The 3 Best Powerbuilding Programs To Build Strength & Muscle

Barbell Medicine
October 18, 2023
Reading Time: 20 minutes
Table of Contents

    Most beginners and experienced lifters know that training programs typically focus on a specific goal. For example, a powerlifting program prioritizes developing maximal strength in the squat, bench press, and 1-Repetition Maximum (1RM), whereas a bodybuilding program focuses on increasing muscle size. . What you train for is what you get, and to achieve both goals, you’d probably have to switch up your program or take on multiple programs at once. Sounds exhausting, right?

    With the right powerbuilding program, it doesn’t have to be that way. This type of program can get you the best of both worlds.

    The stand-out powerbuilding programs we recommend are the Powerbuilding I Template by Barbell Medicine for “intermediate” lifters, the Powerbuilding II Template for upper-intermediate lifters, and the Powerbuilding III Template for advanced lifters. Keep reading to find out more about each program and how powerbuilding can upgrade your physique, strength, and quality of life in general.

    Powerbuilding Programs Comparison Chart

    Intermediate lifters
    Powerbuilding I Template
    10 Weeks Plan
    • Main Focus: Strength and Conditioning
    • Best For: Intermediate Lifters (3+ months of experience)
    • Workouts Per Week: 3 to 5
    • Duration: 10 Weeks
    • Suggested Equipment: Lifting shoes, Cross-training sneakers, Lifting belt, Barbell, Squat rack, Bench
    upper-intermediate lifters
    10 Weeks Plan
    • Main Focus: Strength and Conditioning
    • Best For: Upper-intermediate lifters (6+ months of experience)
    • Workouts Per Week: 4 to 6
    • Duration: 10 Weeks
    • Suggested Equipment: Lifting shoes, Cross-training sneakers, Lifting belt, Barbell, Squat rack, Bench
    advanced lifters
    Powerbuilding III Template
    14 Weeks Plan
    • Main Focus: Strength and Conditioning
    • Best For: Advanced lifters (9+ months of experience)
    • Workouts Per Week: 4 to 6
    • Duration: 14 Weeks
    • Suggested Equipment: Lifting shoes, Cross-training sneakers, Lifting belt, Barbell, Squat rack, Bench

    Of note, we’re using the terms “intermediate” and “advanced” to refer to the amount of time an individual has been lifting for and not any particular level of strength performance. We acknowledge that others may use these terms in different ways, but feel that they do not accurately predict an individual’s strength or how quickly they’re likely to see results. Rather, the terms are most useful in describing how long an individual has been lifting weights. 

    Why Should You Train With Barbell Medicine?

    As mentioned, planning out a powerbuilding program is typically more complex than creating a powerlifting or bodybuilding program. A lifter’s personal goals, current fitness levels, preferences, and training resources should be taken into consideration in order to create a program that’s well-suited to the individual. For example, a program that calls for 4-days of lifting with relatively high amounts of training volume, e.g. sets and reps, is probably not appropriate for a newer lifter or someone who cannot get to the gym that often. Additionally, folks may differ in how much priority they want to give strength or size, with some wanting more strength, some wanting more hypertrophy, and others wanting an equal mix of both.

    There are also variables like genetics, nutrition, and lifestyle factors that are unique to each individual, which requires different programming strategies to ensure success.  All in all, creating  a powerbuilding program is a mix of art and science that may benefit  from the help of a professional team, especially if the trainee is not experienced in exercise program design. 

    This is where we step in. At Barbell Medicine, we understand that everyone has different needs and preferences, and we’ve got a team of professionals who can craft the right program for our clients.

    Our greatest strength is that we follow a science-based approach to training, nutrition, and recovery. We aid our clients along their fitness journey by creating training and nutrition programs that are backed by evidence, and we offer information and help whenever needed. Our team of professionals  includes doctors, dietitians, and coaches that continually evaluate our clients’ success and to make adjustments to their programs as needed.

    And that’s not all; we’ve got an ever-growing community of fitness enthusiasts who can vouch for us. We not only provide open lines of communication between our clients and our team, but we also encourage everyone who is training with us to engage in conversations with one another. Log onto our forum or follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to join our community and see what others have to say. You could also check out our YouTube channel, where we keep our viewers up to date with the latest developments in sports science.

    Best Powerbuilding Programs

    Two of the most important things to consider before starting a any program are one’s current fitness level and personal goals. With these in mind, a powerbuilding program is best-suited to someone who wants to gain strength in the “Big Three” powerlifting exercises, e.g., the squat, bench press, and deadlift, while also prioritizing an increase in muscle size.

    While the prospect of getting stronger in the Big Three and gaining size likely appeals to many, selecting the right powerbuilding program to use requires a bit more consideration to make sure it’s well-suited to the individual.

    We’ve handpicked three programs that can help you based on your level of experience and personal preferences. However, if these programs don’t provide what you’re looking for, we can also create a personalized powerbuilding program for you.

    1. Powerbuilding I Template

    Intermediate lifters
    • Main Focus: Strength and Conditioning
    • Best For: Intermediate Lifters (3+ months of experience)
    • Workouts Per Week: 3 to 5
    • Duration: 10 Weeks
    • Suggested Equipment: Lifting shoes, Cross-training sneakers, Lifting belt, Barbell, Squat rack, Bench
    • Price: $54.99

    The Powerbuilding I Template is is one of the more entry level ones on our list, but we’d still recommend it to those who have at least three months of experience with lifting.

    The Powerbuilding I Template is a 10-week program that was designed as a fusion of powerlifting and bodybuilding training. It includes three lifting workouts consisting of both strength- and hypertrophy-focused exercises and rep schemes, along with two general physical preparedness (GPP) workouts that include conditioning and direct arm, upper back, and core work. The GPP workouts can be performed after a lifting session or on separate days.

    2. Powerbuilding II Template

    Powerbuilding II
    • Main Focus: Strength and Conditioning
    • Best For: Upper-intermediate lifters (6+ months of experience)
    • Workouts Per Week: 4 to 6
    • Duration: 10 Weeks
    • Suggested Equipment: Lifting shoes, Cross-training sneakers, Lifting belt, Barbell, Squat rack, Bench
    • Price: $54.99

    The Powerbuilding II Template follows a similar structure to the Powerbuilding I Template, but it is for lifters with a bit more lifting experience, e.g,  around six to nine months of training with barbells. The main difference between the two templates is the the training volume, as this template includes more reps, and more sets, and a fourth lifting workout. . The additional volume included in the Powerbuilding II Template is likely to present a challenge to experienced  lifters, as their higher level of fitness requires additional training to be completed in order to increase both strength and size.

    This template has a similar blend of strength- and size focused work, but more of it  with four full-body lifting workouts and two days of GPP. The GPP days follow the same structure as the Powerbuilding I Template,  including conditioning and direct arm, upper back, and core work. The GPP workouts can be performed after a lifting session or on separate days.

    3. Powerbuilding III Template

    Powerbuilding III Template
    • Main Focus: Strength and Conditioning
    • Best For: Advanced lifters (9+ months of experience)
    • Workouts Per Week: 4 to 6
    • Duration: 14 Weeks
    • Suggested Equipment: Lifting shoes, Cross-training sneakers, Lifting belt, Barbell, Squat rack, Bench
    • Price: $54.99

    The Powerbuilding III Template is our go-to for advanced lifters with more than 9 months of experience in training with barbells. It’s also the most customizable program on our list, giving users total control of the lifts they perform.

    The Powerbuilding III Template is a 14-week program, being the longest and highest volume  one we’ll mention today. Despite being a program for advanced lifters, it allows for adaptability in the volume and intensity of the exercises, letting trainees match the workouts to their fitness level. This program also provides users with variations to help them managefatigue, isolation programming, and exercise order.  Finally, this template includes a taper at the end  for those who want to test their 1RM’s in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Many users have successfully used this template to prepare them for a powerlifting meet.

    The program caters mainly to those with prior experience in strength training, with an additional emphasis on muscle hypertrophy. A typical workout week entails four lifting workouts and two GPP workouts, , however, the types of exercises can be adjusted according to the trainee’s schedule and personal goals.

    Powerbuilding 101 for Beginners

    Powerbuilding, as its name implies, is a combination of powerlifting and bodybuilding. By definition, the powerlifting-specific elements of the training program focus on developing maximum strength in the lifts contested in a powerlifting meet, the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Also by definition, there is an inclusion of bodybuilding-specific bits such as isolation work to directly train muscle groups that don’t get a ton of attention in powerlifting programs, such as the biceps, calves, and upper back, to name a few.

    Whether or not someone can simultaneously achieve maximum strength and muscle size has been up for debate in the fitness community for the longest time. Most people believe that doing both is inefficient and that the way you train to get bigger or stronger is fundamentally different. In some ways, this is true. A strength-focused program is likely to produce the largest improvements in strength and a hypertrophy-focused program is likely to produce the largest improvements in muscle size. When combining the two together, we’re settling for a compromise of sorts. However, that doesn’t mean this is the wrong choice for someone who wants both, as a hybrid-type of program is likely to help the trainee progress towards both goals faster than focusing on one at a time.

    The Differences Between Powerlifting and Bodybuilding

    “Aren’t we all working with weights? How can training with weights yield such diverse results?” you may ask. The answer to these questions lies in three different factors: the type of exercises, the intensity, and the rep ranges performed in each set.

    Because the sport of powerlifting tests the competitor’s performance on the squat, bench press, and deadlift, a powerlifting program relies heavily on these movements and their variations. In contrast, bodybuilders are not judged by how strong they are on three arbitrary lifts, thereby opening up the trainee to a wider range of exercises to improve their physique.

    Similarly, a powerlifting meet assesses maximal strength performance for a single repetition, which relies on specific adaptations to the nervous system, the muscle, bone, and soft tissues like tendons and ligaments. Because these specific adaptations only occur when handling heavier weights (e.g. higher intensity), the bulk of powerlifting training must be done at these loads. [1,2]  In contrast, there is a relatively wide range of intensities that produce nearly-identical increases in muscle size, provided the sets are taken to near failure.[3]

    Due to the intensity-dependent adaptations required for powerlifting, these programs typically prescribe lower rep ranges than bodybuilding-specific programs so that individuals can handle weights closer to the 1RM. For example, a powerlifting-focused program may recommend that the lifter perform the squat for 5 sets of 3 reps at 80% of their 1RM, each set being about 3 to 4 reps shy of failure, e.g. RPE 6. While this prescription could work for bodybuilding- particularly for compound movements (e.g. multi-joint exercises)- isolation exercises and/or those done with machines are typically programmed for higher rep ranges, which necessitate a reduced intensity.

    While the differences between powerlifting- and bodybuilding-specific training are real, there is considerable overlap between the two. For example, both use resistance training to load the musculoskeletal system through a relatively large range of motion, use a variety of rep ranges, and employ a similar proximity to failure in order to generate adaptations in the muscle, nervous system, bony skeleton, and more. Thus, it’s no surprise that good strength training programs tend to produce an increase in muscle size and, similarly, good hypertrophy programs increase strength in the lifts trained given proper nutrition, sleep, and so on. Still, a good powerbuilding program should produce more strength than a bodybuilding-focused program and more muscle size than a powerlifting-focused program.

    How Does Powerbuilding Work?

    Combining elements of powerlifting and bodybuilding together isn’t exactly rocket science, but getting the dose and formulation right for the individual is what separates a good program from one that doesn’t work at all.

     If the dose of training is too high for example, an individual will incur too much muscle protein breakdown from the training to actually increase muscle size. Rather, it’s only when the training is dosed correctly that muscle protein breakdown is minimized and muscle protein synthesis predominates  that muscles actually grow. [4,5] Similarly, if the formulation is incorrect and the intensity, exercise selection, or proximity to failure is incorrect, then strength gains are tough to come by. [1,2,6,7]

    We know that a proper powerbuilding program will incorporate the Big Three powerlifts and some isolation exercises that are typical of a bodybuilding program. However, in order to get the dose and formulation right, we need to carefully select each programming variable, which we will now  outline.

    Compound Lifts

    As previously discussed, a good powerbuilding program will include the squat, bench press, deadlift, and variations thereof in order to improve strength performance in those movements.  These exercises are considered compound lifts, as multiple joints (and the muscles around them) are being used to perform the movement.

    The role of specificity in exercise selection is best explained by the Specificity of Adaptation to Imposed Demand (SAID) Principle, which suggests that the main adaptations developed from exercise are specific to the training performed by the individual.

    There are a number of exercise characteristics that affect specificity including the exercise’s range of motion, intensity, joint angles, movement velocity, contraction type, energy systems, etc. By focusing a substantial portion of the exercise program on the squat, bench press, and deadlifts, we are adhering to the SAID Principle and setting up the user for success.

    Fortunately, using these lifts and variations thereof in a powerbuilding program also are helpful for increasing muscle size. Again, the SAID Principle is instructive when it comes to predicting muscle hypertrophy responses, as it suggests that the muscles loaded during the movement are the most likely to grow.

    In contrast to a pure powerlifting program, a powerbuilding program will use additional movement variation to load the muscle groups in multiple ways, thereby selecting for an expanded range of adaptations.  On the other side of the coin, a powerbuilding program will use less movement variation than a pure bodybuilding program, as we want to make sure we’re regularly performing the squat, bench press and deadlift in order to improve strength specific to those movements.

    Hypertrophy Training

    In contrast to the compound lifts that use multiple joints in concert to perform a movement, isolation exercises use only a single joint. Using isolation exercises allows a trainee to target specific muscle groups directly, which is likely to improve hypertrophy compared to compound lifts that also load the muscle(s) or not loading the muscle at all. [8.9]

    Additionally, isolation exercises use less muscle mass and lower absolute weight than compound lifts, which reduces the amount of fatigue created from a given set and rep scheme performed at a particular RPE. Due to the reduced amount of fatigue generated with isolation exercises, a trainee can perform more sets, more reps, and similar or higher RPEs compared to compound lifts. Since there appears to be a dose-dependent relationship between exercise volume (sets and reps) and muscle hypertrophy- where higher amounts of volume tend to generate greater amounts of muscle growth provided there’s not too much fatigue- including isolation lifts is a smart move for maximizing muscle growth. [10] This is particularly true in muscles that aren’t regularly loaded through a large range of motion with enough weight and reps to get the muscles close to failure during typical powerlifting training , e.g. the calves, biceps, and more.

    Reps and Sets

    With exercise selection out of the way, we need to discuss rep ranges and training volume.

    As discussed previously, the intensity (% of 1RM) requirements for maximizing strength improvement limit the viable rep ranges to those that can be completed at greater than ~ 70% while leaving a few reps in the tank. [1] We also know want to make sure the strength developed can be expressed efficiently by the trainee, which is why we should also include some practice of single-rep sets at very high intensities (>90%) [2] Taken together, the majority of the squat, bench, and deadlift work should be programmed for sets 3 to 6 reps with some sets of 1 as well.

    The rep ranges for the bodybuilding elements will tend to be higher, though the viable rep range is relatively wide, ~ 4 to 25 reps per set or so. [3] Still, we’re trying to manage fatigue in order to increase the volume that the lifter can tolerate in order to take advantage of that dose-dependent relationship between volume and hypertrophy.  Volume is the total number of repetitions performed for a particular muscle group or movement in a given time period, which is typically limited to a single training session or training week. By using higher rep ranges on the isolation exercises, mostly in the 8- to 15-rep range, we can limit fatigue and maximize gains.

    In our powerbuilding templates, a typical training day starts with one of the powerlifts for sets of ~3 to 6 reps (and sometimes 1-rep sets), then moves to 1 or 2 supplemental compound lifts that are somewhat specific to powerlifting, but also good for hypertrophy for sets of ~6 to 10 reps, and then finishes with 1 or 2 isolation exercises for sets of ~8 to 15 reps. By blending this altogether, we get some low-repetition, heavy-weight work (as is typical in powerlifting) and some being high-repetition, light-weight exercises(as is typical in bodybuilding).

    These exercises can also be planned and adjusted according to the goals,of the lifter. By selecting supplemental compound lifts that are very similar to the Big Three, the user can prioritize strength improvements in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Alternatively, the lifter could select supplemental compound lifts that use machines, dumbbells, and/or ranges of motion that are intentionally not specific to the Big Three, thereby prioritizing hypertrophy over strength.

    Training Split

    Training split refers to how the exercises are organized for each lifting session of the week.

    For example, all the lower body exercises can be organized into a leg day, all the upper-body exercises for the chest, shoulders, and triceps into a push day, and all the upper-body exercises for the back and biceps into a pull day. This is called a body part split. Exercises can also be organized by movement pattern, e.g. all exercises relating to the squat might be put on a single squat day. There’s no special gym jargon for this type of training split, but it’s a training split nonetheless. Finally, organizing each lifting day with exercises that hit the whole body, e.g. a workout where the lifter squats, bench presses, and deadlifts, is called a full-body workout. All of these are examples of how training can be split up, but is there a best one for powerbuilding?

    Short answer? Not really. There are many examples of very strong, very muscular people who use very different training splits. The current evidence seems to support this finding as well. [11,12] It doesn’t appear that one type of training split rises above the rest.

    That said, we prefer full body workouts for powerbuilding, as it allows regular exposure to the competitive lifts for strength and skill development while also spreading out the fatigue for each muscle group over the entire training week. We acknowledge that this rationale is mostly speculative and some lifters will respond better to different splits. Nonetheless, we have found success with the full body approach.

    What Are The Benefits of Following a Powerbuilding Program?

    Being a combination of powerlifting and bodybuilding, powerbuilding programs will offer the same benefits that most strength or hypertrophy-focused exercises do. As aligned with the goals of powerlifting and bodybuilding programs, powerbuilding provides the obvious advantages of improving strength and growing muscle, but there are additional benefits that can be gained through it. Let’s look into a few.

    Reduction of Body Fat

    It is well-known that strength training increases muscle mass, reduces risk of weight regain, and tends to reduce waist circumference by reducing abdominal fat. [13]  Exercise training also appears to increase many individuals’ sensitivity to feelings of fullness when eating, thereby potentially helping with weight maintenance or loss. [14]

    Higher excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) from a program that combines strength and hypertrophy exercises is one mechanism that is often touted a o to reduce visceral adipose tissue or belly fat.  

    EPOC represents the additional energy used after a workout to support recovery and other associated processes. [15] For example, increases in muscle protein synthesis rates in the post workout period are thought to represent a significant increase in resting energy expenditure. [16] The increase in energy demands necessitates additional oxygen consumption,which is known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption or EPOC

    Overall, the energy expenditure during EPOC increases as exercise intensity, volume, and muscle mass used  increases in both resistance training and aerobic training. Additionally, EPOC is higher in untrained than trained, as many high cost metabolic processes are adapted to in trained individuals. [17,18]  It’s not really clear that EPOC actually increases the total amount of Calories used in a day, e.g. the total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) , as this hasn’t really been tested. Existing research shows that the overall energy contribution of EPOC to TDEE is relatively small. [19]

    Another mechanism that’s often cited is that the increase in muscle mass from powerbuilding (or resistance training in general) increases muscle mass, which increases someone’s resting metabolic rate. The increase in resting metabolic rate  would presumably increase someone’s total daily energy expenditure, but this probably isn’t true either. One kilogram of muscle uses ~ 13 Calories per day, whereas one kilogram of fat uses 4.5 Calories per day. [20] In order to make a significant difference in total daily energy expenditure, someone would have to gain a lot of muscle mass. For example, gaining 10-kilograms of muscle typically takes years and would increase total daily energy expenditure by ~ 85 Calories per day.

    Rather, the mechanisms behind lifting weights are far more complex, involving changes at the level of the muscle, endocrine system, the brain, and more tend to result in improved body composition for those who regularly lift weights.

    Conquering Plateaus

    Building strength and increasing size requires continually challenging our muscles, and this is achieved through what we call progressive loading. As people increase their fitness and get stronger, the weight or reps completed must increase to match. By matching the training to the individual’s current fitness level, we can be sure that the body is receiving the right signal to improve strength and size.

    Progressive loading aside, no program is going to work forever. Invariably, everyone will stop making progress and plateau at some point.  Using periodization, the planned manipulation of training variables over time, we can continue to progress and prevent stagnation. [21] In practice, this means adjusting rep schemes, intensity, number of sets, and exercise selection systematically, every 4-8 weeks or so. Iteratively changing the program based on the individual’s response is key to ensuring progress over time.

    Enhanced Physical Performance

    Fitness adaptations are the positive exercise-induced changes in the trainee such as muscular strength, hypertrophy, cardiorespiratory fitness, work capacity, cognitive performance, and so on. By following  a well-structured powerbuilding program,  trainees are likely to see improvements across the board, most notably in strength, size, and cardiorespiratory fitness. 

    These adaptations can come in handy when performing laborious daily tasks, such as lifting heavy objects, or when participating in recreational sports like golf, tennis, mixed-martial arts, and more.  

    Increased Discipline

    Some argue that all forms of exercise require a certain level of self-discipline, however, this is not really supported by evidence. Instead of simply chalking up exercise participation and adherence to discipline, the available scientific evidence suggests these behaviors are quite complex and vary amongst individuals. [25, 26]

    While we acknowledge the differences between individuals, a number of factors for exercise adherence continually show up in the research such as using exercises the individual prefers, increasing self-efficacy, and increased access to places a person can exercise, to name a few. [26, 27] By allowing the individual to select their own exercises and other training variables in our powerbuilding program, we aim to improve the trainee’s ability to adhere.

    Mental Health Benefits

    Powerbuilding, like other forms of resistance training, reduces the risks or symptoms of some mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety. These effects seem to occur regardless if the individuals actually get stronger, but rather a different mechanism that’s currently unknown. [22, 23]

    Strength training has also been proven to improve sleep quality in individuals, which is a huge plus, as getting enough sleep is pivotal to having good mental health. [24]

    Healthy Aging

    Participation in strength training has long been associated with lowering the risk of many health issues such as type II diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases. [28] It also appears that individuals who get stronger seem to have greater improvements in health compared to those who still lift, but don’t get as strong. [29,30]

    Getting stronger also lowers resting blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

    Lifting weights can also promote strong bones, which is crucial for individuals who are at risk of osteoporosis, such as menopausal women. [31]

    Should You Start Powerbuilding?

    Starting a powerbuilding program is an excellent choice for lifters who would like to experience the benefits of both powerlifting and bodybuilding. It also provides a good amount of variation for lifters focused on either goal as an off-season program. The promotion of muscle growth and increased strength can also translate into many physical and mental health benefits, regardless of sex, fitness level, body type, and genetic predisposition. Not to mention that building both strength and muscle tone can aid individuals greatly with healthy aging, giving them the increased mobility, strength, endurance, and energy to take on their daily tasks with ease.

    Powerbuilding allows us to experience an ideal combination of powerlifting and bodybuilding. It allows trainees to engage in a comprehensive program with dual benefits. It also ensures that trainees see continual growth, as it reduces the possibility of them hitting plateaus by allowing them to focus on different muscle groups and goals as needed. The versatility of powerbuilding programs is also a great advantage, as trainees can plan out their exercise splits to focus more on the goals of their preference.

    We understand that some lifters may prefer to only improve strength and others prefer to only increase muscle size.  However, if building both strength and muscle tone are your goals,tackling both at the same time may prove to be extremely beneficial.

    So, if you’re looking to get the best of both worlds, powerbuilding is definitely the right fit for you.


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    Barbell Medicine
    Barbell Medicine
    The Barbell Medicine Website Editorial Team consists of Fitness, Health, Nutrition, and Strength Training experts. Our Team is led by Jordan Feigenbaum, MD, an elite competitive powerlifter, health educator, and fitness & strength coach.

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