We don’t often think of powerlifting, or lifting in general, as a seasonal sport, but it’s common for powerlifters to change up their workouts for the “off-season” when they are more than 6 months away from their next competition.
A powerlifter’s off-season program is designed to reduce the weight used (60-70% of 1RM), build new muscle, increase exercise variation, address weaknesses, improve athleticism, and allow the Central Nervous System (CNS) to rest and recover from the taxing nature of traditional powerlifting workouts.
What Is An Off-Season Powerlifting Program
As we described above, the off-season program differs a lot from the regular powerlifting workouts you would do to improve your squat, bench press, and deadlift as you work toward testing your maxes of those lifts or competing.
Whether you train the conjugate method, block periodization, or any other form of progressive overload in your powerlifting training, it’s extremely taxing, and your body needs a break. You can do that through regular deload periods during your strength training, as well as with an off-season program.
However, the off-season program should not only be applied reactively to give your CNS and joints a break from the heavy weights. It can absolutely be used proactively to improve yourself as a powerlifter and as a well-rounded athlete.
Think of the off-season similar to making new year’s resolutions. Look back at your last training block (or several training blocks), look at your max effort lifts. Where are your lifts failing?
Is your bench getting stuck on your chest? Good, use the off-season to build your pecs and lats.
Is your squat fast out of the bottom, but slow to lockout? Good, use the off-season to focus on strengthening your lower back.
Want to learn how to pull sumo, but you can’t even seem to get your hips open enough? Same answer – use the offseason to improve your flexibility.
What about your cardiovascular system? The last time you did an AMRAP set (As Many Reps as Possible), did you run out of air and have to quit when you could have done a few more? Good, do some cardio to make sure that doesn’t happen next time.
During an off season, you might want to do some extra conditioning. Read my other article on how to combine powerlifting and running.
The bottom line is this: off-season training is a great way to keep progressing with your foot fully pressed on the gas without taxing your CNS the way you do the rest of the year.
Do Powerlifters Need An Off-Season Powerlifting Program? (5 Benefits)
While there are arguments to “specialize” and always be focused on the squat, bench, and deadlift, the short answer is yes, powerlifters need an off-season program, or at least incorporate elements of an off-season program throughout the year.
Here are the top 5 benefits to an off-season powerlifting program:
Build New Muscle
Hypertrophy is easily the most common goal of an off-season program. Whether you recognize a particular muscle or muscle group is holding you back, or you just want bigger arms or bigger quads to show off, the off-season is a great time to do it.
Think about it this way – your body only has so much energy and you only have so much time in your day. While you are training to max out your lifts, you don’t always have the time, the energy, or both to improve your bench press and also do all the curls you need to get big biceps.
More commonly, you might recognize that your triceps need an upgrade to break through that bench goal you have in mind, so you can really hit them hard during an offseason to be more prepared for your next strength block.
Whether it’s for vanity or progressing your main lifts, hypertrophy is an excellent way to spend your off-season.
This is one of the benefits that I discuss in my article on the 5 Benefits of High Rep Bench Press Training, specifically for powerlifters.
We all know the stereotypes about powerlifters being able to squat 3x their body weight, but struggling to climb a flight of stairs.
Don’t be that powerlifter. It’s not necessary, and frankly, it’s holding you back from being great.
Again, you may not have the time or energy to do some cardio during your regular strength training, so use the off-season to spend your time and energy improving your cardiovascular system.
It won’t kill your gains, I promise.
If your muscles depend on blood and oxygen flowing in and out of them to move weight and effectively recover (and they do), then an improved cardiovascular system will improve your squat, bench, and deadlift.
Check out this article: Can You Build Muscle With Powerlifting? (Yes, Here’s How)
I’ll go ahead and say it – there’s only so much a squat, bench press, and deadlift can do for your strength. Yes, those three lifts do a pretty good job covering your whole body, but they don’t cover everything.
The off-season is a perfect time to add in different exercises than you normally do.
Yesterday I sat on the adductor machine for the first time in 2 years, according to my training log. And while my adductors will let me know they aren’t happy about it tomorrow, I loved hitting a muscle group I’ve neglected for so long.
Dig through your training log, or mentally think through exercises you normally do and create a workout that doesn’t include any of your go-to favorites. Go find a machine you hardly touch or watch what others in the gym are doing and try those exercises.
Related Article: When To Switch From Strength To Hypertrophy (8 Signs)
Rest Your CNS
I can’t overstate this one. Your muscles and joints may be handling the heavyweight just fine, but your CNS has an upper limit to how long it can handle the intensity before you start to decline.
The best part about cardio, bodybuilding, stretching, playing basketball, etc – is that it’s not nearly as taxing on your CNS as heavy, compound lifts. You can perform any of those exercises WITH INTENSITY and still not zap your CNS the way powerlifting does.
I’m currently on an off-season program and I’m focused on some bodybuilding style hypertrophy and I’m hitting it hard. While my muscles are sorer than they ever get while powerlifting, the fatigue from my CNS is not anywhere near what it is as I am getting ready to max out my power lifts. I’m training intensely, focused on my powerlifting goals, but not draining myself before I start my next strength block.
With these alternatives, you can train with intensity and purpose without the same fatigue.
Try Something New
We all want to try something new every now and then. Use the off-season as a time to do the things you don’t have time or energy to do while you’re prepping for a powerlifting meet.
Maybe you like bodybuilding and want to chase a pump for a few weeks. Maybe you want to learn the Olympic lifts and spend some time refining your technique. Maybe you’re secretly into Crossfit (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and want to try a month of WOD’s.
Whatever the reason, carve out 4-12 weeks when you’re furthest away from competition and try something new.
We reviewed the popular Jonnie Candito Powerlifting Program, check it out to learn how he implements ‘off season' principles.
Want to get advice on programming, technique, or competing? Speak with one of our coaches.
5 Guidelines To Follow When Doing An Off Season Powerlifting Program
- Focus on your goals
- Focus on what’s hard
- Focus on what you enjoy
- Give it a meaningful amount of time
- Make it different
Focus On Your Goals
This is the most important guideline of all – use the off-season program to progress your goals, not distract from them!
We’ve listed a few examples already, but I’ll restate a few – if you recognize a muscle needs to be bigger to assist in one of your main lifts, then build it up!
If you are constantly huffing and puffing between sets, do some cardio!
If you can’t get your squat deep enough, do some stretching and flexibility work!
Assess your goals, look at where you are currently, and spend your off-season improving those areas.
Focus On What’s Hard
If something is hard, it probably means you need to do more of it.
That’s going to differ for everyone, but the principle remains true – if it’s hard, you’re just not good enough at it yet and you need to give it more focus.
The off-season is the time to admit to yourself what you’re not good at and what is hard for you, and then make a plan to not suck at it anymore.
Pretend you are a minor league athlete, and the only way to make it to the big leagues is to improve the thing you suck at most. Cardio, hypertrophy, mobility, you name it. Use this time to improve so that it’s not holding you back when you start up a strength block again.
Related Article: Should Powerlifters Do Hypertrophy?
Focus On What You Enjoy
This may clash with the advice I just gave you above, but the off-season can be a great time to give yourself a mental break from the grind of chasing big numbers and let you do some things you enjoy.
As long as it’s moving you forward and making you better, let yourself do or try things that you like.
After all, there’s no point in lifting if we aren’t having fun. Use this time to let your hair down do what makes you happy in the gym. Except maxing out – don’t do that in your off-season.
Give It A Meaningful Amount Of Time
Like any exercise program, you won’t see results in 3 days or really even 3 weeks.
While I would recommend 4 weeks minimum, 90 days would be ideal to really see the results of a good off-season program.
Whatever amount of time you have to dedicate to an off-season, treat it like any other training block and give yourself enough time to put in meaningful effort and see what the element of time does for you.
Lastly, your off-season training can absolutely bleed over into your strength training. For example, as your strength training starts again, you can cut down some of your off-season work, but still do it for active recovery days a couple days a week, until it’s appropriate to cut it off entirely and just focus on the powerlifting again.
Check out our article on GPP Workouts to learn more about incorporating off-season programming throughout the year.
Make It Different
Above all, just do something different than you normally do. You spend most of the year doing heavy squats, bench presses, and deadlifts, you’ll be fine to step away from them for a few weeks and do something new.
While the whole sport of Powerlifting revolves around the squat, bench press, and deadlift, it takes more than progressing those three lifts in their conventional forms to be great at those three lifts.
It may be hard to unplug from those main lifts, but if you focus on the right things (hypertrophy, cardio, flexibility, coordination, balance, etc), you can absolutely use the off-season to make yourself a better athlete and be more capable of performing those lifts when the time comes again.
Curious to know how long powerlifting workouts are? Check out my article How Many Hours A Day Do Powerlifters Train?
Off Season Powerlifting Program: 4 Workouts
Basic GPP (General Physical Preparedness) Off-Season Workout
- Pull-Ups – 4 sets of AMRAP (as many reps as possible)
- Sled Pushes – 4 laps down and back (50-100ft laps)
- Push-Ups – 4 sets of 10-15
- Farmer’s Carry/Dumbbell Carry – 4 laps down and back (50-100ft laps)
- Bench Dips – 4 sets of 10-15
- Box Jumps (or box jump alternative) – 4 sets of 10
Cardio Focus Off-Season Workout
- Stationary Bike/Rower – 10 minutes – 1 min sprint, 2 mins slow
- Sled Push – 6 laps, one every 2 minutes (50-100ft laps)
- Sledge Hammer on Tire – 3 sets of 20 swings per arm
- Sled Pull – 6 laps, one every 2 minutes (50-100ft laps)
- Battle Ropes – 30-60 seconds
Back Hypertrophy Off Season Workout
- Lat Pull Down (Wide Grip) – 3 sets of 12 reps
- Lat Pull Down V-Grip – 3 sets of 10 reps
- Stiff-arm Lat Pull Down – 3 sets of 8 reps
- Chest-supported Incline Dumbbell Row – 4 sets of 12
- Chest Supported Incline Rear Delt Flyes – 4 sets of 10
- Single Arm Dumbbell Row – 4 sets of 8
- Dumbbell Trap Shrug – 4 sets of 12
- Barbell Snatch Grip Shrug – 4 sets of 12
Powerlifting Off-Season Workout Example
- Front Squat – 4 sets of 12 reps
- Cannonball Squat – 4 sets of 8 (5 seconds concentric/negative tempo)
- Wide Grip Bench – 4 sets of 12
- Close Grip Bench – 4 sets of 8
- Stiff Leg Deadlift – 4 sets of 10 (3 seconds concentric/negative tempo)
- Good Mornings – 4 sets of 10
Curious to know more benefits of high rep training? Read my article on Do Powerlifters Do High Reps?
Powerlifting is a taxing sport, and you’re only able to get better at it if you can keep up with the demands of training. If you want to be a better competitor, be better at training. And if you want to be better at training, be a better athlete.
Breaking your training up to include an off season is a great way to give your body a break, focus on areas of improvement, and spend some time doing other forms of training that will ultimately make you a better lifter.
There’s no perfect answer to how you should spend your off season or how long you should stay in an off season program, but that’s the best part – it’s flexible. Build an off-season program and a plan based on your goals and your current circumstances and get back to regular season training better than ever.
If you're looking for a higher frequency off-season powerlifting program, then check out my article discussing the 6-day powerlifting split.
About The Author
Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.