Powerlifting for Women: Train to Your Strengths

Photo cred: Martin Rittenberry 

It’s a question I am asked often: Should women train differently than men in powerlifting? For the most part, the answer is no, because when you place the lion’s share of your training on getting stronger in the big three, the outcome is the same: Any human who trains the competition lifts consistently will get stronger. Most of the differences in performance between men and women can be explained by body size and composition, and a man and woman with the same size muscles will have roughly the same strength. But due to a higher proportion of type I (slow-twitch) muscle fibers than her male counterparts, and being better metabolically suited to burn fat during exercise, a woman’s body is more resistant to fatigue in training. As long as sleep and nutritional needs are met, women can handle a far greater total amount of training volume and frequency than one might initially assume.

I train people who identify along different points of the gender spectrum, but for whom the above information would apply, the revelation that your body is capable of so many high-rep, heavy sets leads to the almost audible sound of a mental switch being flipped. “I didn’t know I could do that!” and “I never knew I could feel so strong” are common refrains. The effects that come along with the choice to pursue improved strength — including gaining agency and autonomy over one’s body — are profound and lasting (true for anyone who falls in love with the barbell).

The PRs are pretty fun though too, so if you’re someone who’s already square on the big rocks of the squat, bench press, and deadlift, and who’s ready to get a little more specific with their training, my advice below is for you.

Training Frequency

I’m always surprised when I meet women at powerlifting meets and I hear they’ve been training the competition lifts six or even seven days a week. Listen, even though you live in a body that can tolerate a high volume of work, and you really love the work that you’re doing, you will likely need to take days off.

Why? Put simply, immediately after a training session, your body is weaker than when you began that session.

A good powerlifting program is divided into blocks and while there are many different approaches a coach can take, I split mine into three phases: hypertrophy, strength, and peaking. Total volume is higher in the beginning of the program and begins to taper the closer the lifter gets to the platform or testing their maxes in the gym. This is to help build muscle mass, increase strength, and manage fatigue so the lifter feels ready, not wasted, by the time testing day rolls around.

When you’re in a hypertrophy phase at the beginning of a training cycle, you’ve likely incurred some muscle damage due to microscopic tears that are the result of lifting moderately heavy weights for many reps and sets (hellooooo DOMS). Those tears take time to heal so you can come back stronger.

And when you’re in the peaking phase of your program, you’re lifting at intensities at or around 90 percent of your one-rep max. Heavy squats, bench, and deadlifts are neurologically demanding and afterward, your CNS is drained and needs time to refuel. That takes longer than just one night’s sleep. (This also helps explain why the week following a meet or max testing session everything, even light weights, can feel like a grind — your tank is still refueling.)

This is why rest days are clutch for repairing muscles and nervous system replenishment. You might want to lift almost every day, but without days off, you will almost undoubtedly hit a wall in the form of poor exercise technqiue (a big risk when you’re handling heavy weights), and performance plateaus.

How often you should lift comes down to your level of experience, what phase of training you are in, and how many days your personal schedule allows, but a good framework is three to five times a week. Four days a week is my personal favorite for most lifters, with two days dedicated to upper body and two to lower body, with at least two days separating each squat and deadlift session.

Let’s talk rest! Lifting heavy weights calls for a lot of bracing and strict control of how your body performs very specific movements. Use your nonlifting days to do something completely opposite: Walking at a brisk pace for 20 to 30 minutes or attending a yin yoga class (the sort of yoga where you lie around and hold poses — but are actually just draped over bolsters — for five minutes while breathing deeply) are effective ways to promotes muscle and nervous system recovery.

Training Intensity 

Have you ever bench pressed and you hit a very doable set of three and then added a total of five more pounds to the bar and gotten pinned? Hey, me too! You may have also missed that big PR in your squat or deadlift even though you hit very close to your current 1-rep max during your training cycle.

Like I said above, humans born with uteruses are genetically predisposed to possess a higher concentration of Type I versus Type II muscle fibers. Type I muscle fibers enable longer bouts of work and are more resistant to fatigue; Type II muscle fibers respond more quickly to hypertrophy and better generate maximal force. As a woman, because your muscles don’t tire out quickly, you will be able to work up to a higher percentage of your one-rep max (1RM) than your male counterparts.

This is why fractional plates can be so clutch for bench press. Progressive overload is the main determinant of progress, but that becomes a challenge when loading 2.5 pound plates on each end of the bar has you going from doing reps on the previous to getting pinned on the next. Fractional plates range from .25-pound to 1-pounds, making smaller weight jumps more accessible which is not only helpful from a strength, but a confidence standpoint. (Listen, a 1-pound PR is still a PR!)

And to avoid burning out before you reach the platform or testing your maxes in the gym, save your heaviest work for your final block, or last 3-4 weeks of training. Working up to 90-95% of your 1RM for squat and bench press, and 92-97% of your bench press will ensure you’re working hard enough to nudge your strength forward, without becoming overly fatigued.

Volume of Assistance and Accessory Work

Assistance exercises are the movements that most closely mimic the big three: Think barbell front squat to the back squat, close-grip bench press to the bench press, and snatch-grip deadlift to the deadlift.

Accessory exercises are any movements that strengthen the muscles used in the big three; Bulgarian split squats strengthen your quads for squats, chest flys pump up your pecs for bench, and back raises harden your spinal erectors for the deadlift.

Assistance exercises, because they are close relatives to the big three, increase your strength and skill in the main lifts by adding more reps under the bar, but because they can’t be loaded as heavily as the main lifts, they won’t overly fatiguing your nervous system. Include one assistance lift immediately following the competition lift, keeping within the 4-6 rep range, at a weight that feels challenging but not so heavy you can’t keep ship-shape, competition-ready, form. 

Because accessory exercises train body parts versus movements, this is your chance to harness the power of your endurance inclination and go to town. Since these are the least fatiguing exercises, and the ones your body will adapt to the fastest, aim for improvements in these movements as often as possible. Add more weight, complete more reps, or take less rest time between sets to pump up your muscles as much as you are able before max testing day. Remember: More muscle moves weight more efficiently and when it comes to increasing muscle size, these exercises are your money makers. So don’t hold back! Include 15 to 30 sets total, at 6-12 reps per week.

When it comes to training programs for all humans, the genetic differences are small and the bulk of progress will come down to using your head: Do as much of you can, when you can, and back off when you can’t. Rest, and repeat. But hopefully this has given you a bit more information to help you continue to perform your best. Let me know what you think in the comments below! I’d love to hear from you.


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Author:Jennifer Blake

Jennifer Blake’s leggings might be pink but her weights aren’t. A personal trainer at The Movement Minneapolis she is a powerlifting and strongman enthusiast with a passion for human movement, here to spread the good word that strong is fun. Facebook: Strong Is Fun, Twitter, Instagram
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