Post Novice Changes: Getting Stronger Through Training Maturity

As we progress our strength training, we change, and so does our programming. We have to refine our goals and our relationship with training, as unforeseen difficulties and personal priorities affect the ability to make progress. For those who stick with training beyond a novice linear progression, post-novice training takes on a long-term commitment and commonplace nature that novice lifters may not grasp.

The Post Novice: Maturing Your Increasing Complicated Relationship with Training

By: Dan Shell

When I was in the Army, the Army’s resiliency training revolved around one idea: “Hunt the Good Stuff.” The idea is simple. No matter your circumstances or difficulties, look for and focus on what’s good. We can always find the bad. The bad draws us in, grabs our attention, and colors our outlook. Focusing on the good—though it provides real benefits—takes practice.

When it comes to post-novice training, we tend to focus on programming. The clean Stress-Recovery-Adaptation cycles of linear progression end and programming changes to allow for continued progress. This change in programming—along with the lifter’s growth in strength and skill—produces a qualitative difference in the training experience. Choices and events in the lifter’s life affect training. The lifter may gain or lose weight, prioritize Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or doing well on a military fitness test, learn of a cancer diagnosis, sprain an ankle, or face an unexpected death of a family member. Life affects training—not just the progress we make but also how we approach training and what it means to us.

No matter how advanced you become as a lifter, how fast and often you’re hitting PRs, or how much you prioritize training, you should appreciate training for what it is and what value it provides to you now: today, this session, this week.

The Lifter’s Life (Without Life’s Complications)

Lifters beginning a linear progression (LP) arrive with different levels of experience, but the vast majority must learn (or relearn) correct form at the beginning. The most difficult thing for new lifters is often the novelty of everything: the equipment, the time commitment, the cues to remember. As LP progresses, the weights get heavier, and lifters begin to learn the many shades of heavy. When the lifters complete their first actually-heavy sets, many complain of the bar’s oppressive weight, despite their coaches’ insistence that they could do three more reps. When the sets reach RPE 7-8, many lifters complain of the bar’s oppressive weight.

Following LP, when the lifters have embraced the grind, improved their form, and learned much about lifting and themselves, the experience begins to change.

When we reach the end of LP, we methodically add doses of complexity, novelty, and increased stress to continue progress. Regardless, the MED changes begin to affect the feel of training. We now rotate between volume and intensity slots for the lifts. Progress slows but remains steady and predictable. We often move to training 4-days a week to allow more frequent but shorter workouts. We start using supplemental lifts and eventually accessory lifts. Progress continues to slow as we move to multi-week cycles. Lifters may do AMRAPs (as many reps as possible) for the first time. They often decide to sign up for a competition. If they have not done conditioning, they add conditioning.

Then progress slows even more. Mini and, eventually, full-fledged block cycles occur, where the volume and intensity stresses are no longer divided up as much weekly but instead applied in multi-week cycles. They complete volume cycles, then transmutation or intensification cycles, and then realization cycles. They might complete more block cycles, growing in length, and maybe timing them for a meet.

They may then complete their first DUP (Daily Undulating Periodization) training, with multiple physical attributes trained at once: for barbell training, usually strength, power, and hypertrophy. They peak and hit new PRs. Maybe they go back to block. Maybe they try Westside-style training for a while. Maybe, after a meet, they complete an abbreviated LP and eventually return to advanced programming again.

Novice Challenges for the Post-Novice Lifter

Part of the problem for the post-novice lifter is that training isn’t new anymore. Lifters move beyond what Matt Reynolds calls the “puppy dog” phase of their relationship with barbell training. The constant PRs stop, and the lifter’s appreciation for training must mature. Often, they’ve surpassed their initial goals and are now lifting weights they once thought impossible.

For those of us who stick with training long enough, post-novice training is like a vast landscape extending beyond the horizon. Different paths, and some changes, present themselves, but the underlying goal remains the same: continual steady progress. Post-novice training takes on the feeling of a long-term commitment that many novice lifters have yet to grasp. Training becomes more commonplace, though not boring. As with any commitment, the luster of novelty wears away, but we discover deepening delights of beauty and meaning and good. Even if we return to LP, we cannot capture the same excitement of our first time through it.

Progress brings change. Post-novice lifters are different people than they were when they started training. They’ve changed physically, mentally, and emotionally, and their programming has to change to keep up. Their relationships with lifting—like any relationship—have to mature. The novelty wears off. Some may grow to love lifting; some won’t. Either way, all post-novice lifters need to know why they are lifting. A coach may help identify where lifting fits into their larger goals, but it is ultimately on each lifter to figure out what drives them from workout to workout.

The lifter moves beyond, “Let’s get strong.” Some people may simply be able to keep adding weight, continue to lift, and enjoy it. Most need to think a bit more about their goals. It’s a good time to compete in powerlifting or strengthlifting meets or to experiment with Strongman or weightlifting. Some lifters may decide to keep lifting but resume an old affinity for aerobic endurance training. Ultimately, like Rush says, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” Which, of course, is fine. Regardless of the lifter’s choice, there are going to be self-imposed difficulties and unexpected challenges.

Obstacles, Setbacks, and Changing Priorities

Niki Sims, BLOC Exclusive Coach and VP of Human Resources, offers a good example of how lifting can change based on both our choices and unplanned events. When she began to participate in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, she had to learn to balance BJJ and lifting, often finding that she had to occasionally prioritize one while she put the other on the back burner. She learned how to manage the total stress from both and continue to progress her BJJ skills and strength.

The two sports tend to play tug of war with each other during the week due to the intentional increasing stress of lifting and the various demands of BJJ positions and intensity. It’s important to appreciate that participating in both means you’re drawing from two buckets of stress to cause both strength and BJJ adaptations, but you’re only drawing from one bucket of recovery.

More recently, her struggles have involved pain preventing heavy lifting. Training had to be adjusted to focus on hypertrophy. After recovery and training smaller muscles as opposed to big barbell lifts, she’s back to LP and—though not hitting her previous numbers—she’s enjoying the steady progress and simplicity of LP.

Much of this comes from appreciating what we have. Health doesn’t necessarily last. Injuries occur; we get hit with short sicknesses or major illnesses that may be with us for months, years, or the rest of our lives. They may even end our lives. Similarly, crises occur. We lose our job, suddenly find our spouse wants a divorce, have a loved one die, or are faced with an unexpected natural disaster like an earthquake, hurricane, or tornado. Our lives get turned upside down, and—depending on the circumstances—we may not be able to train. If we can train, we may train to maintain a healthy habit or get out of our heads.

Hunt the Good Stuff

It takes some intentionality to appreciate the good. We’re naturally drawn to the bad. This idea actually has a name in the psychological literature: the negativity bias. This means humans have a “propensity to attend to, learn from, and use negative information far more than positive information.” Daniel Kahneman, in the book Thinking Fast and Slow, describes many interesting ways humans process information. One of these—loss aversion—suggests that the pain from losing $100 is greater than the pleasure of gaining $100. Similarly, if you were to gain $100 then lose that $100, you would feel worse than if you never had it.

With training, we’re likely to focus on the bad. During a high-volume period, we might focus on how long the workouts take. During a peaking phase, we might focus on how difficult each set is. During a deload, we might focus on how we don’t feel like we’re doing enough. Of course, volume blocks involve lots of sets that make sessions take longer. Intense sets require intense focus and involve real difficulty. Deloads or pre-meet weeks may feel like we’re not accomplishing anything. Let’s look at the flipsides of all these situations.

Volume blocks lay the foundation that enables the PRs at the end of a cycle or at a meet. Volume leads to hypertrophy, for which so many lifters began lifting in the first place (“gains bro”). When the volume peels back and the intensity ramps up, we often hit PRs, and we don’t have to get under the bar so many times. We understand that strength is important, and we’re ultimately working against heavier weights requiring more force, helping both develop and display strength. During a deload, workouts take less time, and we don’t have to strain so much physically or mentally. We have more time for other parts of our life.

Even if you’re a medicine taker, you can still appreciate the variance between the different aspects and phases of training. In the most pessimistic terms, at least the medicine flavors change.

We’ve got to appreciate the process—even if we don’t enjoy every moment, rep, set, or session. We’ll have bad days—and the occasional, inexplicably good day. Sometimes a lift will hit a groove, and progress happens unexpectedly fast, and at other times a lift will stall, and we’ll struggle for every additional pound of a PR attempt.

Lifting has got to be a part of your life, incorporated into your daily and weekly routine. You’ve got to pack your gym clothes, shoes, and chalk, or create the necessary set up at home. You’ve got to schedule and protect the time. Consistency is always important, but when the stress that needs to be recovered from and adapted to is a 5×5 session or multiple weeks of training, it becomes more difficult to progress with missed sessions.

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