Powerbuilding: Blending elements of powerlifting and bodybuilding into a synergistic training program that improves both strength and aesthetics simultaneously.
For example, a client following a powerbuilding program could be starting their training day off with heavy deadlift triples (sets of three), and then ending the day with hamstring curl myo-reps.
While most bodybuilding training programs will also help you get stronger, powerbuilding magnifies the extent to which you’re able to build strength, and makes it more specific to the big 4:
4. Overhead Press
So while the hybrid powerbuilding approach isn’t for everyone… it’s a smart approach for those who truly want the best of both worlds (strength + aesthetics).
In the video below, Jake Boly and I talk through the fundamentals of an effective, science-based powerbuilding program ↴
A few of my main takeaways from chatting with Jake, and I want to make sure he receives the credit for the main points here (these are my interpretation of the thoughts and guidelines he shared in an attempt to flesh things out):
1. There should be an inverse relationship between intensity and volume in your program.
→ When intensity (load) is high for compound lifts, volume (number of hard sets) needs to drop for accessories.
The 3 main variables we’re manipulating in an online client’s program are:
VARIABLE #1 – Frequency: How often you train a muscle group or movement pattern.
VARIABLE #2 – Volume: The number of hard sets you train a muscle group or movement pattern with.
VARIABLE #3 – Intensity: The load you are training with.
If all 3 variables are high across your training week, you’ll do too much to recover from.
But, if all 3 variables are low, your training won’t provide enough stimulus to grow.
Specific to powerbuilding – There will be mesocycles where intensity is high (and thus volume needs to be moderate) and phases where volume is high (and thus intensity needs to be moderate).
In a strength focused mesocycle, you might start off your bench day training heavy sets of 2 or 3 for 4-6 sets, and stopping close to failure.
While effort should still be there for your bodybuilding work later in the day (stopping most sets with 1-3 reps in the tank), volume needs to be lower.
→ When in a bodybuilding/hypertrophy phase, using a more moderate rep range (i.e. 4-7 reps) + tempo work (i.e. 4 sec negative, 1 sec pause at bottom of squat) for compounds is a great way to auto-regulate loading/keep fatigue lower, allowing you to push harder with your bodybuilding work later.
→ In mesocycles focused on maximal strength, your accessory lifts should primarily focus on building up your compound lifts
On a bench day, you’d devote more volume to accessories that emulate the primary compound of the day (in this case, the bench press).
So after benching, your accessory work for chest would likely be another chest press variation (i.e. a Dumbbell Low Incline Press) vs. something less specific to the bench press (i.e. a chest fly).
2. Most lifters need less volume than they think they do, and more quality work per set.
This is something we see constantly with new online clients, and exactly why we require most new clients to record lots of form videos for us.
Often, individuals who are crushing themselves in the gym but not seeing results are simply missing the level of execution needed to stimulate the gains they desire.
3. Exercise selection is very important when designing a powerbuilding program. Excessive fatigue accumulation is the biggest pitfall the holds most powerbuilding programs back.
Imagine your body sitting at a strength/musculature baseline going into a training session.
When you train, the fatigue created by said session causes your body to dip below this baseline.
→ If your body can return to said baseline, you’ll maintain your previous level of strength/muscularity.
→ If your body has the recovery ability (and the stimulus from the session was adequate) your body will actually end up slightly above the previous baseline when the recovery/growth process is completed. This creates a new, higher baseline.
This is the concept of the SRA Curve – your body must be able to fully recover from all of the fatigue created by a session before it can actually create additional growth.
It’s important to understand that movements that put a lot of stress on the spine (axial loading) will incur an especially high fatigue cost.
The crux of powerlifting training is heavy barbell movements that load the spine heavily… so to avoid wrecking your body and actually make progress, you need to be smart when considering the fatigue cost of your hypertrophy/bodybuilding-focused lifts.
Generally, it’s a good idea to limit the amount of movements that involve a significant amount of spinal loading (e.g. most… deadlift variations, barbell squat variations, standing press and row variations) to 1-2 per session.
4. Mesocycles not focused on the Big Four lifts can be helpful to avoid burnout & build a well-rounded body.
As a reminder, the Big Four lifts are:
1. Barbell Back Squat
2. Barbell Bench Press
3. Barbell Deadlift
4. Barbell Overhead Press
If your primary goal is to be aesthetic and strong (rather than hitting a specific total by __ date), it’s smart to sub in different variations of the same movement patterns to avoid burnout, injuries, and imbalances.
This is where understanding movement patterns is essential:
To provide a few examples: You could spend a mesocycle focused on progressing your Dumbbell Bench Press instead of Barbell, a Bulgarian Split Squat instead of a Back Squat, or a Trap Bar Deadlift instead of a Conventional Deadlift.
Like all things training and nutrition, this should be individualized.
But in general, many will do well training 4x/week (in an upper/lower fashion) + 1 optional day.
An example week:
→ DAY 1: Deadlift Focused Day
→ DAY 2: Bench Focused Day
→ DAY 3: Squat Focused Day
→ DAY 4: Overhead Press Focused Day
→ [OPTIONAL] DAY 5: Accessory Day
As you can see, each of the first four days are focused on one of your primary compound lifts. The order isn’t especially important here, but it’s smart to put your most fatiguing lifts towards the start of the week.
On the optional day, it’d be smart to avoid much barbell work, and focus more on the missing pieces from earlier in the week.
– Single leg and single arm work
– Knee flexion (leg curls), upper back work (back flies, facepulls, band pull-aparts), and core stability work.
– Vanity work (bicep curls, crunches, leg extensions, etc.)
This day allows you to make sure you have a strong foundation to build the Big Four on, and can help add more volume to push you towards your aesthetic goals.
A smart way for most individuals new to powerbuilding to write their first three mesocycles of training.
→ MESOCYCLE #1 [Moderate intensity & volume, more skill based]: Ease into things, keep intensity lower with compounds and focus on mastering the skill of the compound lifts. This should be skill focused, with more tempo work, and a priority on quality reps.
→ MESOCYCLE #2 [Strength or Hypertrophy focus – opposite of Mesocycle 3]: Specific drive towards strength or hypertrophy, and generally alternate every other block once you’ve mastered skill of compounds.
If you’re feeling more worn down from the previous mesocycle, going to hypertrophy is smartest.
→ MESOCYCLE #3 [Strength or Hypertrophy focus – opposite of Mesocycle 2]: The opposite of the previous mesocycle (so if Mesocycle #2 was Hypertrophy, Mesocycle #3 is Strength, with more focus on the compounds + intensity).
Two of the sample powerbuilding days Jake laid out in the interview:
FULL BODY DEADLIFT DAY
→ Deadlift (concentric loading emphasis)
→ Romanian deadlift (eccentric loading emphasis)
→ Vertical pressing (i.e. Overhead Press, Dumbbell Shoulder Press)
→ Accessory for pull (i.e. Dumbbell Row, Cable Row)
→ Accessory for lateral delts (i.e. Dumbbell Lateral Raise) and/or core (i.e. Hollow Body Hold)
UPPER BODY BENCH DAY
→ Barbell Bench
→ Bench Press Variation w/ added autoregulation (i.e. 1.5 reps or tempo work on incline)
→ Lighter pulling movement (i.e. Dumbbell Row, Cable Row)
→ Chest focused accessory (i.e. Cable Chest Fly)
Tricep focused accessory (i.e. Dumbbell Incline Skullcrusher)
→ Core (i.e. Hollow Body Hold) and/or Bicep accessory (i.e. Dumbbell Incline Curl)
And that’s how you achieve the best of both worlds: strength and aesthetics.
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