In my last article, I explained why traditional training programs usually fall a bit short and discussed what I consider the optimal split routine for bodybuilding. Now, I realize that most of you probably aren't only interested in hypertrophy. I'm sure that most elitefts readers—hell, most lifters in general—prefer to train for both size and strength. So, in this article, I'll outline the optimal powerbuilding split: one that allows for progress in your squat, bench, deadlift, and physique.

Training for Size Versus Training for Strength 

I want to get this one out of the way right away: Powerbuilding is not just bodybuilding with the squat, bench press, and deadlift tacked on. 

It's also not just powerlifting with accessory exercises.

If you've ever browsed through some popular bodybuilding or powerlifting programs, you already know that they can be complex on their own. Combining the two in a way that works is even more difficult. When athletes and coaches try to mash the two together without careful consideration, the result is a big waste of time. Training hard isn't enough—you must be pretty smart about how you train for powerbuilding, or you'll stall out quickly.

To understand powerbuilding, you must first understand the four main variables of programming:


This is not how hard you're training (that's effort). Intensity is the weight on the bar relative to your one-rep maximum. For example, if you're using 405 on the squat, and your best is 495, you're training at roughly 80% intensity (405/495 = 81.8%).


Volume measures how many reps you're doing for a given movement or body part in a given period (usually one training week). Let's say you're squatting 405x5x5 once a week. Your volume is 25 reps for that week.


This one is simple. Frequency is how often you train a movement or body part. If you're squatting once a week, your frequency is 1x. If you were to squat only once every other week, your frequency would be 1/2x.


Effort is how hard you're training. There are many different ways to measure effort. Still, autoregulation scales are pretty popular right now, so you should probably read up on those if you're not already familiar with them.

The Main Driver of Hypertrophy is High Effort

That's why you'll see popular bodybuilding programs that run the gamut from brutally high volume (think John Meadows) to fairly low volume (Doggcrapp), from high frequency (push/pull/legs) to low frequency (bro split), and everything in between. Generally, as long as the effort is there and you're doing the right thing in the kitchen, you'll see results.  

In contrast, training for strength requires a delicate balance among all four variables. Volume and intensity tend to be inversely proportional. Higher volume programs must be lower in intensity, and vice versa. Frequency and effort are more predicated upon individual preferences and recovery ability: a lifter's psyche, injury history, technical competence, and many other factors all influence "optimal" frequency and effort. To make things even more complicated, each of these variables can and must change over time to sustain progress. This is the underlying principle behind periodization.

A good powerbuilding program requires maintaining a very high level of effort over the long term while adjusting volume, frequency, and intensity to maintain progress. If your program cannot answer the question of "How will I keep making strength gains while also pushing balls out all of the time?" it's not a good powerbuilding program.

A Word of Caution

Top strength and physique athletes or their coaches write many popular programs. Top strength and physique athletes sustain progress in two ways: by having good genetics and using lots of performance-enhancing drugs. Just because a program worked for someone else does not mean it will work for you. 

It might, but you need to critically evaluate your methods and not take anyone else's programming (including mine) at face value.

A Logical Approach to Powerbuilding

I get asked all the time about conjugate training programs for raw lifters. I struggle with the question because usually the lifter asking doesn't really understand what conjugate means. There are many conjugate training programs. Some work and many don't.

Side note: Traditional conjugate training for powerlifting usually involves some combination of dynamic work, max effort work, and repetition work. Now, for most raw lifters, dynamic work probably isn't necessary, so traditional conjugate training probably isn't the way to go.

A sound conjugate program requires combining two disparate training methods such that they improve each other. That's exactly what we're looking for in a powerbuilding program. Consider the following:

  1. The more muscle you have, the heavier a load you will be able to lift.
  2. The heavier a load you can lift, the more muscle you're able to build.

Simple Progress for Muscle Growth | Hypertrophy Made Simple #9

You can think of it as a positive feedback loop:

That "feedback loop" is the underlying premise of a good powerbuilding program, but it doesn't explain why a conjugate system is necessary. The following two sections of this article explain why you can't just mash together strength and hypertrophy training in the same session.

The Importance of the Grind

The "grind" refers to a lifter's ability to push through a maximal lift without any breakdown in technique. Learning to grind might be the most overlooked aspect of powerlifting, but I believe it has applications for powerbuilding and bodybuilding. I've already written about learning to grind extensively here on elitefts, so I won't rehash that entire article, but I will explain the role of the grind in a powerbuilding program.

First, when I say "ability to grind," I'm referring to a lifter who can maintain a perfect (or very, very near perfect) technique during a maximal-effort lift without having to consciously think about that technique. The focus is directed towards effort, and technique in this case has become second nature. 

A good analogy might be that of an Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. Michael probably wasn't flying down his lane thinking about the intricacies of a butterfly stroke. He might have a cue or two to keep him on track, but he had practiced that technique so much that he no longer had to think much about it, if at all. Most high-level performers have developed this type of skill mastery in some or perhaps all aspects of their vocation.

In powerlifting, lifters who can grind will be able to demonstrate their maximal strength better than those who cannot. Obviously, if your muscles are capable of lifting 400 pounds, but your technique falls apart at 350, you will not be able to lift 400 pounds. You'll probably fall somewhere in the middle (raw strength can make up for some deficiencies in technique), as is the case with most lifters.  

However, in the context of powerbuilding, if you can maintain good technique, not only will you be able to demonstrate your peak strength better, but you'll also be able to gain strength and size quicker. 

Think about it. You're getting more out of each set because you can push closer and closer to failure without being limited by anything other than how much force your muscles can produce. In our example above, a lifter with little ability to grind might be happy to do a hard triple at 360 pounds, where much of his focus is on maintaining a good position for the entire set. A lifter with a great ability to grind could probably do four or five reps at 360 because he can focus on giving as much effort as possible rather than spending some or all of that mental and physical energy on maintaining picture-perfect technique.

Developing the ability to grind requires pushing to intensities (defined as percentages of 1RM, not effort) where technique breaks down. This rarely, if ever, occurs in the context of traditional bodybuilding training. That's because maintaining good technique at low intensities—say, a weight you can do for sets of eight-12—is easy. It doesn't require much skill or mental effort. Even a beginner can usually handle this task. Unfortunately, competency at low intensities doesn't carry over to high intensities. Mike Tuchscherer has explained this in detail in an article called "Why Speed Work Doesn't Work," and I'll steal an excerpt from that here:

If you have decent form (i.e., you know what good form is, and you can demonstrate it with light weight), then speed work will not help you get better. The weights are typically so light that they involve a different motor pattern than those used on heavy weight. Besides, it makes far more sense to do technique practice with a weight that challenges your technique (and thus requires you to pay attention and practice) than to do technique practice with something easy.

The grind explains why we need two different systems in the first place. Pure bodybuilding training will never produce the same degree of strength benefits as powerlifting training because it does not develop the ability to maintain technique under maximal load.  

The Role of the Mind-Muscle Connection

When it comes down to it, training for hypertrophy is pretty simple compared to training for strength, but eating for hypertrophy is more complex. Just take a look at some of the ideas behind peri-workout nutrition, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what I'm talking about.  

Now, unless you're trying to be Mr. Olympia, you don't need to go into that much detail. 

However, even a basic peri-workout nutrition protocol can improve your results a great deal. Here's why:

  • The mind-muscle connection is important for hypertrophy training.
  • Having a great pump and a focused mind will help to develop your mind-muscle connection.
  • A good peri-workout nutrition plan will help you to get a great pump and stay focused in the gym.

Again, it's pretty simple. Eat some carbs before you train, take a decent pre-workout, and you're good to go. Of course, there's a catch: If you perform a bunch of heavy lifts before your hypertrophy work, you're going to (A) deplete your glycogen stores and (B) exhaust yourself physically and mentally. As a result, your mind-muscle connection will suffer.

Therefore, the traditional "do the main lifts and then accessory lifts" thing will never produce optimal results.

What about performing your accessory lifts first? This can work okay when your main lifts are light, but you obviously can't afford to pre-exhaust yourself when they're heavy. So that's no good, either.

The need to be well fed and focused on maximizing your mind-muscle connection requires that hypertrophy training be separated from strength training in any sound powerbuilding program.

The Optimal Powerbuilding Split

We've covered a lot of ground, so it's probably a good idea to take a quick break to recap. By now, you should understand why powerbuilding is complicated. You should also have a general idea of what a good powerbuilding program looks like, although you're likely a bit uncertain about the specifics. We'll start to dive into those specifics in this last section.  

Here's a brief overview:

  1. We'll be using a conjugate program composed of two primary training methods: strength and hypertrophy.
  2. The hypertrophy training will involve constantly high levels of effort. The goal of this training is to build muscle.
  3. The strength training will involve moderate levels of effort and inversely proportional levels of intensity and volume. The goal of this training is to develop technical proficiency in the squat, bench press, and deadlift.

One last note on splits before we get into the program itself. I don't think the split matters all that much as long as it allows for the proper combination of volume, intensity, frequency, and effort. 

An upper/lower split will probably be the best option for most people, but there are many viable ways to divide your weekly training. That's a topic for another article, as it involves a good deal of discussion about efficiency, practicality, and other restraints that fall outside the realm of "optimal."

Day 1: Upper Strength

  • Horizontal Press. This should be some variation of a barbell press. Various angles and grips are okay, and if you have a specialty bar (like the American Press Bar) that you prefer, that's cool too.
  • Vertical Press. Again, this is some sort of overhead press using a barbell or specialty bar – not dumbbells. Dumbbells don't allow for the heavy, lower-rep loading we're looking for on this day.
  • Triceps Assistance. This is a heavy compound movement that somewhat biases the triceps and can be performed for moderate reps (5-8). That could be a very close grip press, a weighted dip, a Yoke Bar JM press, or anything similar.

Day 2: Lower Strength

  • Squat. This one should be obvious!
  • Hip Hinge. If you're a powerlifter, this is a deadlift variation. Otherwise, it's anything that loads the posterior chain heavily– deadlifts, good mornings, cleans, and heavy rows are all acceptable.
  • Hamstring Assistance. GHRs, Reverse Hyper®, Nordic leg curls, or (for strength-focused athletes) heavy kettlebell swings should fill this slot.

Day 3: Upper Size

  • Pecs. This should be a converging press, so dumbbells, cables, or machines are your only options. I like dumbbells best.
  • Delts. Avoid pressing movements unless you're absolutely convinced they're the best option for you. Instead, stick with lateral raises, preferably using cables.
  • Vertical Pulling. Similarly, unless you really, really love chins or pullups, make this a pulldown variation.
  • Triceps. This is an isolation movement, so stick with pushdowns or extensions of some sort.

Day 4: Lower Size

  • Quads. This should be a full range of motion squatting pattern with a fairly narrow stance using a machine. Narrow-stance belt squats are the best option, followed by hack or pendulum squats. Leg press is the last resort. Avoid the weird V-squat type machines.
  • Hamstrings. Any seated or lying curl works here.
  • Horizontal Pulling. A chest-supported T-bar style row is best, followed by a regular chest-supported machine row, and then a seated cable row. Avoid T-bar rows that do not offer chest support.
  • Abs. Ab training for powerbuilders could (and will!) be a whole article in itself, so stay tuned for that one.

Extra Stuff

You'll notice that rear delts, biceps, and calves don't get a whole lot of attention in this split. Because these muscle groups are small, they won't fatigue you enough to impact the main training days. So, there are two options you can use to address them:

You can add them to the end of any training day listed above, OR you can train them in a short (30-45 minute) session on a separate day.

I'd even be okay with two 25-30 minute extra sessions to train rear delts, side delts, biceps, and calves, assuming that you have the time and desire to do so.

What About Sets, Reps, and Exercises?

To a large degree, the sets, reps, and exercises you use in any program will depend on individual needs and preferences. I've laid out pretty much everything you need to know to develop a sound powerbuilding program on your own. If you need more help choosing sets, reps, and exercises to perform, try these resources:

If you still can't come up with something that feels right, you can set up a consultation by emailing me at

Wrapping Up

I hope you've found this article helpful. I really do believe this is the best powerbuilding method out there. Trust me, I've been through them all. That said, please understand that if you're training for both strength and size, you're going to have to make tradeoffs

This program will not be as effective for competitive bodybuilders as a pure hypertrophy program. It will be as effective for competitive powerlifters as a pure strength program. If your goal is to be the most competitive strength or physique athlete you can possibly be, you might want to look elsewhere.

But for the vast majority of people, I think powerbuilding will likely produce better results than a pure strength or hypertrophy program. You must go all in to get the most out of a specialized program. That means spending a lot of time refining your technique, nailing your diet perfectly day in and day out, doing tons of mobility and prehab work, and oftentimes, taking drugs. Specialized programs can also be pretty boring, and if you're having fun with your training, you'll get more out of it.

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Ben Pollack is a professional physical culturist. In 2017, he won the world's largest powerlifting meet and became the strongest powerlifter in history in the 198-pound class with a 2039 raw total. He earned his Ph.D. studying the history of strength from the University of Texas in 2018. In 2019, Ben qualified to compete for his pro card in bodybuilding and became an IFBB pro in 2021.

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