How to Get Stronger As An Intermediate: 3 Key Rules
This article is all about how to get stronger as an intermediate lifter. When beginner progress has dried up you need to train a little bit smarter. We'll cover...
The article is also available in video format if you prefer...
Who Is An Intermediate Lifter?
An intermediate weightlifter, powerlifter or strength athlete is someone that can no longer make progress following simple beginner strength programmes like starting strength or stronglifts. Typically, this means you'll have at at least three to six months of solid linear progression based training under your belt.
You've got a reasonable base of strength, but now you seem to be getting stuck and your progress in your lifts (squat, bench, deadlift, overhead press etc) has really
Get Stronger as an Intermediate Rule 1: Introduce Exercise Variation
As an intermediate lifter, it's time to start introducing a bit more variation into your training, and one of the best ways to do this is by adding in some basic exercise variation.
As a beginner you've very rightly been hammering the basics; squat, deadlift, bench press,
barbell rows, overhead press and pull-ups, all for 3-5 sets of 5-10 reps in a linear fashion. Fantastic.
The problem is that you've been doing those exercises for so long that those movements will have gotten stale for you. You've encountered what's called 'adaptive resistance,' and doing the thing isn't really going to stimulate much more strength progress. Now, I'm not saying you should go crazy and start doing weird stuff like one leg bosu ball squats or crap like that. I'm still saying do strength exercises and push them hard, but feel free to just vary the exercises a little it to present a new challenge.
Let's look at some examples...
Squat variations to Get Stronger As an Intermediate
Swap to High Bar Or Low Bar Squats
If you've been doing high bar squats maybe you throw in a few low bar squats or vice versa. The movements are similar enough to have really good carryover, but different enough that they'll present a new stimulus to get your body progressing again.
I tend to have athletes pause for anything from 2 to 5 seconds at the bottom. Just make sure that you stay tight and braced when you pause.
I like to have clients do these taking three seconds on the way down, pausing for two seconds at the bottom and then going fast up.
Deadlift variations to Get Stronger As an Intermediate
Pause Deadlift 1" off floor
A great way to target sticking points and build positional strength.
'Floating' Deadlift with Controlled Eccentric
Sometimes I like to be especially mean and have my lifters control the eccentric, go almost all the way down, but stop just a tiny amount from the floor then come back up. If you're looking for a strong back and an exercise from hell, this will do it! Here's myself demonstrating with around 140kg.
Bench Press Variations to Get Stronger As an Intermediate
Pause Bench Press
Another simple variation that can build strength off the chest, which is where most intermediates fail heavy lifts.
Dumbbell Bench Press
A great variation that helps to bring up any side to side strength imbalances, plus develops some real strength in a lot of the stabiliser muscles that support your bench press.
This isn't some exhaustive list, there are loads of other great exercise variations you can use in your intermediate strength programmes, these are just a few examples to demonstrate the principle of exercise variation.
Get Stronger as an Intermediate Rule 2: Use Basic Periodisation
Next up, if you want to continue progressing as an intermediate, it's time to start talking about adding some form of periodization into your training programme.
Now, that doesn't have to be anything crazy. When we people think about periodization everyone seems to imagine 16-week complex programs. You don't really need anything like that.
"Periodization is just the variation of training stimulus over time"
You've already introduced some variation by changing the exercises so the second form of variation you can introduce is just to mix up the set and rep schemes.
Chances are as a beginner you've done a lot of fives. Either lots of 3x5's or lots of 5x5's. So how about on the next few weeks of your program, you do the first four weeks with sets of six to eight reps. Then the next four weeks you drop those down and you do three sets of five or five sets of three. So that's...
Weeks 1-4: 4-5 sets of 6-8 reps.
Weeks 5-8: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps.
It's just gonna introduce enough variation to keep progress going and overcome that adaptive resistance you've started experiencing at the end of your beginner training.
Get Stronger as an Intermediate Rule 3: Think More About Recovery
The third thing you're going to want to do to keep getting stronger as an intermediate lifter is to think a little bit more about how you structure your training to allow for recovery.
Reality time, although it might have felt like hard training, as a beginner you were basically so weak that you couldn't really do much damage your body. Squatting 60kg won't really beat up your joints and connective tissues all that much, so you can train hard multiple times per week and you're still gonna recover just fine. However, as an intermediate, let's say that you're now squatting 120-160kg, well now that's a totally different ball game. Those heavier weights will beat up your body way more. Not just your muscles, but your connective tissues too. (More on SRA and recovery here) So we have to change up your training to allow for better recovery. For example, if you have a heavier session on a Monday, then maybe Wednesday becomes a moderate session or a lighter session and then friday is heavier again. Essentially you're going
to have this kind of waving approach where you go a little bit heavier followed by a little bit lighter followed by something in between.
Putting It All Together: An Example Intermediate Program
Monday (Heavy): Back Squat 4x8, Bench Press 4x8, Deadlift 3x8
Wednesday (Light): Tempo Back Squat 2x6, DB Bench Press 3x8
Friday (Moderate): Tempo Deadlift 2x6, Pause Bench Press 3x6, Pause Squat 3x6
Monday (Heavy): Back Squat 3x5, Bench Press 3x5, Deadlift 3x5
Wednesday (Light): Tempo Back Squat 2x3, Tempo Bench Press 3x4
Friday (Moderate): Tempo Deadlift 2x3, Pause Bench Press 3x3, Pause Squat 3x3
Remember, I'm not saying that this is a perfect programme. It's simply an example that combines exercise variation, basic set and rep periodisation and attention to recovery.
With that said, it's not a bad place to start.
Frequently Asked Questions About Getting Stronger As An Intermediate
What is considered intermediate strength?
Honestly, it all depends on the person. Sex, age, height, weight and genetics all play a huge role. I've seen intermediates squat 120kg and I've seen intermediates squat 200+kg. The only real way to define an intermediate lifter is that they are someone who can make progress every week or every other week.
How much strength can an intermediate lifter gain?
Intermediates can increase their strength by a small amount (1.25-2.5kg per lift) about once every week, or once every two weeks. If you can progress faster you're likely still a beginner (which is great news - more easy gains). If you can't progress this fast, it might be time to start looking at advanced programming.
Best split for intermediate? I like to have my lifters use a heavy-light-medium approach 3 days per week, or an upper/lower 4 day per week split. Either works great.
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'Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc
Alex's experience includes 7+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.