In this article I am going to outline what I believe is a simple and effective system for anyone who wants to get bigger and stronger for powerlifting. A moderate base of experience of exercise execution and general strength training is recommended.
The vast majority of these principles and guidelines have been taken from team JTS (jtsstrength.com)as put forward by Chad Wesley Smith and Mike Israetel and Greg Nuckols of strengtheory.com whom are experts within the industry and some of which are the strongest powerlifters on the planet in their respective divisions. I highly suggest you seek out information from their websites and YouTube channels as these guys are infinitely more knowledgeable, experienced and stronger than myself.
Firstly I am going to explain why the system is structured the way it is, then explain how to implement it and finally I will provide a sample bench template to illustrate the ideas of this article, so lets get into it.
This is an overview of how the training cycle will look:
Hypertrophy Phase > Strength Phase > Peaking Phase > 1RM Attempt
As you can see, there is three dedicated phases then a 1RM attempt whether it be in a meet or a gym lift. These three phases are specifically chosen to align with the three ways in which a lifter can improve at Powerlifting: increases in muscle size, in general strength, and in the ability to handle maximal loads.
At this point you may be questioning ‘why not do all three at the same time?‘ Great question. The reason is due to adaptive interference which means the adaptation response of one type of training is dampened by a different type, for example maximal force production abilities acquired from heavy, low repetition sets are dampened by hypertrophy style training through sub maximal repetition which would result in sub-optimal training. As a result structuring the system into separate blocks is the most optimal system to get the most from each style of training.
Fortunately adaptations made in each subsequent phase stay around through other phases even when they’re not being trained for assuming length of each phase is within the given parameters so ‘loosing gains’ is not of concern.
Hypertrophy Phase – INCREASE SIZE OF THE MUSCLES
As explained by Greg Nuckols in this article there are six factors which largely determine how much weight someone can lift, being:
- Muscle size
- Muscle fibre types
- Segment lengths (height, limb lengths, torso length, etc.)
- Motor learning factors
- Muscle origins and insertions
Out of all of these, muscle size is the only factor in the long run we can significantly impact (other than motor skills which are picked up rather rapidly in the beginning of undertaking an exercise).
Strength Phase – MAKE THE MUSCLE STRONGER
Training with heavier weights enhances the nervous system’s ability to use muscle to produce more force; it changes the alignment of that new muscle and further enhances its ability to allow for strength expression.
Peaking Phase – PRIMING FOR MAXIMAL STRENGTH EXPRESSION
The purpose of peaking is to ensure we are primed for the task of lifting a 1RM in the competition movements, which typically means the use of completion specific practice and fatigue reducing parameters, as detailed later on.
Now we’ve got the ‘why’ out the way, I will detail exactly how you can implement each block specifically for the lifters needs. I will detail break down each block into these 5 headings: 1) intensity, reps and sets 2) structure, 3) exercise selection, 4) frequency and 5) length of phase.
1) Intensity, reps and sets
As advised by Chad Wesley Smith, 60-75% of your 1RM is a good guideline to adhere to. In this range you’ll be able to accumulate a lot of reps and sets critical for hypertrophy while keeping wear and tear associated with maximal weights on the down-low. With these percentages you’ll be working in the 6-10 rep range. Sets are dependent on the lifters maximum recoverable volume (MRV). Chad recommends 15-30 work sets per body part per week as a good place to start.
I recommend at the beginning of the hypertrophy phase lifters start at 60% of their 1RM for a given exercise (guidelines on exercise selection below) and gradually increase weight and sets throughout the cycle ending up at around 75% of a given exercise’s 1RM. Increasing the weight is important as there is no way around the principle of progressive overload.
Progressively increasing the total work done (through the amount of sets) is an important principle that should be adhered to and be of focus in the volume phase, as suggested by Mike Israetel during this podcast. This is known as increasing work capacity and is very important to improve over time as volume is the primary driver of growth. A simple and practical way to implement this, for example, is to increase the sets of a given exercise by one a week during this phase, as demonstrated below.
The simple eight week bench cycle below illustrates the weekly increase in sets and the progression of the weight being used starting from 60% through to 75% based off a 140kg 1RM. Notice how there is simple 2.5kg jumps from week to week while repeating the same weight biweekly.
Once the hypertrophy phase has ended I move into the strength phase (as explained below) during which time I increase my 1RM. When I finally come back round to the hypertrophy phase for the next cycle 60% will obviously be higher so i’d typically repeat much of the same process but with marginally higher weights.
8 Week bench cycle (Kg x Sets x Reps)
Wk1: mon:85x3x8-10 fri: 85x3x8-10
Wk2: mon: 87.5x4x8-10 fri: 87.5x3x8-10
Wk3: mon: 90x4x8-10 fri: 90x4x8-10
Wk4: mon: 92.5x5x8-10 fri: 92.5x4x8-10
Wk:5 mon: 95x5x8-10 fri: 95x5x8-10
Wk:6 mon: 97.5x5x8-10 fri: 97.5x5x8-10
Wk:7 mon: 100x5x8-10 fri: 100x5x8-10
Wk:8 mon: 102.5x5x8-10 fri: 102.5x5x8-10
2) Exercise selection
Exercise selection is important for a manor of reasons including its overall hypertrophic potential, injury reduction, avoidance of psychological and physiological staleness, specificity and the ability to take advantage of the shock principle.
As Mike Israetel explains in this video, heavy full range of motion, compound exercises is the key for hypertrophy, such as benches, squats and deadlifts themselves. However, during the hypertrophy phase using slight variation from the competition style would be an intelligent idea to benefit from the factors listed above.
To put the aforementioned factors into context I will explain how I have used exercise selection and variation to my personal advantage:
- Emphasis of closer grip training. Firstly this will increase the range of motion which in turn improves hypertrophic potential. There is less chance of a pectoral strain compared to super wide benching and less wear and tear in general on the chest tendon thus catering for injury reduction. Furthermore by switching between a closer grip bench in the hypertrophy phase then going out wider in the strength phase there is less chance of an overuse injury. It is still largely specific to competition grip bench presses therefore will still possess carryover potential. By focusing on this in the meantime before going back to competition style benches, the competition style grip will be subjected to the shock principle to a higher level. Furthermore the simple act of changing up the exercises can help alleviate boredom. Doing the exact same exercises year round with zero change can become boring for some lifters.
- Personally in my overall training plan I implement a close grip, medium grip and wide grip bench press. During the hypertrophy phase I spend most of the time working with the medium and close grip. When strength phase comes around I move out to my wide grip which is my competition stance as I can move the most weight this way.
- Inclusion of OHP training. While there is some debate if OHP has much carry over to the bench press, if you did want to include it now would be an ideal time to do so as it has great hypertrophic potential and low recovery demands so could be easily implemented as a third day of pressing without a too significant impact on the benching days, something of which I include during my hypertrophy phases. I implement the OHP in between my two bench days. This increases my frequency of pressing which as detailed later is excellent for growth.
- Higher bar placement focus. Firstly this shifts the emphasis more to the quadriceps which I found is something I needed to make my squats better. There is less wear and tear on the elbows which is a commonly reported problem for the low bar squatting. It allows a break from low bar so low bar becomes fresh to the shock principle. Less absolute weight has to be used which would be easier to recover from (which leaves potential for higher volumes and frequencies to be used) and less chance of injury.
- Non dead-stop variations will be easier to recover from, have less potential for injury and can be implemented with higher volumes and frequencies.
- Focusing on the alternative deadlift stance in the hypertrophy phase would be an intelligent idea as would shift the emphasis of which muscles work the hardest and avoid staleness and would leave the competition stance fresh to the shock principle come time for the strength phase.
Research has shown protein synthesis is only elevated for a short time period after lifting weights which means the lifter will only grow during for the (short) period afterwards. As a result lifting at higher frequencies is an excellent principle for hypertrophy phase and should be taken advantage of by the lifter. A frequency of 2-4 times a week for pressing and squatting movements and around 1-2 times a week deadlifting is suitable. Striving for higher frequencies (while distributing the workload) has been shown to be superior for hypertrophy for most lifters (compared to lower frequencies) as detailed here.
4) Length of phase.
As suggested by team JTS, the hypertrophy phase should last anywhere between 3-24 weeks. This will be different between every lifter and will change for each individual lifter over time. This is dependent on when a meet is (if you’re competing), how advanced the lifter is, weight class considerations, personal preference and so on. Novice lifters have a higher potential to gain size so spending a longer amount of time in this phase would be recommended. If you’re an advanced lifter who has been lifting for a long time a shorter phase would be preferred as there is less potential for hypertrophy and as a result time would be better spent in a strength phase. 2-3 months would be a good start for most intermediate lifters.
Through personal experience I have found that during very long cycles (approximately 20 weeks, for example), I tend to loose focus and the progression becomes wishy-washy and I become a little bored of the process. I now use around 6 to 10 week cycles where I have clear set defined goals and the phases no longer seem to drag. This is something the lifter should experiment with over time and see where their preferences lie.
- 60-75% Intensity.
- 6-10 Rep Range.
- 2-3 Months.
- Progressive increasing weight and volume.
- Specifically modified exercises to suit needs of the lifter.
I will breakdown this phase with the same approach above, by dividing it into the main subsequent factors which determine training, being 1) intensity, reps and sets, 2) structure, 3) exercise selection, 4) frequency and 5) length of phase.
1) Intensity, reps and sets
75-85% with repetitions in the 4-6 range. As detailed by Chad Wesley Smith in this video, the primary reasons is that it is heavy enough for a strength stimulus while not overly heavy to allow for small deviations in technique and still be able to finish a set. 10-20 working sets per body part per week is a suitable place to start.
It is also suggested to cycle through light (6 reps at approx 75%), medium (5 reps at approx 75-80%) and heavy (4 reps at approx 80-85%) days. This provides enough stimulus to improve and the undulation of reps allows for adequate fatigue management. Furthermore undulating the rep scheme throughout the week has been found to produce superior results than typical linear progression, as explained in this article by Greg Nuckols whereby studies found nearly double the results using DUP over linear periodisation.
Once one cycle of light (L), medium (M) and heavy (H) days is complete, another cycle should be implemented. If you feel you are unable to add weight to the previously completed cycle there is no problem with repeating the same weights for one cycle however ideally advancing the cycle with heavier weights is desirable; this is important due to the principle of progressive overload – if we lift the same weights for the same reps and sets year after year little progress would be made.
A good guideline which I have used to successfully implement this is to start out with the following parameters:
75%x6 reps, 80%x5 reps, 85%x4 reps
For the next cycle the same parameters could be used or a fixed amount of weight could be added, for example 2.5-7.5kg onto upper body lifts or 5-12.5kg on lower body lifts. If these weights where found to be easily complete-able across all sets, the first cycle of light, medium and heavy days could be completed using an additional set, then when upping the weights for the next LMH cycle a set could be dropped off. While volume is the focus of the hypertrophy phase and has lesser importance in the strength phase it is still important to lift heavier weights at sufficient volumes (10-20 working sets per body part per week) as this determines the magnitude of the stimulus.
3) Exercise selection
The main exercises should be the completion movements (or very closely resemble them, for example for the squat, if low bar is being used in competition this should be trained now however if competing in wraps this needn’t be implemented just yet. Assistance exercises should also closely resemble to competition movement to support them for example close grip benches could be used for additional triceps stimulus to support the competition style bench.
As this phase entails the fact you’re lifting near maximal weights and not missing reps is of utmost importance, unlike the hypertrophy phase, frequency is typically slightly lowered, for example in my training during the hypertrophy phase I have 3 push days so protein synthesis is elevated for longer total duration across the week however as the strength training parameters are more taxing per unit volume of hypertrophy training I drop to two days a week during the strength phase to ensure greater recovery, giving me the confidence going into each session knowing there is no reason for me to miss a rep.
5) Length of phase.
Again as mentioned earlier this is dependent on when (or if) the lifter is competing, experience and layout of each phase. The strength phase could last anywhere between 3 to 24 weeks. A good guideline for the strength phase for most lifters is 2 to 3 months
- 4-6 Rep Range
- 2-3 Months
- Progressive overloading weight is a priority
- Largely competition specific exercise selection
As mentioned earlier this phase is used to prime the lifter to be the best you can on a given day. This entails practice handling heavy weight with perfect technique while simultaneously reducing fatigue. I will now detail how this best done below through manipulating the mentioned factors.
1) Intensity, reps and sets
85%+ in the 1-3 rep range, as suggested by CWS. This is for multiple reasons. Firstly, when working in such low rep range there is potential to hone and perfect technique instead of just trying to get hundreds of reps in your focusing on just a few perfect ones which count the most.
Secondly heavier weights are more specific to 1RM attempts; you cannot get the same feel for the weight working in a 60% range.
Total weekly sets should be kept low. This factor, along with the low rep selection means that total volume will be kept low. This is what helps reduce fatigue (as we know that volume is the primary factor causing fatigue.)
As result fitness will rise and we will be in a strong position to lift maximal weights come meet or test day. 5-10 working sets per competition exercise per week is recommended for most lifters. light accessory work on top can be included.
As a one rep attempt is the most specific while a 3 rep set is the least (within the parameters of this phase) I implement a simple linear progression of weights from sets of 3 reps down to singles as I near competition time. I like to work up-to a weight which is as heavy as possible without any overt mental arousal and which the weight still moves smoothly (no grinding).
See below for a simple 3 week bench peaking progression (based off a 140kg 1RM) to illustrate this linear increase in weight.
3 Week bench Peaking cycle (Kg x Sets x Reps)
Wk1: mon:120x3x3 fri: 122.5x3x3
Wk2: mon: 125x3x2-10 fri: 127.5x2x2
Wk3: mon: 130x3x1-10 fri: 132.5x2x1
3) Exercise selection
Main exercises should be identical to competition lifts. This includes the use of knee wraps (if competing in wraps, of course). There should be minimal assistance exercises done throughout the peaking phase.
Frequency of the lifts should be similar to the strength phase or lower to allow for a reduction in fatigue.
5) Length of phase.
Peaking typically lasts between 1-3 weeks. Shorter time is required for less advanced lifters and longer for advanced lifters.
A deload week should be implemented after this phase and before 1RM attempts (whether it be in training or competition, as detailed below.
- 1-3 Rep Range
- 1-3 Weeks
- Linear Progression of intensity and subsequent reduction in repetitions
- Competition exercise selection
- Low volume
A deload week should be used every 3-7 weeks. The parameters are typically 60-70% of normal volume and 80-90% of normal intensity. I typically use them after I finish a phase, for example I would complete a 5 week hypertrophy phase, deload for one week. I would then complete a 5 week strength phase, deload once again. I would then go through the process of peaking, and finally deload once again before a meet (or testing) for the purpose of dissipating fatigue.
To illustrate the complete system see below for a complete bench training cycle based of a 140kg 1RM.
16 Week Bench Training Mesocycle Sample (KG x Sets x Reps)
Notice how this reflects all guidelines that have been suggested throughout this article, for example the 60-75% intensity with progressive weight and volume increases and 3 time a week frequency during hypertrophy. The DUP structure of the strength phase along with the 75%-85% intensity at a reduced volume. The linear progression of the peaking stage with 85%+ weights and the significant reduction in volume.
In conclusion, the hypertrophy phase is first used to make the muscles bigger. We then take these bigger muscles and make them better at producing force through the use of the strength phase. We then move into the peaking phase to really hone in on our sport specific skills and reduce workload to be fresh and at our best to perform maximal attempts on a given day. We manipulate the five parameters of 1) intensity, reps and sets, 2) structure, 3) exercise selection, 4) frequency and 5) length of phase according to the goal of a given phases to cater for optimal training.