Part IV- Considerations for the advanced trainee

For the advanced trainee, all of the considerations mentioned in Part II and III still apply, but it’s now time to add to it and develop a more nuanced, personalized approach. For an advanced trainee to keep progressing, training concepts must be precise and intentional, and lifestyle considerations must be strictly adhered to. Gains no longer appear linearly, and any progress made is a win. There’s no longer any room for going through the motions or being inconsistent. 

Although there are exceptions, most trainees that reach the advanced level don’t just train to look better, they don’t just train to be stronger, they train because they love it. You have to love training and all of its intricacies in order to continue once you’ve reached an advanced level. Expectations must be adjusted, patience must be practiced, and mindset must shift. The ability to troubleshoot -that is, experience failure and successfully negotiate it - is paramount for an advanced lifter. Failure to consider these factors and manage expectations will undoubtedly lead to the lifter becoming discouraged. This is why most people who train will never reach the truly advanced level.

This article will provide you with the most important training and lifestyle considerations for the advanced trainee, as well as what you can expect in regards to muscle and strength gains. I want to caution you before we dive in that advanced trainees often spend most of their time thinking about training. If you’re not a fitness professional or a competitive strength or physique athlete, while it’s still important to put a lot of thought into your training, it can definitely take over your life and affect your mental health negatively - especially if you're not prepared for it. Fortunately, the main purpose if this article is to do just that - prepare you for the ups and downs of advanced training.  

Here's the deal - you won’t be able to add weight to the bar weekly, or sometimes even monthly (assuming you’re natural). You’ll hit plateaus. You’ll have times where you wonder if it’s even worth it. You’ll often spend all day dwelling over a poor workout (rare occurrence for beginners and intermediates) or even a week of poor workouts (never occurs for beginners, rare for intermediates). Sometimes, you’ll go to the gym and lift less weight or do fewer reps with the same weight as last week. This is normal, and part of the process. There will be more on expectation management later in this article, but it’s important to keep these points in mind as you navigate your advanced training years. Let’s get into it.


A truly advanced trainee has the following attributes:

-Textbook exercise execution

-Has gained at least 35-40lbs of muscle (naturally) throughout their training career. *note - not 35-40lbs of bodyweight. 35-40lbs of lean tissue - HUGE difference. If not natural (and therefore more muscle has been gained), must fit the rest of the criteria on this list (Several people with "advanced" physiques are not advanced lifters - more on this in part V).

-Does not skip workouts (other than rest days or intentional breaks/deloads from training)

-Knows what failure, 1 RIR, 2 RIR etc. feels like (RIR=reps in reserve)

- Can bench at least 1.5x bodyweight, Squat at least 2x bodyweight, and deadlift at least 2.5x bodyweight (exceptions include those with uncommon body proportions). * Note: The lifter may not perform these particular lifts at this stage, but should be capable of matching it with a similar lift.

-Does not respond to linear progression or basic double progression at a weekly rate

-Has a minimum of 5 years, but more likely at least a decade of good, quality, consistent training experience

-Experiences immediate performance decrements if sleep, nutrition, stress aren't in check

-Has well above average training knowledge; Understands biomechanics, angles, strength/resistance curves, short/mid/lengthened movements, the different benefits and drawbacks to machines, free weights, bands, and bodyweight movements.

A lot of people will say something like "some one who has been training for 5+ years is advanced". This lacks nuance, In my opinion. You may disagree with some of the criteria I have, and that's fine. You may have more considerations as well. These are what I use. When you compile all this criteria together, It may make you rethink who you consider advanced. Now that we've categorized an advanced trainee, let's get into some of the training principles they must consider.

The training principles for an advanced trainee require attention to detail, precision, and a high degree of mindfulness. The factors with the most significant effect are as follows: 


-Exercise Selection: once you’re advanced, while the “best exercises” are still great exercises, they may not be the best exercises for you anymore. Strength training results in muscle growth, but as a byproduct, it causes fatigue and movement inefficiencies or mobility issues that can add up to joint pain over time with certain exercises. They’re different for everyone, but there is no such thing as an advanced lifter that’s never experienced any joint pain (or in most cases, a training related injury). To mitigate this, you’ll want to choose exercises you feel in the target muscle (of course), but without accompanying joint pain or excessive systemic fatigue. For example, if you do squats for quads but they leave you with sore knees and low back, along with excessive fatigue the day or two following your leg workout, finding an alternative is probably a good option. Perhaps pendulum squats destroy your quads but your knees don’t hurt, your back feels great, and they don’t leave you overly fatigued the following day. In this case, they’re probably a better option to do more frequently (I’m not saying to eliminate back squats, but to perhaps shift your priorities). This is not dogma, and there are plenty of exceptions. A lot of people think they need to do certain exercises. But if you're not a competitive powerlifter or Olympic lifter, there are no mandatory movements - just movement patterns. You’ll have to put a lot of thought into which exercises you choose to do most often so you’re not wasting volume, needlessly building fatigue, and can continue making progress. 

-Exercise sequencing: The sequence in which you perform exercises each training day will likely change from your intermediate years. My views on exercise sequencing may differ from another coach’s views, but I truly believe that the “big compounds” should not be executed as the 1st, or sometimes even the 2nd exercise in your training sessions. Exceptions to this rule include advanced barbell sport athletes like powerlifters and olympic lifters, but even many of the more experienced lifters in those sports will get a pump with isolation movements before their main lifts. 

What do I mean by different sequencing? Using a leg day as an example, instead of starting with back squats, you’ll start with a hamstring curl, maybe some calf raises, and 45 degree back raises. Hamstring curls will give you a pump in your hamstrings (which are involved in squats, but not a prime mover). It will also put your legs through extension and flexion several times, which increases blood follow to the leg muscles and soft tissue. The calf raises will not only build your calves, but also increase your ankle mobility for squats, and the 45 degree back raises will give you a glute pump but without excessively fatiguing your low back. Doing these movements (or similar ones - plenty of options) will make your knees, hips, and low back feel better on your squats. This is an uncommonly recommended strategy, but works wonders at preventing joint wear and tear. As an example for upper body days, instead of starting with a bench press or barbell overhead press, maybe you start with a fly variation or a pushup (on rings or with a deficit for more ROM and to engage stabilizer muscles that are important for movement mechanics). These are just examples, it’s up to you as the advanced trainee to find what works best. 

-Longevity: There are many definitions of longevity. For the purpose of this guide, longevity will refer to how long you’re able to continue lifting consistently and stay as pain free and “functional” as possible. This factor ties into the two previous points. Most advanced lifters are older in age, or at least on pace to become an older lifter in the near future. Training age must also be considered. If you’re 40 years old but your training age is 25 because you started lifting at 15, you’ll probably have to consider a lot more variables than a 40 year old who started training at 35. Either way, as an advanced trainee, longevity must be at the top of your priority list if you want to continue to train. My opinion is that joint health and systemic fatigue management are the two most important considerations for older lifters. If your shoulders are always banged up after chest day or your low back and nervous system are smoked after leg day, this will accumulate over time and decrease your longevity. You want to train very hard (more on that later), but not at the cost of cutting your training career short. Ego lifting, 1 rep maxes, junk volume, neglecting mobility, the wrong exercise selection, poor sequencing, and even too much frequency are all factors that will decrease longevity.

Volume- Most people hold the belief that in order to keep progressing as you become more advanced, you’ll need to continue increasing volume. Volume, as it pertains to hypertrophy training, is the number of sets per muscle group per week you perform. This may be the case for some advanced lifters, but I’d argue that to maximize longevity AND make optimal progress/reach your full potential, a low to moderate volume approach should be considered. Why? Because the quality of each and every rep of each and every set is higher for an advanced lifter. The advanced lifter is also inherently strong, so they’ll need to utilize more load and thus create the potential for more fatigue compared to when they were weaker. Advanced lifters are also capable of putting more effort and intensity into each set. I can understand if you’re still skeptical of this (many coaches would question this logic as well), but to paint the picture more clearly I’ll use a hack squat as an example:

Two options (both of which the lifter is capable of - weights arbitrary)

Option A) Hack Squat: 500 lbs 2x10 w/ 1 RIR (rep[s] in reserve)

Option B) Hack Squat: 450 lbs 4x10 w/ an average of 3 RIR (more sets means you need to stop further from failure/ more RIR or reduce the weight/reps for each set)

Option A is 20 total reps with 6 effective reps @ 500 lbs (the last ~4 reps in a set before failure are considered “effective”)

Option B is 40 total reps with 4-6 effective reps @ 450 lbs. (4-6 because the average RPE was 7, meaning it wasn't the same each set and therefore some sets had 1 effective rep while others had 2)

If you select option A, you’re doing 16 fewer repetitions of squats, but getting 6 effective reps at a higher weight than if you selected option B. Because the lifter is advanced, he/she doesn’t need a lot of practice to improve movement mechanics (that’s been ingrained in them from their beginner/intermediate years). Because longevity is a top priority, I suggest advanced lifters try training harder (fewer RIR/closer to failure - ensuring it’s technical failure, not complete muscle failure) but with fewer reps and sets than they did when they were later in their intermediate career. Overall, somewhere in the 6-14 sets per muscle group per week range is usually a good place to be, depending on individual factors. Again, there are plenty of exceptions to this rule and plenty of situations where more volume is appropriate. In fact, with this particular lift (and many other lower body compound movements), it may be appropriate to select something like option B, even for an advanced lifter. Training with higher reps can lead to more systemic fatigue, BUT, it can also be less stressful on the joints for some people. Yes, this is basically the opposite of what I just recommended - but if hard sets of 6-8 destroy your knees and less hard sets of 12-15 feel good, DO THAT instead. That's what happens when you're advanced - you need to figure out which method works for you!

Rep Range- There are a few ways to approach rep ranges for advanced lifters. Although many people claim that lower reps (5-8 in the context of hypertrophy) are more fatiguing than higher reps (15-30), the opposite is true if you’re training close to failure. Don’t believe me? Do a couple sets of 20 back squats with 1 RIR. Next week, do a couple sets of 7 with 1 RIR. Take note of how you feel after the set, after the workout, later that day, and the next day. If you’re truly pushing to 1 RIR, I can ASSURE you that the 20’s will add considerably more fatigue. The majority of your training should occur in the 5-10 rep range. Obviously, there’s a time and place to perform higher reps than this. Isolation movements can occasionally be pushed to 12+ reps, as well as any movement that causes joint pain in the lower rep range. But you must always account for the added fatigue that will accompany higher rep training. 

-Frequency/split- Every split in existence is available to an advanced trainee. But again, some longevity related considerations must be made. Because the advanced lifter no longer needs frequent skill work and practice, and also because each session will create more fatigue (more load, closer proximity to failure), frequency can (and often should) be lower. Hitting each muscle group 2 times per week is still fine, but a lot of older advanced trainees can get great results on even less frequency, such as 1-1.5x/week (aka once every ~5 days). Find a split that allows you to progress, doesn’t beat you up, and allows you to look forward to training. Enjoyment is still important, especially if you want to avoid burnout. In general, it’s no longer necessary to train each body part more than twice a week (with the exception of smaller muscle groups or weak points). I could write an entire article about how to pick the right split, but if you're able to apply everything else throughout this article, that should build your split for you. My 19 week hypertrophy program is an intermediate/advanced program, with a 5 day per week push/pull/legs/rest/upper/lower/rest split. 

-Progressive overload- While progress is still a priority, it won’t happen anywhere close to the rate at which it did in years past. More detail on this subject can be found below in “expectations”.

To recap, my prescription for an advanced trainee would be to prioritize exercise selection and sequencing, ensure they’re following a split they enjoy and not training too frequently, utilizing lower volume (or at least experimenting with it), training with a closer proximity to technical failure, and minimizing joint wear and tear along with systemic fatigue while maximizing muscle stimulus. In a perfect world, the net result is maximizing gains AND improved longevity.

As you can see, there’s a lot more to focus on inside the gym as an advanced trainee. But we’re not done yet, because what you do outside the gym is of equal importance, and far more important than the outside the gym activities of a beginner or intermediate. Before we jump in, because most people spend so many years as an intermediate (they don’t have the luxury of having a great coach to take them through their first 5-8 years of training), most advanced trainees are somewhat old (in regards to strength training- not necessarily "elderly" old). The average lifter doesn't ever become truly advanced. But for those who do, it’s usually not until they’re at least 30 years old, but more commonly much older than that. While you can still get away with more outside the gym shenanigans when you’re 30 than you can when you’re 40 or 50, the more you can develop habits at 30, 35, or whatever age you enter into advanced territory, the better off you’ll be.

Here are some of the most important lifestyle considerations an advanced trainee must make:

-Sleep: Obviously, it starts with sleep. Sleep, for an aging lifter, becomes even more important not only for recovery and gym performance, but also for many other aspects of life. Adequate sleep has countless effects on your physical and psychological health and performance, including but not limited to: improved mood, better cognition, emotional stability, more motivation, a balanced hormone profile, appetite regulation, and countless other important health metrics. 7-9 hours of quality sleep is the gold standard. I won't get too into the weeds with sleep, because it requires a lot more depth. Check out this article to learn more. All this to say, sleep must be at the very top of your priority list - the rest of this article doesn't mean anything without it.

-nutrition: As an advanced trainee, gaining muscle in a calorie deficit (again, assuming the absence of PEDs) isn’t in the cards. There are exceptions, including returning from a long layoff in training or having a high body fat percentage (both of which I'd argue knock you out of the advanced category, at least for now). But we’re assuming this lifter has been consistent with nutrition and training for years consecutively. Gaining muscle at maintenance is also a rare occurrence. Sure, you can make small, incremental improvements, but the only tried and true way to make gains is to be in a calorie surplus. That being said, I’d hesitate to recommend most older advanced trainees spend most of their time in a surplus. While it’s a surefire way to maximize muscle gain, it may not be the best for health, and a lot of advanced lifters take their health very seriously. If you are to go in a surplus for an extended period, be sure to keep it very minimal and continue to be active/do cardio in order to maintain good overall health.

-Stress: Stress levels are a key factor in regards to whether your body is able to create an environment for muscle growth or muscle loss. Cortisol is the main stress hormone that when left unmanaged, becomes a significant hindrance for muscle growth. Many people think cortisol is all bad and they should strive to reduce it at all costs. This isn't the case. Too much cortisol, or high cortisol at the wrong times of the day isn’t good for health, but in the right amount, is quite important for daily function. Early in the morning, cortisol should naturally be at its highest levels in your body. It should then slowly decrease throughout the day. Melatonin (an important sleep hormone) cannot be produced in sufficient amounts when cortisol is high. Sleep and stress are closely related, in that they both affect one another on a continuum. Training consistently is great for managing stress, but it’s also important to seek other means of stress management like meditation, walking in nature, journaling, hot/cold therapy, or just relaxing and doing a hobby that allows you to reach a flow state.

-Relationships: Relationships affect gains? You're damn right they do. Having poor relationships will wreck your health. Being healthy is step 1 to making progress in the gym. Sure, if you're blasting PEDs and harming your health, you'll probably still make temporary gains. But for everyone else, having healthy relationships is paramount for your health. One study by the British Civil Service in 2007 found that adverse relationships increased you chances of heart disease by 34%, even when other health factors like weight, fitness, and social support into account. If poor relationships can do something like that for your overall health, think of what they'll do to your potential gym progress. Having poor relationships that add stress and chaos to your life won't help you improve in any area of life, not just fitness. Sure, they can certainly be stressful to deal with and will require a lot of work and self-awareness, but if this applies to you, I highly suggest seeking professional help for it.

-Labwork: (to monitor hormone health & micronutrient status): In today's world, you can have all your ducks in a row and still come up short. Even if you’re putting a great deal of effort into all things mentioned above, there’s still a chance you'll struggle to progress. If you're spinning your wheels despite being as dialed in as possible, it may be time to look "under the hood". It’s impossible to know exactly what’s going on inside your body without some degree of lab work. Getting regular labs done (at minimum, blood work) is something I recommend to anyone interested in health, fitness and longevity, regardless of how you feel. Of course, if you have your lifestyle and training in order but are still struggling, lab work is a no brainer. But even if you feel great, it’s hugely beneficial to obtain a baseline because at some point in your life (could be next year or 10 years from now) you’re not going to feel like you do today.

Either way, not only getting labs done, but getting them interpreted to you by someone qualified is a good idea. The "qualified" peice is so important, because being within the “normal ranges” of certain hormones and micronutrients does not necessarily mean you’re healthy. These metrics are the average normal range of millions of average adults. Think about the average adult in America for a second, and this should give you insight as to why just because your results are considered  “normal” does not mean you should just take it at face value and continue on the same path you’ve been on.

For instance, the normal total testosterone range for men is 300-900 nanograms per deciliter (NG/DL). So if your levels come back as 301, you’re "normal". If they're 899, you’re normal. The difference in how someone would feel at 300 vs 900 (along with many important health factors that relate to testosterone levels) is significant (I know, because I’ve been close to both of these numbers in my lifetime). This is why finding the right doctor is make or break. A typical, “by the book” doctor would tell you you’re normal at both of these levels, and that they'll "see ya next year". A doctor with any level of continuing education would know that being at 300 is not normal, and immediate action should be taken. This is just one example, and there are plenty more. The key takeaway is that finding a reputable hormone specialist or endocrinologist is key for lasting health and continued success in the gym.

There are several more comprehensive lab options. Bloodwork is just a snapshot in time, and acquiring a true picture of your health would require more labs. But this is the bare minimum. I get lab work done 3-4x per year, and would recommend a minimum of 2x per year if you're really looking to optimize your health and performance.

These are the main four factors that will have the greatest impact on an advanced trainee, especially one who is past their “prime”. There are certainly more things that must be taken into account, but most of them all tie back to sleep, stress, nutrition (which will all significantly impact your internal health and potential to make gains).

Expectations: There's no way to predict with any degree of certainty what you'll experience as an advanced trainee in regards to gains and rate of progress. Just know that it'll be considerably slower the longer you train, and even moreso the older you get. If you can gain a couple pounds of muscle in 1 year, that's a win. If you can add 10-20 lbs to some of your main lifts, that's another win. But don't get discouraged if this doesn't happen some years. As we get older, our propensity towards strength and muscle gains decreases. A lot of your years of advanced trainee-ism are going to be devoted to fighting this battle, rather than winning it and continuing to push forward. This is why it's so important for advanced lifters to train for other reasons besides how they look and how strong they are. Train for how it makes you feel mentally and physically. Train so you can play with your kids and/or grandkids. Train so you can go on a family hike and lead from the front. Train so you're more confident. Train because you know most people don't do it, but you're not like most people. I know this may not be what you wanted in regards to "expectations" but there's too much individual variance at this point in the game for me to provide list of concrete expectations. 

I understand that reading this may be a bit overwhelming because there are so many nuances with advanced training (again, the factors I’ve discussed are just the “big rocks”, and not all inclusive). But regardless of your current lifting experience, the key takeaway I want to leave you with is that the sooner you build good habits both inside the gym and out, the easier this will all be when you do reach advanced status. 

Although it’s fun to be a beginner and experience fast growth and linear progress almost no matter what you do, I do believe that the more advanced you get, the more your fitness progress becomes like a game of chess. The way you navigate trial and error, pain and struggle, and hitting plateaus will be the deciding factor of whether or not you’re in it for the long haul, if fitness is just going to be a hobby that keeps you mentally and physically healthy, or if you’re just going to give up on it and accept that it’s too hard. None of these options are wrong, and you should do whatever makes you happy, but I do encourage you to stick with it and continue to refine your training and lifestyle to get the most you possibly can out of your effort. This is why I love training so much and I try to encourage as many people as I can to partake in it.

This wraps up part IV, and just when you thought you’d learned it all, you’ll see in part V that there are many exceptions and more considerations that cannot go unmentioned. 

Thank you for reading! If you have any insight on considerations for advanced trainees, let me know in the comments section!

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