This is a sample bodybuilding program from The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid book. The explanation section in the book is fairly detailed, so I have cut it down to give just the overview, relevant notation and exercise selection explanations. It is my goal that this, the Intermediate Powerlifting Program, and the Detailed Guide to Training Progression articles bring the site up to speed with the level of training programming that I typically find myself using with coaching clients nowadays. I hope you find them useful.
The Intermediate Bodybuilding Program Overview
The Intermediate Bodybuilding Program builds on the novice program by increasing volume globally. Additionally, the progression is changed to be more suitable to an intermediate level lifter and follows a linear-periodized, wave-loading pattern in the same manner as the Intermediate Powerlifting Program.
The framework is similar to that of the Novice Bodybuilding Program in that the week starts off with strength focused training on Day 1 and 2 in a lower and upper body format. However, for the rest of the week, muscle groups are organized in a three-day split. Lower body, push, and pull are performed in that order, after the upper and lower body training sessions on Day 1 and 2. Thus, this is a five-day program; however the frequency per body part remains at two times per week like the novice program. The change from four days of training in the novice program to five days in the intermediate program allows for more volume to be performed per muscle group, while also spreading the additional workload over more days in the week to allow for recovery.
Roughly 2/3rds of the volume in the Intermediate Bodybuilding Program is accumulated using moderate loads in the moderate repetition ranges, while the remaining volume is accumulated using heavier loads paired with lower rep ranges and lighter loads paired with higher rep ranges.
The breakdown for the Intermediate Bodybuilding Program is summarized in the table below. The left side shows the average reps per week for each muscle group. The right side shows the how much of the total training volume is from sets performed in the 6-12 rep range vs. other rep ranges.
RPE Based On RIR Is Primarily Used To Set Load
Now with some weight training experience under your belt, RPE based on RIR can be more accurately used; you should be able to tell with reasonable accuracy how many reps you have in the tank. For this reason, load progression will be based more on RIR than it is %1RM. The %1RM is more used as a reference.
Primarily you will be following the intermediate, “Wave Loading Progression” model for all lifts except for the isolation exercises, where you will use the “Double Progression” model and deload it as outlined every fourth week along with the other lifts. Intensity will go up over the course of a four-week cycle, while volume will come down. Like the novice program, each day of each week is progressed independently, meaning, you will not compare Day 1 to Day 2 or Day 2 to Day 3, but each exercise progression continues from the same day the previous week.
I’ve published a detailed set of progression rules for you here and that is where you will find both the Wave Loading Progression and Double Progression models explained fully.
Vertical & Horizontal Pulls
Vertical and horizontal pulls simply refer to back work in the vertical and horizontal planes, i.e. a pulldown and a row, respectively. Choose whichever movements you enjoy, that you can feel the target muscles working during, and that you have access to.
For the horizontal row, choose an exercise that doesn’t fatigue your lumbar (this is more critical to the powerlifting routines where the performance of the deadlift should not be compromised). I would advise a cable, single arm dumbbell, chest supported dumbbell, seal/bench, or machine row.
For vertical pulls feel free to select what you would like, however, if you do choose to do chin ups or pull ups, make sure you can perform it at the appropriate RPE and rep range. If you are very strong at these, you might need to do weighted chins or pull ups, and if you aren’t strong enough to fall in the appropriate RPE and rep range, choose a lat pulldown or machine pulldown instead. If you don’t have access to either, a band-assisted pull up can work as well.
Vertical & Horizontal Pushes
Vertical and horizontal pushes simply refer to pressing work in the vertical and horizontal planes. For example, an overhead press and a chest press, respectively.
Preferably choose barbell based movements when using a %1RM based progression as these allow smaller increases in load, micro loading, and more accurate estimations of 1RM from AMRAPs. If you have an injury-related issue that prevents the use of a barbell for pressing, dumbbells or machines can be used, and the dumbbell load can be added together to estimate 1RM (just be aware of the limitations I mentioned), or simply use RPE.
For horizontal pressing, you can use a decline or incline press, just don’t use a very severe angle in either direction. For vertical pressing, feel free to do either standing or seated presses.
When given the choice of performing a squat variant, any variation of a barbell free weight squat can be performed. This could be a high-bar, low-bar, front, or even Zercher or safety-bar barbell squats.
Select the variant that is pain-free, a low injury risk, one that you enjoy, that you are confident that you can master, and that suits your biomechanics. For example, if you find that you are very bent over when you perform a low-bar squat to full depth, you may wish to choose one of the other variations that allow a more upright body position to ensure more even lower-body development. You may decide to perform the same variation of squats on all days or to perform different variations. Just be aware, that if you always use different variations it may increase the time to master both movements.
If an injury prevents you from performing a barbell based squat of any type, a leg press variant can be used in the place of a squat variant.
Leg Press Variants
Leg press variants include any form of hack squat or leg press machine or even Smith machine squat if the legs are placed out in front of you while you lean back into the bar to maintain an upright torso. Essentially, the goal is to perform a squat-like movement without having to support the load with your upper body as much as you do when performing a squat variant.
Leg press variants are placed in the bodybuilding programs strategically to reduce lower-back and hip fatigue and stress while still allowing a squat-like movement to be performed to train the legs.
Choose whichever variation you prefer that you can perform for a full range of motion pain-free. These can be replaced with squat variants, just be aware of the potential for increased lumbar and hip fatigue and stress.
Hip Hinge Variants
Like the leg press variants, hip hinge variants are used in the bodybuilding programs to strategically train a deadlift-like movement without having to support the load with your upper body as much as you do when you perform a deadlift variant. These exercises are slotted in to reduce lumbar and hip fatigue in the bodybuilding programs.
Hip hinge variants include movements such as a barbell hip thrusts or glute bridges. Cable or machine hinges can also be used just be aware of the limitation that AMRAP 1RM estimations will be less accurate when using them. A deadlift variant can be used in place of a hinge variant, just be aware of the potential risk of increased lumbar and hip fatigue and soreness.
Deadlift variants in the bodybuilding programs refer to conventional, sumo, or Romanian deadlifts, or good mornings.
When selecting a deadlift variant, choose one with a low risk of injury, and make sure you perform it with proper, safe form, and don’t neglect the eccentric portion of the lift (it can be fast, but not completely uncontrolled how a powerlifter might perform it).
If you select a sumo stance deadlift, do not perform it ultra-wide if you only compete in bodybuilding, rather use a stance just slightly wider than your hand position. This can be a great position for a bodybuilder to perform a deadlift as it allows a straighter back, more upright torso, thereby reducing injury risk, while also mimicking the biomechanics of a conventional deadlift.
The advantage of selecting a Romanian deadlift or a good morning is that the eccentric will be automatically controlled, however, these movements take more kinesthetic awareness and time to master and perform properly with heavy loads.
If an injury prevents you from performing a barbell deadlift variant of any type, a hip hinge variant can be used in its place.
Single-Leg Squat Variants
Single-leg squat variants are primarily in place to ensure equal development across legs, and to ensure adequate coordination and even contribution of force when performing bipedal exercises such as squats or leg press to reduce the risk of injury.
Preferably, select a free weight (or bodyweight or assisted with bands version if you are not strong enough to add external load yet) movement such as Bulgarian split squats, lunges, or single-leg squats with a kettlebell or dumbbell on the floor or off a plyo box (also known as pistol squats).
You can select a machine based movement such as a single leg leg-press, but this will only help you ensure equal force production between legs, and not necessarily coordination and balance. Thus, the injury prevention effect will be reduced.
Bicep curls, triceps extensions, leg extensions, leg curls and other single joint movements should be performed with a full range of motion and in a safe manner that is pain-free. Whether you use free weights, machines, cables or some other variation you would like to employ is entirely your choice, just ensure that you are able to perform it pain-free and with a full range of motion.
Flys can be performed with cables or dumbbells or machines and can be performed at incline or decline angles if preferred.
Standing calf raises don’t necessarily need to be standing, they just need to be straight legged (for example a calf raise on a leg press).
Face pulls, while not technically an isolation movement, should not be performed near to failure or with heavy loads and an emphasis should be placed on proper form and scapular retraction and external rotation of the shoulder.
Why There Are No Shrugs or Direct Abdominal Work In The Bodybuilding Programs
To be perfectly honest with you, I’ve never actually seen a bodybuilder improve their abs or their upper traps by adding in these exercises to an already well-balanced routine that includes deadlift and squat variants, overhead pressing, rowing, other compound free weight exercises.
I’ve seen bodybuilders who don’t have a well-balanced routine that includes these compounds exercises benefit from performing shrugs and direct ab work, but that is already starting with would be a suboptimal approach in the first place in my opinion.
I’ve also met many bodybuilders who claim that these exercises are critical to the development of their traps and abs, but invariably these bodybuilders are already performing forty-odd exercises, so how would they know what was doing what?
Most convincingly, I’ve seen bodybuilders remove shrugs and direct abdominal work from well-balanced plans that include a lot of compound exercises without any detriment to their traps or abs.
Now, all that said, when I work with bodybuilders who specifically have weak traps or abs, I do prescribe direct ab work and shrugs. That’s just common sense and even if it’s not successful, it’s worth the attempt. So, if you do happen to be someone with weak abdominal muscles (and not just someone who holds fat in their midsection) or upper- trap development, feel free to add a few sets of these exercises per week.
Swapping out accessory movements is also an option in any of these plans. To do so, just make sure that you have a rationale for your choices, and also make sure the substitutions are of similar movement patterns and train similar muscle groups. This is important in order to maintain the integrity of the programs as they are designed to take overlap into account.
It’s important to note that the primary purpose of this program is actually not for you just to take it and use it exactly as written.
By definition, a sample program cannot be optimal for you, because it is not specific to you and your needs. The programs in our book can get close, as they allow you to match up your goal (powerlifting or bodybuilding) and your experience level (novice, intermediate, or advanced) to the program, and in some spots they allow you freedom to choose a variation on an exercise or the schedule to fit your needs, but they still aren’t truly individualized programs.
Individuality is key to long-term success, and just like it’s not a good idea to use someone else’s diet regardless of whether your maintenance calorie intake or initial body-fat percentage is similar to theirs or not, it’s also not a good idea to jump into a program regardless of how the volume, intensity, or frequency of the program compares to what you are currently adapted to.
The idea behind presenting multiple sample programs in the book is that instead of readers seeing them as “the be all end all” that they just jump right into, they use them primarily as learning tools. The programs are the synthesis of the entire Training Pyramid, combining the concepts presented throughout the book into usable systems. By examining the sample programs they are looking at only a few of the possible iterations of the concepts embodied in the text. Trainers will be able to use the sample programs to help them learn how to create customized programs for their clients, and athletes will use the programs to help them design a more individualized plan for themselves.
Questions welcomed in the comments. – Andy
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