The squat, bench, and deadlift are staples in the strength training realm no matter your sport. But when you put these three lifts together, you get the sport of powerlifting. If you’re a fan of the barbell, you might be interested in lifting some heavy weight — that is exactly what powerlifting is all about.
Maybe you’re trying to get stronger, in competition with only your previous self. Or you might be looking to bolster your strength to eventually compete against others at a sanctioned meet. Whatever your reasons for getting started with the big three, you’ll want to make sure you’re doing the most effective workouts.
Starting fresh can seem like a daunting task, but keep on reading and keep on lifting. Here, you’ll learn how to get started with the five best powerlifting workouts for beginners.
Best Powerlifting Workouts for Beginners
- Powerlifting Squat Workout for Beginners
- Powerlifting Bench Workout for Beginners
- Powerlifting Deadlift Workout for Beginners
- Powerlifting Workouts for Bodybuilders
- Powerlifting Workout for Aspiring Competitors
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Never squatted before? That’s okay. This workout will ease you into how you can start your journey of building up a big squat. Beginners often are not limited by their strength but by their motor skills when performing a new movement.
Feel free to experiment with your stance and bar placement to find what is most comfortable for you. Remember, the focus here is to just get started with squatting. Stick with it and your technique will improve over time.
This workout is designed to help you feel more comfortable with having a bar behind your back and get you closer to a competition-legal squat, which generally means your thighs break below parallel with the ground.
The squat movement may feel very foreign if you’ve never done it before. That’s why this workout includes exercises such as a goblet squat and a box squat to help you get accustomed to the movement pattern.
- Goblet Squat: 1 x 8 @ 70% 1RM or RPE 7
- Barbell Squat: 3 x 5 @ 65% 1RM or RPE 6.5
- Box Squat:* 2 x 3 @ 75% 1RM or RPE 7
*Position the box just below parallel.
If you’re still feeling uneasy, try squatting in a cage with safeties or grab a spotter in case anything goes wrong. Start slow, and you may surprise yourself with what you can do — even as a beginner.
Chances are that the bench press is more familiar to you — especially if you started your workout journey looking to build upper body muscle. But the bench press in powerlifting is a very different beast than your average bounce-the-bar-off-the-chest move.
In this sport, the bench press needs to pause lightly on your chest to be given the green light as a good lift. Especially if you’ve never benched before, your arms may feel uneven such that the bar wobbles a bit when it touches your chest. That’s alright. This, too, will improve as you train more. Accessory lifts like the dumbbell bench press can help you even things out.
This workout is designed to introduce you to the world of paused bench pressing, but still allow you the ability to push your bench hard. Benching is the best way for beginners to improve their bench press, but you likely can’t tolerate as much benching as a seasoned veteran. The good news is that you have other exercise variations you can push in the meantime.
- Push-Up:* 1 x 10 @ bodyweight or RPE 8
- Pause Bench Press: 2 x 5 @ 70% 1RM or RPE 7
- Barbell Bench Press:** 1 x 5 @ 70% 1RM or RPE 7
- Dumbbell Chest Press: 2 x 8 @ 70% 1RM or RPE 8
*Do incline or knee push-ups if full push-ups are too difficult.
**You’re just beginning, so there’s no need to pause just yet. Still, try to lower and raise the bar with control, avoiding a bounce off your chest.
Arguably this is the most important of the three lifts. The deadlift is the last lift in powerlifting and will constitute a huge percentage of your total — how much weight you heft across all three lifts.
There are two legal variations you can perform in a powerlifting meet — the conventional or the sumo deadlift. The sumo deadlift has your feet spread wider than shoulder-width and your knees significantly more bent than in the conventional version.
Which you ultimately choose depends on what you find more comfortable and feeling stronger. For now, you can stick with the conventional version to build a solid base.
This workout is relatively short and sweet because deadlifts involve using significantly higher loads than the squat or bench. Less is more when it comes to the deadlift, so the key here is to start building a base for you to pull from.
Don’t be tempted to tack more onto this workout, especially as a beginner. But do ensure that you’re warming up fully beforehand, priming all the muscle groups and movement patterns needed in the deadlift.
- Deadlift: 3 x 4 @ 65% 1RM or RPE 6.5
- Pull-Up:* 3 x AMRAP (as many reps as possible)
Perhaps you are only new to powerlifting but have some experience in the gym. Quite often, gymgoers don’t want to sacrifice the gains of muscle and physique in pursuit of pure strength. The good news is that you can do both.
Bodybuilding-style workouts in the powerlifting realm are often referred to as powerbuilding workouts. You’ll emphasize building strength in the big three while packing in accessory movements to continue your focus on muscle growth. Consider these workouts if you don’t want to give up the pump in the gym.
Here, you’ll be adding enough load to build strength, but emphasizing overall hypertrophy. You’ll notice more repetitions performed here, as hypertrophy is typically driven by more volume.
You’ll add volume after a top set that focuses on building strength. After these primary powerlifting movements, you then perform your typical accessories. Here’s an example of the workouts you can do on your respective leg, chest, or back days.
- Squat: 1 x 3 @ 80% 1RM or RPE 7
- 2 x 8 @ 70% 1RM or RPE 8
- Leg Curl: 3 x 12 @ RPE 8
- Leg Extension: 3 x 12 @ RPE 8
- Bench: 1 x 3 @ 80% 1RM or RPE 7
- 2 x 8 @ 70% 1RM or RPE 8
- Pec Deck: 3 x 12 @ RPE 8
- Incline Dumbbell Press: 3 x 12 @ RPE 8
- Deadlift: 1 x 3 @ 75% 1RM or RPE 7
- 2 x 8 @ 65% 1RM or RPE 8
- Cable Row: 3 x 12 @ RPE 8
- Lat Pulldown: 3 x 12 @ RPE 8
If you’re a beginner who knows they have a competition coming up, or you simply don’t have time to train, you will want to consider doing all three lifts on one training day. Not only does this mimic competition, but it can also be an efficient way to train for powerlifting if you can only get in the gym once a week based on your schedule.
As a beginner, your goal will not necessarily be to stomp all over any records in competition. Instead, aim to go nine for nine — successfully executing every lift you attempt during the meet (three for each lift). To set yourself up for success, focus on pausing those bench presses on your chest; squatting below parallel; and locking out your deadlifts successfully.
This workout is designed to prepare you for the platform by training all three lifts on the same day. Although beginners usually should focus on building a solid base, you have to train singles if you have a competition coming up.
Due to the potential fatigue from performing all three lifts on the same day — especially at such high intensities — there will be no accessories as part of this workout.
- Squat: 1 x 1 @ 85% 1RM or RPE 7
- 2 x 5 @ 70% 1RM or RPE 7
- Bench: 1 x 5 @ 85% 1RM or RPE 7
- 2 x 5 @ 70% 1RM or RPE 7
- Deadlift: 1 x 1 @ 80% 1RM or RPE 7
- 2 x 5 @ 65% 1RM or RPE 7
What Is Powerlifting?
If you’re investing in powerlifting, you will want to know go in with a clear understanding of the ins and outs of the sport. It involves three main lifts: the squat, bench, and deadlift.
At a powerlifting competition, you need to weigh into your respective weight class to ensure that your lifts will be judged against people who weigh a similar amount as you. Then, you try to max out each of these lifts.
You get three attempts per lift for a total of nine attempts in a full competition. The successful lifts are added together to put together what is referred to as a total. This total is what is used to compare you against other lifters and judge your placement on the podium.
There is no special requirement to be a powerlifter. All you simply have to do is train the three lifts. So if you followed any of the above workouts, congratulations — you are now a powerlifter.
However, if you want to compete, you will usually need to register for membership in a powerlifting federation to become part of the sport. In addition to membership, you will have to sign up for a meet and may also be required to undergo certain testing if you are in a drug-tested federation. Read up on your local powerlifting federations, as every federation is different.
Another requirement of sorts is that you should go through the rulebook for your federation. This will adequately prepare you with the prerequisite knowledge needed to be on the platform. The rulebook will teach you what counts as a successful lift, and also what gear is approved on the platform. You don’t want to be the person who is unable to compete at the meet for wearing the wrong underwear.
When Should You Try Competing?
The short answer is: whenever you feel that you’re ready. You can be 12 years old or 60 years old. You can lift 50 pounds or 800 pounds. The choice is yours when it comes to competing, and there are age and weight class divisions regardless of where you are at. There is no strength requirement needed to be a competitor at the local level.
If you’re a transgender athlete, there may be federation-specific restrictions on whether you can compete with your cisgender peers. Nonbinary athletes may want to look for federations that include Mx. divisions, which are typically open to athletes of all genders. Finding federations that are trans-inclusive may be an important part of your competition journey.
When you get the itch to compete, make sure your lifts are up to competition standard before doing so. Ensure that you have all the approved gear — such as a singlet — so you are ready for the platform when the time comes.
Anatomy of a Powerlifting Workout
If you’re just starting as a musician, someone’s got to teach you how to read sheet music. In strength sports, the equivalent of sheet music is a workout chart: you’ve got to know how to read it to crack the code of the simplest workout through the most complex one.
You have to know what a workout consists of to understand what it all means. Workout charts will usually give you a few key pieces of information, all on one line. Here’s what you’re likely to get:
- Exercise name
- Number of sets to perform (how many repetitions of the exercise you do in a row before taking a break);
- Number of repetitions, or reps, in each set (how many times you need to perform the exercise in one set); and
- Intensity, or how much weight you are using.
Percentage of One-Rep Max
The intensity is usually written, or prescribed, as a percentage of your one-repetition maximum, or one-rep max (1RM). Your one-rep max is the maximum amount of weight you can lift for one repetition on a given exercise.
If you’re a beginner to strength sports, you’ll want to build up your strength and technique before attempting to establish a true one-rep max. Until then, you can use BarBend’s one-rep max calculator to help you get an estimated starting point.
One Rep Max Calculator
Not all exercises need you to establish a one-rep max. You’ll certainly aim to find them for your main lifts like the squat, bench, and deadlift — if you choose to compete, you’ll often aim to score one-rep maxes during competitions to give yourself the best chance of success.
Rating of Perceived Exertion
But there are also single-joint accessory exercises, like leg curls and leg extensions, that are meant to bolster muscle strength rather than produce maximum absolute strength. Especially for these types of exercises, you’ll like to use an intensity scale called the rating of perceived exertion (RPE).
Your RPE is based on a scale of 10, with 10 being a maximum effort. Here is a breakdown of the RPE scale:
- 10 — Maximum effort; you have no more reps in the tank.
- 9 — You could technically do another rep, but it’s a very intense grind.
- 8 — You could likely hit two to four reps with intense effort.
- 7 — This is a weight you can move with power for about five to seven reps.
- 6 — You can move quickly for speed work at this effort level.
- 5 — This effort level is something you feel with a warm-up weight.
- 4 and Below — You’ll be using light weight for mobility, recovery, and technique.
Here’s an example of what all this will look like in your workout chart:
- Squat: 3 x 10 @ 70% 1RM or RPE 7
Here, you would squat 70 percent of your one-rep max for 10 reps, take a break, and then repeat two more times for a total of three sets. If your best lift is 100 pounds, 70 percent means you would load 70 pounds.
Coach’s Tip: The prescribed weight on the bar is a guideline of what you should be using on any given day. Don’t be afraid to go up or down depending on how you feel. Add or subtract five to 10 pounds if you feel particularly good — or bad — on any given day.
Your movements should be challenging, but doable. You should not be failing at anything, especially as a beginner.
What to Expect From Powerlifting Training
Initially, you might find powerlifting to be very difficult — but that’s because it’s new. From there, the progress will likely come relatively quickly as you train, given you are new to the sport. Having said this, don’t be discouraged if your training slows down, or doesn’t come as fast as others. Progress is not linear, and day-to-day variations are normal when it comes to training.
It is said that powerlifting is a marathon, not a sprint. Focus on training hard, eating well, and getting quality sleep. The rest will take care of itself as you get stronger, build muscle, and develop more technical skills with the barbell.
How to Structure Powerlifting Training
In terms of structuring your training, you want to craft a training schedule that you can adhere to and be consistent with. Consider your work-life balance and your lifestyle. That will determine how many times a week you should train.
For example, if you have a five-day workweek and only have time to train after work, consider a three to five-day split. If you do shift work and only have two or three days free in a week to train, then consider a two or three-day split. Don’t despair if you can’t train that often. What matters is your overall workload or total weekly volume.
Your body does not care how many days that is spread over, so just try to find something that fits your current lifestyle.
It’s good practice for beginners to keep their squat and deadlift days away from each other initially. This will help you have adequate recovery before the next session.
However, you will have to perform all the lifts in one day come competition time — so don’t worry too much if you have to do more than one main lift in a single session. Focus on getting high-quality sleep, mobility training, and nutrition between each session, and adjust your performance on the day depending on how you feel.
Typically, most beginner programs will have lifters train their squat one to two times a week, their bench two to three times a week, and their deadlift one to two times a week.
Consider what equipment you have access to. If you have a gym that has standard powerlifting equipment — barbells and weight plates, a flat bench, a squat rack or power rack, and a deadlift platform — then you’re set.
But some commercial gyms lack the right equipment or have restrictions on what you can and can’t do, such as slamming heavy weights around. You don’t need much to do powerlifting, but make sure you at least can access a squat rack, a barbell, weights, and a bench. If you only have access to this once a week, then doing all three lifts in one day is likely your move.
Get Ready for the Platform
There you have it: five of the best powerlifting workouts for beginners who are new to the sport. As a powerlifter, you want to build the biggest total you can with the squat, bench, and deadlift. All this starts with getting familiar with the movements and staying consistent to build them up.
Remember, this is just the beginning. You don’t need to hit a personal record every session. Just showing up is progress. Stack together some solid workouts and you’ll find your way to the platform in no time. When you’re ready, there is always a platform waiting for you to make your powerlifting debut. Choose the path that fits your lifestyle the best, and enjoy the process.
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