The Best 3-Day Powerlifting Program

More and more people choosing to enter powerlifting meets and competitions
Written by

Get the expert advice you need to reach your health and fitness goals. Meet Jane Litfin, Gym Geek’s health and fitness editor, who has years of experience in helping people stay fit with her custom diet plans, workout routines, healthy eating tips & more!

Follow Jane on X/Twitter

Powerlifting is currently one of the most popular forms of training in the entire world, with more and more people choosing to train with a powerlifting program and enter powerlifting meets and competitions now, than ever before. Perhaps it’s because strongman has grown in popularity, or maybe it’s just because people are looking for new ways of testing their strength and pushing their bodies to the absolute limit each and every single week.

Whatever the reasons may be, powerlifting is now incredibly popular, and that doesn’t look set to change anytime soon. When it comes to powerlifting however, the goal for many people, is to enter a meet or competition relatively local to them, win it hopefully, or place as well as possible, and then move on to the contest, becoming bigger and stronger every single time they enter a new contest.


When it comes to powerlifting however, the training is very, very different to bodybuilding, because the goals and targets are different. With bodybuilding, aesthetics are the primary focus, as the idea is to get your body looking as great as it possibly can look.

Because of that, it doesn’t matter how much weight a bodybuilder can lift, as long as he looks great when he steps on stage.

On the flipside, when it comes to powerlifting, powerlifters don’t actually care what they look like, as they aren’t posing on stage, they’re there to lift weight.

If you’re relatively new to powerlifting, or simply want a new workout routine to follow, here’s a look at the best 3-day powerlifting program you could possibly wish for.

Quad sets

When we talk about quad sets, we aren’t actually talking about the quadriceps muscle at all, we are instead talking about 4 heavy working sets.

Just note, that all of the workouts listed below, will all begin with 4 heavy working sets for the very first exercise, whereas after that, reps, weights, and exercises, will vary greatly.

When you start with your first quad set, you should select a weight that allows you to comfortably perform 4 sets of 4 reps. Overtime obviously, things will become easier, and when the final 4th set feels too easy, you should add 5 pounds in weight, and continue this trend every time. If 5 pounds is too heavy, try 2.5 instead.


Weights used

For all of your other exercises, the same weight should be used for each set, so there will be no pyramiding up or down in these instances, and certainly no super-setting. Once you are able to easily perform all of the reps which are listed below, then you can add slightly more weight, and take things from there.

The 3-day split routine powerlifting program

This powerlifting program is a 3 day split, so, obviously, you will be training for just 3 days each week. When powerlifting, you train with three exercises in mind: Bench press, squats, and deadlifts. Needless to say, the routine listed below, is designed to work on each of these lifts. If possible, structure your training as follows:

  • Monday - Bench day
  • Wednesday - Deadlift day
  • Friday - Squat day

Day 1 (Monday) - Bench day

On the bench press day, obviously you will be performing bench presses and similar incarnations of this exercise, as that is one of the big three exercises you will have to perform on the day of your meet. As well as bench presses however, you also perform exercises that strengthen stability muscles, and muscles which will assist you with the lift in general. For example, when you perform bench presses, your triceps and deltoids are also recruited and assist you with the lift, so strengthening those muscles will help you to bench more by default. This is why there are chest, triceps, and deltoid exercises included in this workout.


1. Flat Bench Press

Bench press

Do: 4 sets of 4 reps

Why: The bench press is one of the three core powerlifting exercises (alongside squats and deadlifts), and so it's the most important exercise on your bench day. Flat bench press is a compound exercise for your upper body, targeting your pectoral muscles, as well as your deltoids (shoulders) and triceps. It's important to do this exercise first, since you'll be lifting 4 heavy sets. Your muscles will not be fatigued from other exercises, allowing you to put maximum energy in your lifts.

How to do: Lie flat on your back on a training bench. Grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Lift the bar from the rack and hold it directly over your chest with your arms fully extended. Inhale and lower the bar slowly until it touches the middle of your chest. Now, exhale and push the bar back up to the starting position, fully extending your arms without locking your elbows.


Read more: How to Do a Bench Press

2. Incline dumbbell bench press

Incline dumbbell press

Do: 5 sets of 10 reps

Why: Similar to the flat bench press, this exercise primarily works your pectoralis major muscles in your chest. It does, however, put a greater emphasis on the upper portion of your pecs. The use of dumbbells also allows a great range of motion compared with a barbell press. It is also useful to address muscle imbalances since you are lifting each arm independently.

How to do: Sit on an incline bench, holding the dumbbells at shoulder height. Keep your feet flat on the floor. Exhale and push the dumbbells up until your arms are almost fully extended above you. Pause at the top of a second, then slowly lower back to the starting position, inhaling as you lower.

Read more: How to Do Incline Dumbbell Press

3. Standing military press

Standing military press

Do: 4 sets of 4 reps

Why: The standing military press primarily targets your deltoid muscles, but also engages your triceps and upper pecs, as well as various stabilizer muscles in your core and lower body. The stabilizer muscles are engaged because of the standing position. You should perform the military press on the same day as other upper body exercises to get a full upper-body workout. Lifting a heavy weight with just 4 reps achieves the strength goals of a powerlifting program.


How to do: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a barbell just below shoulder height. Grab the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width. Use an overhand grip so your palms are facing away from your body. Press the barbell up until your arms are fully extended overhead, then slowly lower back to the starting position.

Read more: How to Do a Standing Military Barbell Press

4. Triceps extensions

Diagram showing triceps overhead extensions

Do: 4 sets of 15 reps

Why: Triceps extensions are isolation exercises that target your triceps muscles. It's a good idea to do these extensions on your powerlifting program's bench day, since they help build pushing strength. This is aligned with your bench press performance. There are many variations of the tricep extension, including overhead extensions and the lying dumbbell tricep extension (commonly known as the Skull Crushers exercise).

How to do (Overhead extension): Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Engage your core for stability, and draw back your shoulders. Hold a dumbbell with both hands, and bring it back behind your head. Your elbows should be bent at a 90-degree angle with your upper arms pointing upwards. Keep your elbows close to your head and ears. Extend your arms up towards the ceiling, lifting the dumbbell above your head. Once your arms are fully extended, pause, then slowly return to the starting position.

Diagram showing the Skull Crushers exercise

How to do (Lying dumbbell tricep extension): Position yourself on a weight bench, lying down, with your feet firmly on the ground. Holding a dumbbell with both hands, bend your elbows and lower the dumbbell behind your head. Keeping your upper arms stationary and pointing towards the ceiling, straighten your elbows and raise the weight back up using your triceps. Move until your arms are fully extended. Now, lower the weight back behind your head in a slow and controlled motion.


Read more: How to Do Triceps Extensions

5. Seated Arnold press

Seated Arnold press

Do: 5 sets of 10 reps

Why: The seated Arnold press targets your deltoid muscles, as well as your triceps and upper back muscles as secondary movers. Strong shoulders are important for powerlifting movements like the bench press and deadlift, so this is a great way to build up that strength. The rotation of your hands adds extra complexity to the movement and engages more muscles. 10 reps is a good balance between muscle growth and strength gains.

How to do: Sit on a bench holding a dumbbell in each hand. Start with your palms facing towards you. Push the dumbbells up while rotating your hands until your palms are facing forwards at the top of the movement. Pause at the top, then slowly lower back to the starting position, rotating your hands in the opposite direction.

Read more: How to Do Seated Arnold Presses

Day 2 (Wednesday) - Deadlift day

Deadlifts not only rely on a strong back, they also rely on great grip strength, and strong bicep strength as well. As you can see, the workout listed below works the back, the biceps, and has exercises, such as power shrugs, which are designed to enhance your grip strength.

1. Deadlift

Man performs a deadlift, a recommended exercise in the powerlifting workout

Do: 4 sets of 4 reps

Why: The deadlift works your entire posterior chain, including your glutes, hamstrings and lower back. The exercise also engages your core, traps, quads and forearms. 4 sets of 4 reps means you are focusing on lifting heavy weights with low reps, which is ideal for building strength and power, rather than endurance or hypertrophy.

How to do: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointing forwards. Position the barbell with your toes underneath the bar, with your shins almost touching the bar. With proper form, squat down towards the barbell. With your knees slightly bent, hinge at your hips and sit back. Bend forward at your wait, reach forward and grip the barbell. Lift by pushing upwards with your legs, keeping the bar close to your body and your chest up. Straighten up to complete the lift, lockout, then lower the bar back to the floor, pushing your hips back, bending your knees and keeping them inline with your feet.


Read more: How to Do a Deadlift

2. Power shrugs

Barbell shrugs diagram

Do: 2 sets of 20 reps

Why: Power shrugs primarily target your trapezius muscles and help you improve your overall pulling power. This is crucial for deadlift performance and other powerlifting exercises. Power shrugs deliberately have a shorter range of motion, which allows a heavier weight to be used, and it also provides a unique stimulus to your traps. 2 sets of 20 reps provides a balance between strength and endurance, while still contributing high volume to your routine.

How to do: Stand upright and hold a barbell in front of your thighs with an overhand grip. Your hands shoulder be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep your feet hip-width apart, with your knees slightly bent. Now, shrug your shoulders up to lift the barbell, making sure to engage your traps rather than your biceps. Finally, lower the barbell back to the starting position.

Read more: How to Do Power Shrugs

3. Bent over barbell rows

Diagram showing bent over rows

Do: 5 sets of 10 reps

Why: The bent over row primarily works your latissimus dorsi (lats), rhomboids and trapezius muscles. Strengthening these back muscles is key for your powerlifting performance. The bent over position ensures engagement of your core and lower back for stability. In a 3 day powerlifting program, you should do bent over rows on your deadlift (back) day.

How to do: Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a barbell at hip level with an overhand grip. Bending at your knees, hinge at your wait to push your hips back until your torso is almost parallel to the floor. Pull the barbell towards your chest, keeping your elbows tucked close to your body. Squeeze at the top of the movement, then slowly lower back to the starting position.

Read more: How to Do Bent Over Barbell Rows


4. Wide grip pull ups

Pull ups

Do: 5 sets to failure

Why: Wide grip pull ups primarily work your lats, but they also engage your rhomboids, trapezius, biceps and brachialis. Doing pull ups help build upper body strength and stability, which can help in powerlifting lifts like deadlifts, squats and bench press. This move is a different type of pulling motion (overhead pull) compared with the deadlift and shrug exercises on your deadlift day. Pull ups are a functional exercise that use your own bodyweight. Do 5 sets to failure to push your muscles to their maximum capacity.

How to do: Grab a pull-up bar with your hands shoulder-width apart and your palms facing away from you. Start by handing from the bar, with your arms fully extended and feet elevated from the ground. Pull yourself up towards the bar, keeping your elbows close to your body. Squeeze at the top, then slowly lower back to the starting position.

Read more: How to Do Pull-ups

5. Dumbbell hammer curls

Standing hammer curls

Do: 3 sets of 12 reps

Why: Dumbbell hammer curls are an isolation exercise that hit your biceps and forearms. This makes them a good accessory exercise on your deadlift day, since they target muscles that are not primarily worked during deadlift and similar exercises. Regularly performing hammer curls can also improve your grip strength, which is beneficial for other lifting exercises.

How to do: Stand upright, with your arms by your side, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Your palms should be facing your body. Keeping your upper arms fixed, curl the weights up to your shoulders. Squeeze your biceps and lower back to the starting position.

Read more: How to Do Hammer Curls

6. Incline alternating dumbbell curls

Alternating incline dumbbell curls

Do: 3 sets of 12 reps per arm

Why: This is your second biceps isolation exercise on your deadlift (back) training day. Incline dumbbell curls have a greater range of motion compared to seated bicep curls. Because your arms move behind your body, this exercise also works the long head of your biceps more than other bicep curls. This exercise is a good choice if your goal is to build bigger and more aesthetically-impressive biceps.


How to do: Set your adjustable inline bench to an angle of 30-45 degrees. Sit with your back firmly against the bench and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Extend your arms with your palms facing forwards. With your left arm, curl the weight by contracting your biceps. Squeeze at the top, then slowly lower the weight back to the starting position. Now repeat with your right arm.

Read more: How to Do Alternating Dumbbell Curls

Day 3 (Friday) - Squat day

When squatting, you need all of the major muscle groups in your legs to become as strong and as durable as possible, which is why there are so many different leg exercises listed below, with each one targeting a slightly different muscle group in the leg.

1 & 2. Barbell squats (lower and higher weight)

Barbell squats

Do: First exercise - 1 set of 20 reps at a lower weight. Second exercise - 4 sets of 4 reps at a higher weight.

Why: The squat is another core powerlifting exercise. The squat primarily works muscles in your lower body, including your quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves. It is a high-intensity and high-volume exercise, making it an excellent choice for powerlifters whose goal is to improve strength and power. The initial set of 20 reps at a lower weight serves as a warm-up set, preparing your muscles for the heavier weight.

How to do: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with a barbell resting on your upper back. Keep your chest up and brace your core. Bend your knees and bend forward at your hips as you lower your body as far as possible while maintaining a straight back. Do not let your knees drift forwards past your toes. Finally, push through your heels to stand straight back up to the starting position.

Read more: How to Do Barbell Squats

3. Leg press machine

Diagram showing a leg press machine

Do: 4 sets of 20 reps

Why: The leg press primarily targets your quadricep (quad) muscles. It's an effective way to build strength in your lower body. Other leg exercises like squats and lunges need some engagement from your core or upper body. The leg press machine, however, fully isolates your lower body by keeping your back fixed in position. It also allows a more controlled movement, making it a great option for beginners to start building up leg strength.


How to do: Load the machine with the appropriate weight. Pull yourself into the seat with your back placed firmly against the seat. Place your feet shoulder-width to hip-width apart on the footplate. In the starting position, your legs should be bent at a 90 degree angle. Firmly grip the handles. Exhale as you extend your legs, pushing against the footplate. Pause at the top of the press motion, then lower the weight in a controlled manner.

Read more: How to Do a Leg Press

4. Stiff-legged deadlifts

Stiff-legged deadlift

Do: 3 sets of 6 reps

Why: Stiff-leg deadlifts keep your legs relatively straight throughout the motion, which make them a great option if you want to emphasize working your hamstrings or lower back. Because of the lower body emphasis, it's a good exercise to include on your powerlifting program's squat day (as opposed to deadlift day). Doing 3 sets of 6 reps balances between volume (total reps) and intensity (weight lifted).

How to do: Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart. Maintain a neutral spine. Do not round your back during the exercise. With an overhand grip, grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width. Keep the bar close to your body throughout the movement. With your legs and back straight, bend forward at your hips and lower the bar along your legs until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Contract your hamstrings and glutes to reverse the motion, returning to the standing position.

Read more: How to Do Stiff-legged Deadlifts

5. Seated leg curls

Seated leg curls

Do: 5 sets of 10 reps

Why: The seated leg curl helps strengthen your hamstrings, which is critical for powerlifting movements like squats and deadlifts. It's an isolation exercise that specifically hits your hamstrings, unlike squats which distribute the weight across various muscle groups.

How to do: Sit with your back against the pad and place your legs above the padded lever. Secure the lap pad against your thighs, just above your knees. Holding onto handles for support, contract your hamstrings to move the lever down. Pause for a moment, then slowly return to the starting position.

Read more: How to Do Leg Curls

6. Lying hamstring curls

Lying leg curls

Do: 5 sets of 10 reps

Why: The lying position of this exercise allows for a more complete contraction of your hamstrings compared with the seated leg curl. This exercise not only targets your hamstrings, but it also engages your calf muscles and glutes to a lesser extent.

How to do: Lie flat on a leg curl machine with your legs fully extended. Position the back of your lower legs beneath the padded lever. Hold onto the machine's handles for support. Bending at your knees, curl your legs upwards as far as you can go while keeping your thighs on the bench. Squeeze your hamstrings at the top of the movement, then slowly lower back to the starting position.

Read more: How to Do Leg Curls

A word on your diet

Some powerlifters, or rather, some wannabe powerlifters, will use their training as an excuse to binge eat and pig out on whichever foods they like. Yes, whilst powerlifting and training like one, you are going to have to consume far more calories than the average person, but that doesn’t mean you are allowed to stuff your face full of junk.

You eat for performance, and the quality of the food going into your body, will reflect on the quality of your performances in the gym. Drink plenty of water, stay hydrated and get your electrolytes, and ensure you get plenty of high quality protein.

Avoid processed junk and instead consume fresh and healthy produce. Ensure your fats come from clean and healthy sources, make sure you watch your sugar intake and focus on mainly complex carbs instead of simple ones, and above all else, make sure you get plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. The odd cheat meal now and then is fine, just make sure that 90% of your diet, is super clean and super healthy.

Gym Geek Community