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Expectations for Intermediate Lifters: Avoid These Traps

The best rule of thumb to follow is this: small changes—the smaller, the better—based on your recent training data that lead to steady, long-term progress. This method works because it uses the smallest change possible plus observation of the lifter’s response to guide future decisions on the program.

What to Expect as an Intermediate Lifter

Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

You want to get stronger, and you want to do so for a very long time. At some point, you may come to value the process that makes you stronger—the repeating cycle of stress-recovery-adaptation—as much or more than the personal record, moving more weight than you could before. But even the most modest lifters need victories. They are a measure of progress and ways to determine the efficacy of your training. But as you become a more advanced lifter, these victories are less immediate. The chain of cause and effect, from workout to new personal record, takes on more links as you get stronger, meaning the personal bests become planned rather than incidental to your training. We discuss how to plan for personal bests in the video down below. Knowing this, from the first day you start lifting, you should be planning for long-term progress, keeping in mind that the novice phase is only a small part of your entire training career.

Long-term progress comes from excellent form, consistent lifting, and a well-organized training plan, a plan that first develops some basic aptitude as a lifter—novice strength gains, knowledge of training and recovery practices, and experience under the bar—fixing these elemental pieces before introducing complexity and change that refines you into stronger stuff. Like an educational curriculum, your long-term plan responds to your adaptive aptitude. You begin as a novice, but the novice program is unsustainable for very long. Eventually, you move past the novice phase.

Becoming an Intermediate Lifter

As a reminder, a novice is someone who can train and recover from training in about forty-eight to seventy-two hours. We can distill a lot of training concepts into two main components: training stress and your ability to recover from that stress. Training stress, to be effective, has to induce a physiological change in your body. Effective training stress is a matter of degree and specificity, great enough to kick-off a survival response of cascading hormones and high-gear metabolic processes and specific enough that the result of those processes is an improved ability to demonstrate strength.

How well you rest and fuel these processes will affect the speed and degree of your recovery. Eight hours of sleep, at least 1.2 grams of protein per pound of body weight, and an overall surplus of calories and water each day will put you pretty close to optimal recovery. And, when you recover from lifting weights, you get stronger.

You adapt, which is our catch-all term covering a lot of cellular-level changes. The end result of those changes is that you can lift a little bit more weight. When this process happens relatively quickly (48-72 hours), we consider you a novice.

Two things should be readily apparent. The first is that a novice is simply a descriptive label. We cannot determine when or for how long you will be a novice. Your physiology determines the duration and amplitude of your novice gains, though your recovery practices and your mental approach to training play no small roles here. The second is that the “novice” descriptor is predicated on observations about your training. The only way we know if you got stronger in 48-72 hours is to test you. Can you lift more weight than you could before? We first assume that “yes, you can.” Then we test the hypothesis by adding a little bit more weight to the bar. If you manage to complete all your sets and reps, we repeat the process. If you don’t, then we control for certain variables and weigh the costs and benefits of testing you again. This observation-analysis cycle plus small changes are the hallmarks of the end of the novice phase of training.

So every novice lifter is an experiment in his or her own ability to train with the least amount of complexity for the biggest return on their time and effort. The end result of that experiment, however, is predictable. The straightforward increase of stress, a little bit at a time, will drive progress—until it doesn’t. When the novice lifter gets to a place where the stress of a single workout and the recovery between workouts is insufficient to cause an improvement in their overall performance, change is warranted.  You now have to put in more work for the same incremental gains. But, you are also likely on the cusp of achieving some big long-term goals.

How do you get there, though? Where the novice’s path is marked by smooth and gradual upward progress, the intermediate’s landscape is craggy, marked by potentially high-peaks and precipitous valleys. As a general rule, the more advanced you become as a lifter, the more carefully planned your progress should be. The beginning of the intermediate phase of training can be an attractive place to experiment with training variables, but without careful management, you risk getting lost in the horrible freedom of possibilities and the trap of program hopping.

Here are a few tips and expectations to help you navigate your intermediate training incursions.

Slower Progress: PR Diversity

Just as with “novice,” the term “intermediate” is a descriptive term. But it is an even fuzzier term than its less-advanced counterpart. There is a time component to the intermediate descriptor in that the cycle of training stress-to recovery-to adaptation is something longer than 72 hours. There is, however, no clearly defined upper limit to this description other than to say an intermediate is not an advanced lifter—someone for whom training is hard enough to require an external competitive strength goal. Similarly, the goal of the intermediate lifter is not necessarily to become an advanced lifter.

As a novice, you were playing catch-up, picking the low-hanging strength-gain “fruit,” getting stronger with the least amount of time and complexity per measurable increase in strength. The goal of a novice lifter is to milk that state for all it’s worth, moving inexorably toward the intermediate phase. Not because being an intermediate is a special badge of honor, but because the inability to induce adequate training stress in a single workout and recover in the space between two workouts means that you have moved much closer to your genetic potential: reaching the end of the novice phase, you are now a trained lifter.

As an intermediate, your goal is an efficient improvement in strength, based upon your training history and contoured for your specific goals. Early intermediate lifters’ training cycle occurs over the course of a week. Eventually, progress slows down, and the markers of progress change.

Part of the way to manage slower progress is to set new targets for yourself. While the PR always represents the best measurement of strength increases, the context of the PR will take different forms. There are volume PRs: weights that you have never lifted for three sets of 5 or 5 sets of 5. There are the odd-number PRs: the 2RM or 4RM can be a thing if you need them to be. And there are competition PRs: competition may provide a whole unexplored realm that you can use to help you keep the fire in your training.

The Freedom Trap

[The damned] enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved[.]” -C.S. Lewis

Don’t be a program hopper. This is perhaps the biggest mistake that intermediate lifters make. Progress slows down, so they try something new. If you’ve made it this far, lifting has become an important part of your life, and you may struggle to deal with the slower progress of the intermediate lifter. Perhaps your coach put you on some version of the Texas Method to start out. But then you read 5/3/1 and want to try that because it allows for new set-and-rep schemes and “auto-regulated” training sound cool. Maybe it would fit you better.

Or maybe you are tired of trying to hit PRs all the time, and you decide that you are more responsive to volume. Or the opposite: Screw the volume day! Just hit heavy singles every training session! There is nothing inherently or structurally wrong with most of the tried-and-tested intermediate level programs. They just aren’t all right for you right now.

The best rule of thumb to follow is this: small changes—the smaller, the better—based on your recent training data that lead to steady, long-term progress.

The method in the above video works because it uses the smallest change possible plus observation of the lifter’s response to guide future decisions on the program.

When applied to the intermediate lifter, the small changes need time to work. You are your own lab rat. Give enough time to observe your response to small changes in training and give enough time that you can control for external variables like changes in your home life. Certainly, there are times when a programming intervention is necessary, but such interventions should be a response to significant changes outside of the gym.

Consistency is (Still) King

There was a Dunkin Donuts commercial in the 1980s that showed Fred the Baker leaving the house early in the morning, rain or shine, every single day muttering “Time to make the donuts.” Fred is a great role model for the intermediate lifter training. If you’ve made it this far, training is less something you do and more part of who you are; its value is intrinsic to your day. You are also likely on the cusp of some big long-term PRs. Now, more than ever, is the time to get into the gym, do your work, be consistent, and chip away at those goals. It’s time to make the donuts; no one else is going to do it for you.




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