Expectations for Post-Novice Lifters and Traps to Avoid

The beginning of the post-novice phase of training can be an attractive place to experiment with training variables, but without careful management, it’s easy to get lost in the horrible freedom of possibilities and the trap of program hopping.

What to Expect as an Post-Novice Lifter

By: Nick Soleyn, PBC, Editor in Chief

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 (PR). But even the most modest lifters need victories. The problem: the more advanced you are, the less frequent the victories. As you get stronger, the chain of cause and effect—from a series of workouts to new PRs—takes on more links. PRs take more planning and are less incidental to your training.

You can start planning for PRs as soon as you exit the novice phases of training by planning for long-term progress.

Long-term progress comes from excellent form, consistent lifting, and a well-organized training plan—one that first develops some basic aptitude as a lifter, prioritizing novice strength gains, knowledge of training and recovery practices, and experience under the bar. Fixing these elemental pieces before introducing complexity and change is the first step in making steady progress as a post-novice lifter.

Post-Novice Expectations

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.

(Read “How Much Is Enough?” for more discussion on training stress.)

How well someone rests and fuels these processes will affect the speed and degree of recovery. Eight hours of sleep, plenty of protein, lots of water, and an overall surplus of calories will aid this process significantly.

We recover. We adapt. And the end result of those changes is that we can lift a little bit more weight. When this process happens relatively quickly, the lifter is considered a novice.

Novice is a descriptive label for anticipated increases in the loads you lift according to the program. Programming should respond to one’s improvements in the gym and should anticipate steady progress. A novice program, like any other, determines the duration and amplitude of the lifter’s gains based on the training itself. The best way to know whether someone can lift more weight in 48-72 hours is to add weight to the bar. If the lifter manages to complete all the sets and reps, we can repeat the process. If not, then we control for certain variables and weigh the costs and benefits of sticking with the same program. This observation-analysis cycle plus small changes are the hallmarks of the end of the novice phase of training.

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 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, it is time to make a change.   The same incremental gains start to require more stress over a longer period. But the lifter is also usually on the brink of meeting some big training goals.

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

Here are a few tips and expectations to help you navigate post-novice training incursions.

Slower Progress: PR Diversity

Post-novice is an even fuzzier term than its less-advanced counterpart because there is no clearly defined upper limit to this description other than to say that a post-novice lifter is not an advanced lifter. And the goal of the post-novice lifter is not necessarily to become an advanced lifter.

The goal for the post-novice lifter is an efficient improvement in strength, based upon your training history and contoured for your specific goals. Early post-novice lifters’ training cycles occur over the course of a week. Eventually, progress slows down, and the markers of improvement change.

As progress slows, it becomes more and more necessary to manage fatigue.  The accumulation of fatigue will inhibit the longer-term fitness after-effects, and chronic or accumulated fatigue can undercut the whole point of the lifter’s training by degrading their performance in the short term.

So, we end up with a bit of a balancing act. On one side, we have the goal of inducing an adaptation as frequently as possible—so that the lifter can get stronger, faster. On the other side, we have the need to manage fatigue. In general, the more advanced the lifter, the greater the fatigue from the stress that is sufficient to cause an adaptation, with very advanced lifters spending months accumulating enough stress to force an adaptation, inducing extreme fatigue, and requiring them to carefully manage programs that peak for their competitions.

As a post-novice lifter, training is a constant experiment in self-improvement. Slowing down or getting stuck means that there is something in the experiment that requires attention. How we climb over, go through, or get around that wall depends a lot on the lifter’s training history and level of advancement. For a more complete study, check out our MED programming content page, and for a structured presentation of programming, consider signing up for The Barbell Academy’s Principles Course.

One of the easiest ways to manage slower progress is to set new targets for PRs. 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.

Read more about managing the transition from novice to post-novice training: “Too Much, All the Time: SRA, FFM, and Tonnage”

And more about using diverse PRs in programming here: “The Many Faces of the PR: Programming for Data and Feedback”

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 post-novice lifters make. Progress slows down, so they try something new. Having made it this far, lifting has become an important part of their life, and they may struggle to deal with the creeping progress that comes with being stronger and more advanced.

There is nothing inherently or structurally wrong with most of the tried-and-tested post-novice programs that are out there. They just aren’t all right, right now.

The best rule of thumb for the post-novice lifter is the rule of small changes. Small changes based on recent training will give the greatest opportunity for 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 post-novice lifter, the small changes need time to work. Give them enough time to work, observe the responses, and control for external variables like changes in work or 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 post-novice 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, it 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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