By Eric Trexler, CSCS, CISSN
Former Director of Research and Education, INOV8 Elite Performance
Bodybuilding is awesome. Few things truly match the fulfillment and excitement of a successful contest prep— months of discipline and restriction that culminate in the brief presentation of your best physique yet. Unfortunately, improvement takes time and patience in the sport of bodybuilding. Many competitors walk off stage knowing it will be several months, if not years, before they return to the stage with a significantly improved physique.
It has become increasingly common to fill this competitive void with off-season powerlifting. Thus, the competitor rotates between powerlifting and bodybuilding, making them a hybrid “powerbuilder.” This is an excellent strategy, as it provides ample opportunities for frequent competition and forces the competitor to constantly reach toward the next short-term goal.
The only drawback is that powerlifting and bodybuilding are not one and the same, and training for the two sports differs. They aren’t drastically different, but training programs for each sport have distinct characteristics: bodybuilding programs tend to utilize higher rep ranges, a larger variety of exercise selection, and lower training frequency for each muscle group. Conversely, powerlifting programs often utilize higher training loads, fewer repetitions, and more frequent training of each muscle group, along with longer rest periods between sets.
The powerbuilder faces the challenge of trying to train for two slightly distinct outcomes— building a balanced, complete physique, and increasing 1RM strength on the squat, bench, and deadlift. The two goals are far from mutually exclusive, but still require the powerbuilder to incorporate aspects of both powerlifting and bodybuilding-specific training. This can be further complicated by a busy schedule (such as my own) that threatens gym time. For that reason, I’m going to lay out a few decent splits and strategies for powerbuilders.
PHAT is an acronym that stands for “Power Hypertrophy Adaptive Training.” The training system, designed by Layne Norton and described in detail here, includes five training sessions per week: two power-oriented days and three hypertrophy-oriented days, with each muscle group getting trained twice per week. This program could be considered a form of daily undulating periodization (DUP), in which training volume and intensity are varied within the same microcycle.
You can incorporate the general principles of undulating periodization, or more traditional linear periodization, into a push/pull/legs routine to have a slightly more bodybuilding-focused hybrid program. With this strategy, training frequency is slightly lower, with a bit more volume per session. In this program, each muscle group is trained “1.5” times per week (3 times in a two-week period). The “push” workout involves all upper-body pushing muscles (chest, triceps, shoulders), “pull” involves upper-body pulling muscles (back, biceps, traps), and “legs” is self-explanatory.
As with PHAT, you can use this template to alternate between power and hypertrophy each workout— if one leg day is more hypertrophy-oriented, the next would be power-focused. Alternatively, you can also make each workout a blend of hypertrophy and power work— you may start with some heavy, low-rep sets of squat or deadlift, then move on to higher repetition hypertrophy work with accessory exercises.
Again, the basic principles of either undulating or linear periodization can be applied to an upper-body/lower-body split. This program offers slightly higher training frequency than push/pull/legs, and could potentially increase training frequency beyond that of PHAT, depending on how many rest days you take. Some prefer to do 4 workouts per week on this split, whereas others simply repeat the cycle of upper-body, lower-body, off, then repeat.
Just like push/pull/legs, you can alternate between power and hypertrophy sessions, or incorporate both into the same workout with power-oriented work preceding accessory hypertrophy training.
My Current Split
The previous training splits could be placed on a spectrum ranging from bodybuilding-oriented to powerlifting-oriented. In my opinion, such a spectrum would look like this:
I’m currently focusing on powerlifting, with the intention of hitting the platform in the near future. While I’ve often rotated between the previously mentioned training splits, I made my current split to dedicate slightly more focus to my powerlifting goals. My current training split is as follows:
In this split, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday are designated as “powerlifting” days. These days include heavy sets for at least one of the power lifts, with other accessory work aimed at improving the “big 3” (squat, bench, deadlift). Monday and Saturday are more dedicated to bodybuilding. Finally, based on my class/teaching/research/volunteering schedule, Tuesday and Thursday are off days. This split can be rearranged to fit anyone’s busy schedule; ideally, the workouts that focus on one or more of the “big 3” would not fall on back-to-back days.
One feature of this split is that typical 3-day powerlifting programs, including many beginner/intermediate strength programs and variations of Sheiko, can be easily incorporated. With the schedule listed above, I could simply use my Sheiko programming for Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. I would include relevant accessory work for the “big 3” on those days, with additional bodybuilding-focused workouts on Monday and Saturday. The bodybuilding days would primarily focus on the muscle groups neglected by your powerlifting program, along with any muscle groups that might be lagging in development. Accordingly, I tend to focus on back, calves, and arms on those days.
Selecting the right split
As a powerbuilder, your goals and training needs tend to vary throughout the year. Sometimes you want a traditional bodybuilding program, sometimes you want to focus strictly on powerlifting, and sometimes you want something right in between. I am currently farther toward the “powerlifting” end of the spectrum, but not at the point of electing a program that is strictly for powerlifting. As my goals eventually switch toward bodybuilding-related outcomes, I will slide toward the other end of the spectrum and adjust my training split accordingly. Having a list of potential training splits gives you the ability to tailor your training to your exact goals in bodybuilding and powerlifting, and enables you to make great progress in both endeavors without temporarily neglecting either.