*/*/*: My Hijack Attempt of a Successful Powerlifting Template

The Bottom Line Up Front:

  • Some of the more famous, and even effective, powerlifting templates may be sparse on volume for some lifters
  • Some minor tweaks and adjustments can yield a big bump in volume without having to reinvent the wheel

The basic concept of a 4 day split, centered around the “big four” lifts (squat, deadlift, bench press, military press) has become a staple of many powerlifting centric routines. Especially for novice to intermediate lifters, many of these programs have stood the test of time due to their simplicity and effectiveness.

During the evolution of these programs, various off-shoot templates come to fruition, but they still stay true to their fundamental basics. Because, as the creator of one prominent program would suggest, “don’t change the way I wrote the program, and then say it didnt work because you didn’t actually do the program the way I wrote it (paraphrased).” However, the program in question, made by this famous coach, is often critiqued for a lack of training volume.

Many lifters suggest that the program, as it is written, is very minimalist and flirting with the borderline of minimum effective volume. Supporters of this program also retort that “effective working volume is made up for with quality assistance work.” The true answer, is that effective volume is a personal bench mark. People adapt and respond to stimulus differently. I have personally achieved great success with programs of this nature, but I am here in the name of science!

But let’s analyze the training volume of a program like this.

Main lift:

  • Set 1 – 5 reps @ 58.5%
  • Set 2 – 5 reps @ 67.5%
  • Set 3 – 10 reps (5 reps per the program + 5 bonus reps) @ 76.5%
  • Total of 20 reps over 3 sets, at an average of 69.75% of max effort

Assistance exercise 1 – a variation of your main lift:

  • Sets 1-5 – 10 reps @ 60%
  • Total of 50 reps over 5 sets at an average of 60% of max effort

Your work load for the week:

  • 8 sets of the main lift or variation of the main lift
  • 70 total reps at an average of 62.8% of max effort

By most measures, the work performed in this week would be considered “effective volume,” in that you are averaging over 8 reps per set, you are over 60% of max effort. But have you hit the threshold of minimum effective volume? While the true answer is of a personal nature, odds are that you haven’t. 8 working sets during the week is going to be a little on the sparse side for many lifters. So what is the solution? This is where I hijack things and make it my own.

Hands Up, Nobody Move

My fix for this is simple. I am going to ditch the bonus reps on the final set of my main movement. And instead, I am going to replace it with bonus sets. Instead of gassing myself with one epic set, I will ration out my heavier work. In the end, I will perform more reps (and more sets) at a higher percentage of my maximal effort than I would if I burned out in one single set. I will accomplish this by sticking with the rep and percentage guidelines of any given week, and performing as many bonus sets as I can, until I fail to hit the minimum rep number for the set.

It will look like this:

Main lift:

  • Set 1 – 5 reps @ 58.5%
  • Set 2 – 5 reps @ 67.5%
  • Set 3 – 5 reps @ 76.5%
  • Set 4 – 5 reps @ 76.5%
  • Set 5 – 5 reps @ 76.5%
  • Set 6 – 3 reps @ 76.5%
  • Total of 28 reps over 3 sets, at an average of 71.67% of max effort

Assistance exercise 1 – a variation of your main lift:

  • Sets 1-5 – 10 reps @ 60%
  • Total of 50 reps over 5 sets at an average of 60% of max effort

Your work load for the week:

  • 11 sets of the main lift or variation of the main lift
  • 78 total reps at an average of 64.2% of max effort

To Ease The Pounding in My Head…

I personally prefer to keep the pain and discomfort confined to the gym, and doing math that doesn’t involve counting by 45s and 25s is painful. But I make these sacrifices to demonstrate how a simple tweak can make a significant change in the amount of work performed. If you are one of the many folks who admire the simplicity of certain programs, but find yourself seeking other areas to achieve your minimum effective volume, then consider this approach.

You are one small tweak away from being able to keep the beautiful simplicity of a basic 4 day split, and still accumulating an effective amount of training volume.

Slow and Steady and Boring: Mix Up Your Endurance Work

The Bottom Line Up Front:

  • Steady state conditioning has benefits for all people, athletes and everyday Joes alike.
  • The best workout is the one you actually do, so don’t bore yourself into the point of finding excuses to not work out.
  • Even if you are an endurance athlete, cross training shouldn’t just be viewed as a “maybe if I feel like it,” it has value and you should always look to implement it.

Building of one’s aerobic base is something I’ve mentioned on here a few times. A concept which I believe holds huge benefit towards overall conditioning, and not just for endurance athletes. The benefits of low intensity, steady state (LISS) conditioning work are well noted throughout the history of sports science.

  • Increased ability to recover from workouts
  • Improved cardiovascular function
  • Better, more restful sleep
  • Decreases stress and anxiety

The simplest way to accomplish this is to just get on your own two feet and move at a brisk pace (either a fast walk or a slow jog) for increasingly longer distances. It requires no extra equipment, no gym membership, and can be scaled to ideal effectiveness for any fitness level. A big drawback though, is that it can be fairly boring.

Outside of finding new ways to trick yourself into being interested in your slow, mileage day(s), you may wonder “do I really need to be doing this?” And the answer could very well be a resounding “no.” Are you running to train for competitive running events? If so, then keep running. If the answer is “no,” for any other reason, then mix it up. Of course if its “no, I am training for a cycling event” or “no I am training for a swimming event” the solution becomes easy. But if your answer is “no, I am just interested in general conditioning for personal health,” then the world is your oyster.

Have you considered the following?

In the Gym

Stair Climber One of the slower but more grueling ways to build up your conditioning, depending on your body mass you could be burning upwards to 500 calories an hour.

Jacob’s Ladder – If your gym has this rare piece of equipment, consider yourself lucky and hop on! Again, body mass dependent, you may be close to 1000 calories in a 60 minute workout.

Row Machine – For a more full body approach, a row machine can’t be beat. And its highly effective, you may be in the neighborhood of 700 calories or more in an hour.

Swimming – This could be considered in the gym, if your gym has a pool. But if you just have access to one, you have a full body, low impact workout. Especially useful for rehabbing, due to the lack of jarring motions and decreased gravity. The effectiveness of the workout will be on your own judgement and ability to pace, but even a leisurely hour of swimming might put you in the area of 500 calories burned.

Outside of the Gym

Hiking – If you’re lucky to live near some wilderness, there’s nothing as liberating as getting lost. And while a lot of the energy expenditures on this list are bodyweight dependent, this is the easiest activity where you can add some extra weight without too much trouble. But your bodyweight alone can burn you 500 calories in an hour.

Biking – If you own a bike and are near some trails, biking can be one of the more exciting ways to mix up your cardio, as a little bit of speed always makes things more enjoyable. Hop on, burn in the neighborhood of 600 calories.

*It is important to note, there is no hard and fast rule to determine just how many calories you’ll burn from an activity. In addition to your own body mass that you carry through the activity, your own ability to pace yourself, and the level at which you push will decide more than the “average figures.”

Let’s Pretend You Are Training to Compete

You can, and should, still utilize de-loading periods in your training, as well as cross training. And in those moments, it becomes IDEAL to utilize different methods. Firstly, repetitive stress from extreme mileage of the same motion can cause inflammation and increase risk of injury. Breaking the monotony of your running or cycling mileage can give rest to weary or sore joints. Secondly, that same repetitive motion can build imbalances of muscle, due to focusing on the skills and ability of that specific motion. Cross training can help build up areas in which you are weak, to build a more balanced muscular structure that will also be a little more resilient and resistant to injury.

This was something I had to be mindful of specifically while conducting military training. Many of the endurance events I was asked to complete were timed road marches, carrying up to 65 pounds of load on my back. The events were pretty stressful on the back, knees and hips. It would be easy to grind yourself into a useless pile of dust by overdoing it, so I became quite fond of the Jacob’s Ladder. It worked wonders in developing the right type of conditioning, and it was easier on my weary old bones. And I never failed to make time on any event, giving credence to the ability to maintain high levels of conditioning without necessarily overdoing the specific exercise.

Sooner Rather Than Later

A lesson can be summed up to this: plan on mixing it up. Do not wait until 1) you actually develop a nagging repetitive stress injury, or 2) bore yourself into choosing the sofa over your conditioning work. The best exercise is the one you actually do, whether its your choice to actually do it, or your ability to actually do it.

The Pump

The Bottom Line Up Front:

  • Hypertrophy is the golden ticket to the construction of muscle mass.
  • “The pump” is just part of the bigger picture of effective hypertrophy training.
  • Working the complete cross section of the muscle will result in maximal growth.

A must see for any aspiring bodybuilder, is the legendary “Pumping Iron,” the movie that really brought the hidden world of bodybuilding to the public eye, carried through the charismatic and hyper competitive personality of Arnold himself. And if you don’t find yourself motivated to watch a full length film, at least find yourself a few minutes to hear Arnold explain “the pump.” Not that you’ll learn anything new, but I personally feel it is one of the most unintentionally funny moments of film. Set against the musical backdrop of what could be a 70’s, sci-fi themed porn flick, Arnold seems to read off a script that could ALSO be a weird 70’s porn flick. Except its not. It’s all about the glorious pump that we all seek.

If one adopts the idea of bodybuilding for appearance (or for the sport of appearance) with little regard for absolute strength gains, the pump is traditionally the name of the game. Hypertrophy for bodybuilders is achieved differently than it is for strength athletes. While strength athletes like weightlifters and powerlifters have numbers to crunch to dial themselves into the “ideal” rep and weight ranges for results, bodybuilders can follow a similar approach. The two models of hypertrophy are knowns as sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (“for bodybuilders”) and myofibrillar hypertrophy (“for strength athletes”). Because building of muscle purely for mass can be approached from more angles than simply “the pump,” it would be wise to cast your net a bit wider to catch the most benefit.

Hypertrophy for Strength Athletes

  • Aims to grow the contracting elements of the muscle
  • Typically developed through low rep sets (2-6 reps) of higher percentage (70-90%)
  • An extra focus will be given towards dynamic effort, or bar speed of the movement
  • Set tempo is key
  • Sample:
    • Bench Press: 8 sets x 3 reps @ 80%, 60 sec rest between sets

Muscle growth from this approach is going to increase the size and amount of the actual, contractile muscle fibers. This is often why you see strength athletes who seem to be smaller than bodybuilders, while being able to move more weight. The actual working portion of the muscles receives the most stimulation, and as a result, more adaptation.

Hypertrophy for Bodybuilders

  • Aims to grow the supporting structures of the muscle
  • Typically developed through a higher rep range (8-12 reps) of lower percentage (60-75%)
  • Tempo still vital
  • Sample:
    • Bench press: 5 sets x 10 reps @ 60%, 60 sec rest between sets

This method is what is more traditionally referred to as “the pump,” as it develops the fluid and cell structures surrounding the muscle fibers. It does not do as much to provide stimulus to the contracting muscle fibers. This is very effective for developing full muscle bodies, which is why it is most closely associated with bodybuilding training.

The Complete Picture

If someone is to take the approach of training purely for muscle mass, it is important to NOT get lost in the rabbit hole of “bodybuilding hypertrophy” type programs. Your goal is to grow the entire muscle, so why focus on the supporting cell structure and disregard the actual contractile muscle cells? This is where workout programs like Layne Norton’s “Power Hypertrophy Adaptive Training” (P.H.A.T.) program are highly effective. When taking an entire day devoted to hypertrophy, a program such as this will approach the full scope, which in turn will develop the muscle fully.

It is also important to note that both the “strength” approach and the “bodybuilding” approach may have carryover into the other. There is no golden rule that says bodybuilding templates will NOT develop ANY contractile muscle fibers. Similarly no rule exists that suggests that the strength athlete will NOT develop ANY of the non-contractile tissue surrounding the muscle fibers. But for the bulk of humanity (there will always be freaky outliers) each of those methods will yield results that predominately focus on those aspects of your muscles. So while choosing one method and relying on it entirely may still provide SOME benefits, you will achieve greater overall results by utilizing both methods in conjunction.

Whether you are taking a program from an established source, like Dr. Layne Norton modifying a program for your own use, or writing a program from scratch, make sure you have a deliberate and planned method. This is a principle I will preach til I am blue in the face regardless of what your training goals are. But in this specific case, if you are training to build lean muscle mass for the sake of just GAINZ, take the time to plan for all aspects of hypertrophy, and don’t just focus on seeking the orgasmic feeling of THE PUMP.

Odd Object Strength

Strongman is the king of moving odd objects, and this often requires massive grip strength. But does a world exist where my inability to actually deadlift a car, or log press my own bodyweight won’t count against me, and a world where I can put my lifetime of…. uh, forearm strength development to good use?

Meet The vise Grip Viking Odd Haugen, and meet the sport of Armlifting.


Odd Haugen at The Fit Expo, Los Angeles (from www.thefitexpo.com)

Armlifting is a sport that can essentially be compared to various deadlift variations, typically performed with a single arm, and utilizing many different grip methods. There are many different competitions, and federations with their specific rules, but the general, common goal is simple: grab the object, and stand while maintaining control of the grip and the weight. And Odd Haugen, the Norwegian-American strongman, is the long lived king of the sport.

Though there are limitless ways to test grip and arm strength, some of the more common events you may see in a competition include:

Hub Lift

Rolling Handle Lift

Pinch Block

The Horn

The Gripper

One Chart to Rule Them All

The Bottom Line Up Front:

  • If you look closely, you may notice this article has very little to do with actual Olympic Weightlifting advice. You are a crafty observer.
  • If you are in pursuit of strength and power, methods developed by Olympic Weightlifting coaches have paved the way, and you can apply their research and methods to general strength training and powerlifting.

There is no doubt that the sport of Olympic Weightlifting was pushed to its limits by the performance of Soviet and Eastern Bloc athletes. Starting in the 1970’s, Olympic programs within the Soviet Union groomed top performing athletes. The scientific approach to creating super athletes was somewhat spoofed in Rocky IV, as Ivan Drago was under constant supervision and study from a myriad of trainers and doctors. The cynic might also point out that some pharmaceutical enhancement was part of the training regimen, and that part of the movie is also accurate. Should we really trust the methods of folks who probably relied on various doping methods to achieve performance? My short answer is “yes,” and the long answer of “still yes” is saved for another day.

Enter A.S. Prilepin, one of the most pivotal and influential strength training coaches to ever glimpse at a barbell. His work was based upon the training logs of over a thousand elite level weightlifters, and continues to serve as the backbone of many effective strength programs, spanning beyond strictly Olympic weightlifting. What is often passed along as simply “Prilepin’s Table” should become familiar to you as you expand your strength training journey, whether a Weightlifter, powerlifter, or just an athlete seeking effective strength training.

PercentageReps per SetOptimal RepsRep Range

If you are firmly wedged in the “clueless beginner” phase of lifting, you may just show up to the gym and knock out countless reps of countless sets of poorly designed workout days. And honestly, this may work for a very short time. Your body is transitioning from “zero stimulus” to “some stimulus” and your methods of adaptation find this new and exciting. Inevitably you will find yourself no longer responding to this, and searching for an actual method to progress. And most of the methods you will initially attempt are based, to an extent, on this table.

Though not expressly written into percentages, the Starting Strength and StrongLifts 5×5 methods will wedge you right into the ideal rep range, and rep total for your day. Programs like Wendler’s 5/3/1 actually are based on percentages, and attempts to bridge the gap between different level’s of intensity within the table. And lastly, should you attempt to create your own programming, the table is an ideal place to start structuring your work sets.

For an example, lets say I got a harebrained scheme to knock off Wendler’s idea, and create a cyclical program based on weeks of 6 reps, 4 reps, and 2 reps, around 85%, 90%, and 95%. Wendler himself recommends using 90% of your true max as your training max, so that actually turns out to 76.5%, 81%, and 85.5%. And instead of doing bonus reps, we are just going to do multiple sets of 6, 4 or 2 with that weight, and we aren’t going to do the work up sets. So let’s get frisky and see where it takes us.

  • Week 1 – sets of 6 @ 76.5% 
    • The table tells us that the rep range is ideal for that percentage (3-6) and the ideal TOTAL number of reps is 18, but can land us between 12-24 which depends on individual needs. So this leads our home-cooked workout to give us 3-4 sets of 5@76.5%
  • Week 2 – sets of 4 @ 81%
    • The table tells us that the rep range is ideal (2-4) and the ideal total reps is 15, but can land us anywhere between 10-20. Our home-cooked workout program looks like 4-5 sets of 3@81%
  • Week 3 – sets of 2 @ 85.5%
    • The table tells us that the rep range is ideal (2-4) and that the ideal total reps is 12, but can land us between 10-20 just like the previous week. Our home cooked workout program looks like 6-10 sets of 2@85.5%
  • Week 4 – deload…. if you believe in that sort of thing.

This is a beginner’s intro into understanding Prilepin’s Table for building effective strength training programs. One need not actually design their own workout, you can find an abundance of effective strength programs online. But this can serve as a sniff test for any programs you find. If you are in pursuit of STRENGTH and POWER, the program you choose should resemble something that fits within the limits of this table. If not, approach with caution.