I first competed in powerlifting in 2010 at the Bledisbro Competition held at the Powerhouse Gym in Wellington. I was training on Wendler’s 5/3/1 program at the time and had been for some time. A lot of people new to powerlifting or to strength training will follow a program they find online. In this post I’ll review my experiences on a few of these programs that are accessible online – shout out to Matt for this topic. I’ll also provide links to full details of the programs.
These reviews are far from exhaustive, if you have any specific questions ask below or on Facebook or Instagram. Also, be aware that ‘cookie cutter’ programs are unlikely to lead to results as optimal as having a good coach to personalise your programming – but they are free, and can provide some good results.
I have now also created another post as a concise database of links to these programs (and others). I will keep that updated and add to it. It is linked here.
Right, let’s get into it…
This was the first specific powerlifting program I followed. I had been training with free weights in the gym (not always regularly) since Year 12 at school, ~16 years old, for athletics.
I liked this program because it is simple, and simple is often very effective. People like to try and make things complicated, or think complicated means more effective – but that is far from the truth. This program is based around consistency with big movements, for an extended period of time – something that is extremely effective, and something I wrote about a few years back now.
This program centers around four lifts – the squat, bench press, deadlift and military (aka. strict) press. It has plenty of flexibility in accessory exercises, meaning you can choose exercises and rep schemes based upon your specific weaknesses – Wendler gives some good guidance in his eBook. For the four major lifts it rotates between a 3×5 week (sets x reps), a 3×3 week, a 5/3/1 week, and a deload week. The final set of each day is a “+” set, meaning reps can be more than prescribed. This is a chance to do more reps if you feel good, or hit the target reps and move on if feeling sluggish. After each four week block your predicted maximum weight increases to guide percentages for the next four weeks. For full program details take a read of this article.
I regularly followed this program for a year or so, and came back to it for periods at various times. In terms of numbers added to my lifts it is a little hard to judge given I played with knee wraps and a squat suit during some of this time (raw lifting didn’t have a division in the IPF at that stage). It got me through my first competitions and I think it set me a solid foundation.
It taught me to not max out too often, and the benefits of using submaximal loads to work on technique and so better master the movements.
This isn’t a quick fix (so called “quick fixes” in the fitness industry are a topic for another day), it provides a great template with plenty of flexibility to suit your own weaknesses. If you have a long term focus and can stick with a training method for a decent length of time, this program is a good fit.
I have fond memories of this program as I got some of my best progress on the squat during it. I squatted 242.5kg in the U93kg class in the meet following this training cycle, an increase of 15kg. I also progressed nicely on the deadlift, from 260kg to 272.5kg. However, my bench press remained pretty stagnant (after some elbow issues). About half way down this linked forum post you can see posts documenting that training cycle.
The 5×5 advanced program is nine weeks of training three days per week, it is based solely around a handful of major compound exercises. You squat three times per week for the first half of the program, before moving to two times. Bench and barbell rows are trained twice per week, while the deadlift and overhead press are performed once per week. All using sets of five or three reps. Notice similarities to 5/3/1? Not complicated, involves major compound movements and hard work.
I think I only ever did this program once. Unsure why, given the success I had from it. This program would be recommended if you have some experience under your belt. You can find spreadsheets for it at the link above.
The remaining programs are targeted towards single lifts – if you do any of these programs it is vital that you prioritise the one specific movement and don’t try push too hard with other movements. I learnt this lesson the hard way.
Smolov Base Cycle (Squat)
I remember doing the Smolov Base cycle with my training partner, Jono (seen below…), in my garage. We decided to do vodka shots after some training sessions – to be more “Russian”. Little did we know that in 2013 at the World Champs we would make some Russian friends who would tell us the names of some respected Russian coaches, but say something to the effect of “Smolov, I have not heard of him“.
The full program (linked here) is a 13 week program, while the base cycle is three weeks of hard work – I have only ever used the base cycle. It is specifically focused upon the squat. If you do the program, make sure you reduce your training in other areas – don’t try to be a hero. You’ll either limit your progress or hurt yourself.
This forum post tracks my workouts during a base cycle of Smolov (including a two week intro), I progressed my squat from ~235kg to 245kg – so a 10kg gain in just over a month. Notable, because that was also a new PB.
This program is taxing, you are squatting four times per week – involving 4×9, 5×7, 7×5 and 10×3 efforts – with the weight increasing from week to week. Then there is a deload week and a testing day. You can find the details in the link above.
You’ll learn to train while fatigued, and the program is a good challenge. But I don’t think this program is as amazing as some people make out, especially for long term progress. In fact, if you follow this program and then drop back to one day of squatting per week you will likely lose a lot of the progress you made. I recommend trying to maintain a higher squatting frequency (two to three days a week) after completing the base cycle.
Finally, beware that drastically increasing your training load can lead to an increased injury risk. So (like with any training information), implement it at your own risk.
As a small side note, the Smolov Jr is sometimes used for bench press. I have used this previously and had some success. It is a slightly reduced version, often performed three days per week (and spread over an extra week). My thoughts on it are pretty similar to the regular base cycle.
Gillingham Bench Cycle
In 2012 I was lifting in the 93kg class and had achieved a PB bench of 135kg. I then cut down to the 83kg class for NZ Nationals that year (from June to August). At Nationals I hit hit 125kg and missed 132.5kg (red lights for butt lifting). A few months later while still at U83kg I hit 127.5kg, but was no good with 130kg. So my best bench press at U83kg was 127.5kg prior to implementing the Gillingham Bench Cycle in the lead up to the 2012 Oceania Champs. You can see my forum posts halfway down this linked page.
The cycle involves two days of bench press per week for 12 weeks. One a “heavy day” where a single is performed and then some lighter three or five rep sets, and the second a “light day” where either speed (8×3) or muscle growth (3×8) is the focus. A online calculator is found here. This worked well for me – plenty of exposure to heavy singles, while also keeping volume work.
Following this program I hit a 142.5kg bench press at the Oceania’s. This was a lifetime PB and a massive U83kg class PB. So it is fair to say that I responded well to the program, as well as was settling in at the lower body weight.
Coan Phillipi Deadlift Cycle
I have used this program a few times and generally had decent results – but ensure you are realistic in your target weight. That is the key to success in this program, as most training loads are based off your targeted max – not your current max.
This program (linked here) is a specific deadlift program and lasts for 10 weeks. This program has a great circuit of assistance exercises which are done after the main lifts. It is a single day per week, but as I stressed earlier – try not to over do it on the other days, especially squat training.
One of my training logs using this program starts near the bottom of this forum page. On this occasion my best competition deadlift was 242.5kg before using the program, and I managed to hit a double at that during the program, then got my first ever 260kg after that Coan Phillipi cycle (using 255kg as the target max). Note that this was also after a decent weight gain up to the U93kg class!
This is a program I would tend to recommend as the deadlift volume isn’t too crazy, and the accessory is really good for building up the musculature of the back. If you don’t want to do the accessory then I probably wouldn’t implement the program. I think the accessory is one reason why this program can be so successful.
What is RPE?
If you read my linked forum posts you may have noticed the use of notations such as “@9” – this indicates the RPE (rate of perceived exertion) for the relevant sets. If you want to read more about RPE, check out the recent article by Eric Helms (here), as well as some of the original information created by Mike Tuchscherer (here). Mike’s book on the topic is good reading (I was coached online by Mike in the lead up to the 2013 World Champs).
As I got further into my competitive years in powerlifting I started to do more of my own programming. I used RPE to keep better records of my training, as well as to prescribe training – in a similar manner to the way Mike recommends in his book. I think it is a great method and recommend you read about it.
Trying these programs, among others, taught me a few things about how I respond to training, which I took advantage of when doing my own programming. To summarise a few of the things I learnt:
- Specificity works – of course! If you have a weakness, you must work on it regularly.
- I respond best to different frequencies of the powerlifts:
- Squat 2-3 days per week;
- Bench press 2-4 days per week; and,
- Deadlift 1-2 days per week.
- Regularly performing low rep sets works well for me, especially when benching – but not at the expense of volume. When low reps are used, this needs to be supported with the addition of higher rep sets, or accessory work.
- Maxing out isn’t the best form of training. Working with submaximal loads (which are still heavy, but not true maximums) allows technical proficiency to be developed.
- Training doesn’t need to be complicated to be effective.
That’s it. If you have any questions, feel free to ask!