Guidelines For Novice Powerlifters

A novice lifter can be defined as someone who can make progress from session to session or week to week. That is to say that sufficient stimulus or stress can be created during this time frame and recovered from to generate adaptation. In the case of a powerlifter, this would mean increasing their performance in the Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift session to session or week to week. 

This is one of the most exciting times for both lifters and coaches. It can also be a time that is fraught with danger. The beauty of being a novice is that any training stress you give your body will generally lead to positive adaptation, in the case of powerlifting the training or ‘exercise’ you partake in will see you get stronger. The downside is exactly that, you respond to anything so any form of training or exercise will work. This is the reason why many never make it past this stage. It is also what the fitness industry as a whole relies on. Tens of thousands of different methods created all promising results, all able to seemingly deliver, which path should you choose?

Imagine for a second that there was no such thing as a novice and we all started at an intermediate level. We would all require some degree of problem-solving and actual coaching to make progress. The industry would collapse and become a very small niche as coaches would require a high level of education and experience to be able to get results. Most individuals would not want to spend the time to get educated, develop the necessary skills and gain the experience required to be able to coach such individuals. On top of this, the financial incentive that other fields offer with similar education and experience just would not be there. You could no longer just complete your online qualification and feign authority with pre-made social media posts. Experience cannot be fast-tracked no matter what anyone will have you believe or how clever the marketing campaign is.

Would you let a surgeon who has taken an online course operate on you? Or take your new car to be serviced by a cheap mechanic. Hopefully not. So why would you invest in your physical health with someone like this?

Imagine investing money in something where the more money you invest the smaller your capital gains become. It's ludicrous and no one in their right mind would do this. This is exactly how your body responds to stress over your training career. The stronger you get, the more stress you need to apply to your body to see smaller and smaller strength gains.

The truth is that the training process is long, arduous and at times drudging, and even when you implement everything perfectly you may still fall short come comp day. However, if you stay the course and make it part of your lifestyle, watch how it positively impacts the rest of your life.


The Decision To Train Rather Than Exercise

This is the pivotal moment for anyone wanting to make progress beyond that of just being ‘in shape’. The majority of the population is perfectly satisfied with exercising to achieve this and are convinced that it’s all they need. For anyone who wants to achieve anything beyond the highly subjective feeling of being ‘in shape,’ we need to embark on that long, arduous and at times drudging process called training. If you choose this road you must understand that the training process takes time and will require expertise from someone who understands it.  



If you are not enjoying the training process, the likelihood of you continuing to train is quite slim. This is not just about the program you follow, but the community you decide to surround yourself with.

Remember the beauty of being a novice is that any new stimulus will make you stronger. This is a great motivator and I have found that those who surround themselves with a great community who celebrate early success are more likely to continue with their training endeavours.

This is one of the reasons that CrossFit was so successful, despite what your reservations are about the programming and training methodologies. What made CrossFit so successful was the community is established, and as a result, participants were more likely to go training each week because it felt good to be part of that community. Due to this consistency with training, those who joined CrossFit gyms would see greater progress than if they merely joined a big chain gym.

A great community can also act like a guiding force preparing the novice for what to expect next, so when the novice athlete’s progress stalls it just becomes part of the training process and not a huge deal.



The goal of a coach taking on a novice lifter is to create buy-in from them. Along with creating a great community and enjoyable training environment novice athletes should be educated as to why they are doing things and begin their journey to becoming students of the sport. Some coaches with more traditional beliefs would argue that novice lifters should only concern themselves with training and essentially do what they are told. There is a spectrum though. In becoming students of powerlifting, lifters will retain a lot more of what is being taught to them as they become more invested in the training process rather than merely doing it for individual notoriety on social media platforms. 

The goal is to create an environment whereby the athlete becomes organically invested in their training and develops independence, not be treated like a dependent special little snowflake. There is such a thing as over coaching and too much education. A good test of this is if you have a slightly more advanced novice athlete that has been under your tutelage for about 3 months that can complete a training session on their own if you were away for any reason. If after 3 months your athlete needs you there every step of the way you have created a dependent athlete. This scenario is not ideal for a coach or an athlete. The longer it is left, the harder it will be to create independence later on.


Development Of Technical Proficiency  

To develop great strength, you need 3 things, more muscle mass, neurological adaptations and the development of the skill most specific to the strength you want to acquire. In the case of powerlifting, this relates to the Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift movements. A novice lifter with the hope of competing in powerlifting should be practising each of these skills multiple times per week (2-3 each). This will help them make adjustments to their technique and with the help of their coach find a way of performing these lifts that maximise the novice lifters' leverages. This is not the time for endless variations as developing a skill takes time and practice.

On top of the development of technical proficiency in main competition movements, novice lifters should be including more general strength movements from the categories below as accessory movements. These exercises will help to further develop you as a lifter with progressions that will be built upon as your journey continues through into the intermediate stage. Learning extra movements has three aims, it firstly aims to increase your lifting IQ by learning new movements, secondly, it is a great way to add in some variation so that you are not always just performing the main movements which could lead to some overuse injuries sooner especially if load is not managed properly. Thirdly, learning new movements can be enjoyable for the new lifter aiding adherence to the training process.


Development Of General Physical Preparedness 

General Physical Preparation focuses on building an athletes foundation and overall work capacity. As the name suggests, it is general in nature and not specific to the sport of powerlifting. Those who excel at powerlifting usually have an established base of GPP and continue to incorporate it in their program albeit less as they become more advanced.

Improve body composition – It may come as a surprise to many that all powerlifters who compete in weight class have quite low body fat percentages and carry a large proportion of lean muscle mass. It goes against most people’s image of a giant behemoth carrying far too much body fat. Those that get to this stage compete in weight categories with no upper limit such as 120kg+ (so you can weigh 180kg if you want), so in this case, the more weight you carry (particularly for squat and bench press performances) the heavier the weight you can lift. 

However, it makes no sense for a male competing in the 83kg class to be over 20% body fat or a female competing in the 57kg class to be over 30% body fat. In a weight class, you want the bulk of your weight made up of lean muscle mass as this is the contractile tissue that will help you lift more weight. Higher body fat percentages will only hinder your performance. My recommendation is that males maintain body fat percentage between 10%-15% and females between 18%-23% for optimal performance.

Improve aerobic capacity – Improving this system will improve your general fitness and overall quality of life. It will also aid in the recovery of your Phosphocreatine system which is the most prominent energy system used for short efforts lasting up to 10 seconds. What does this mean? You will have the ability to do more work in a shorter period. Those with poor aerobic health will usually need to take much longer to complete the same amount of work as someone with greater aerobic health. 

A good aim would be to get your resting heart rate to sit between 50-60 bpm. Estimated VO2 somewhere between fair and good would be a good starting point. Here is a link to a simple test you can perform on a watt bike to see where you sit. If you are below ‘Fair’ in the table below, I would recommend dedicating some more time towards developing aerobic capacity in your training.


Female VO2 Norms ml/kg/min


Male VO2 Norms ml/kg/min


Aside from following an intelligent well-structured program, if you could have a magic pill or a secret bullet learning how to implement nutritional strategies into your training and get adequate sleep would be it. For anyone looking at progressing, trying to achieve 7-9 hrs of sleep on average is what I recommend. During the novice stage, when you are ready, I also recommend spending some time learning how to track your nutritional intake using a nutrition tracking app. There are plenty on the market with the most popular being MyFitnessPal. 

Click here to get sent a copy of my guide to using My Fitness Pal, as well as a copy of my Macronutrient Calculator. 

Once you have become comfortable with tracking, I recommend the following nutritional guidelines;

  • Adjust calorie targets depending on your goals initially;
    • Weight Loss 5%-20% deficit
    • Weight gain 5-15% surplus 
  • Protein targets 1.6-2.2g per kg of bodyweight. 
  • Fat targets 25-30% of total calories
  • Carbohydrate targets to make up the remainder. 
  • Fibre targets 15-18 per 1000kcal consumed, with 80% of all fibre coming from plant-based sources. 


Weight Loss Guidelines 

A good target is to aim to lose 0.5%-1% of body weight per week. As for the duration, between 6-12 weeks depending on how aggressive your deficit is and generally how you are feeling. If you decide to be in a 15-20% deficit, closer to 6 weeks is a better guide. However, taking a slower route of 5-10% deficit could allow you to spend a longer period in a deficit. You should try not to lose more than 10% of your total body weight during a single period of weight loss. Doing any more or being too aggressive will increase your risk of losing muscle mass whilst in a deficit.


Weight Gain Guidelines 

You can gain muscle at a rate of 0.25-0.5% of your body weight per week. Yes, this is much slower than fat loss, which is why it is not ideal to be doing huge deficits and risking losing everything that you worked so hard to achieve. My recommendation is a 5-15% surplus. You can spend as little as 6 weeks or as many as 24 weeks in a surplus. Again the higher your calorie surplus percentage, the less time you would spend in a surplus. This is to mitigate the fat you would gain whilst being in this state. 


Maintenance Guidelines

I recommend spending some time eating maintenance calories both after weight loss and weight gain phases. My weight loss maintenance phases recommendations are to spend three quarters to the same amount of time in maintenance as you spend in a deficit phase. The goal of the maintenance phase after weight loss is to keep body weight stable and slowly recover from the accumulated fatigue caused by being in a calorie deficit. If you spend 12 weeks in a deficit, you should spend 9-12 weeks in maintenance. 

Similarly, when you are coming out of a weight gain phase, I recommend spending 4-6 weeks in the maintenance phase which will help your body settle into the new weight. For powerlifters, I would recommend spending even more time in the maintenance phase following weight gain. As it can take more time to express the strength from your newly gained muscle through neurological adaptations. 


Nutritional recommendations for Powerlifters who have 2hr weigh-in window

For powerlifters, the best time to lose or gain weight in the 5-10% realm would be in an offseason where there are no competitions on the horizon. Being in a deficit when you are trying to push the boundaries of performance is not ideal and will only lead to poor performance, overtraining or injury. 

What about serious weight gain? This may indeed boost your performance, but gaining weight quickly may also change your leverages so you will not compete optimally at the heavier weight. 

It is best to increase weight by 5-10% during your offseason. This may be followed by a 4-6 week maintenance phase in which time you can push a smaller strength block focusing on higher intensities with lower volume. You may then choose to enter a small weight loss phase to bring you back within 1-3% of your competition weight before starting a comp prep, but now you would be carrying more lean muscle mass than at this weight previously. 

Ideally staying within 1-3% of your competition weight during prep will allow you to eat at maintenance calories and hopefully be in a slight surplus during peaking. 


Example 12 week diet periodisation for competition  

4-week Hypertrophy block - Slight deficit if needed to get to 1-3% heavier than comp weight. 

4 week Strength Block - Maintenance 

4-week Peaking - Maintenance or slight surplus is best, getting no heavier than 3% more of comp weight. 

Again, if you spend the majority of your comp prep cutting weight in a big deficit, your performance will likely suffer. For new lifters competing in their first competition, do not worry about what weight class you are going to compete in. Stick with some of my nutritional guidelines above, learn how to track your intake so you can eat enough to fuel your performance. 


Manage Intensity And Training Volume

There are two giant mistakes that I see most novice lifters making in the gym, which do more to keep them as novices than anything else. Firstly, using weights that are too heavy. This helps to ingrain bad movement patterns that become very difficult to fix later on. Yes, you will become stronger very quickly due to pure neurological adaptations, but you will also hit a plateau much sooner and take longer to break through it. When this happens most people get demotivated pretty quickly and move on to something else or just hold the false belief that they have hit their genetic potential within a year or 18 months of training. 

Secondly, a common mistake made by novice lifters is simply training with too much volume. Excessive muscle damage caused by high volume training (especially when intensity is not kept in check) has been demonstrated to reduce your muscle’s force-generating capacity, which will impede overall muscle growth and strength. Higher volumes when intensities are lower can be useful for practising a skill, to begin with. However, if you are trying to hit for example multiple sets with RM (rep max) training loads, such as 3-5 sets of anywhere between 3-10 taking each set to a 9-10RPE (0 – 1 rep left in the tank each set) you are most likely setting yourself up for failure as a novice lifter.


Key Takeaways

  1. As a novice, any program will make you stronger, but that doesn't mean it is the best program for your long term development. 
  2. Learn and improve technical proficiency in squat, bench press and deadlift. As well as improving lifting IQ in being able to perform basic movement patterns. 
  3. Surround yourself in the right environment for you. Enjoy what you are doing and learn to become a student of the sport. 
  4. Improve overall GPP, making improvements to body composition and also improving aerobic capacity for general health. 
  5. Do not try to lose or gain more than 5-10% of your total body weight in a single weight loss or weight gain phase.
  6. Weight gain or weight loss phases should be followed by a maintenance phase.
  7. If you are competing in your first competition do not worry about making a weight class. Fuel your body for performance and enjoy the training process. 
  8. Manage volume and intensity, less is more when starting.