Most powerlifting workout programs call for 4 days of training per week. Bodybuilding routines often require 5 or even 6 days of workouts. The general thinking is that, to build muscle and strength, you need to do a lot of exercises—especially the squat, bench, deadlift, and overhead press—and you need at least 4 training days in a given week to fit them all in.
However, for many of us, training that often isn’t realistic or even enjoyable. You may not be able to train more than 3 days in a week due to a tough schedule, or you may simply not want to—because you want to save energy for other activities you’re interested in or you just get burned out when you train 4 or more days.
But if you still want to get stronger, hit PRs, and build muscle, you’re apt to worry about how you’ll fit all those lifts in with a relatively short training week.
Here’s how. (I’ll give a few options.)
The Full-Body Split
Three-day training splits really lend themselves to full-body workouts. Assuming you never have to train two of the days back to back, you’ll have ample time to recover between sessions while still getting some good frequency in for each body part/movement pattern.
Just pick a different push, pull, and leg exercise each session and you can’t go wrong, but be conservative with the volume. Because you’ll train the same muscles again 48 hours or so later, you don’t want to kill them in one session. Don’t do more than 5 sets for any push, pull, or leg movement, and keep the assistance lifts (if you choose to do any) brief.
Below is how you could set up a powerlifting-flavored program with a total-body approach.
Legs (squat, or any variant)
Push (bench assistance exercise, like an incline db press)
Pull (lat exercise, like a row or chinup)
Shoulders (lateral raises or db presses)
Core (some ab exercise)
Push (bench press, or any variant)
Pull (upper back exercise, like a chest-supported row)
Legs (single-leg lift, like a stepup)
Hamstring (like a leg curl. Pick something that’s easy on your lower back since you squatted the last time and will deadlift the next)
Biceps (dumbbell curl)
Legs/Pull (deadlift would go here, as it really could count in either category)
Push (overhead press could go here)
Prehab (like a face pull, or YTW raise—everybody needs to do these for shoulder health)
Triceps (like a lying extension or pushdown)
Grip/core (like a farmer’s walk)
The Legs/Push/Pull Split
There’s no major disadvantage to a full-body program when done 3 days per week aside from the fact that some people just don’t like to train that way. I’m one of them, preferring more classic body-part or upper-lower splits. In that case, you can train legs and the squat one day, the bench and overhead and all your pushing muscles the next, and then hit the deadlift along with your pulling on Day 3.
Single-leg quad exercise (like a Bulgarian split squat or single-leg leg press)
Glutes (like a hip thrust)
Hamstring/lower back (back extension or stiff-legged dead)
Pecs (dumbbell bench press or fly)
Delts (lateral raise or front/lateral/rear delt complex)
Deadlift (or Sumo deadlift)
Lats (like a pulldown)
Upper back (some kind of row or shrug)
The Upper/Lower/Upper Split
If you play a lot of sports or run, your legs can take a beating, so training them twice or more per week can impact your recovery. In this case it’s often better to do two upper-body days and only one lower one. You can squat and deadlift on the same day (squat FIRST if you do), but that can make for a long and agonizing workout if you’re pretty strong and lifting some respectable weights.
The solution is to substitute an easier variation of either the squat or the deadlift, such as doing rack pulls instead of deads. If you’re concerned about the deadlift always playing second fiddle to the squat and not getting enough of a priority, perform a less-taxing squat variation first, like a front squat. You’ll be limited in how much you can lift so you’ll be fresher (and more warmed up) when it’s time to deadlift. Yes, you COULD alternate them and do deadlifts first one week… but you’ll find out soon enough that you won’t want to squat after deadlifting. J
Deadlift (or rack pull)
The 3-Day Westside Split
If you’re experimenting with more advanced powerlifting templates, like the Westside Barbell method—where you have max effort and speed days for both the squat/deadlift and bench press in a given week—you can condense them into one week or simply keep your 4-day cycle but extend the last day to the following week.
Here’s a 3-day, condensed example:
Speed bench press
Max effort squat or deadlift variation
Speed squat or deadlift variation
Max effort bench variation
Here’s the typical 4 days done in 3 (over 7 calendar days). In other words, you can train all the lifts in one week but either the speed or max effort day for one of them has to get held over to the following week:
Max effort squat or deadlift
Lower body stuff…
Upper body stuff…
Speed squat or deadlift
Lower body stuff…
Max effort bench
Upper body stuff…
Even if you don’t intend to train 3 days a week forever, experiment with it once in a while for a month or so, especially if you’ve been on a 4 or more regimen for a long time. See if that extra recovery day sparks some growth or makes your shoulders or hips feel better. A 3-day program will also force you to really think critically about the exercises you’re choosing and make sure you get the most from the least amount of work.
Or at least it will free up more time in your week!