EmPowerlifting: A Beginner Powerlifting Program


By Sarah Vance

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Hey there you strong woman. I am so pumped that you want to learn more about powerlifting. This type of strength training has completely changed my life and helped change my relationship with my body and food. It was a transition from being so focused on what my body looks like to embracing and celebrating what my body can do. In addition to that it helped me get over my disordered eating- because we all know that in order to get stronger you NEED to eat. And you need to eat a lot of carbohydrates.


Before we get started, I wanted to talk to you about mindset. Mindset is such a huge component to anything and everything we do in life- and this applies to strength training. It is really easy to get into self- doubt and comparison mode in anything we do. If we allow these factors to take hold of our mind it can hold us back from reaching some pretty amazing strength goals!

I want you to know this: There will always be someone stronger than you. We all start somewhere. And lastly- who the hell cares about anyone else?! This is about you! …Your ability, your celebrations, your strength, and your journey.  Self-doubt will creep up once in a while as you will probably be attempting to lift weight that you never thought you could lift. Instead of letting that keep you in your comfort zone, I urge you to work through that self-doubt and challenge yourself. If you are practicing good form and taking safety measures (like using a spotter), then challenge yourself. Push the weight. Pull the weight. And stand the hell up with the weight.

When you are standing up with heavy weight on your back you are not only standing up with a certain amount of physical weight, but you are taking a stand for yourself. Be proud every time you stand up or press a weight. Un-rack the weights with confidence (or fake it!).

Week 1:   Day 1:    Squats 50-60% of your 1 RM 5X5

Week 1:
Day 1:
Squats 50-60% of your 1 RM 5X5

Powerlifting is a totally different ball game. Stepping up to perform a one rep max can have a variety of emotions: Excitement, enthusiasm, anxiety, fear, self-doubt, and accomplishment. And when you finally do nail that one rep max that you have been working towards, there really isn’t a word that can describe it. There is a sheer sense of empowerment, pride, confident, happiness, and excitement that you are consumed by. I wish I could capture the faces of the women I have worked with after they hit a 1RM because you can’t describe those emotions that pulse through you.

Powerlifting is about becoming bigger (in who you are as a person) and playing even bigger. It ends up carrying over into other aspect in your life that you never thought even imaginable. You stand up for yourself, you take up space (and own that space), you show up in this world, and you walk through the world with the curious attitude of: Can I do that? Let’s see!

I don’t know everything when it comes to powerlifting, and if someone says they do then I suggest running the other way because you will always be learning. Even the best of the best still learn and grow- that is the cool thing about it.

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1) Tightness is your BFF.

This is not the time to be all loosey goosey with your body. Everything should be tight. From how hard you grip that bar to how tightly you twist your feet into the ground. Everything is ‘flexed’. Think of a coil and how much tension is placed on that coil when you try to squish it. When you release it has a ton of exerted power. Think of yourself as a coil. The tighter you are- the more power you can exert.

2) Brace Your Core

A braced core will be the most important thing for you in keeping you safe. This protects your back and will help you get into your natural form. Think about keeping the ribs DOWN. Meaning when you take a big breath, you are not flaring your rib cage upwards. A good analogy is that if someone was going to come and slap your stomach it would be tight.

3) Keep a Tight Upper Back.

A tight upper back is also crucial in not only putting up big numbers, but keeping you safe. This means keeping your lats engaged and having an open chest. Do shit with pride.

4) SIT BACK!!!!

This is so incredibly important when performing the deadlift (and its variations) and squatting. The first break is actually at the hips- not the knees. They happen together, but usually what I see is people are not using their booties enough. The glutes are the powerhouse in powerlifting. If you ever go to a powerlifting meet- you will see nothing but big, strong, glorious glutes. The glutes are one of the strongest muscles we have. Use your powerhouse. If you have trouble sitting back in your squats, then I highly suggest using box squats first to get that rhythm of sitting back.  If you have trouble hinging back in your deadlifts then I suggest working on hip hinge movements first. Then move on to the deadlift and squat. Trust me- it is better to take time out now and learn these essential things versus having to relearn your entire squat.

A word on form: To lift safely and for the long term, it’s important to learn proper form, but there is no such thing as ‘perfect form’ for everyone. There are some guidelines to form that are really helpful, but then you have to tailor it to your individual body. We all have different limb lengths, statures, and mobility. Therefore, we are all going to get into our form slightly different. In addition to this, when you are performing at your maximum effort in a lift your form will break down slightly- this is normal. The longer you lift and learn your individual body, the more you will become comfortable with what type of ‘form breakdown’ is acceptable and when your form has completely gone to crap where you need to just STOP lifting to prevent injury.

It really is about trial and error until you find what feels right for your body, keeps you safe, and provides maximal strength output.

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The thing that people underestimate about powerlifting is how specific it is when it comes to calculating what weight you are going to be doing for any given workout. It isn’t just going into the gym and winging it- it is based off of percentages on a tested 1RM (1 repition of your maximum).

With that said- it also involves being quite intuitive with your training. Meaning if you are having an off day and it calls for a heavy day-you are going to reconsider what you are doing. You will either need to decrease the weight significantly (intensity), decrease the reps significantly (volume), decrease both, or just go on a walk (or home to read a book).

It is important to follow the program, but I think it is more important to listen to your body’s biofeedback cues. There is no need to do something your body does not want to do on a particular day. Strength, energy, and recovery ebbs and flows- and we must react with that to a certain degree.

Just know this: For every crappy day you feel like you had in the gym there is a really amazing day waiting around the corner! Roll with the punches, do your best, and keep working on the process. Don’t become outcome driven and allow your ego to lead the way- that is when injury occurs.

The week before starting this program I want you to test your various 1 RM on all three major lifts: The Squat, Bench, and Deadlift. This is about finding how much weight you can move for a maximum of one rep with good form.

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Once you have that number subtract 10% off of it. This is now considered your working 1 RM.

This is the number in which you will base your training cycle off of.

The way programming works for powerlifting is quite logical. You have your main lift, followed by lifts that make the main lift stronger, followed by accessory work for general body strength and muscle building.

A word on rest periods: As you are going to be working with heavier weight it is important to rest between lifts appropriately. The general rule is to rest between 3-5 min on your main lifts, however on some particular days (usually one 1 RM testing days) I have rested up to 10 minutes between sets. As I stated earlier- go by feel. You need to rest as long as your central nervous system requires, and so that you can perform the appropriate sets/reps adequately. As you progress in your lifting you will know when your body is ready to lift again. For secondary and tertiary work resting anywhere from 1-3 min is fine. Go with how you feel! You know what is best.

Okay- time to start lifting. I highly suggest downloaded an APP on your phone called 1 Rep Max. It is a tool, but not the end all be all, to measure where your approximate numbers will be. It will help you for testing your estimated 1 RM.

Before you start the EmPowerlifting Program, Test your 1 RM.

The goal before starting week 1 is to find your estimated 1 rep max (1 RM) of bench, deadlift and squats. 

Warm up with light sets of deadlift, bench press or squats (whichever lift you are testing on a particular day).

Test it like this example:  (This isn’t set in stone- you will find your own method!)

Basically, you are guessing the weight you need to start with.  What do you think you can lift 8 times? And then you add weight and move to lower reps working up to just 1 rep.  You add weight until you can’t do one.  Then you will know the maximum you can lift one time.  You will use this number for the calculations of what to lift for the program.

  • 40% of 1 RM for one set of 8
  • 60% of 1 RM for one set of 5
  • 70% of 1 RM for one set of 3
  • 80% of 1 RM for one single.
  • 90% for a single.
  • 100% for a single. (max attempt)

From here only perform single reps- add weight based on feel. If this was REALLY difficult and your form started to break down, then just stay here. If it was easy then by all means put some weight on! The amount of weight will be dependent on your intuition- I always say stay on the smaller jumps versus larger when it comes to testing your 1 RM especially as a beginner/intermediate lifter.