day? Fear not—powerlifting doesn't require long training hours. With the right powerbuilding program, you could be in and out of the gym in 30 minutes.

Sound too good to be true? Get all the facts about powerlifting, and then you can decide.

What is powerlifting?

Powerlifting is a sport where athletes lift their heaviest weight for one rep, also known as a one-rep maximum. In contrast to a marathon runner who needs muscular endurance, powerlifting athletes focus on muscular strength. Muscular strength refers to the ability to generate maximum force.

In competition, a barbell is used for powerlifting movements. There are three main powerlifting exercises:

  1. Back squat
  2. Bench press
  3. Deadlift

When powerlifting athletes compete, they're judged on their performance of these three exercises only. The lifter is allowed three attempts to reach their one-rep max. Powerlifting scores are based on a combination of technique and on the weight lifted. Athletes are divided into age groups and bodyweight brackets.

Why powerlifting is good for you

Let's be clear: all forms of physical activity are good for you. A powerlifting program happens to be particularly beneficial because it involves resistance training. In a randomized controlled trial of men 50-79 years old, progressive resistance training plus impact training supported healthy bone density in just 18 months. The best results were seen when they trained at least twice per week.

In fact, the more frequent exercisers were better able to support lumbar spine trabecular bone mineral density by 3.9-5.12% compared to non-exercisers. And that's not all—resistance training also helps fight age-related muscle decline and supports balance.

Powerlifting has unique benefits for all ages, though. The squat, bench press and deadlift each offer specific performance benefits. For instance, squatting has proven to increase lower body strength, which translates to increased sprinting speeds and agility. Even if you aren't a sprinter, squatting is an activity of daily life. You perform a squat every time you get in your car, sit down on your couch or go to the bathroom. Building strength in your quads and glutes with the barbell squat supports overall mobility and function, so you can maintain an active lifestyle.

In case you need more reason to become a heavy lifter, here's a good one: people who powerlift were better able to support the muscles in their back compared to people who don't strength train. The benefits of powerlifting mostly apply to back stability associated with walking on a flat surface, lifting items from the floor and moving items above eye level. Anyone who's on their feet all day or has a job that requires lifting should seriously consider powerlifting workouts to support comfortable movement.

Powerlifting vs. bodybuilding

While both powerlifting and bodybuilding are competitive sports that involve lifting weights, there are notable differences between the two. Powerlifters and bodybuilders have different goals, different training techniques and different standards for competition.


  • Goal: Powerlifting is all about building muscular strength in order to lift at maximum capacity. It's a very purposeful sport.
  • Training technique: Generally speaking, powerlifters use low rep ranges with heavy weights and take long rest periods between sets.
  • Competition: Powerlifters are judged on their ability to lift heavy with good form. The more weight an athlete can lift while meeting the criteria for technique, the more points they earn.


  • Goal: Bodybuilders want to build muscle mass while decreasing body fat in order to achieve the leanest aesthetic possible.
  • Training technique: Using a mix of barbells, dumbbells and machines, bodybuilders lift moderately heavy weights at a higher rep range. They tend to work through many more exercises than a powerlifter. Also, rest periods are shorter; only 1-2 minutes between sets.
  • Competition: Bodybuilders are judged on a stage, where they work through a series of poses to show off their muscle size and definition. Judges score competitors by comparing their posing routines and overall physiques.

Fact or myth: Powerlifting and the Olympics

While you may have heard powerlifting compared to or called Olympic lifting, don't get the two confused! While both types of sports and workouts emphasize overall strength, powerlifting is a little less technical and focuses on the three main exercises, and may be less demanding on the body. It's also not an official Olympic sport. So if you're trying to incorporate a certain type of strength training in your workouts, powerlifting may be the way to go.

How do you get into powerlifting?

Believe it or not, powerlifting is suitable for all fitness levels. And you don't have to compete to enjoy the sport. You do, however, need to make sure your form is on point. Because powerlifting involves technical lifts at very heavy weights, proper form is essential. If you can't do a deadlift comfortably or you're completely new to weight training, invest in a powerlifting coach. Not only can a coach help with form, but they might provide the extra workout motivation you need to stick with a new routine.

Other essentials you might need to start your power building program:

  • Barbell rack
  • Weight bench
  • Powerlifting barbell (45 lbs.)
  • Weight plates to load the barbell
  • Safety clips to keep the weight plates secure
  • Flat-sole shoes with good traction
  • Weightlifting belt
  • Knee sleeves
  • Wrist wraps
  • Chalk to help grip the bar

Powerlifting routine for beginners

Whether you have a coach to guide you or not, beginners can easily get overwhelmed or confused by the programming of their powerlifting workouts. Quite frankly, though, powerlifting is one of the most straightforward sports, so keep it simple. The average lifter fares well with a five-day split. A five-day split means you do workouts for five days and rest for two days. Your five-day split would include:

  • 3 days working at near-max intensity = 70-90% of your maximum weight for the back squat, bench press and deadlift with lower rep ranges
  • 2 days working at moderate intensity = 40-70% of your maximum weight with the same exercises or variations of them using higher rep ranges

Accessory exercises can–and should–be incorporated into any of your workouts. Typically, these assistance exercises are variations of the back squat, bench press and deadlift. However, they can also include isolation exercises for smaller muscles and muscle groups, such as triceps, biceps and deltoids. Either way, accessory work is meant to strengthen the muscles that support the three main lifts. For instance, a good morning works the hamstrings and lower back. These muscles must be strong and stable for you to perform your very best deadlift.

Now that you know what goes into a powerlifting routine, let's build out a sample week:

Day 1 (Near-Max Intensity):

Bench press – 4-6 sets of 1-4 reps at 80% max weight
Close-grip bench press – 4-6 sets of 1-4 reps at 80% max weight
Incline press – 3 sets of 6-12 reps at 60% max weight
Triceps (rope) pulldown – 3 sets of 6-12 reps at 40% max weight

Day 2 (Near-Max Intensity):

Back squat – 4-6 sets of 1-4 reps at 80% max weight
Front squat – 4-6 sets of 1-4 reps at 75% max weight
Dumbbell Bulgarian split squat – 3 sets of 6-12 reps (each leg) at 50% max weight
Single-leg leg extension – 3 sets of 6-12 reps (each leg) at 40% max weight

Day 3:


Day 4 (Moderate Intensity + Accessory Work):

Sumo-style deadlift – 4 sets of 6-12 reps at 60% max weight
Dumbbell staggered-stance deadlift – 4 sets of 10 reps (each leg)
Good mornings – 4 sets of 10 reps
Seated cable row – 3 sets of 12 reps

Day 5 (Moderate Intensity + Accessory Work):

Bench press with a pause – 4 sets of 6-12 reps at 60% max weight
Cable chest fly – 4 sets of 10 reps
Cable back fly – 4 sets of 10 reps
Power push-ups – 3 sets of 12 reps

Day 6 (Near-Max Intensity + Accessory Work):

Deadlift – 4-6 sets of 1-4 reps at 85% max weight
Bent-over barbell row – 4 sets of 6-12 reps
Lying hamstring curl – 4 sets of 6-12 reps
Kettlebell swing/Dumbbell hip-hinge swing – 3 sets of 12 reps

Day 7:


Pro-tip: Not sure what your one rep max is or how to perform some of these exercises? These tools from NASM can help you calculate your one-rep max and show you exactly how these exercises are done. If you're still feeling unsure about any of these workouts, it might be time to consult a personal trainer to help you on your powerlifting journey.

How to increase your powerlifting results

You've been working hard and have the basic five-day split down to a science. Now what? Once you get more serious about your powerlifting workouts, you want to make the most of them. While you can't become the strongest lifter overnight, you can still boost your strength gains with a few key strategies.

  • Be specific.

    A football player doesn't practice hitting a baseball because that's not part of their sport. So if you're going to compete as a powerlifter, you have to practice back squatting, bench pressing and deadlifting…a lot. These exercises are specific to the sport, which means you have to practice these exact exercises.
  • Progressively overload the muscles.

    To become a stronger lifter, you need to continuously increase the load (aka the weight) on your muscles. A 10% increase in weight class week-over-week is a safe and reasonable amount. Adding too much weight too soon can overwork your muscles.
  • Recover hard.

    Recovery is what you do outside the gym to rest and refuel your body and should be included as an essential part of your training program. This includes getting adequate nutrition, sleeping 7-9 hours per night and scheduling time off from your workout routine to avoid overtraining. For most athletes, recovery is harder to execute than the training sessions. Your competitive spirit comes out and makes you feel invincible. Unfortunately, no matter how strong a lifter you are, no one is the exception when it comes to rest. Finding ways to recover your muscles after a workout will be key to your powerlifting success.
  • Supplement your nutrition.

    Sometimes, it's hard to get all the nutrients you need in a regular meal plan. A regular lifter, for instance, needs about 2.3-3.1 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. To hit these targets, you may need a concentrated whey protein supplement. Several randomized controlled trials have shown that protein supplements significantly support lean muscle mass during prolonged resistance training.
  • Creatine is another supplement with scientifically studied results, specifically for powerlifting exercises. One study examined 22 weightlifters while performing their one-rep max for back squat and bench press. The subjects who supplemented with creatine increased their back squat max by 13.4% and increased their maximal strength in the bench press by 5.9%.

    It's also important to remember that you don't want to just support your muscles, you want to support your full body—and that includes your bones! Your muscles and bones work together to keep you upright and strong. While resistance training positively benefits your overall bone health, there are certain formulas that can further enhance all your hard work in the gym. The bone-supportive combination of collagen, calcium, magnesium and silicon has been clinically studied to benefit bone density and strength, making it easier for you to perform your powerlifting exercises and stick to your goals.

On your mark, get set, lift!

The truth is, powerlifting is no different than any other type of sports training. Your powerlifting workouts need to be specific, your intensity or workload needs to get progressively harder and your nutrition needs to be on point–along with hydration and sleep. Oh, and don't forget to have fun! As long as you enjoy powerlifting and you're having fun, you'll keep seeing results.

About the Author: Liz Lotts is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified personal trainer. She has a passion for helping people achieve their health goals through personalized nutrition and effective fitness programs. In her free time, Liz enjoys running, lifting weights, watching live sports with her husband and traveling to new places.

Credentials/Degrees: RDN; NASM-CPT; Certified Orangetheory Fitness Coach; TRX Qualified Coach; Bachelor’s in Advertising, Marketing & Communications; Master of Science in Dietetics.