How to Get Stronger, Part 2: The Intermediate

When do you transcend from the beginner to the intermediate stage of weight training?

If you’ve been training hard on an effective training program (such as the one we outlined in part 1 of this series) and been eating and recovering well when you’re not in the gym, you might reach the intermediate stage after about six months of training. Give or take a few months.

The intermediate stage isn’t necessarily tied to how much you can lift in a given exercise but rather how much you have adapted to your training. Have you increased your strength significantly in all your training lifts? Are you struggling to further increase your training weights, despite making a hard effort, using a sensible training program, and good recovery circumstances?

Then you’re probably ready for intermediate phase training.

Another indicator that you’ve reached the intermediate stage, borrowed from Practical Programming, is that you no longer see noticeable strength gains from workout to workout like in the beginner stage. Instead, you see noticeable strength gains from week to week. Noticeable in this case means that you can add a few pounds to your sets or do more reps with last weeks’ weight.

In any case, it’s time for a change in your training strategy.

How Does the Training Differ in the Intermediate Stage?

If your training doesn’t change as you grow stronger and better adapted to it, you will cease making gains. Put another way: If nothing changes, nothing will change.

All sports have a few common denominators in how the fundamental principles of training change as you move from the beginner to the intermediate and on to the advanced training stages.

Generally, all of the following three increases:

  • The necessary training volume. For the green beginner, just a single set per week will lead to gains in strength and muscle size. The more accustomed you become to your training, the higher the threshold you must overcome to stimulate continued gains.
  • The need for specialization. For the beginner, anything leads to an improvement in everything. A couch potato that takes up jogging will grow their leg muscles and improve their one-rep-max in the squat. But, the higher the degree of performance you want in your given sport (or lift), the more you need to specialize your training for that goal.
  • The need for individualization. Similar to the above principle, a beginner program will work for everyone, more or less. As you increase your training volume and specialization, it will become increasingly important to fit the training to your capabilities and needs. Some will thrive on squatting three times per week, while others will just hurt their knees. Some will thrive on a high volume program while others gain better on something more moderate.

Getting Stronger in the Intermediate Stage

As a beginner, you could expect a noticeable strength gain between every workout. Each workout in and of itself was enough of a stimulus for you to get stronger until the next time you stepped into the gym. As an intermediate, this will no longer be the case.

You will no longer be able to take a step forward every time you train, but rather every week or so. Therefore, you should plan and structure your training around this by mixing in light workouts between the heavy ones.

Every heavy workout, you should make a serious effort to take a step forward in your training by improving on your performance last week. You might be doing three sets of five as your top sets, and try to add 5 lbs every week. If you can’t get all three sets of five in, you at least try to improve by one rep over last week’s top sets, for example, doing 5, 5, 4 reps instead of 5, 4, 4. Make an effort to improve, even if just by a teeny bit.

Three or four days later, you follow up with a light workout. The point of this workout is not to drain you but rather to get your muscles moving again and keep your fitness levels up until the next heavy workout. You might use something like 80–90% of the weight you used in your heavy workout and do the same number of sets and reps for this workout. Or even slightly fewer; it is not important. What is important is that you get a few reps in to maintain your fitness level without excessively adding to the burden of recovery that your body is already trying to handle.

An alternative way to set up your light workouts is to use a lighter variant of the exercise you want to improve. Say that you want to improve your squat, and in your heavy workout, you work up to three heavy sets of fives. Instead of using 80% of that same weight in your light workout, you could train front squats instead. Front squats require that you use a slightly lighter weight and are generally not as taxing on your body as regular back squats. If you want to increase your deadlift, you could do paused deadlifts or power cleans on your light workout. For the bench press, you might opt to do close-grip benches. For the overhead press, you could switch to dumbbell presses. Still try to increase your training weights in these exercises, but keep the main lift your priority.

Intermediate Strength Training Program

We will take a look at a sample intermediate strength program for the four movements we outlined in part 1: an upper-body push and pull, a squat, and a hip hinge. And, we’ll keep on using the same barbell exercises you used in the beginner program.

To accommodate your greater need for training volume, we will increase the number of workout days from three to four per week. Is it possible to gain on three training days per week in the intermediate stage? It sure is, but it would require you to specialize even further.

You will do two upper-body and two lower-body workouts per week. The workouts will be contrasting, in the sense that your upper-body workout A will be your heavy bench press and light overhead press workout. Upper-body workout B will be your heavy overhead press and light bench press workout. Similarly, lower-body workout A will be your heavy squat and light deadlift workout, while lower-body workout B will be your heavy deadlift and light squat workout.

Upper-Body Workout A

Heavy bench press workout

  1. Bench Press: 3 sets x 5 reps
  2. Barbell Row: 3 sets x 5 reps
  3. Dumbbell Shoulder Press: 3 sets x 8 reps
  4. Dumbbell Row: 3 sets x 10 reps

Lower-Body Workout A

Heavy squat workout

  1. Squat: 3 sets x 5 reps
  2. Power Clean: 3 sets x 3 reps
  3. Bulgarian Split Squat: 3 sets x 10 reps
  4. Kneeling Ab Wheel: 2 sets x max reps

Upper-Body Workout B

Heavy overhead press workout

  1. Overhead Press: 3 sets x 5 reps
  2. Pull-Up or Lat-Pulldown: 3 sets x 5 reps
  3. Close-Grip Bench Press: 3 sets x 5 reps
  4. Barbell Curl: 3 sets x 10 reps

Lower-Body Workout B

Heavy deadlift workout

  1. Deadlift: 3 sets x 5 reps
  2. Front Squat: 3 sets x 5 reps
  3. Good Morning: 3 sets x 5 reps
  4. Hanging Leg Raise: 2 sets x max reps

This program is available for free in our app StrengthLog, under the name Intermediate Barbell Program.

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Do a general warm-up for 5–10 minutes, and then start working your way up to your top sets in the first exercise. Rest for as long as you need to between sets to complete your target reps. Strive to increase the weights or reps in your top sets, especially in the heavy exercise of the day.

The first exercise of the workout is the most important thing you’re doing in the gym that day, and improving your performance by any measure should be your top priority. Add pounds. Add reps. Improve.

And Then?

Try to milk this program for as long as possible. Fight tooth and nail to increase the weight or reps you can do in the top sets of the exercises, especially the first one in every workout. As soon as you reach three sets of five, you increase the weight and start working towards getting three fives again. As long as you improve by at least one rep in total every week (i.e., going from 5, 5, 3 reps to 5, 5, 4 reps), you are making progress.

When you can no longer add a single pound or rep in these exercises, even after several attempts, you have entered the advanced stage.

Read next:

>> How to Get Stronger, Part 3: The Advanced


<< How to Get Stronger, Part 1: The Beginner

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Daniel Richter

Daniel has a decade of experience in powerlifting, is a certified personal trainer, and has a Master of Science degree in engineering. Besides competing in powerlifting himself, he coaches both beginners and international-level lifters. Daniel regularly shares tips about strength training on Instagram, and you can follow him here.