How To Design A Lift-Specific Program

Christian Thibaudeau

Co-founder of Thibarmy, Trainer

Muscle gain, Strength and performance

0 min
How To Design A Lift-Specific Program

Every quality, no matter how great, comes with it’s own faults.

Qualities can either become shortcomings when they are pushed to the extreme; in other words, they always come with their own dark side.

One of my greatest qualities (I think) is that I always want to experiment and learn new ways to get stronger, more muscular or in better shape.

The dark side of that is that, sometimes, reading through my work can get confusing. I don’t have one training system or dietary approach that I prefer. I use various tools depending on the client and situation.

To me, the limitation of only using one basic approach is that no approach, regardless of how good it is, can be optimal for everyone and every goal.

This variation in training structure and methods is that what separates me from a lot of coaches out there. Whole body, upper/lower, modified push/pull, lift-specific and even body part splits are approaches that I use depending on the need of the situation.

Today I want to talk about one of the main training splits that I use, why and with whom I use it and how to design a program using it: the lift-specific split.

The Lift-Specific Workout: More Than Just Strengt

Traditionally the lift-specific approach has been used by powerlifters and other strength athletes.

The basic premise is that on each workout you focus on one main lift and then the bulk of the assistance work is directed at making that lift stronger, ideally by targeting the weakest link(s) of that lift.

It is literally the easiest training approach to program for strength. It is extremely hard to mess it up (especially with the template I will provide you).

Now, just how effective it is, depends on your exercise selection. The most important things for a lift-specific program are:

  1. Selecting the proper progression model for the main lift
  2. Which assistance exercises you use to fix the weaker parts of the main lift

As long as you get those right, it’s hard to mess up your plan with a lift-specific system.

The reason is that there is little chance of cross-over; the workout you did on Monday is unlikely to fatigue muscles needed in your next workout, leading to more recovery time before hitting the same structures. So even if you programmed “too much” volume, it likely won’t impact you as much as with some other splits.

You can also use a lift-specific split for powerbuilding. Which is a combination of strength and size work. It is very easy to program such a plan with a lift-specific approach. Train the main lift heavy and the assistance work for hypertrophy.

I wouldn’t really use that type of split if I were training a competitive bodybuilder, as you wouldn’t have enough volume for each individual muscle. For them a form of body part split or an antagonist split is better.

But if you want to be strong, or overall big, it is a great approach to use.

Step 1. The Training Week

The first thing you need to do is assign the workouts in the week and decide which 3 or 4 “main lifts” you will focus on.

The best starting point is:

  • Squat
  • Bench press
  • Deadlift
  • Military press

You can’t go wrong there.

But feel free to pick your own favourite lifts or those that better suit your goals.

That gives us four workouts per microcycle.

Personally, I like to use an 8-day microcycle, especially with a lift-specific workout. An 8-day microcycle allows us to use a 1-day on/1 day off schedule, which means that you’ll have a rest day before/after every workout. This is important because it means that you can push those sessions a lot harder without the risk of recovery issues.

A 7-day microcycle (calendar week) also works, but it means that one of the workouts will be performed the day after another session. That second workout cannot be as demanding as the other ones. You need to decide on a “less important” main lift, for which you do less assistance work (or less sets per exercise) with this set-up.

If you go with an 8-day microcycle your “week” would look like this:

  • Day 1: Squats (or deadlifts, start with the one that hits you the hardest)
  • Day 2: OFF
  • Day 3: Bench press
  • Day 4: OFF
  • Day 5: Deadlift (or squat depending on which one you did on day 1)
  • Day. 6: OFF
  • Day 7: Military press
  • Day 8: OFF

And if you go with a 7-day microcycle your week would look like this:

  • Day 1: Monday: Squats (or deadlifts, start with the one that hits you the hardest)
  • Day 2: Tuesday: OFF
  • Day 3: Wednesday: Bench press
  • Day 4: Thursday: OFF
  • Day 5: Friday: Deadlift (or squat depending on which one you did on day 1)
  • Day 6: Saturday: Military press
  • Day 7: Sunday: OFF

Thib, where’s the back work?”. Don’t panic, I’m getting to that.

Step 2. The Exercises

The key to a lift-specific plan is the quality of the exercise selection. Because there are no days devoted to a certain muscle group you can’t invest a lot of volume in each one. You need to put your training money where it will have the greatest return on investment.

You need to be able to pinpoint your weakest link(s) in the main lift and select exercises to fix that/those issue(s).

It is my belief that most people should stick to 4-6 exercises in a workout. More than 6 and you start losing focus, interest, and intensity. You might also overstress your body.

Let’s look at the workout template for a lift-specific workout:

  • Exercise 1 (compound/multi-joints): Main lift itself
  • Exercise 2 (compound/multi-joints): Major assistance exercise
  • Exercise 3 (compound/multi-joints): Pulling exercise
  • Exercise 4 (Targeted: isolation or machine): Corrective exercise for key muscle in main lift
  • Exercise 5 (Targeted: isolation or machine): Corrective exercise for key muscle in main lift
  • Exercise 6 (Targeted: isolation or machine): Corrective exercise for key muscle in main lift

Exercises 5 and 6 are actually optional. If a client is under a lot of stress, it is likely better to stick to 4, maybe 5 exercises than to do the full 6.

As long as you do the first four movements with a high level of effort and focus, the session will work. As such, you shouldn’t feel bad about only doing those four lifts.

A more “high-tech” option would be to precede the main lift by an activation exercise.

If you are training the first lift for strength (1-5 reps) or even a mix of size and strength (6-8 reps) a central activation exercise, either a high-force or a high-power drill would be your best option.

  • High-force: heavy partials, overcoming isometrics, supramaximal holds
  • High-power: jumps, medicine ball throws, loaded jumps, striking a heavy bag

And if your session is mostly aimed at hypertrophy, I’d recommend a peripheral activation strategy: an isolation exercise (not done close to failure. I prefer to use bands for this one) for the key or lagging muscle in your main lift.

Step 3. The Training Zone For Each Exercise

The training zone is the intensity range in which you train an exercise. It can either be given as a percentage of your maximum (1RM) or as a rep range.

The rep range is not a direct measure of intensity, however. After all, you can perform 6 reps with 85% of your max (which will be extremely hard) or 60% (which will be easy).

But, assuming that you push each work set reasonably hard (between two reps in reserve and going to failure depending on the exercise) then the number of reps can become an adequate measure of intensity.

I tend to use the following intensity zones:

1-3 reps/set (91-100%) – The maximum intensity zone. This zone improves strength mostly via changes in neurological factors and provides limited muscle growth stimulation. I like to say that this zone is best at developing the capacity to display your strength.

4-5 reps/set (87-90%) – The near-maximal intensity zone. This is the zone that develops the most strength as it provides both a large neurological improvement and decent muscle growth.

6-8 reps/set (78-85%) – The “powerbuilding” zone. This is the first maximal hypertrophy zone. You can get maximum muscle growth from training in this zone. The loads are also heavy enough to provide some neurological improvements leading to decent strength gains.

9-12 reps/set (70-77%) – The pure hypertrophy zone. This is the second “optimal” hypertrophy zone. It can also lead to maximal muscle growth but will lead to fewer neurological adaptations (except for beginners), which means fewer strength gains than the 6-8 zone. But the load is still heavy enough to allow you to get to 5 maximally effective reps per set (the magic number we want) without having to do tons of less effective repetitions to get there.

13-20 reps/set (50-65%) – The high reps zone. I’m not gonna lie; I don’t really like this zone, except for movements with a super short range of motion. Don’t get me wrong; you can still stimulate growth by training in this zone. But due to the light load, you need to do tons of ineffective repetitions (8-15 per set) to get to the effective ones. This means a higher possibility of oxidative stress, neurological fatigue and excess cortisol being produced. This zone is mostly useful for populations who, for safety and/or health reasons, cannot handle heavier loads.

More than 20 reps/set (30-50%) – The very high reps zone. Ironically, I tend to use this zone more than the 13-20 reps/set one. Not as a way to trigger hypertrophy, but mostly to aid tendon development. Mega-high reps are good at thickening the tendons and making them more resilient and reducing the risk of injuries. For this purpose, I often like to use band exercises (although light DBs or even machines can be used). I like Dave Tate’s advice of purposefully trying to contract the muscles as little as possible when doing your reps (which is the opposite of what you should do most of the time).

Evidently, the appropriate training zone will vary depending on your main goal. More importantly, it will also vary from one exercise to the next.

Each category of exercise in a program has a specific purpose and you want to select the zone that better fits that purpose.

In a lift-specific plan, we have 3 or 4 types of exercises.

  • The main lift, which is a multi-joint, free-weight exercise on which you want to get stronger.
  • The primary assistance movement which is also a multi-joint exercise (either on free-weights, machines, or a pulley station)
  • The pulling exercise is normally a multi-joint exercise, but can also be more targeted
  • Targeted assistance work which is either more isolated exercises or machine movements that allow you to better hit one specific muscle

Main lift intensity zones

  • If maximal strength is your goal: utilize mostly the 4-5-reps/set zone with occasional use of the 1-3 reps/set zone, especially if you are a competitive strength athlete.
  • If you want a mix of strength and size: I recommend alternating between phases of 6-8 reps/set and 4-5 reps/set (accumulation/intensification format)
  • If hypertrophy is your main goal: I favor the 6-8 reps/set zone for the bulk of the program

Primary assistance and pulling exercise intensity zones

  • If maximal strength is your goal: I normally recommend alternating phases in the 6-8 reps/set zone and in the 4-5 reps/set zone (accumulation/intensification format).
  • If you want a mix of strength and size: The 6-8 reps/set is where you should spend most of your time.
  • If hypertrophy is your main goal: I still favor the 6-8 reps/set range for advanced and even “advanced-intermediates” with whom it would be used 2/3rd of the time with the other 1/3rd being in the 9-12 range. For beginners or intermediate lifters it would be the opposite: 2/3rd of the time it will be the 9-12 reps/set range and the other 1/3rd of the time they should use 6-8 reps/set.

Targeted exercises

These exercises are to be done for 9-12 and 6-8 reps/set most of the time. Likely alternating every phase (accumulation/intensification format). If you are training for maximal strength you might also include some very high rep work for muscles/tendons that are at a greater risk of injury.

Step 4. The Effort Level For Each Exercise

I define “effort” in strength training exercises as to how hard you push each set; how close you get to failure.

This is mostly dependant on the nature of the exercise selected.

The more technically complex an exercise is, the further away from failure you should train.

On gymnastic and weightlifting (Olympic lift variations) movements: you should never go to failure, keeping 2 or more reps in the tank, most of the time

On big free-weight compound movements loading the spine (squats and deadlifts for example) you should not train to failure, keeping 1 rep in the tank, maybe 2.

On big free-weight compound movements where the spine is not significantly loaded (bench, dips, chin-ups, for example) you should not try to reach failure, but if you get there in one of your sets, that’s fine.

On multi-joint exercises using a machine or pulley station, you should try to hit failure on one of your work sets (the last one).

On isolation or more targeted exercises, you should push each set to failure, or even beyond.

Step 5. The Number Of Work Sets Per Exercise

The ideal number of work sets per exercise ranges from 2 to 6. Now, there are some exceptions, such as the 3/2/1 wave loading where the number of work sets can reach 9 or even 12. Or even German Volume Training (GVT) where you perform 10 sets of 10 for your main lift.

But these are exceptions and not strategies that are commonly used. When they are used, it should be for a brief training phase. These methods require an adjustment in the content of the workout to decrease the amount of assistance work to compensate for the increase in volume for the main lift.

Typically, the more “neurological” a training zone is, the more work sets you should use. This is both to compensate for the lower workload per set (much lower reps) as well as the fact that it might take a few work sets to activate the nervous system properly. It can take a while to get into the groove of the movement and be ready to perform optimally.

The number of sets also depends on how hard you are pushing your sets. The closer to failure you get the fewer work sets you need to provide a sufficient stimulus to your body.

If you stop 2 or even 3 reps short of failure you will need to perform more work sets than if you do to failure.

That’s why I like to use 4-6 work sets on the main lift of the session. 3-5 on the primary assistance movement and pulling exercise while the targeted work is done for 2-3 work sets. 

The Use Of Special Methods

Those of you who know my work, know that I’m first and foremost a “methods” guy. I like to teach tons of ways to stimulate a muscle, including more advanced/complex methods.

These advanced methods (rest/pause, clusters, drop sets, mechanical drop sets, slow tempos, partial overloads, eccentric overloads, etc.) have their place in this template and can be a powerful tool at your disposal.

But, it is my belief that “advanced methods” are not required by most to get maximum results. While they can provide a strong stimulus, if misused, they can also lead to stagnation through improper recovery.

That’s why you should always program mostly without them and only add one in when it is absolutely needed to continue progressing.


Hopefully, this article will have helped you understand how to use a lift-specific training approach and how to program workouts that will allow you to reach your goals.

It’s a battle-tested training approach that is hard to mess up, especially if you follow the steps that I have provided.

It might not always be the optimal way to program, but it will always work.


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