The Ultimate Guide to Powerbuilding Routines

Here’s a question for you: if you could only choose one, would you rather be big, or be strong?

Honestly, that’s a dumb question.

Very few males would prefer one to the other. Some of you may be thinking otherwise, but here’s a scenario to think about. Which would you prefer being: strong enough to clean and jerk 800 lbs but as frail as a holocaust survivor, or similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime but unable to carry a gallon of milk? I can already hear “is killing myself an option?” For those who are able to make a choice between the two, I have serious concerns about your mental health.

Strength and size are the pursuits of many. For those specializing in strength, there is powerlifting. For those chasing size, there is bodybuilding. But what about those who want both? That’s where powerbuilding comes in.

The term powerbuilding is derived from the two previously-mentioned activities: powerlifting and bodybuilding. It is simply the process of getting bigger AND stronger.

It’s a term that hasn’t existed for that long and is not really a real word (if you don’t believe me, check out its search-activity in Google). However, it’s a practice that people have been participating in for ages. Anyone who aims to get stronger inevitably gets bigger, and vice versa. Hypertrophy training elicits gains in strength, and strength training elicits gains in hypertrophy.

For Powerbuilding, You Need Both Volume and Intensity

If your goal is to get both bigger AND stronger, it would be prudent to make sure your program includes what’s necessary to achieve those goals. Volume (e.g., total reps) is usually a catalyst for hypertrophy, and intensity (e.g., weight) drives strength gains. Feel free to check out the Strength & Conditioning Research website where the authors examine drivers for physical performance. (Hypertrophy and strength are discussed here and here, respectively.)

So a powerbuilding routine must somehow incorporate these two variables while still being realistic. If people had the time and capacity for recovery to use both a bodybuilding routine AND powerlifting routine simultaneously, I’m sure some folks would go after it and become monstrous. Sadly, we don’t live in some fairy-tale, so you need a routine that strikes a balance between volume and intensity.

Luckily, there are plenty of routines that DO find that balance. And that’s a good thing, considering you won’t need to waste time through trial and error. Well, nothing’s stopping you from trying to come up with the best powerbuilding routine ever, but it’s likely that the available options are good enough.

I will discuss some powerbuilding routine “themes” and give a few actual examples of each.

Powerbuilding Routine “Theme” #1: Focus on Intensity and Sprinkle in Some Volume

When it comes to programs that maximize intensity, they tend to leave something to be desired. Workouts that involve only singles at near-maximal weights may feel difficult and push your towards failure, but they rarely give you that lactic acid burn or leave you gasping for breath. You feel like you worked hard, but there are definitely some reps left in you… just maybe not at the same intensity.

You can bedazzle the shit out of any high-intensity low-volume program with some “pump sets” however you feel is appropriate.

Take Doug Hepburn’s Singles routine, for example.

Doug Hepburn, powerbuilding routine

The late great Doug Hepburn. What I’d do to go back in time to have a chance to learn from him.

There are a bunch of interpretations of the late Hepburn’s programs, so this is just one of the many out there.

  • Back squat and overhead press Monday and Thursday.
  • Deadlift and bench press Tuesday and Friday.
  • Start with 4×1 at 90% of 1RM, and add 1 set after each successful workout until 10×1 is reached.
  • Increase weight by 5-10 lbs, and begin again at 4×1.
  • Use 2-3 minutes of rest between sets.

As you see here, the intensity is really high but there is zero fucking volume. Symmetry is also lacking. The legs are getting hammered nicely, as are the “pushing muscles” of the upper-body (e.g., chest and triceps). The upper back and biceps are left untouched, however, with the exception of their involvement in the deadlift.

So how would could you spruce up Hepburn’s classic routine into a powerbuilding routine? Well, everything could use extra reps for growth, doubly-so for the biceps and upper back. Let’s take it from there.

  • Add chin-ups and additional back squats on Monday and Thursday.
  • Add rows and incline bench presses on Tuesday and Friday.
  • Perform 3×9 for each additional lift and add 1 rep per set each successful week until 3×12 is reached.
  • Choose weight conservatively and start light if needed.
  • Bump up the weight by a small increment and start again at 3×9.
  • Use 2-3 minutes of rest between sets.

Doug Hepburn’s biography Strongman is on Amazon for a few bucks, and contains some further information on his training routines.

Another example of “mostly intense, with some extra volume” program is Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1.

5/3/1 is a four-week strength routine that increases with intensity over three weeks and finishes with deload during the fourth week. It is fairly bare-bones and low in volume, so a number of variations were made to suit a number of goals. You can easily throw in whatever vanity lifts you want at the end of each workout, although the pre-made variations will probably ensure more consistent progress.

So, as with Hepburn’s program that we tweaked, Wendler’s gives you the best of both worlds, powebuilding-style. Plus, Jim is a monster and has squatted over half a ton.

Wendler’s 5/3/1 is available on Amazon for those who are interested.

Any other strength-oriented high-intensity routine can be modified in the same fashion. Do the same exercises at lower weights and higher reps, and do additional movements to prevent asymmetry and lagging body parts. It’s all a matter of taking what you’re given, figuring out what’s missing, and throwing the missing stuff back in.

Powerbuilding Routine “Theme” #2: Get a Taste of Intensity, but Focus Primarily on Volume

Everyone knows bodybuilding – the isolation exercises, the lactic acid “pump”, the flexing in the mirror. Bodybuilding has taken quite the hit in recent years and become the butt of many jokes (everyone knows about “curling in the squat rack”). My guess is that people jump on any bandwagon so they feel like they’re “part of the gang”.

Credit should be given where credit is due: bodybuilders excel at being swole whilst using high volume and lots of isolation exercises in junction with compound exercises. No one should be ridiculed for wanting to follow a bodybuilding routine. The keyboard warriors on the internet forums who do the shit-talking are usually two-month veterans of beginner’s lifting routines, thus their opinions are no more important than my last trip to the bathroom.

schwarzeneggar, powerbuilding routine

Blah blah blah, something something bodybuilders suck, blah blah. Shut the hell up already.

Anyway, it may be in your best interest to keep up some high intensity work after jumping into a bodybuilding routine. Why? Your strength may not progress as quickly with higher reps and less weight (just as higher weight and less reps may not build as much muscle). Dave Tate (CEO of EliteFTS) once said that during his stint in bodybuilding, he became really good at performing sets of 10, but his 1RM wasn’t that much higher than what he used for high reps.

So, we see the need for high-intensity training. The simplest way to add intensity back into a high-volume routine, turning a bodybuilding routine into a powerbuilding routine, is through back-off sets.

Basically, you want take a compound lift (squat, deadlift, bench press) and warm-up towards one or more “heavy” sets (5’s, triples, doubles, or singles). Once you’re done with the heavy work, continue with your multiple high-volume, lower-intensity sets. That way, you get to hit the heavy weights first (briefly), then pump your body up with some high-rep work.

Reverse pyramid training programs fall in line with this type of thinking. They are high volume routines that still flirt with intensity. They involve you performing your heaviest set first, then removing weight and performing more reps for the next set, removing more weight and performing even more reps for the following set, and so on. Martin Berkhan has recommended a reverse pyramid training routine for those following his program, LeanGains. The only down-side with his specific take on RPT is that it involves only 3 sets per exercise, 2 exercise per day, and 3 days per week. More back-off sets may be needed to stimulate growth.

Yet another example is the original pyramid training. This involve starting your working sets with lower weight and higher reps, building up to a low-rep set with heavy weight. Weight goes up and reps go down as you progress from set to set. The down-side with this kind of training is that you’ll be fairly fatigued once you reach your heaviest set. The up-side is that your true strength will always be greater than what you perform during a typical workout. Finnish weightlifter Milko Tokola has a video floating around of his “pig squat training” – essentially a pyramid routine, but more grueling. It is 20 sets of squats, starting with 20 reps, taking 1 rep off each set until the final set of 1 rep is hit. The weight goes from 45 lbs / 20 kg to 462 lbs / 210 kg.

That’s 210 reps total, ending with a single at 84% of his 1RM from one year prior. I don’t know about you, but I feel inferior right now.

Powerbuilding Routine “Theme” #3: Find The Happy Medium

Yet another way to follow a powerbuilding routine is to favor neither volume nor intensity – giving the finger to “everything in moderation”.

If you can maximize both as much as possible without interfering with each other, you’ve hit the jack pot. The biggest concern here is to figure out how much of both intensity and volume your body can handle.

If you increase intensity, you can’t perform as many reps per set. You can perform more sets, but if those sets are grinders, each set will deteriorate and you’ll end up failing or doing less reps per set. 5 sets of 6 at a certain weight may be impossible to complete, but 6 sets of 5 just might be possible. 10 sets of 3 would certainly be doable. 15 sets of 2 would be laughable (but would take quite some time to complete).

Chad Waterbury’s 10 x 3 nails this tenant on the head precisely. It allows you to use a considerable amount of weight at a considerable volume, spread across multiple sets. Here are the details:

  • Focus primarily on compound lifts.
  • Perform the lifts at 80% of your 1RM, for 10 sets of 3.
  • Limit rest to 1-2 minutes.
  • Either increase weight used each week by 2.5% of your 1RM, or decrease rest between sets.

Others have found success with Waterbury-like routines, including Jamie Lewis of Chaos and Pain whose training regimen revolves around heavy weights with compound lifts performed at singles, doubles, and/or triples for a crap-ton of sets. He still messes around with higher-rep sets for bodyweight or accessory exercises, but the bulk of his routine is similar to Waterbury’s method.

If variety is more what you like, you can try to involve various rep-ranges within in each workout for the sake of powerbuilding. Once again, it’s a little easy to get wreckless here and you should tread with caution before beating up your body with a large number of sets with different weights and intensities.

The primary difference between this approach and the other approaches is that volume and intensity are attacked at all angles, versus focusing on one and supplementing with the other.

Take Cody Levefer’s GZCL Method for example.

The GZCL Method involves three “tiers” of volume-to-intensity to be performed each workout. It all starts with low-volume high-intensity work for the big lifts (tier 1), followed by moderate-volume and moderate-intensity for the same lifts (tier 2), followed-up once again with high-rep bodybuilding-esque sets (tier 3). His program’s philosphy touts that enough intensity AND volume is necessary for progress. Here is a snapshot of how the routine can be adapted to for squats, taken straight from Cody’s website:

powerbuilding routine, GZCLNothing is safe in this program. It’s all inclusive and anything from heavy singles to light sets of 15 are used. Like I said before, it’s a little easy to go overboard when your mind-set is “I’ve got to hit ALL my bases”. Take heed, increase gradually.

Cody’s blog can be found here, where he publishes everything for FREE. Do feel free to donate to his site if you enjoy his content. Keep kicking ass, Cody.

Conclusion: Everything is Powerbuilding

As made apparent by this article, anything that has both enough volume and intensity is technically a powerbuilding routine. Most dedicated lifters are technically powerbuilders. Ronnie Coleman a professional bodybuilder, was also incredibly strong, making him a bodybuilder. Dan Green, a powerlifter, is jacked out of his mind, making him a powerbuilder.

This isn’t to take away from the discussion, however. It is still useful to see how you can get the same job in different manners.

There are a multiple ways to skin a cat, but the end-result is the same. You simply need to reach the two requirements (volume and intensity), and how you get there is up to you.

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