by Tucker Loken
You don't have to choose between being strong and looking good.
Powerbuilding is for people who want to build a physique that's more than pleasing to the eye; who want to build a physique that's functional and can move real weight. Nobody wants to be able to put four plates on each side of a chest press machine for reps only to be crushed by three plates on a regular bench press.
A powerbuilder focuses on proficiency in the big three lifts (squat, bench press, and deadlift) because they are the best determinants of raw strength with a barbell. Powerbuilding also focuses on creating a bodybuilding-style physique with all the qualities of broad shoulders, trim waist, low body fat and balanced muscle mass.
You have to keep your body guessing if you want it to grow. The mix-up in rep ranges and volume of a powerbuilding program will be a shock to anyone who has only been doing bodybuilding-style training for a long period. Directly, you will build muscle from pushing more weight. You'll be able to lift a lot more weight on a set of five reps than a set of 10, and that will engage your muscles in a whole new way. Indirectly, after you finish the program and go back to straight bodybuilding you will be pushing a lot more weight than you were, and this is going to make you blow up.
Let's be honest, being strong is cool. Looking good is cool. Being strong AND looking good is REALLY cool. It's a great feeling walking into the gym feeling strong, like you could move as much weight as you want on any given day. Powerbuilding can help you do this in a way that regular bodybuilding alone can't. By prioritizing strength gains as a measure of progress and applying the proper deload and intensity programs, you'll guarantee yourself PRs rather than just hoping to get stronger over time.
Lowering your reps will give you a whole new skill set. That's right, lifting big weights is a skill -- it's something that takes practice to perfect. If you consider yourself a student of the game, you will want to take the time to learn how to squat, bench, and deadlift using the most efficient and strongest form possible. You will need to be patient with yourself. Just like it takes time to create a mind-muscle connection to make muscles grow, it also takes time to discover your own best leverages and ideal form.
Have you ever seen the guys who look awesome from the front and then they turn to the side and they almost disappear? This is called a two-dimensional bodybuilder. I'm speaking from experience. It always used to bug me that I had a great front lat spread, broad shoulders and a small waist, but when I turned to the side I vanished. If you suffer from 2-D muscle syndrome like I did, one of the best solutions id to start squatting, benching and deadlifting heavy. Your entire back is used directly or as stability during all three of these exercises, and the heavy work from the bench press and overhead press will add thickness to your shoulders and pecs. Over time, as you get stronger, you'll develop a much thicker look in your upper back, traps, chest and shoulders.
A powerbuilding routine is similar to a bodybuilding routine with a few changes. Aside from measuring progress by your appearance, a powerbuilding program also focuses on strength by using powerlifting techniques such as regular deloads and increasing intensity over time.
In bodybuilding, squats and bench presses are just one tool of many to shape the body, and the conventional deadlift rarely gets used. Powerbuilding is all about building a physique with strength to match, and in that case, if you want to move real weight, you've got to become proficient at these exercises. You'll want to adjust your current form for the big three. You'll probably be used to feeling squats in your quads, the bench in your chest, and the deadlift in your back. But that 'feeling the muscle' approach isn't the most effective for your leverages. It doesn't mean that you shouldn't feel it there, but the goal is to move the weight as efficiently as possible in the three powerlifts, and oftentimes you feel that all over.
Before I started working with powerlifters, I had no idea what a deload was. I just knew to get in there, lift as hard as you can, mix up the workout, and every few months take some time off. This worked great for the first couple of years, but after a while it just left me plateaued an battling nagging injuries.
Enter the deload. Everyone has their own theory on when they should be used, but for this, program consistency is the key, and frequent deloads will make sure that you can safely push it hard, then back off, and be ready to push it again when you're recovered.
In the powerlifting world, a deload is a week using about 50% of the usual load. It ensures you will be ready for the heavy weight to come. In powerbuilding, we drop the big three lifts down to 50% of your max lift and work on form, also lowering the intensity on the hypertrophy work in order to facilitate recovery. It shouldn't be a walk in the park, but a deload week will be lighter and easier than the other weeks. The goal is to pump blood to the muscle and stimulate the fibers without taxing the nervous system so that the body is fully recovered by the end of the deload week. It'll seem boring and maybe even useless at first if you're used to just going all out all the time in bodybuilding, but once you go through a couple of deloads and realize how strong you get post deload, you'll never train again without them.
Just like bodybuilders increase cardio and decrease food over time as they get ready to peak, powerlifters increase the intensity (weight used) of their sessions as they get ready for a meet. If you can start a diet and lose fat eating 3000 calories a day while doing no cardio, there's no reason you would change it to 2000 calories a day and an hour of cardio daily as long as you're getting great results. The same idea goes for lifting heavy weights. At the start of the cycle, you'll still make headway and get stronger by leaving a couple of reps in the tank. If you don't feel drained after the main exercise movement, then go heavier on the hypertrophy work. Taking the final set of the hypertrophy work to failure is a good rule of thumb, and forcing some reps on small isolation work is fine. Keep in mind, nobody got overtrained from a tough set of biceps curls, but a few too many heavy deadlifts or even barbell rows can mess you up pretty quick, so be intelligent when you get intense. Know yourself.
Putting it All Together
For a powerbuilding program you'll still be using most of the same exercises for your hypertrophy work, you'll just be focusing on numbers and weight with the big movements before moving on to smaller movements. For the Big Three, you'll be doing a squat, bench, or deadlift, followed by a main assistance movement. There's one more day for overhead pressing, but there won't be any power assistance after it, it'll just be hypertrophy based.
Pyramid up in weights on each set. For instance, when Week One demands 5 sets of 6 reps of bench presses, find an appropriate start weight for the first set that is challenging, and then add some weight to each set until on the final set you're about two reps shy of full failure. For hypertrophy, find weight that is challenging but doable or the first few sets and then take the final set to failure.
After the first deload week, repeat the program for another four weeks, but try to beat the weights you used on the previous weeks. After eight weeks (two full cycles), spend week nine working up to a heavy set of two reps for the Big Three. Week 10 will be devoted to hitting a one-rep max.
Week 1 -
5 x 6 reps, 1 top set, leave 2 reps in the tank.
Week 2 -
4 x 4 reps, 1 top set, leave 2 reps in the tank.
Week 3 -
3 x 2 reps, leave 2 reps in the tank.
Week 4 -
Deload, 5 singles at 50% of max.
Close-Grip Bench Press, 4 x 8, 6, 5, 4. Use a weight that leaves 1 or 2 reps in the tank on each set.
Incline Dumbbell Press, 3 x 12, 10, 8. (see above on 'hypertrophy exercises)
Flat or Incline Machine Presses, 3 x 12, 10, 8.
Dips, 3 sets of bodyweight reps.
Pec Flyes, 3 x 15, 12, 10.
Tuesday: Deadlift/Back and Biceps
Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4 -
Same as on the Bench Press.
Deficit Deadlift, 4 x 8, 6, 5, 4. Use a weight that leaves 1 or 2 reps in the tank on each set.
Lat Pulldown or Pullups, 3 x 12, 10, 8.
Dumbbell Row, 3 x 12, 10, 8.
Machine Row, 3 x 15, 12, 10.
Barbell Curl, 3 x 12, 10, 8.
Dumbbell Hammer Curl, 3 x 12, 10, 8.
Thursday: Overhead Press/Shoulders and Triceps
Standing Overhead Press, 4 x 12, 10, 8, 6. Use a weight that leaves 1 or 2 reps in the tank on each set.
Dumbbell Side Lateral, 3 x 12, 10, 8.
Dumbbell Bentover Lateral, 3 x 12, 10, 8.
Face Pulls, 3 x 12, 10, 8.
Shrugs, 3 x 15, 12, 10.
Barbell Skullcrusher, 3 x 12, 10, 8.
One Arm Cable Pushdown, 3 x 12, 10, 8.
Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, Week 4 -
Same as Bench Press and Deadlift.
Pause Front Squat, 4 x 8, 6, 5, 4. Use a weight that leaves 1 or 2 reps in the tank on each set.
Leg Press, 3 x 12, 10, 8.
Leg Extension, 3 x 15, 12, 10.
Leg Curl, 3 x 15, 12, 10.
Lunges, 3 x 15 each leg.