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Powerlifting Training Discussion

By Gary F. Zeolla

Due to my age, health, and injuries, I am no longer able to powerlift. But below is a conversation I had 3-1/2 years ago (in July 2007) while I was still powerlifting. This was when I was using gear for the last time, preparing for the Pennsylvania State Championships for the International Powerlifting Association. This was also before the publication of my book Starting and Progressing in Powerlifting in May 2009. Some of my ideas on training changed by the time the book was published. But this conversation will give the reader information on what proved to be rather successful contest preparation. But for further details on all of the issues addressed, see my book.

The emailers comments are in black and enclosed in "greater than" and "lesser than" signs. My comments are in red.

-----Original Message-----

>Subject: Rep ranges

Hello Gary,

I have read your website and I must say it has the best powerlifting advice on the internet (well that I can find anyway :-) I just have a couple of issues. I have been reading your raw training routine formats.

On dumbbell major assistance exercises, do you still use the noted rep ranges, e.g. 7-8, 5-6, 3-4? I just thought rep ranges for dumbbells had to be different? (because when you move to a bigger dumbbell it's quite a big jump in weight?)

Also, for minor assistance / other exercises, what do you mean by a rep range 4-10, it just seems confusing to me (minor assistance / other exercises being.... dips, overhead presses, upper back, biceps?)

Also on the descending rep routine, e.g. 10, 9, 8. does this just mean increase the weight for each set?

I greatly appreciate your help


-----Original Message-----

>Subject: FW: Rep ranges

Sorry, me again. When it says phases 1 and 2 only, for chin ups, dips and overhead presses, are these classed as major assistance?<

I glad to hear my site has been of help to you, but it looks like some of my "shorthand" has you a little confused.

By "major assistance" I primarily mean powerlift "look-alike" lifts, like front squats, DB Benches, and platform DLs, along with partial movements like board benches and the powerlifts done with chains or bands. By minor assistance, I generally mean isolation exercises, such as for abs, calves, and arms. But I guess I need an in-between category for compound, non-look-alike exercises like dips, presses, and rows. And that is what is causing you confusion.

That said, I'm not sure exactly which of my routines you're looking at as I've changed my routines many times. And I am now using gear not going raw. But all of the routines I have posted have worked for me at one time or another and could be modified for geared or raw lifting.

But to answer you rep range questions, for the powerlifts I now generally do not go above 6 reps. I have in the past, and that can be good for conditioning at the early stages of a cycle, but I now feel that 7-10 reps simply has too little relationship to a single to be of much use. Moreover, it is only on the powerlifts that I will do heavy singles.

Right now, I am using a 4 x 5-1 routine. By that I mean (after warm-ups), I start with a weight that will make for a hard set of 5 reps. Then I will increase the weight for each of the following three sets. There is one less set than number of possible reps to give me some flexibility. So for my last DL workout, I did (warm-ups in brackets):

[55/15, 145/10, add suit and knee bands: 235/6, add belt and wrist bands: 295/3] 325/5, 345/4, 365/3, 385/1

This workout went better than as planned. I planned on starting with a set of five and ending with a single. But things were going so well, I tried a seconded rep on the final set. I would have gotten it too if I hadn't blown my form and gotten the bar too far in front. That will give you an idea of my current routine.

Now, for major assistance exercises, my reps will be in the 2-5 range, but again with a drop reps approach. So for my new routine, I will be doing two sets, the first in the 4-5 range then the second in the 2-3 range, again, adding weight from the first to second sets. As for exercise like presses, dips, and rows, I will go: 2 x 5-6, 3-4. So the reps are just a little bit higher than on the look-alike lifts. On minor exercises I will go something like 2 x 8-10, 6-8.

On DBs [dumbbells], you are correct that if you are using "fixed" DBs at a gym that to go up by five pounds, when you are doing exercise like DB presses that use two DBs, then you have to go up by 10 pounds. In that case you need to use a wider range, so maybe something like 6-10, 3-6.

But I use changeable DBs. And for those, a while back, I got four 1-1/4 pound plates, so I can go up by 2-1/2 pounds on each DB for a total of only five pounds. I got these from: New York Barbells.

I also just got a set of "fractional plates." These include a pair each of: 1.0s, 3/4s, 1/2s, 1/4s. With these, I can use a 3/4 on one side and a 1/2 + 1/4 on the other side to go up by just 1-1/2 pounds on each DB or a total of 3 pounds for two. They are available at: Amazon . As a result, I am able to go up very gradually even with DBs, hence why I use the same rep range as for equivalent barbell exercises.

Now, if you are using one of my "cycles" where you start with higher reps, doing two sets of the same rep range, then drop the rep ranges as the weeks proceed.

For example, for major assistance, I might do 2 x 5-6 for the first third of the cycle, then 2 x 4-5 for the second third, then 2 x 2-3 for the last third.

I hope that clarifies things.

-----Original Message-----

>Subject: RE: Rep ranges

I thank you very much for your time and help. In your 4 x 5-1 routine....., so is this done week in week out? Working up to a single rep every week? (there are no cycles of using higher reps?)<

I only do it every other week. On the opposite weeks I do two major assistance exercises, for two sets each (2 x 4-5, 2-3 or 2 x 5-6, 3-4, depending on the exercise).

There is an "Off-Season" part to this routine where the powerlifts are done raw and every week, followed by one major assistance exercise, both for 2 x 5-6. The routine is detailed at: Training Routine Format with Off and In-Season Training. This routine could be used for raw lifting, but it's more geared towards, well, geared lifting.

The problem with using it for raw lifting is first, there would not be as much of a difference between the "off" and "In" seasons, so you might stagnate as the weeks go by. But with lifting raw, you might want to go a little higher off-season, maybe as high as 7-8, and that might solve the problem.

Second, doing singles even every other week lifting raw might get too dangerous. Only you can gauge if you think it will be a problem or not. But what you could do is top out at a double for the first half and only hit singles close to a contest.

>I was looking at the raw routines below. Would you recommend either of the below routines or should I try the above (or both even :-) Training Routine Format for Raw Lifting and Training Routine Format for Raw Lifting - 2.<

Either would work. But the main differences are as noted at the beginning of the second one, three rather than just two work sets and a different exercises split, namely upper back work is split between the two bench days rather than being on squat day.

Secondly, I found that three work sets on both the powerlifts and one major assistance for a total of six sets was too much. So I plan on sticking with a total of four work sets from now on (two on the powerlifts plus two on one major assistance exercise or four on the powerlifts). But again, only you can tell if 2 or 3 sets each is best for you. Of course, you can kind of combine the two, doing only two sets but the split of the second routine.

To be clear on both, the powerlifts are done each week, followed by ONE major assistance exercise. But the major assistance exercises are alternated, top end one week, bottom end work the next week.

-----Original Message-----

>Subject: RE: Rep ranges


I thank you again for your help. But I have just one more question :-)

I thought you stuck with assistance exercises (including major) for 3-4 weeks, then you switch to another exercise. But at the end of your email below you say with major assistance, you do top end one week, bottom end the next? If you could just please clarify this<

The "off-season" part of the routine lasts 3-5 weeks where the same assistance is done each week. Then all assistance exercises are changed for the "in-season" part of the routine. With it, assistance is done every other week, with the in-season lasting 8-12 weeks total, so each assistance exercise is only done 4-6 times.

Basically, I've found I need to use the same assistance for at least 3 workouts to make progress, but I begin to stagnate after 4-5 weeks if I'm doing them every week and after 5-6 workouts (10-12 weeks) if doing them every other week.

-----Original Message-----

>Subject: Bench routine

Hello Gary,

I need your help again. I have a small problem. I don't have access to a decline bench, chains/bands, a

decent range of dumbbells (at least for the near future). Will I struggle to make strength gains?

What would be suitable exercises for the following (training raw), as I notice you use a lot of dumbbell work, and I think I may struggle with just using 25kg, 35kg, 40kg, 45kg dumbbells



I appreciate your help

Kind regards,


Of course you can make strength gains. When I powerlifted in college I did not use chains, bands, declines, or even DBs very much. I think they are all helpful, but you can do without them.

That said, the bands you can easily purchase and carry in a gym bag, so you might want to consider that. The DBs 35 or 40 KG DBs you mention would suffice to hold them down. They are available at: APT Pro Gear - bands powerlifting weight lifting bands.

In any case, for the bench day, it would depend on which set/ rep scheme that we talked about before you're going to use. But basically, for the regular bench day, if you're doing benches each week, then try alternating the following two workouts:

Close grip benches

3 second pause benches

Or you could do the benches every other week, and both the close grips and pause benches the opposite week. Wide grip benches could be substituted for the 3-sec pause benches. But be careful with those; they are hard on the wrist, pecs, and shoulders.

The bench assistance day is a little more difficult. I've found it best to do "non-flat" bench assistance or speed work on that day. Now you didn't indicate if you have an incline bench or dip station, but either of those would help and work for the "non-flat" assistance.

That said, below are a few possible workouts.

Speed band benches


Explosive (clap) push-ups

Anything that is similar to benches but not identical would basically work. Also, since you're lifting raw, all benches and pressing moves should be paused.

Of course, the bench work needs to be followed up with other assistance work, such as upper back, arms, abs, depending on which of my routines you're following.

-----Original Message-----

>Subject: RE: Bench routine


Thanks again. I had a look for bands and they are numbered from 1 – 7. #3 has a resistance from 20 - 80 pounds. Would you recommend those? I have 110 kilo (242 pounds) bench. I weigh about 93 kilo if you're wondering :-)<

Your bench is similar to mine. For straight bands I use "mini-bands" which I believe would be the #2 bands. But note that these are doubled. For the setup see, Powerlift Assistance Exercises: Bands Pics.

I'm not sure if you have access to a power rack, but if you do, then you could do reverse band benches as well. For those, #3 bands would work. The setup is different. See Powerlift Assistance Exercises: Reverse Bands Pics.

>Below you say presses, what are those? (overhead ?)<

Yes, they are good as an assistance exercise.

>Below you say to use dips as a major assistance. In your raw training routines you say to use dips and overhead presses in phases 1 and 2. How does this effect using dips as a major assistance?<

The main idea is just to change exercises periodically. But don't go below a triple with dips.

>I hope I am not too much trouble :-)

Thanks for your help.
Kind regards,

I hope that helps.

To close, again, all of the issues discussed here are explain at length in my book Starting and Progressing in Powerlifting.

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The above emails originally appeared in the free FitTips for One and All email newsletter.
They were posted on this site January 30, 2011.

Powerlifting and Strength Training
Powerlifting and Strength Training: Training Routines and Program Design

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