The Intermediate Bodybuilding Sample Program

Andy MorganPrograms26 Comments

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.

Intermediate Progression

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.

Progression Rules

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.

Intermediate Bodybuilding Sample Program

Exercise Selection Guidelines

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.

Squat Variants

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

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.

Isolation Exercises

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.

Substitutions

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.

An Important Note On Sample Training Programs

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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About the Author

Andy Morgan

I'm an online nutritional and training coach living in Tokyo, Japan. After seeing one too many people get ripped off by supplement and training industry lies I decided to try and do something about it. The site you see here is the result of a lot of Starbucks-fuelled, two-fingered typing. It's had a lot of love poured into it, and I hope you find the guides to the diet and training methods I use on this site useful. When I'm not helping clients you'll likely find me crashing down a mountain on a snowboard, racing around Suzuka circuit, or staring at watches I can't afford.

26 Comments on “The Intermediate Bodybuilding Sample Program”

  1. Hi andy. Been a follower of you and 3dmj for a while now. I bought the books and was wondering if you think this program would be to much volume when in a caloric deficit. I figure the begginer bodybuilding program would work since it has a little less volume so you can be fully recovered. Or would it just depends on the person? Thanks in advance. Keep putting out top quality content and you will be able to change the average bros and cardiovascular bunnies and make the fitness world a better more scientifically and experienced based place without the gimicks.

  2. Hi Andy,

    I am a little bit confused about RPE and progression. Let’s say I have heavy squats 3×5 with RPE 8-9. I was able to do it for 95kg starting with RPE 8 and ending on 9. Then I increased load to 100kg and did all 3 sets with RPE 9-10. Should I now increase load again (I did all reps) or should I repeat squats using 100kg again until I will be able to do it with RPE 8-9 for all 3 sets? I hope my problem is clear enough.

    Thanks,
    Maciej

      1. Ok so let me ask it another way. During the set should I do reps regarding of current RPE or should I stop as soon as I feel I hit target RPE?

        Thanks for your time!
        Maciej

  3. Hey Andy! I really hope you have the chance to answer this for me. Firstly, I have already purchased the pyramid booklets and have designed my current program based off the beginner program contained within. While I have been “in the gym” for over 10 years, I felt that after reading the books I should start back at the beginner stage as to be honest, a lot of that time has been wasted time, and i’m really no bigger/stronger now than I was years ago. So i’ll be following the “novice progression rules” outlines in MSP (increasing weight weekly, reps stay the same).

    I’ve just finished week 2 of my program (trying to gain strength/size at the rate of 1-1.5% per month). My first week I ate at 2300 cals daily (calcualted using both the MSP books and your own e-book guide) and did not gain weight, felt crap in the gym at the start of week 2. So I increased this to 2440 cals daily and now at the end of week 2, I still haven’t gained weight.

    >My question: Should I continue to add 100-150 cals every week until I finally see an upward trend in weight which will result in an upward trend in strength?

    Thank you for taking the time to read this.

    1. Hi Travis, thank you for the question and for getting the books.

      To answer your question: Yes, but no need to do things in such small increments. A few things:

      1. You need a longer time span to truly gauge a set of macros.
      2. If you felt like “crap” on 2300kcal (alluding the idea that your energy intake is too low) a 140kcal jump won’t do shit for you, it’s too small a difference. I’d note though that if your weight hasn’t decreased, then it’s unlikely that you are in much of a calorie deficit, if at all. Thus, “feeling like crap” is likely unrelated. A week is too soon to really gauge such things though.
      3. Recall from the Nutrition pyramid, it takes approximately a 500 kcal surplus daily to gain a pound of body weight in a week. So, if you have increased your calorie intake by 140 kcal you aren’t going to really be able to measure any bodyweight change difference.

      When did you buy them? Around a week after purchase I have set things up to send an email inviting you to join something I am pompously calling, The Diet Adjustments Mastery Mini Course. It may have gone to your spam folder. Anyway, you can sign up for free here.

  4. Maybe it’s still too early for me, but I don’t understand the numbers on the right side of “The breakdown for the Intermediate Bodybuilding Program” table. What do the 448, 240 & 688 numbers mean and how do they relate to the left side?

    1. Hi Tim, most appreciate the question because it wasn’t clear from the way I have written it and I will fix that now.

      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. “Other” means sets with less than 6 reps or more than 12 reps.

  5. Thanks Andy, to clarify tho, is there a per session volume threshold I must reach (via sets and reps) to elicit a hypertrophic response since the volume for each session will be lower than the 5 day version? I know 40-70 reps per session but what if I’m doing say 20-30 3x a week Thanks a lot Andy, means a lot for real!

    1. Hi Jacob, thanks for the question.

      Training tolerance/response will be different for different people, which is why we have such a broad range (80 reps per body part to 270 reps per body part) in the recommendations (40 reps, 2x/week ~ 70 reps, 3x/week). You need to experiment to find your optimal training volume, which needs to factor in not only what you can recover from but what you can consistently do (which comes down to your schedule and enjoyment).

      More training volume is good up to a point (graph 1), but with diminishing returns (graph 1 vs 2) and eventually negative returns (graph 3). The maximal recoverable training volume (which you are alluding to wanting to find, shown in graph 2, where the graph intersects the x-axis) is actually something we can only guess at.

      1. Minimum training input leading to maximal growth per unit of effort but missing out a lot of growth opportunity.
      Minimum training input leading to maximal growth per unit of effort but missing out a lot of growth opportunity.

      2. Maximal growth, maximal effort without it being detrimental.
      Maximal growth, maximal effort without it being detrimental.

      3. Overtraining leading to less than maximal response despite greater efforts.
      Overtraining leading to less than maximal response despite greater efforts.

      More on this if it interests you in this article:
      Stress: In The Gym, Out of The Gym, and How it Affects Your Program and Progress

      Hope this helps!

  6. I’m confused about how wave loading works with RPE. Over time, wouldn’t wave loading progression naturally drive up the RPE? Also, just to be clear, are the recommended RPEs for the 1st set or for all of the sets? Because weight that starts out as a 7 often becomes a 9 after 5 sets.

    Thanks for the sample programs!
    I’ve never thought about replacing deadlifts with BB hip thrusts on a volume day to reduce the injury risk before. I love the idea, I’ve always hated doing high rep sets of deadlifts

    1. Hi Drew, thanks for the questions.

      Over time, wouldn’t wave loading progression naturally drive up the RPE?
      – The idea is that your body will adapt to the new load and the RPE will remain the same.

      …are the recommended RPEs for the 1st set or for all of the sets?
      – All sets, start at the bottom of the range. Here’s a free email course that Eric Helms and I put together that you may find useful.

  7. Hey Andy, I turned this into an upper/lower split 6 days a week by splitting up the volume a bit more and working it ululul. If the volume is reduced per session, do you think this is a doable routine given the frequency is quite high but per session volume is lowered to accommodate? Thanks!

  8. Hi Andy

    More of a comment than a question, but it’s interesting how low the ‘intensity’ is for the medium rep range work (by which I mean intensity of effort as measured on the RPE RIR scale).

    I’m probably not alone, but I’ve always erred on the side of going a lot closer to failure than that, even without failing, in an effort to progress.

    Good to see ‘intensity of effort’ managed in this way as so many programs and coaches out there miss this and just give volume/intensity recommendations.

    Look forward to giving this a whirl, hopefully not every workout will feel so brutal it wears me down after a few weeks!

    Thanks

    Paul

    1. Hi Paul, thanks for the comment. It’s a purposeful choice to keep the RPE lower. You may find the free RPE email course that Eric Helms and I put together useful, but here is a the relevant section:

      “Some of you might be a little confused right now if you were under the impression that training to failure was a good idea to do on every set or the majority of sets if your goal is hypertrophy.

      Volume is a key component of hypertrophy training. So let’s take a hypothetical situation where you decide to take 3 sets with your 10 rep max (10RM) to failure on all sets and see what your volume is if you don’t change the load.

      If you go all the way to failure on set 1, doing 10 reps and then maintain the same load, you will more than likely drop to ~7 reps on set 2, and then down to ~5 reps on set 3. That means a total of ~22 reps performed with a 10RM load.

      Let’s say instead, you stayed 1 rep shy of failure on your first set and did 9 reps. More than likely you’d be able to maintain 9 reps on set 2 but be pretty damn close to failure, and then on set 3 only be able to get 8. In this case, you got 26 reps with a 10RM load, which is four more reps. Can you honestly say that the former is better for hypertrophy given the importance of volume?

      Well, we don’t have to speculate, because we actually have data to show that training to failure results in similar adaptations to not training to failure…”

  9. Andy,

    I’m no stranger to counting calories and IF/IIFYM, however, I’ve fallen off the band wagon this past year.

    As I uitilized the Macro Cycle calculator to shred this 17% BF, I found it odd to be given as much as 2500kcal on training days and 2000 on rest days. Seems as if those are tailored more towards a maintenance?

  10. Andy, I do not see any lateral raises. Also with 3 sets for triceps would you suggest doing one for each head of the tricep or just pick one tricep movement and swap it for another tricep head the next week?

    1. Hi Jon, thanks for the question. Though there are differences in activation between exercises, we can’t really isolate any individual head of the triceps. If you use a full range of motion with the triceps exercises you will hit all three heads, and with the rest of the pressing work in the program, balance won’t be an issue. You can rotate triceps exercises every 4-8 weeks as per your preference, but I certainly wouldn’t swap exercises over week-to-week as it is too hard to gauge progression and act accordingly that way. Here is my guide to progression:

      A Detailed Guide to Training Progression

      Hope that helps.

  11. Hi Andy,

    I purchased both books and pored through your site and the entire FAQ. Of course, the FAQ closed right when I planned to ask two questions that have been burning me ever since. I’d really appreciate your insight.

    1) I think Eric said in the FAQ that switching up exercise selection is low priority and should happen every 8 weeks or so. Is it okay to NEVER change exercises if I have reasonable variety in the program already?

    2) I’ve gone through your how to bulk page multiple times. On a controlled bulk, does it make sense to do mini 1-2 week cuts to keep the BF% in check? I find occasional 1-2 week cuts much easier than a big 2 month diet at the end of a bulking cycle.

    Thanks, and keep up the great and very thorough work!

    1. Hi Tim, thank you for getting the books, glad you are taking a lot away from them.

      1) Let’s avoid putting never or always labels on things, as there are always exceptions. If you are progressing and staying healthy, then it is not a problem to stick with the exercises you have. It may be beneficial to occasionally swap movements out as a) variety could stimulate faster progress, and b) it can help keep your joints healthy. I believe the latter was mentioned in the training book. Just search “joint” or “joint health.”

      2. I would say a one week cut is fairly worthless as the time frame too short to make any meaningful progress. A lot of water and glycogen would be lost and regained causing large swings in weight and the fat loss differences very hard to measure. If doing a mini-cut during a bulk I would make it four weeks minimum. Whether you have one or not is up to you. In coaching, some people want one, some people don’t; some people can handle having one, some people can’t. There are no blanket rules (which comes back to my never/always comment above).

      Hope that is helpful!

  12. Hi Andy,

    I’ve purchased the books on nutrition and training. Congratulations on the great work that you and Eric are doing!

    I have a question regarding the Frequency. How can I make this in a 4-day program?
    Is it okay if I just combine Day 4 and 5 in one day? Or should I have one day of full-body?

    Thanks in advance!

    Regards,

    Kristiyan Atanasov

    1. Hi Kriss, thanks for the question and getting the books. Very glad you liked them. While there is no single way to do it, it’s quite simple really, just reorganize the lifts across four days in a way that balances recovery. You may find that you can’t do the same amount of volume in four days, so just reduce, either by eliminating the lifts of the sets.

      Did you see the support page that Eric and I put together? We’ve answered over 800 questions there. Hope you find it useful.

Questions welcomed. (Over 16,000 answered)

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