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You don’t have to choose between being strong and looking good

By Tucker Loken-Dahle


Powerbuilding is when you want to build a physique that’s more than pleasing to the eye, you 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-type physique with all the qualities of broad shoulders, trim waist, low body fat, and balanced muscle mass.

More Gains

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 bodybuilding, you’ll be way stronger. When you go back to 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 wanted 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 press, or deadlift in 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 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 is to start squatting, benching, and deadlifting heavy. Your entire back is used directly or as stability during all three of those 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.

Key Differences

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 be used to feeling squats most in your quads, bench in your chest, and deadlift in your back, but that isn’t the most effective for your leverages. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t feel it there, but the goal is to move the weight as efficiently as possible, and oftentimes you feel that a little bit all over.

Regular Deloads

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 years, but after a while it just left me plateaued and 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 percent of the usual load. It ensures you will be ready for the heavy weight to come. In powerbuilding, we drop the Big Three down to 50 percent of your max lift and work on form and lower 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 week. It’ll seem boring at first, but once you go through a couple and realize how strong you get post deload, you’ll never train without them.

Moderated Intensity

Just like bodybuilders increase cardio and decrease food over time as they get ready to step onstage, powerlifters increase the intensity and weight used in their sessions as they get ready for a meet. If you can start a diet and lose fat eating 3,000 calories a day and doing no cardio, there’s no reason you would change it to 2,000 calories a day and an hour of cardio as long as you’re getting 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 reps in the tank. If you don’t feel drained after the main exercise movement, then go heavier on hypertrophy work. Taking the final set of the dumbbell and machine exercises to failure is a good rule of thumb, and doing some extra forced 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 deadlifts or even barbell rows can put you in the dirt quick, so be intelligent when you get intense.

Putting It All Together

For a powerbuilding program, you’ll still be using 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 five sets of six reps of flat bench press, find an appropriate starting weight for the first set that is challenging, and then add some weight to each set until on the final set you’re two reps shy of full failure. For hypertrophy, find a weight that is challenging but doable for 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 weight 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.IM


Day 1: Bench/Chest

Flat Bench Press

Week 1                       5 x 6                1 top set, leave 2 reps in the tank

Week 2                       4 x 4               1 top set, leave 2 reps in the tank

Week 3                        3 x 2               1 top set, leave 2 reps in the tank

Week 4                       Deload            5 singles at 50% of max

Close Grip Press                                4×8,6,5,4*

Incline DB Press                                3×12,10,8

Flat or Incline Machine Press         3×12,10,8

Dips                                                      3 sets of bodyweight reps

Pec Flyes                                             3×15,12,10
* Use a weight that leaves 1 or 2 in the tank on each set


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Day 2: Deadlifts/Back & Bi’s

Dead lifts

Week 1           5 x 6                            1 top set, leave 2 reps in the tank

Week 2           4 x 4                           1 top set, leave 2 reps in the tank

Week 3           3 x 2                           1 top set, leave 2 reps in the tank

Week 4           Deload                       5 singles at 50% of max

Deficit Deadlifts                                 4×8,6,5,4

Lat Pull-Downs/Pull-Ups                3×12,10,8*

Dumbbell Rows                                 3×12,10,8

Machine Rows                                   3×15,12,10

Barbell Biceps Curls                         3×12,10,8

Dumbbell Hammer Curls                3×12,10,8

* Use a weight that leaves 1 or 2 in the tank on each set

Day 3: OFF

Day 4: Overhead Press/Shoulders & Tri’s)

Standing Overhead Press                             4×12,10,8,6*

Dumbbell Side Raises                                   3×12,10,8

Dumbbell Bent-Over Lateral Raises          3×12,10,8

Face Pulls                                                        3×12,10,8

Shrugs                                                              3×15,12,10

Barbell Skullcrushers                                    3×12,10,8

Single-Arm Cable Pushdown                       3×12,10,8

*Use a weight that leaves 1 or 2 reps in the tank on each set

Day 5: Squat/Legs


Week 1                        5 x 6               1 top set, leave 2 reps in the tank

Week 2                       4 x 4               1 top set, leave 2 reps in the tank

Week 3                        3 x 2               1 top set, leave 2 reps in the tank

Week 4                        Deload           5 singles at 50% of max


Pause Front Squats   4×8,6,5,4*

Leg Press                   3×12,10,8

Leg Extension            3×15,12,10

Leg Curls                     3×15,12,10

Lunges                        3×15 each leg

*Use a weight that leaves 1 or 2 reps in the tank on each set

Day 6: OFF

Day 7: OFF



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