Ok, so you’ve read part I and you’ve determined that sadly, you’re no longer a beginner. Or perhaps you’re pumped about still being a beginner, but you’re really dedicated and you want to plan for the future when your beginner days will inevitably come to an end. Or, maybe you’re advanced, but you’re a coach who wants to refresh your knowledge about how to maximize gains for your intermediate clients (you’re never too smart for a knowledge refresher). Finally, maybe you think you’re a beginner or (more commonly) you think you’re advanced, but you’re not 100% sure. Either way, you’ve come to the right place.
This article is a guide for intermediate trainees. It'll include criteria for intermediates, priorities to focus on inside and out of the gym, the major differences between beginners and intermediates, and how to manage progress expectations as you navigate through your intermediate years.
Before we jump in, it's important to remember that "intermediate" is a very broad classification. There are multiple different stages of intermediate lifters, but the principles in this article apply to to everyone from early stage intermediates to "almost advanced" trainees.
Most people you see in the gym fall somewhere within the beginner to intermediate spectrum. This will obviously depend on the gym you frequent, as some gyms are meccas for IFBB pros and professional powerlifters. But for the most part, beginners and intermediates reign supreme within the average gym.
There are tons of different opinions out there on how to classify lifters between beginner, intermediate and advanced. Some are far too rudimentary, others are just confusing. So I've come up with my own criteria. I'm not saying it's right or the best, but simply using "years training" or "muscle development" alone leaves out too many variables (you'll learn about outliers in part IV).
The criteria I usually use to classify an intermediate is as follows:
1. Someone who has been training effectively and consistently for ~2 years and was steadily progressing, but has reached their first real plateau (multiple weeks of stalled/slowed progress). They now need to re-evaluate their training and/or lifestyle in order to keep making progress.
2. They have good, but not great technique in the most effective lifts, and they’re now ready to start focusing on increasing intensity and developing connection to muscles, as opposed to focusing solely on movement patterns.
3. They've made gains based on their hard work and consistency, and not based on their genetics (some people with great genetics are NOT yet intermediate lifters, despite the fact that they've gained appreciable muscle).
The time frame during which this person will remain intermediate will depend on genetics, tutelage and consistency. Some people (to be honest, most recreational lifters) will be an intermediate for the rest of their lifting careers (more on this in part V). Realistically, however, some lifters only stay intermediate for 2-5 years.
Overall development (strength and musculature) must also be taken into account when classifying an intermediate trainee. Some people who have been training for a handful of years will be better developed than some people who have been training for decades. If this is the case, this person will need more recovery between workouts as their training is far more fatigue inducing. For example, if you’ve only been training for 4 years (an intermediate on paper) but you’re squatting 400+ lbs, deadlifting 500+ and benching 300+ lbs, the fatigue accumulation from your workouts is going to be higher than that of someone who’s been training for 12+ years (advanced on paper), but doesn’t have the muscle and strength development to lift these weights. When this occurs it’s usually a special case (an outlier), and not the norm.
Although I stated in part I that it’s desirable to be an intermediate or beginner, you’ll still want to minimize the amount of time you spend at each level. Beginner and intermediate gains are fun, but navigating the intricacies of advanced training is even more fun. The following sections will include the "big rocks" that an intermediate should prioritize in order to maximize their potential.
Terminology to become familiar with:
RPE= Rate of perceived exertion/effort. On a scale of 1-10 (1 is sitting on a couch, 10 is your last rep is an absolute grind and there’s no chance you could do another). Most effective training for intermediates takes place in the 7-8 (occasionally 9) RPE range.
RIR= Reps in reserve. An inverse scale of RPE- How many more reps you could do if you had to go to failure. RIR is a 0-10 scale (0 meaning you couldn’t do a single additional rep aka 10 RPE, 1 meaning you stopped a rep shy of failure - 9 RPE etc.) Most effective training for intermediates is in the 2-3 (occasionally 1) RIR range.
Note: RIR is generally more of a bodybuilding term (because BBers do higher-rep sets), and RPE is more of a powerlifting/olympic lifting term (although it was originally created for endurance athletes to monitor their training intensity). In my opinion, using RPE/RIR is a preferred method over percentage based training because as you’ll learn throughout this series, your lifestyle outside the gym will determine what your true 100% is day by day, week by week. There’s a way to make percentages work, but it’s not overly relevant to this series.
My Personal Preference (for myself and for my more knowledgeable clients):
I generally use RPE for lower rep (1-6), compound lifts and RIR for higher rep (6-20) isolation movements. You may use whichever you prefer, or combine them like I do. Using both can be a bit confusing for some people, so if it’s a less fitness-savvy client, I use RIR.
Intermediate Focuses (in the gym)
With that out of the way, here are some considerations to minimize the time you spend as an intermediate (note: you’ll see many similarities to beginner considerations, just with more nuance):
Most of the same compound lifts as beginners, but intermediates` can start sprinkling in some specialty bars, machines and cables. It’s important to not fall too in love with them, though, as the free weight compound lifts require skill maintenance (aka, practice), and are still arguably the most effective for most intermediates.
Movements, But Also Muscles
Although movement quality is still top of mind, more of your focus can begin going to activating target muscles. E.g. Instead of focusing solely on a perfect squat (you’ll have developed muscle memory as a beginner), focus can also be on quads, adductors and glutes activating throughout the movement. Again, this is assuming the lifter doesn’t have ambitions to compete in a strength sport like powerlifting or olympic lifting. Those respective goals still require a strong focus on movements (they’re not judged by their muscle mass/development/symmetry, rather how much weight they can move from A to B)
Push the intensity a bit more. Beginners don’t need to be close to failure to make progress. Intermediates need to be closer to failure, but still not all the way there. However, to truly know what failure feels like, an occasional set of a safe exercise taken to failure is a good idea, so long as your approach it with some common sense. Safe exercises are those that you can fail safely, without the risk of getting crushed by a bar or overloaded machine. For example, a machine chest press would be a better option than a barbell bench press. This should only be done periodically, for an intermediate. Training should mostly take place at a 7 to 8 RPE (2-3 RIR).
What does failure mean? The word failure gets thrown around constantly, but there are a few different ways to define it. The failure I recommend to everyone (regardless of level) is Technical Failure. This is your inability to do another perfectly executed rep. Complete muscle failure and partial reps is usually not something intermediates should mess around with.
Smaller Details and Biases
- Biasing muscle groups with similar movements. E.g. An RDL vs. a stiff legged deadlift. A proper RDL will bias the glutes a bit more than a SLDL.
-Targeting the lower (lumbar) lats vs. the lats in general. Different angles, hand and arm positions will target different parts of the same muscles. This applies to a late stage intermediate.
-Focus on small angle changes rather than just “incline” or “decline”. E.g. There's a big difference in an incline bench press that works the upper chest and an incline bench press that works the delts more. Most people do incline bench/DB press for chest with too great of an incline.
-Shortened position vs. lengthened position exercises: The shortened, or fully contracted position of most muscles is the strongest, whereas the lengthened/stretched position is generally the weakest (back/pulling muscles are the opposite). Most compound lifts train muscles primarily in the mid range (right between the two), which is great - most of your training should be there. However, occasionally training muscles with lengthened or shortened overload exercises is smart. For example - let's look at the hamstrings. A stiff leg deadlift trains them lengthened (your legs are straight), whereas a lying leg curl is more mid-shortened range. Both are great exercise, and both should be in your program. If you were to drop leg curls, you're missing out on shortened/mid range training for the hamstrings (this concept can be applied to all muscle groups)
-Avoiding redundancy: Redundancy in a training session means you're doing too many similar, but slightly different movements. A prime example is doing a pull-up and a lat pulldown in the same session. Or a flat barbell bench and a flat smith machine press. Not only is this redundancy a waste of your gym time, but it can also result in less muscle development and even cause some problems with your joints. Avoid redundancy by choosing different angles, grips, and lines of pull. For example, on back day you may do pull ups, an upper back row, a single arm cable pulldown (not directly overhead like pull ups) and a shrug variation. These are non-redundant movements that are a better use of your gym time, better for your joints, and will build a more balanced physique.
-Resistance profiles: Utilizing bands and chains is another consideration to improve the resistance profile of a movement. Bands and chains, put simply, make a lift heavier when the lifter is strongest, and lighter when the lifter is weakest. They match what's known as the strength curve or strength profile of a movement. A full explanation on bands and chains can be found in this podcast episode, and I plan to do an article on them in the near future (a full explanation requires more than just this paragraph). These tools are not make or break for muscular development, but will come into play more when this lifter crosses into the advanced category.
Intensity techniques (used sparingly and strategically)
Straight sets reign supreme for all experience levels. This is a fact. But intensity techniques (drop sets, supersets, tri sets, rest/pause, cluster sets) are great ways to mitigate boredom, send a novel stimulus to the body, and bust plateaus (which most intermediates will face periodically). They’re usually more time efficient, but there's no such thing as a free lunch. They will also increase fatigue, and therefore recovery demands. These techniques are appropriate for certain movements and in certain situations.
Stimulus to fatigue ratio
A term popularized by Dr. Mike Israetel, this is where you determine how much stimulus an exercise provides compared to the degree to which it causes central/systemic fatigue (overall neurological and cardiovascular fatigue - different than local muscular fatigue) and joint soreness (different from muscle soreness). Central fatigue is required for growth and progress, but if you can find exercises that fatigue the hell out of the target muscles but not so much the central nervous system AND don't beat up your joints, you’ll be able to handle more volume and continue to progress (and feel better outside the gym). E.g. If barbell back squats fatigue the hell out of your lower back, hurt your knees and right hip, and leave you feeling smoked for two days after you do them, but hack squats just hammer your quads and you feel fine the day after, maybe prioritizing hacks is something you move towards. This isn’t a free pass to abandon the hard, heavy barbell movements, but just something to consider if longevity is important to you.
This ties into the last point. The best exercises in general are not always the best exercises for every person. When you’re an intermediate, developing the ability to identify which movements are best for you will set you up for a lifetime of success in the gym. Hint, they will change throughout your career! E.g. While bench press is a great movement for a lot of people, if you have long arms and feel your shoulders and triceps doing most of the work when you bench, perhaps choosing a dumbbell press for your main free weight chest movement is more appropriate.
This is when you can begin identifying weak muscle groups that need more attention. Generally speaking, if you have a couple of weak muscle groups, more compound lifts isn’t always the answer (but sometimes may be). Not only will they add to your overall fatigue, but your stronger, more well developed muscles that are also involved in the lift have a tendency to take over a brunt of the work. This is when isolation lifts shine. E.g. Instead of doing extra chins and rows for biceps, you’ll do some curl variations. Or perhaps you have skinny calves. There are only a few options when it comes to calf growth, and they happen to be isolation lifts.
The time to begin incrementally increasing your volume (sets per muscle group per week, in this case) is throughout your time as in intermediate. I would argue that the time frame during which your volume should be the highest throughout your career is when you’re teetering the line between intermediate and advanced. This is a controversial opinion, as many people believe advanced trainees need the highest volume of training of all experience levels. But I would argue that once you’re truly advanced, your reps and sets are of such high quality that you don’t need as many of them. Either way, an intermediate should continually make small increases in volume over time. Keep in mind, small increases doesn’t mean to double it immediately. If you’re doing 10 sets/musclegroup/week and you go to 20 next week, you’re in for a world of hurt. Add a set or two every couple of weeks till you get to a point where you’re teetering the line of not being able to recover (this will be highly individual and require some trial and error). This is often a great time for a deload (a week of reduced volume/intensity). Here’s generally what It’ll look like.
MG=Muscle Group, Wk= Week
Sets = hard, working sets with 0-3 RIR
Month 1 (+ or -)
- begin with 3 RIR wk 1, work to 1 RIR wk 4
Month 2 (+ or -)
10-12 sets/mg/wk on strong MGs, 12-14 sets/mg/wk on weaker MG
- increase weight as appropriate, begin with 3 RIR wk 1, work to 1 RIR wk 4
– potential 1 week deload –
12-14 sets/mg/wk on strong MG, 14-16 on weaker MG (same RIR progression)
14-16 sets/mg/wk on all MG (same RIR progression)
– potential 1 week deload –
14-16 sets/mg/wk strong MG, 16-18 weak MG (same RIR progression)
16-18 sets/mg/wk all MGs (same RIR progression, potentially in last week, hit failure occasionally on one set of isolation mvmt)
– Deload –
Etc. Eventually, you’ll hit a volume that you have difficulty recovering from (for most people, 20 hard sets per muscle group per week is considered higher volume). This is when you dial it back, take a deload week, and reduce volume (generally back to the starting point) but ideally with a lot more weight on the bar.
This is just one way to do it, and obviously the exact numbers and time periods will vary from person to person. It’s important to note that different people have very different abilities to recover. One person may be able to handle 20+ sets per muscle group per week with ease, and for another person, perhaps 16 is their max.
To add even more interesting nuance, different muscle groups in the same person tend to recover at different rates. This is more of a consideration for advanced trainees, but still something to note. Additionally, there’s a difference between how much training volume is enough, how much is perfect, and how much is the absolute most you can handle. Learning this (often by trial and error and/or with help from a great coach) is very important if you want to eventually become advanced.
Split- A full body split is king for a beginner. But as your repertoire of exercises increases and your sets become more fatiguing, sometimes changing to an upper/lower (x2/week) split can be a great idea. This ensures you’re still training each body part/movement pattern twice per week, but allows you to put more focus on the upper and lower body respectively. It can also be difficult to train a full body session with enough intensity for each muscle group. As you get stronger, full body training becomes more difficult to recover from. As you get closer to being advanced and the volume continues to increase, you can even dabble with an “upper/lower/rest/push/pull/legs/rest” split (my 19-week hypertrophy program), or an “upper/lower/rest/upper/lower/full body/rest” split. Many different splits work well, and intermediates can make gains on a lot of them. Training more than 5 days per week isn't something I suggest for almost anyone, and certainly not an intermediate trainee. You can certainly go to the gym or do some form of physical activity daily (cardio, walking, mobility etc.), but hard strength training should cap at 4-5 days per week for the vast majority of trainees.
As you can see, intermediate training considerations are a bit more complicated than just doing the compound lifts and adding weight/reps each week. Just like your inside-the-gym considerations have increased with experience, so too will your outside the gym considerations.
Outside The Gym
There are 168 hours in a week. For most highly dedicated people, 6-8 of those hours will be spent training, and the other 160+ are yours to either enhance your training and recovery, or detract from it. You’re not a beginner anymore, so your days of out-training a poor lifestyle are over. There are many more lifestyle factors an intermediate trainee must consider.
Sleep: You can no longer disregard sleep and expect to make much progress as an intermediate. When you’re a beginner, while good sleep is still going to be ideal for optimal progress, measurable gains still happen even without it. When I was a beginner, I would go out drinking on weekends and skimp on sleep regularly, and still get more jacked and strong every week. The same holds true for most people. Dialing in your sleep will not only help your progress in the gym, but it'll also enhance the rest of your life, and make the next point- nutrition - easier to adhere to.
Nutrition: Protein targets must still be hit, but overall macronutrients (macros), calories, and even micronutrients now become more important. You’re likely past the days of making gains while in a calorie deficit or eating whatever you want and still performing well. If you want to grow, you’ll want to be in a surplus. For most people, best results will come from an increase in carbohydrates to create such surplus. Although perfect nutrition isn’t required for growth as an intermediate, it certainly has a larger impact than it does for beginners.
Stress: A life of high stress will impact progress for a trainee at any experience level. But usually a beginner can still see good to great results even if he or she is dealing with a lot of life stressors. But now that you’re past that phase, excessive, unmitigated outside stressors will negatively affect your potential progress. Stress mitigation techniques include but are not limited to: meditation, breath work, journaling, therapy, grounding, being outside in nature, music, prayer/spiritual practice, light cardio (emphasis on light - hard cardio can be good for health and performance, but it’s also stressful). There are endless options, the key is to take action and actually put the effort in.
What can you expect in regards to muscle and strength gains as an intermediate? Although gains and progress will slow down when you’re past the beginner stage, with some well-intended training and a dialed in lifestyle outside the gym (all the points above), gains will certainly still occur. How much muscle can you gain from years 2-4 of your lifting career? Again, because there are so many factors that play into this, I’m going to use an example of a male lifter (cut numbers in half for female) who has average genetics, a very good coach, and is very consistent both in the gym and outside the gym. If you’re less consistent, have poor genetics (which is likely apparent by this stage), and don’t follow the right program or train with the above considerations in mind, subtract a bit from this, and vice versa.
Strength Gains: Strength gains are extremely individual and are influenced by so many factors that predicting exact strength gains is nearly impossible. For example, some lifters may gain another 200 lbs on their deadlift from years 2-5, and only 30 lbs on their bench (this was me - I’m built well for deadlifts and not well for bench). Others may experience similar occurrences, but in different lifts. To keep it general, significant strength gains on the main lifts will likely progress bi-weekly or monthly instead of weekly. If you’ve gone several weeks and most of your lifts have stagnated, this is a plateau, and one or more of the considerations above must be made in order to bust through it. Of course, your rate of gains will also be influenced by your nutrition and the percentage of time you spend in a surplus vs. a deficit. Overall, you can still gain considerable amounts of strength throughout this time, but it won’t be as fast or as linear as it was when you were a beginner.
Muscle: Muscle gains are more predictable than strength gains. From years 2-5, the male liter with average genes can expect to gain 10-15 more lbs of muscle. Not per year, but overall. A few lbs of muscle gain in a year may not sound like much, but it’s very noticeable in your physique, and you’ll look drastically different after 3 years. If you remember back to the beginner's expectations, this comes out to ~33-48 lbs of muscle if all is going to plan.
Lyle Mcdonald, one of the original online fitness writers (you should definitely read his stuff) theorized that most natural lifters can gain 40-50 lbs of muscle throughout their lifetime. Chances are, you’re not going to gain all 50 lbs of muscle in your first 5 years of training, but it’s certainly possible (if this is the case for you, you probably have excellent genetics). Usually, your intermediate period is where you begin to notice that some of your muscles respond and grow predictably, while others may be “stubborn” and require more attention. Common underdeveloped muscle groups are calves, lats, arms, side delts, upper back, hamstrings, and glutes. This is a generalization, and there are plenty of exceptions to this rule. These muscles are often labeled as stubborn, but in reality they’re usually just neglected or not trained with proper execution.
The time you spend in your intermediate lifting phase is incredibly influential in regards to your overall long-term potential. This is where you dial in your technique, learn how to push the intensity, expand your arsenal of exercises, and begin to learn how your choices outside the gym will affect your results. If you follow the tips included within this guide, you’ll be able to maximize your potential throughout this phase of your lifting career, and set yourself up for success when you move into the advanced category.
In Part IV, the considerations required for advanced trainees will be discussed. I promise you, once you get to an advanced level, everything (both in and out of the gym) must be considered. Muscle gains slow down, strength doesn’t increase linearly, and any measurable strength and muscle gains are a win. While this sounds unfortunate, it actually becomes more mentally stimulating, because you must approach each training and lifestyle variable with precision, and feedback is usually immediate.
What are some of the struggles you’re facing or have faced as an intermediate lifter? How did you overcome them? Let me know in the comments section below!