Workout Routines

The 10-Week Powerlifting Program for Dense, Functional Muscle

Blow up your maxes and build dense, function-first muscle with this entry-level, results-driven powerlifting program.

by CSCS
The 10-Week Powerlifting Program for Dense, Functional Muscle
Per Bernal
Per Bernal
Duration 10 Weeks
Exercises 9
Equipment Yes

When bodybuilders hit the stage, they are competing in a subjective judging environment where opinions on victors are seldom universal. But in the world of powerlifting—where the competition is simply a function of athlete versus iron—objectivity reigns supreme. Either the athlete has developed the physical constitution and proficiency to complete the lift or he has not.

Success in either discipline requires specialization. But when was the last time you invested an entire training cycle to simply increasing limit strength on the bench, squat, and deadlift? And what can you do with all that extra strength—not to mention muscular density and durability—at the end of that type of program? Anything you want, that’s what.

Powerlifting 101

Powerlifters have a very narrow competitive focus—bench, squat, and deadlift—and, as a result, their programming is generally free of angled, pump-focused accessory work that you see in physique-focused plans. The principle of specific adaptations to imposed demands (SAID) requires that improvements are dictated by programming. And it is in the specificity of training for extreme gains in three particular lifts that full-body strength begins to thrive.

“Powerlifters know you get stronger when you get bigger and you get bigger when
you eat more and rest more,” says IFBB pro bodybuilder Stan Efferding, who has moonlighted as a competitive powerlifter and posted an 800-pound deadlift. “They exert themselves only when they’re lifting heavy weights and avoid wasting energy elsewhere.”

While muscle breakdown and repair is the name of the game for aesthetics-first lifting, powerlifters champion recovery and progression above all else—because they have to. Powerlifters are taking the slow lane to Strength City because there is no need to keep the heart rate elevated to maximize fat burning, nor is there a need to pack in high amounts of volume each week.

“Powerlifters simply get under heavier and heavier weights, week after week, month after month, year after year,” Efferding says. While bodybuilders focus on getting as big and lean as possible, those gains are competitively subjective. Powerlifters live and die by pound (or kilogram) totals, making each week’s training goals more quantifiable.

While it is not uncommon for lifters from all walks to add weight to the bar, powerlifters exercise careful strategies to exact specific strength responses within the low-volume (five reps or fewer), high-intensity (90% of your one-rep max) construct of their sport. And all that intensity drastically changes another workout variable: rest.

“For strength, I would rest a minimum of five minutes when I was going my heaviest,” Efferding says. “Powerlifters typically don’t lift over five reps in a given set. You don’t want a pump when powerlifting—you want maximum recovery in order to produce a maximum effort on each rep of each set.”

Novice or intermediate lifters hoisting sub-800-pound loads can aim for three to five minutes between sets and exercises.

Keep reading for the split and weights you'll be going for throughout the program.

THE SUPERSTRENGTH SPLIT

Two heavy days plus lots of rest allow for powerlifter-type poundages.

 Day Activity 
  1  Bench
  2   Rest 
  3   Mobility Work 
  4   Rest 
  5   Rest 
  6   Squat or Deadlift 
  7   Rest 

*Efferding does not advocate performing the squat and deadlift in the same week, which can hamper recovery and lead to overtraining.

MUSCLE MATH

No need to load up the bar to
 find out where your starting strength is. Use this calculation to determine your weight loads for the next 10 weeks.

Thanks to researchers from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, you can determine your max on the squat and deadlift with relative accuracy without using a risky, bro-max approach. If you know your 5RM (to failure), you just need to math out:

(5RM weight x 1.09703) +14.2546

So if you can handle 225 for five reps on the deadlift, you would find your 1RM like this:

(225 X 1.09703) + 14.2546 = 261 pounds

You would then use 261 pounds as your anchor point for the percentages listed. Don't want to bother with the math? Try one of many online calculators, such as those found at exrx.net.

THE WEIGHTS

 Week Sets/Reps  %1RM 
  1  5 x 5    80%
   4 x 4     70%
   3 x 3    80%
  4   4 x 4  

  50% (deload week)

  5   5 x 5    70%
   4 x 4    80% 
   3 x 3    90%  
   3 x 3    50% 
  9   3 x 3    80% 
 10   2 x 2    90% 

Competitors would use Week 11 for rest and Week 12 for competition, Efferding says.

Each week, the loads become heavier but total volume goes down in order to account for central nervous system fatigue. You will not feel the same type of muscular soreness in between workouts as you might from a high-volume, hypertrophy-driven program. “You are training your body to move more weight—period,” Efferding says. “This isn’t about a pump.” But the truth remains: A stronger muscle is generally a bigger muscle.

And if getting bigger is your main concern, you’re 10 weeks away from significantly higher starting weights for your next, higher-volume, physique-first program.

PLATEAU WOES

Can’t quite manage your target number of reps? No worries. Use these tips to continue making gains.

Use a spotter.

The use of a judicious, like-minded spotter is one of the best tools you can have in the gym, especially when you’re handling heavier-than-usual weight loads. On lifts that allow it (e.g., the deadlift does not), have your spotter aid you through each set as needed.

Be less exact.

If you can’t complete a lift with the target weight load, reduce the weight on the next set. Remember, the percentages listed are only targets—if you end up completing a set at 65% 1RM instead of 70%, don’t beat yourself up. Simply note it in your training log and aim higher on your next sesh.

POWERLIFTING WISDOM

Efferding offers the following quick tips for maximizing results over the next 10 weeks.

Recovery is paramount.

“Sleeping and eating are where all the growth and repair occur. I get at least eight quality hours of sleep nightly. Use a dark, quiet room and keep the temp under 70 degrees.”

Go vertical.

“For nutrition, I use the ‘vertical diet,’ with these top priorities: red meat for proteins, salt all my meals, potatoes and spinach daily for potassium and magnesium, egg yolks daily, Greek yogurt, bone broth, and vitamin D3 daily, white rice to drive carbs as needed.”

Boost your T.

“You should consider adding a testosterone booster into your supp regimen. It can aid in strength production by increasing free testosterone while suppressing estrogen, resulting in higher aggression and greater anabolism. Look for a product that contains scientifically backed, herbal T boosters such as fenugreek seed extract and ashwagandha root extract.”

Day 1: Bench Day

Exercise 1

Bench Press You'll need: Barbell How to
Bench Press thumbnail
5 sets
5 reps
3-5 min. rest
Consult the chart above so you know how many sets and reps to do and how much weight to use week to week.

Exercise 2

Close-Grip Bench Press You'll need: Bench How to
Close-grip Bench Press thumbnail
5 sets
5 reps
3-5 min. rest

Exercise 3

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press You'll need: Bench How to
Incline Dumbbell Bench Press thumbnail
5 sets
5 reps
3-5 min. rest

Day 2: Rest

Day 3: Mobility Work

Day 4: Rest

Day 5: Rest

Day 6, Option A: Squat Day

Exercise 1

Barbell Back Squat How to
Man Barbell Back Squat thumbnail
5 sets
5 reps
3-5 min. rest
Consult the chart above so you know how many sets and reps to do and how much weight to use week to week.

Exercise 2

Box Squat You'll need: Dumbbells How to
Box Squat  thumbnail
5 sets
5 reps
3-5 min. rest

Exercise 3

Romanian Deadlift You'll need: Barbell How to
Romanian Deadlift thumbnail
5 sets
5 reps
3-5 min. rest

Exercise 4

Lying Leg Curl How to
Lying Hamstring Curl thumbnail
5 sets
5 reps
3-5 min. rest

Day 6, Option B: Deadlift Day

Exercise 1

Barbell Deadlift You'll need: Barbell How to
Barbell Deadlift thumbnail
5 sets
5 reps
3-5 min. rest
Consult the chart above so you know how many sets and reps to do and how much weight to use week to week.

Exercise 2

Chinup You'll need: Pullup Bar How to
Chinup thumbnail
5 sets
5 reps
3-5 min. rest
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