So You Wanna Be A Powerlifter? Programming for a Meet

In our previous episode, we talked about keeping your training up to a competition standard. In this post and episode, we’re going to talk about some of the widely accepted ways to begin training for your first powerlifting meet. If you’re interested in a free 16-week program designed to help someone into their first powerlifting meet, you can head over to and download our program that has been designed as exactly that!

There is a myriad of ways to structure your training, or to ‘periodize’ it. For the purposes of this article, we’ll be talking about a fairly linear periodization and generally accepted model of structuring training – for the sake of keeping it simple.

The Timeframe

I would recommend taking roughly 12-16 weeks at least to prepare for your first powerlifting competition, although there are plenty of situations where more or less would be appropriate. I’ve found 12-16 weeks to be an appropriate length to first accustom a lifter to the patterns, and spend time practicing the movement – as powerlifting is heavily skill-based, and then to begin to push the weight on the bar (intensity) and the total number of repetitions (volume).  

Volume and Intensity and Their Relationship

When powerlifters and coaches refer to ‘volume’, it’s generally used as a way to measure ‘how much work’ you have done or will do in a given session, week, or training block.  Volume is usually expressed as the total number of lifts in a given time period, or the number of lifts multiplied by the amount of weight on the bar per lift (also known as tonnage).

Volume can be useful to track, as volume has been linked with a dose-response relationship in terms of how our bodies adapt to strength training. Intensity refers to the amount of weight on the bar, and how much the weight is relative to the maximum amount you can lift.

In our general linear model, as we move from the beginning of the program to the end, we will see an inverse relationship in volume and intensity. We will program athletes with a high starting volume, and relatively low intensity, and end the training in the opposite – a high intensity and a lower volume.  

When people talk about intensity, it’s usually expressed in one of two ways – as a % of your 1RM (one-repetition maximum) or in the terms of RPE (rating of perceived exertion; an objective measure of performance which considers how many more reps you could have performed in a given set).


Specificity is an important component of training for a powerlifting meet.  How ‘specific’ a movement or exercise is generally referring to how closely it resembles the sport-specific task.  In this case, our task is a one-rep maximum in the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift.

Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk, a highly regarded exercise scientist created a number of classifications for these exercises, which I believe provides an excellent model for thinking of the exercises we use in powerlifting. In layman’s terms, we have the Competition Exercises – in this case, using the form and equipment you would use in competition, the squat, the bench press, and the deadlift.  The secondary category is commonly called Accessory or Auxiliary exercises – these include exercises that closely mimic the movements of the powerlifts, but usually involve a magnitude of variation, for example the paused squat, or a squat to pins.  The third category, Supplementary movements, would include any other exercise that uses the same muscles as the competition movements, but in a different manner – for example the leg press would be a supplemental movement to the squat.

As we near a meet, we generally want to see a shift in the training stimulus to become more ‘specific’ to the competition movements.

The ‘Training Max’

When I’m coaching a newer or intermediate lifter, one thing I am often a big advocate of (when using %-based intensity prescription) is having what we call a ‘training max’.  This is an important number, as it will dictate the working load for nearly all of your training in a given block. I recommend lifters use 93-95% of their true 1-rep max. There are multiple calculators and charts online to help you figure this out.

Final Words

There is an absolutely incredible, overwhelming amount of information surrounding the ‘best’ or ‘optimum’ programming for strength training or powerlifting on the internet. It can be an intimidating can of worms to open. I believe my free program is a pretty good place to start, and there are also many pre-made, beginner friendly programs available online with just a quick search. I’d reckon most of them are fairly worthwhile, and it’s worth it to see what kind of training you enjoy the most, and how you respond to different strategies. Just make sure you stick with a program long enough to see it’s effects!

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.