Key Takeaways

  1. Powerlifting is a sport that consists of lifting as much weight as possible on the squat, bench press, and deadlift for a single repetition.
  2. Although many people think powerlifting only helps you gain strength, it’s also an outstanding way to build muscle if you train correctly.
  3. If you want to get started with powerlifting, you want to do a lot of heavy squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting in the 1-to-6-rep range, as well as some isolation exercises in the 6-to-15-rep range.

Powerlifting has become more and more popular in the past few decades, and you’ve probably heard many different things about this sport.

Let’s start with the obvious stuff.

When most people think of powerlifting, they think of someone like Eddie Hall, one of the strongest men in the world:

powerlifting eddie hall


In other words, most people associate powerlifting with being big and strong, but not very lean or “aesthetic.” (Granted, I know Hall is a strongman, not a powerlifter, but this observation still holds true).

There’s even an old joke in the fitness world that goes, “If you can’t get lean enough for bodybuilding, you can always try powerlifting.”

The second thing many people have reservations about is getting injured.

For example, they see videos like this . . .

And understandably assume that this sport is about as good for your health as competitive chain smoking.

Finally, there’s the less common but still prevalent idea that most powerlifters are just fit guys and gals with freakishly good genetics for pushing and pulling heavy things.

For example, if you saw this guy on the street you probably wouldn’t assume he could squat in the mid 500s, deadlift over 600, and bench over 300 pounds . . .

powerlifting richard hawthorne

. . . but he can:

So, if you have a lot of conflicting emotions about whether or not you should try powerlifting, I understand.

Once you peek under the hood of powerlifting and learn what’s actually involved, you’ll quickly realize the truth:

  • It’s not all about getting as big and strong as possible regardless of how much fat you gain.
  • It’s not dangerous compared to most sports when done properly.
  • It’s not reserved for the freakishly strong genetic elite.

In fact, the reality of powerlifting is that . . .

  • It’s one of the single best ways to gain muscle and strength
  • It’s an outstanding sport for both beginner and advanced lifters, and everyone in between.
  • It’s one of the healthiest and safest ways to stay in shape, assuming you follow a well-designed program and use proper technique.

The bottom line is that if you’re new to lifting weights or an old hand who’s interested in getting as strong as possible, you want to learn about powerlifting.

Let’s start by defining exactly what this sport is.

What Is Powerlifting?

Powerlifting is a sport that consists of lifting as much weight as possible on the squat, bench press, and deadlift for a single repetition.

You perform all three of these exercises at a powerlifting “meet,” where you take turns with other lifters to see who can lift the most weight on these exercises.

Here’s how a powerlifting meet works:

  • All of the competitors are divided into different weight classes based on their body weight the day before or of the meet (depending on the rules of that particular competition) and their sex.
  • Each lifter gets three attempts to lift as much weight as possible on the squat, bench press, and deadlift, for a total of nine attempts (three per exercise).
  • In a pre-arranged order, everyone in a particular weight class makes their first attempt at the squat. Once everyone is finished with their first attempt, they make their second attempt, and so forth until everyone has made three attempts at the squat.
  • Next, the process is repeated for the bench press, and then finally for the deadlift.
  • Most lifters start with a weight that’s slightly lower than their goal for the day and attempt to build up to a new best one-rep max by their third attempt.
  • Three judges observe each lift, and give the competitor either a white light if they complete the rep using proper technique, or a red light if they used improper technique or failed to complete the lift. If someone gets two or more white lights, the lift counts toward their score. If someone gets two or more red lights, the lift doesn’t count toward their score.

At the end of the meet, the highest amount of weight each competitor was able to lift on each rep is added together to create their total—or their best squat, bench press, and deadlift combined.

The person with the highest total in each weight class wins.

For example, if the most weight you lifted for the squat, bench press, and deadlift was 400, 300, and 500 pounds, respectively, then your total would be 1,200 pounds.

There are many different kinds of powerlifting, too, depending on what kind of equipment you’re allowed to use.

In the raw division, you’re allowed to use a belt, squat shoes, wrist wraps, and knee and elbow sleeves, but no other equipment.

In the classic raw division, you’re allowed to use everything from the raw division as well as knee wraps, which allow you to lift slightly more weight.

In the single or double ply divisions, you’re allowed to use everything from the classic raw division as well as specialized weightlifting suits that are either one layer (single ply) or two layers (double ply) thick. These suits allow you to lift significantly more weight than you would be able to otherwise.

Most people new to powerlifting compete in the raw division, and it’s often considered the purest expression of true strength as the lifters get the least assistance from equipment. That said, there’s nothing wrong with the other divisions, either.

Powerlifting is often confused with Olympic weightlifting, but they’re very different sports.

Olympic lifting involves lifting as much weight overhead as possible using two different exercises: the snatch and the clean and jerk.

We don’t need to get into the nitty gritty details, but the long and short of Olympic weightlifting is that it’s a much more technical sport than powerlifting that requires a great deal more coordination and balance.

Typically, powerlifters spend the bulk of their training time practicing the “big three”—the squat, bench press, and deadlift. They do most of their sets in the 1-to-5 rep range, resting anywhere from 2 to 10 minutes between sets, or as long as they require to fully recover before the next set. (A common joke in the powerlifting word is, “If it’s over 5 reps, it’s cardio.”)

Most powerlifters also do a few “accessory” exercises to aid their main lifts, such as Romanian deadlifts, Bulgarian split squats, incline bench press, and so forth.

Powerlifters also tend to plan their training months in advance, working on building muscle and strengthening weak points several months before a competition, and working on getting as strong as possible on the squat, bench press, and deadlift as they approach the competition.

Can You Build Muscle with Powerlifting?

powerlifting build muscle

Many people believe that lifting heavy weights is only for getting stronger or competing in a sport like powerlifting, lifting lighter weights for more repetitions is better for building muscle.

While there’s a kernel of truth to this idea, it’s mostly wrongheaded.

You see, the truth is that you can build muscle effectively using a wide variety of rep ranges, including both very few (3 to 5) and very many (15 to 20) reps per set.

A good example of this comes from a study conducted by scientists at City University of New York.

The scientists split 20 resistance-trained men aged 20 to 31 years old into two groups:

  1. Group one performed 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps with 90 seconds of rest between each set for all of their exercises. This was the “hypertrophy” group.
  2. Group two performed 7 sets of 2 to 4 reps with 3 minutes of rest between each set for all of their exercises. This was the “strength training” group.

Everyone performed a 3-day per week push pull legs workout routine that involved the flat and incline bench press and machine flye, wide- and close-grip lat pulldown and seated cable row, and barbell squat, leg press, and leg extension.

The scientists adjusted the participants’ training so that both groups lifted about the same amount of total weight (sets x reps x weight) each week. They also continually increased everyone’s weights so that they were reaching muscular failure on every set and getting stronger week to week.

Before and after the study, the scientists measured the participant’s one-rep max for the bench press and squat, and measured their biceps thickness with ultrasound as a proxy for muscle growth.

All of the participants followed this workout routine for eight weeks. By the end of the study, both groups’ biceps had grown 13%, with no difference between the two protocols.

Group two, though, added 25 pounds to their bench and 60 pounds to their squat, whereas group one only added 18 pounds to their bench and 48 pounds to their squat.

When this study came out, the pro-powerlifting crowd shared it around as definitive proof that powerlifting is just as good for building muscle as bodybuilding-style training. And it does sort of show that.

On the other hand, there are a few other aspects of this study that should give you pause before you start using low reps and heavy weights for all of your training:

  1. Group one, the high-rep group, finished their workouts in about 17 minutes, whereas group two, the low-rep group, finished their workouts in 70 minutes. From a time efficiency standpoint, the higher rep group won.
  2. The differences in strength gains weren’t all that significant between the groups, and the difference in squat strength wasn’t statistically significant, either.
  3. Everyone in the low-rep group felt like they’d been thrown down a stairwell by the end of the study. To quote the lead author of the study, Brad Schoenfeld, “Almost all of them complained of sore joints and general fatigue, and the two dropouts from this group were because of joint-related injury (and these routines were highly supervised with respect to form, so we took every precaution for safety). On the other hand, the HT [hypertrophy] group all felt they could have worked substantially harder and done more volume.”

So, what are you supposed to make of all of this?

Well, first of all, it does indicate that you can effectively build muscle with powerlifting-style training. It also indicates powerlifting leads to greater strength gains over time than bodybuilding.

That said, this study also shows that doing all of your sets with low reps and heavy weights is a recipe for burnout, injury, and a lot of waiting around in the gym between sets.

This is why most powerlifters carefully plan their training in such a way that they’re splitting their training between lighter weights and higher reps and heavier weights and lower reps.

This way, they get the best of both worlds.

You’ll get an example of what this kind of program looks like in a moment.

The bottom line is that you can build muscle with powerlifting, but you’ll make better progress over time if you also incorporate lighter weight, higher rep sets into your training.

Is Powerlifting Dangerous?

Many people think powerlifting is inherently dangerous, and I understand why.

When you compare squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting gargantuan amounts of weight to other forms of exercise, like jogging, cycling, or calisthenics, weightlifting looks more like a death wish than a discipline.

Ironically, though, research shows that it’s actually one of the safest kinds of exercise you can do . . . when it’s done properly.

Proof of this comes from a review study conducted by scientists at Bond University that involved 20 different studies on injury rates from sports such as bodybuilding, strongman, Crossfit, and powerlifting.

The scientists found that on average, powerlifters suffered only one injury per 1,000 hours of training.

To put that in perspective, if you spend five hours per week weightlifting, you could go almost four years without experiencing any kind of injury whatsoever.

The scientists also noted that most of the injuries tended to be minor aches and pains that didn’t require any type of special treatment or recovery protocols. In most cases, rest with a bit of ice and heat wins the day.

Now, as we move into more intense and technical types of weightlifting, like CrossFit, Olympic weightlifting, and powerlifting, the injury rate rose, but not nearly as much as you might think. These activities produced just 2 to 4 injuries per 1,000 hours of training.

For comparison, sports like ice hockey, football, soccer, and rugby have injury rates ranging from 6 to 260 per 1,000 hours, and long-distance runners can expect about 10 injuries per 1,000 hours of pavement pounding.

In other words, you’re about 6 to 10 times more likely to get hurt playing everyday sports than hitting the gym for some heavy weightlifting.

If you want to learn more about your risk of getting injured from lifting weights, and what you can do to avoid getting injured, read this article:

How Dangerous Is Weightlifting? What 20 Studies Have to Say

How to Train for Powerlifting

how to train for powerlifting

Poke around on Google, Reddit, and the many powerlifting blogs and forums, and you’ll find myriad different powerlifting programs to choose from.

Some people say you should stick with something minimal like Starting Strength until that stops working.

Others say you should use the most challenging program you can tolerate, such as Sheiko, Smolov, Westside Barbell, or the Bulgarian method.

Read further, and you’ll find many other training programs pieced together by lifters over the years, such as Mad Cow, PHAT, GZCL, and others.

And then, of course, almost every high-level powerlifter has a proprietary training program for sale, too.

Which one should you choose?

Well, before you make that decision, it’s best to first learn the principles that make all good powerlifting programs tick. They are . . .

  1. Specificity
  2. Progressive overload
  3. Recovery

(This is an oversimplification and there are many facets of powerlifting we could go over, but these are the biggies).

Specificity refers to training in a way mimics what you’ll do in competition as closely as possible. In powerlifting, this means spending a good portion of your training doing a lot of heavy squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting.

Getting really strong on front squats is a great way to build your quads, but it’s not going to improve your back squat as much as back squatting.

Not only is exercise specificity important, but rep range specificity matters, too. Your strength is largely specific to the rep ranges you use the most in training, so you want to spend a good chunk of your training time working in lower rep ranges.

Progressive overload refers to increasing the amount of tension your muscles produce over time, and the most effective way to do this is by progressively increasing the amount of weight that you’re lifting.

In other words, the key to gaining muscle and strength isn’t doing a laundry list of different exercises, balancing on a BOSU ball, or seeing how much you can sweat on everything in the gym, and this is particularly true in powerlifting.

Instead, the key to getting stronger and building muscle is forcing your muscles to work harder over time. This is exactly what you do when you gradually force them to handle heavier and heavier weights.

Recovery, also sometimes referred to as fatigue management, refers to strategically incorporating rest into your training program in a way that allows you to adapt to your workouts and become stronger over time.

This is one of the most underrated aspects of proper training not just for powerlifting, but for any sport. Perhaps the number one mistake made by newbie lifters is doing too much, too soon, and either getting burnt out, injured, or simply progressing slower than they should.

Proper recovery encompasses . . .

If you get these three things right, then you’re going to be ahead of 90% of people who are interested in powerlifting.

Understanding all three of these principles also makes it much easier to pick an effective powerlifting program that’s right for you.

For example, an extremely high-volume powerlifting program like Smolov can work well for an experienced lifter, but it’s generally going to be far, far too much progressive overload and too little recovery for a beginner.

Likewise, a simple, low-volume strength training program like Starting Strength could provide the right mix of specificity, progressive overload, and recovery for a beginner, but would likely be far too easy for an experienced powerlifter.

Once you grasp these principles, you can see why the “best” powerlifting program for someone else might not be the best one for you.

The best powerlifting program for you depends on your goals, your training experience, your ability to recover from your workouts, and your preferences.

If you’re reading this article, then I’m going to assume that you’re relatively new to powerlifting or strength training on the whole.

In that case, I recommend you stick to the following guidelines when setting up your training. These come from Eric Helms, PhD, who’s a powerlifting and bodybuilding coach, drug-free powerlifter and bodybuilder, and member of the Legion Scientific Advisory Board.

In terms of training frequency, or how often you train the squat, bench press, and deadlift, Eric recommends most beginners train each lift two to three times per week. This lets you practice these lifts often enough to quickly improve your skill, while still allowing plenty of time for recovery.

In terms of volume, or sets per week, Eric recommends you aim for around 10 to 20 sets each of squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting per week.

In terms of rep ranges, Eric recommends you do about 60 to 80% of your sets in the 1-to-6-rep range and about 20 to 40% of your sets in the 6-to-15-rep range.

In terms of rest periods, Eric recommends you rest as long as you need to between sets to ensure you’ve fully recouped your strength and can exert maximum effort on the next set.

And in terms of intensity, Eric recommends you do all of your sets about 0 to 5 reps from failure. In general, you’ll take your squat, bench press, and deadlift about 1 to 3 reps shy of failure, and your accessory exercises 2 to 5 reps shy of failure.

There are many good powerlifting programs to choose from, but one that fits these guidelines particularly well also comes from Eric’s book, the Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid.

Eric includes both a 3-day and a 4-day per week novice powerlifting program in the book.

Here’s the 4-day per week plan, which is what I recommend you follow if you have the time:

novice powerlifting program

And here’s the 3-day per week plan, which is a good option if you’re on a time-crunched schedule:

novice powerlifting program sample

A few notes on how to set up this program:

  1. Eric intentionally left some of the exercise recommendations open-ended. For example, the “SL Variant” on day 4 of the 4-day per week plan stands for a single-leg variant of the squat. You could do Bulgarian split squats, dumbbell lunges, single-leg barbell squats, or whatever you like. As long as it’s a single-leg compound exercise that’s squat-like, it’s fair game.
  2. Eric provided two different ways of measuring your exercise intensity: % of 1RM and 1st Set RPE.

It’s worth spending a moment to understand these two concepts, as they’re used in many powerlifting programs.

A one-rep max is the maximum amount of weight you can lift for a single repetition of a given exercise through a full range of motion with proper technique. Knowing your one-rep max helps you maintain optimal workout intensity (and thereby achieve optimal results).

Once you know your one-rep max, you can decide how much weight to use in your workouts based on a fraction of that number. For example, on day one of Eric’s 4-day per week plan, you’re doing squats with 70% of your one-rep max. If your one-rep max is 300 pounds, that means you’ll be squatting with 210 pounds.

Read this article to learn more about how to use your one-rep max in your training:

A Simple and Accurate One-Rep Max Calculator (and How to Use it)

The problem with using percentages of your one-rep max, though, is that calculating and tracking your one-rep max for some exercises isn’t very practical. For example, estimating a one-rep max for an isolation exercise like the barbell curl is tricky and often prone to error.

This is where your first set RPE comes in handy. RPE stands for rating of perceived effort, and it’s a subjective measurement of how hard an exercise feels, usually on a scale of 1 to 10.

By setting a goal RPE for your first set of a particular exercise, you have a simple, reliable, and scientific method to decide how hard you’re going to push yourself to progress.

In other words, it helps you strategically add or subtract weight and reps based on how you’re feeling on a day-to-day basis, while also ensuring that your muscle and strength gains trend upward over time.

Read this article to learn more about how to use RPE in your training.

This Is the Best Guide to the RPE Scale on the Internet

With that out of the way, here’s how I generally like to set up Eric’s 4-day per week novice powerlifting program:

Day 1


Warm up and . . .

3 sets of 8 reps at 70% of one-rep max (1RM)

Bench Press

3 sets of 8 reps at 70% of 1RM

Day 2

Bench Press

Warm up and . . .

3 sets of 3 reps at 80% of 1RM


3 sets of 3 reps at 85% of 1RM

Day 3


Warm up and . . .

3 sets of 4 reps at 85% of 1RM

Bench Press

3 sets of 4 reps at 85% of 1RM

Day 4

Walking Dumbbell Lunge

Warm up and . . .

3 sets of 8 reps at 2 to 3 RIR

One-Arm Dumbbell Row

4 sets of 10 reps at 2 to 3 RIR

Seated Military Press

4 sets of 10 reps at 2 to 3 RIR

Chin-Up (Weighted if Possible)

4 sets of 10 reps at 2 to 3 RIR

A few notes on how to do this program:

  • Try to do no more than two workouts before taking a rest day. For example, many people like to set up their workout routine like this:

Monday: Day 1

Tuesday: Day 2

Wednesday: Rest

Thursday: Day 3

Friday: Day 4

Saturday: Rest

Sunday: Rest

This ensures you get enough recovery between each workout to progress over time.

  • Try to add weight to every exercise every time you train. You won’t necessarily do this every time you set foot in the gym and you don’t want to sacrifice good technique to increase the weight, but you should be adding weight to every exercise over time.
  • Make sure you eat enough food. If you want to gain strength and muscle as quickly as possible, then you need to eat enough calories to recover from your workouts. If you don’t, you simply won’t progress as fast as you should. Read this article to learn how many calories you should eat.
  • Deload every 3 to 6 weeks, depending on how you feel. If you’re eating enough calories, sleeping enough, and staying one or two reps shy of failure, but still feeling beat up and sore, take a deload. If you’re feeling good and progressing on most of your exercises, keep going. Read this article to learn how to deload.

The Bottom Line on Powerlifting

powerlifting benefits

Powerlifting is a sport that consists of lifting as much weight as possible on the squat, bench press, and deadlift for a single repetition.

In a powerlifting meet, lifters take turns lifting as much weight as they can on the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Whoever is able to lift the most weight on these three exercises wins the meet.

Many people believe that lifting heavy weights is only for getting stronger or competing in a sport like powerlifting, lifting lighter weights for more repetitions is better for building muscle.

The truth is that heavy, low-rep weightlifting, like powerlifting, is an extremely effective way to build muscle. The downside is that this kind of training also tends to be harder on your body, which is why most powerlifters supplement their heavy, low-rep training with lighter, higher-rep training.

Although many people think powerlifting is inherently dangerous, the reality is that it’s one of the safest forms of exercise you can do, when done properly.

There are many good powerlifting programs to choose from, but they all follow three basic principles:

  1. Specificity
  2. Progressive overload
  3. Recovery

The right mix of these principles depends on your goals, how long you’ve been training, what you enjoy, and how well you recover from powerlifting-style workouts.

If you’re new to powerlifting, Eric Helms’ 4-day per week novice powerlifting program is an outstanding place to start.

Try to add weight to every exercise week to week, make sure you eat enough food, and deload every 3 to 6 weeks, and you’ll get stronger and stronger.

Happy lifting!

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What’s your take on powerlifting? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!