Bodybuilding for the Powerlifter— How to Use High Reps to Get Strong(er)

TAGS: bodybuilding exercises for powerlifters, ben pollack, hypertrophy phase, high reps, high frequency training, build muscle, offseason


The Bodybuilding for Powerlifting series describes how you can incorporate bodybuilding methods into your powerlifting training for big benefits in strength and aesthetics.  This sixth installment discusses programming, a topic we haven’t covered so far in the series.

You can check out the earlier articles here:

High reps sometimes get a bad rap in powerlifting. Personally, I hate high reps because my idea of cardio is walking from the parking lot to the gym’s front door or any set of more than three reps. And I’m not even so big that I get out of breath from tying my shoes. High reps make your lungs (and muscles) feel like they’re on fire, and the adrenaline rush after you finish comes less from the sense of satisfaction of having smashed a big weight and more from the sense of relief having narrowly avoided a massive heart attack.

So typically, during an “offseason” from powerlifting, I’d maybe do a set of 10 one week, a set of 8 the next, and then it’s back to good ol’ 5s. I think a lot of powerlifters are pretty similar in that regard: they know (theoretically, at least) that programming a hypertrophy phase that includes higher rep work even for the squat, bench, and deadlift can be useful – but they avoid it anyway. Lately, I’ve also noticed some lifters arguing against high-rep training, claiming that, because of the low percentages used, sets of 10+ aren’t “specific” enough to carry over to a max-effort single.

That’s bullshit, of course. High-rep training is extraordinarily useful to powerlifters (even if it’s also extraordinarily unpleasant). Besides providing a break from the pounding your joints and muscles take during high-percentage work, it can be a nice mental break as well – after a while, it gets pretty tough to convince yourself to get under a 500, 600, or 700-pound bar. Obviously, high-rep training is also a great tool to build muscle. Like any other programming tool, however, it needs to be used appropriately, or it can cause more harm than good.

Programming Frequency When Using High Reps

In contrast to high-rep training, high-frequency training is a hot topic on social media right now — partly because it works, and partly because it’s an easy way for people who love to train to justify doing more in a week than they probably should. High-frequency training is not going to work if you’re also using heavy, high rep sets for your big lifts. That’s mainly because after a heavy, high rep training session, you’re going to be pretty damn sore for a pretty long time.

No, soreness is not exactly an indicator of recovery — but it can definitely interfere with powerlifting. If you’re sore, you’ll often find yourself underperforming, either because you really haven’t recovered enough; or because you (maybe subconsciously) alter your technique to something less efficient so that your sore muscles don’t have to do quite as much work.

As is the case with everything in this article, the answer is simple: when you’re training with high reps, you should use lower-frequency training. I generally recommend benching 2-3 times per week, squatting 1-2 times, and deadlifting 1-2 times per week. With high-rep training, you definitely want to stick to the lower end of those ranges.

Conveniently, programming a lower frequency will also allow for easier split planning if you’re including a lot of accessory work — which is common if your goals involve hypertrophy. In fact, most traditional or old-school bodybuilding and powerlifting programs are arranged this way:

Traditional Splits

Screenshot 2018-03-06 15.35.40

Both of these are great options for a high-rep training block.

Progression and Practicality

If you want to use high-rep training successfully, you need to figure out how to progress without burning out. When I first started lifting (way back in 2001), I somehow got hooked on the 20-rep squat routine. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this, it’s pretty simple. You have a full-body workout three times per week, comprised entirely of basic exercises like the bench, row, and curl, for 3 sets of 12 (or something like that). You also have to squat for one set of 20. Three times a week. Adding weight each week.

In case it’s not blindingly obvious (it wasn’t to me, at least not at the time), that’s a fucking terrible routine. Linear progression like that isn’t possible for anyone except a raw beginner, and even then, it isn’t going to last long. Not surprisingly, I didn’t get any bigger or stronger on the 20-rep squat program.

But the issue of linear progression remains when we’re discussing high-rep training, simply because there’s a limit to how many sets and reps most people are realistically going to do. Are you really going to enjoy sets of 20, week in and week out, for two months? How about 5x10? Can you really give all your effort into those sets, using a heavy enough weight so that you’re challenged?

For most people, the answer is “probably not.” I think 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps for 1-2 months is pretty manageable, but once you go over that, the mental strain of high reps just isn’t worth it. But 3-4 sets of 8-12 doesn’t give you a lot of wiggle room in terms of progression, at least not if you’re using traditional percentage-based methods. You might do one week of 12s, one week of 10s, and one week of 8s, adding weight each week, but after that, it gets difficult to continue adding weight.

Obviously, there are ways to work around this. You might use RPE-based loading metrics, and slowly increase the level of effort from week to week. You might incorporate different variations, like high-bar squats or sumo deadlifts (or conventional, if you typically pull sumo). One of my favorite methods involves using relative percentages and multiple sets, which is explained a bit more in the video below:

But ultimately, I think the best answer is the simplest one: don’t use high-rep training for more than a month or two at a time before returning to lower reps. It’s just too easy to get stale, and a month or two is plenty to reap the benefits of higher-rep work.

Finding the Appropriate Level of Effort

When it comes to judging the right level of effort to put into high-rep work, technique is king. Now, I’m a pretty big technique guy in general: I believe you can always find something to improve in your technique, and that doing so is one of the best bang-for-your-buck ways to get stronger.

With low rep sets, though, I think it’s okay to have technique that’s “good enough,” as long as you’re cognizant of the need to strive towards perfection. If you get caught up on the idea that you have to do all your training with textbook form, you probably won’t be able to put in the right amount of effort necessary to progress. (The concept of “good enough” is intentionally vague, and it’s something you’ll have to determine for yourself, based on your progression both in the gym and on the platform.)

That’s not the case for high-rep sets, for one huge reason: you can probably grind through high-rep sets using inefficient technique. This is where the “specificity” argument has some merit. Let’s say that I’m a very back-dominant squatter, and (as is often the case for back-dominant squatters) if I miss a lift, it’s usually because I end up leaning too far forward in the hole. With 60-70% of my 1RM, missing isn’t from leaning too far forward isn’t an issue: my lower back will be strong enough to allow me to do a good morning out of the hole all day.

But if I allow myself to do that, chances are, when I go back to low-rep work, I’ll find that I’m not any stronger than I was before! That’s because all that high-rep work, where I was leaning forward too much, was strengthening my already strong low back, and not doing anything for my relatively weaker hip and legs. Since my hips and legs haven’t improved, they’re still going to be the limiting factor, at least on max-effort work.

So, with high-rep training, use a level of effort where you can maintain perfect or near-perfect technique throughout the entire training session. It’s okay if that’s not all-out: you’ll still be able to progress.

Planning a Smooth Transition to Lower-Rep Work

Above all else, I think the most common frustration with high-rep training involves the lack of practice with higher-percentage work. Ever had this happen to you? You spend a solid couple of months pounding out high-rep sets, you’re hitting PRs left and right, you’re psyched to set a new one-rep max… and then you move into a strength phase and everything goes to shit. The weights feel too heavy, your technique feels off, and you’re suddenly struggling with loads you could easily handle in your last training cycle.

That happens because training with percentages close to your 1RM is a skill that takes practice to perfect and to maintain. For beginners especially, technique starts to break down around the 85-90% range, and when it does, all your lifts start to feel harder. No amount of high-rep training can provide quite the same feeling as a 1RM, so it’s very important that you plan for this, and incorporate a smooth transition back to lower-rep work.

The easiest, and most obvious, way to do this: just give yourself sufficient time to progress gradually from high-rep to low-rep sets. Don’t just jump from 3x8 at 70% to 5x5 at 85% — spread that progression out over 2-4 weeks so that it feels more natural.

A Sample High-Rep Training Program

Monday: Chest & Triceps/Heavy Bench

  • Bench Press – loading as described below
  • Incline Press – 75-85% of bench weight for same reps and sets
  • Dumbbell Flye – 4-5 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Weighted Dip – 3 sets to failure
  • Reverse-grip Pushdown – 2-3 sets of 20+ reps

Tuesday: Legs/Squat

  • Squat – loading as described below
  • Front Squat – 50-75% of squat weight for same reps and sets
  • Single-Leg Press – 4-5 sets of 8-12 reps
  • Glute-Ham Raise – 3 sets to failure
  • Seated Hamstring Curl – 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Calf Raises

Thursday: Shoulders & Triceps/Light Bench

  • Close Grip Bench Press – 90% of Monday’s weight for same reps and sets
  • Seated Overhead Press – 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps
  • Skullcrusher – 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps
  • Overhead Extension – 2-3 sets of 20+ reps (see video below)
  • DB or Machine Lateral Raise – 4-5 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Band Pull-aparts – 2 sets of 20 reps

Friday: Back & Biceps/Deadlift

  • Deadlift (Sumo or Conventional) – loading as described below
  • Wide Grip Pulldown – 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps
  • Wide Grip Seated Row – 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps
  • Barbell Pullover – 2 sets of 20 reps
  • Hammer Curl – 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps
  • Barbell Curl – 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps

Loading for the Main Lifts

  • Week 1: 2x12 with 66% 1RM
  • Week 2: 3x8 with 72% 1RM
  • Week 3: 2x10 with 73% 1RM
  • Week 4: 2x8 with 76% 1RM

 Wrapping Up

I know a lot of the information in this article could be seen as simple common sense. The thing is, I still think it’s helpful because so many strength athletes have this “all-in” mentality that leads to over-complication when it comes to programming. Incorporating higher reps into your training doesn’t require you to reinvent the wheel. In fact, something as basic as using a simple, traditional split with sets of 8-12 for one or two months could very easily be the change you need to jump-start your training.


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