Designing Strength Training templates for more than just the Big 3 Powerlifts

Posted on 05 Jul 2015 15:30


What if you don’t want to compete in powerlifting and you want to train more lifts than just the big three competition movements? In fact, what if you don’t want to train all the three lifts and you want to experiment with other movements and test new uncharted waters? How would you go about designing your routine to reach these new (and unique) goals?

“I want to do something different”

This blog post is meant for those of you who don’t want to just train the squat, bench press and deadlift. If you are not going to compete in powerlifting you do not have to restrict yourself to just training the three competition lifts. You have the freedom to train any lift in any way you like and you can also train lifts just because you find pleasure in performing them.

I say this because very often we feel compelled to train certain lifts. You are competing in powerlifting so you have to train the bench press (for example) even though you don’t like to. If you’re not going to compete, you don’t have to train it at all – if that is what you desire. You may want to train something new and fun like the one arm shoulder press or weighted pull-ups or pistol squats or suitcase deadlifts or anything else – everything is on the table for you.

First steps to designing your own routine

I am going to use an example to illustrate my point. Let’s say you want to get as strong as you can possibly get on just the squat, okay? Given this narrow focus the minimum lift you must train to improve the squat is the squat. I know there are many articles out there that will tell you how to attack the squat from various angles but the single inarguable and undeniable truth is that nothing will help your squat like the squat itself.

So when you go about designing your routine the most important day is the squat day. But you are obviously not going to just train the squat. You do want to do some pressing, pulling and deadlifting and perhaps even more than just these – or you might want to squat more frequently as well. Now that you have the most essential day of the week planned out you have the freedom to play with all the other training days. You can literally choose lifts and train them the way you want to train them.

I am a maximal strength enthusiast so whatever I discuss is going to largely focus around lifting heavy weights. I am going to assume that you also want to train to get stronger. I believe that most people should train 3-4 days a week. Sometimes this may seem less to those who train 5-6 days but I think from a pure strength perspective you don’t need to do more than 4 days. You may feel like doing a 5th day but that is your choice. So in keeping with our example of squats, the first day of your training routine is going to involve squats. This is your big event day – it is squat day. Then you can plan everything else around this big training day one.


I’m going to stick with this situation of you wanting to get super strong on squats and I am going to give you two different examples of how you can build your own training routines. The first example has your secondary goal (to adding pounds to your squat) being about growing big arms. Right now you have a 4 day per week training routine. The first day is allocated for Squats. Here is how I would have you divide up your work:

Workout 1: Squats – train them hard and heavy in terms of volume and intensity
Workout 2: Press training with an emphasis on triceps
Workout 3: Deadlifts for maintenance and some bench press work or anything else you want to touch up on like lunges or posterior chain work. If you don’t know how to structure a maintenance protocol for a lift you should check out Eric Troy’s article on the subject out HERE
Workout 4: Back and biceps with a big emphasis on biceps

In contrast, what if your only goal was to get strong on the squat but you also want to train the deadlift and do some weighted pull-ups, rows, one leg squats, one arm overhead press strongman style, suitcase deadlifts, etc. Keep in mind that your primary goal is to increase your squat but you also want to train other lifts because you enjoy them. In that case you would have to approach your training from a lift perspective.

Workout 1: Squats – high volume and high intensity
Workout 2: One arm overhead press, etc
Workout 3: Deadlifts for maintenance work and Suitcase Deadlifts
Workout 4: One leg squats, weighted pull-ups and rows

Both these examples are drastically different from each other but they should give you ideas of how you can go about playing with your training routine. The third and last example is a bit different because it is based on my goals and what I did for a long time. It is a training template based on me wanting to get strong on the deadlift and train a bunch of other “fun” lifts because I loved doing them. Adding muscle to my body wasn’t a big priority and the only body part I was remotely focusing on for muscle mass were my back and legs. As a result of this I didn’t feel the need to do heavy squats but I would instead train front squats (or back squats) for very high repetitions. This is what my training template / routine looked like at the time and keep in mind that is purely anecdotal and must be taken with a grain or two of salt.

Workout 1: Deadlifts – high volume high intensity
Workout 2: Pistol squats, standing one arm overhead shoulder press and weighted pull-ups
Workout 3: Deadlifts again but this time I’d just play around with them and do technique practice or work up to a heavy single or double or triple, then I would do some light weight front or back squats for really high repetitions or work up to a heavy single double or triple and I would finish with some cable pullthroughs or swiss ball glute ham raises or hip extensions for posterior chain work
Workout 4: Weighted dips, heavy dumbbell rows, cable rows, facepulls and suitcase deadlifts

I want to add in a bit of a disclaimer. I wrote earlier that the only exercise needed to improve the squat is the squat. While I have said this, I don’t want you to get the impression that I am endorsing someone doing squats on one day followed by three days of chest and biceps. Don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing in theory that is incorrect with that approach but in my experience creating massive imbalances in strength or muscle don’t help you in the long run. It is best to not ignore something completely unless it is for health purposes or if you are going to do it just be honest about the fact and remember that it could come back in the future to bite you in the ass.

Wrapping it up

This blog post won’t serve the general population who feels compelled to train the squat, bench press and deadlift religiously. This blog post will probably create problems for a lot of people because a lot of people want their training to be very simple and what I am proposing here will make you actually think about why you are doing certain lifts and it will cause confusion because instead of telling you that you MUST focus your training around 3 lifts I am nudging you to look beyond them at the plethora of exercises that exist.

It is very important to structure your workouts around your goals. In this, you must be selfish. If you are not competing in powerlifting you do not need to train the squat, bench press and deadlift just because everyone else is being pushed into it. You must make your training about you and your goals. If you want to train just a few lifts for strength and you want to add muscle to certain body-parts you must structure your workouts accordingly. Similarly, even if you want to just train some lifts because you enjoy doing them that is absolutely one hundred percent fine and I encourage you to do so as long as you are honest with yourself about why you are doing what you are doing.

The three examples of routines / templates I provided earlier are very unorthodox but they are perfect for the goals they are designed to fulfill – and these goals are unorthodox too. Yet, I believe very strongly that given the choice most people would want to experiment with more than just squats, presses and deadlifts with their training but social pressure and this false sense of “you must” being pushed by pseudo-strength coaches forces them to stick to the norm. If we didn’t have anybody whispering in our ears what exercises we should or should not do I am sure all of us would pick exercises we are most passionate about.

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