The Intermediate Bodybuilding Program

This is a sample bodybuilding program from our 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.

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 Sample 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:

Exercise Selection Guidelines

Exercise preferences, limitations, and equipment availability differs from person to person. Click these to see your options and video→1. Choose an exercise option that you can perform confidently with good form, pain-free, with a full range of motion. If you need further guidance see my guide to exercise selection, here.

Have a look at the program below and then I’ll explain the meaning of the ‘%1RM’ and ‘1st Set RPE’ notation and how to use it.

The Intermediate Bodybuilding Sample Program

Day 1 – Lower Body
Exercise Sets x Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Squat Variant 2 4×3–5 82.5–87.5 8
Deadlift Variant 3 4×3–5 82.5–87.5 8
Single Leg Variant 4 3×6–8 NA 8
Leg Curl  3×6–8 NA 8
Standing Calf Raises 5 5×6–8 NA 8
Day 2 – Upper Body
Exercise Sets x Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Horizontal Push 6 4×3–5 82.5–87.5 8
Horizontal Pull 7 4×4–6 NA 8
Vertical Push 8 3×5–7 77.5–82.5 8
Vertical Pull 9  3×6–8 NA 8
Triceps 3×8–12 NA 8
Biceps  3×8–12 NA 8
Day 3 – Lower Body
Exercise Sets x Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Hip Hinge Variant 10 3×6–8 NA 8
Leg Press Variant 11 3×6–8 NA 8
Leg Extension 3×8–12 NA 8
Leg Curl 3×8–12 NA 8
Seated Calf Raises 12 5×12–15 NA 8
Day 4 – Push
Exercise Sets x Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Vertical Push 13 3×6–8 NA  8
Horizontal Push 14 3×6–8 NA 8
Dips 3×8–12 NA 8
Flys 3×12–15 NA 8
Day 5 – Pull
Exercise Sets x Reps %1RM 1st Set RPE
Horizontal Pull 3×6–8 NA 8
Vertical Pull 3×6–8 NA 8
Weighted Back Extensions 3×8–12 NA 8
Face Pull 2×12–15 NA 8

Rest ~2–3 minutes between sets.

For convenience, I made this image to save to your phone:

Follow me on Instagram for more useful graphics like this.

If you’re interested in why this new version of the program differs slightly from that in the first edition of our book in 2015, see the last FAQ item here.


How to Progress with the Intermediate Bodybuilding Program

Now with some weight training experience under your belt, you should be able to tell with reasonable accuracy how many reps you have in the tank prior to failure. So, ‘rate of perceived exertion’ (RPE) based on ‘reps in reserve’ (RIR) will primarily be used to set load. As a reminder…

The %1RM notation stands for percentage of 1-rep maximum. It is an approximate guideline for how much you should load the bar the first time you start the program (only) and we will use this with our main compound barbell competition lifts.

The 1st Set RPE notation is there to tell us the intensity of effort with which we should lift. It is a guideline for how much you should load the bar for the first set, every time you train. I’ll come to this in the next section.

RPE Number Meaning
10 Could not do more reps or load without form failure
9.5 Could not do more reps, could do slightly more load
9 Could do 1 more rep
8.5 Could definitely do 1 more reps, chance at 2
8 Could do 2 more reps
7.5 Could definitely do 2 more reps, chance at 3
7 Could do 3 more reps
5-6 Could do 4-6 more reps
1-4 Very light to light effort

(If you still need more explanation about the use of ‘%1RM’ and ‘1st Set RPE’, refer to the Novice Bodybuilding Program.)

If you are able to increase the load each week, do that for as long as you can. When you can no longer do that you’ll need to move onto something slightly more complicated, which we call our Intermediate 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.

You can read those progression guidelines here.

Why There Are No Shrugs or Direct Abdominal Work in the Bodybuilding Programs

“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.”

 

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.

An Important Note On Sample Training Programs

The idea behind presenting multiple sample programs in our 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.

The Muscle and Strength Pyramid: Training v2.0

If you have found this helpful, you might be pleased to know it is just a small section taken from my Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid book, written with my co-authors Eric Helms and Andrea Valdez. The second edition, along with the Nutrition companion book, was released this January 3rd, 2019.

Join 16,000+ other readers, get your copies here.

Thank you for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments.

– Andy, Eric, and Andrea

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  1. Good job!

  2. Back Squats (either low or high bar position), Front Squats, or Safety-bar Barbell Squats.

  3. Conventional, Sumo, Romanian Deadlift.

  4. Bulgarian Split Squats, Lunges, or Single-leg Squats with a Kettlebell or Dumbbell (also known as Pistol Squats).

  5. Smith machine, Leg Press.

  6. Bench Press, Dumbbell Bench Press, Incline Bench Press

  7. Seated Cable Row, DB Rows, Barbell Rows.

  8. Overhead Press, Standing Dumbbell Shoulder Press

  9.  Chin-ups or Pull-ups (Use bands to assist you if too hard to reach the required number of reps, add weight if they are too easy), Lat-pull Down.

  10. Barbell Hip Thrusts, Barbell Glute Bridges, Cable Pull Throughs.

  11. Seated Leg Press, 45° Leg Press, Hack Squat.

  12. Smith machine, Leg Press.

  13. Overhead Barbell Press, Dumbbell Press, Landmine Press.

  14. Bench Press, Dumbbell Press.

About the Author

Eric Helms, Andy Morgan and Andrea Valdez

Eric is a coach, athlete, author, educator, and researcher. Andrea is a lifelong athlete, experienced coach, and content creator. Andy is an online training and nutrition coach. Together they are the authors of The Muscle and Strength Pyramid books. RippedBody.com is Andy's website, his sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire him to coach them, which he has been doing full-time, online, for the last seven years. If you're interested in individualized, one-on-one coaching to help you crush your physique goals, find out more here.

232 Comments

  1. Lukas says:

    Hi Andy,

    first of all, thank you for the free content you‘re sharing with us! Really appreciate that!

    I‘ve got two questions:

    1. I wonder why I should do „wt back extensions“ on day 5? Isn‘t it enough volume for lower back (and hammies) if I do a DL variant and a HH variant (let‘s say GHR or hip thrusts) on lower body days? Could I replace the wt back extensions with close grip cable rows (maybe bent and extend the upper body to some degree to engage the lower back)?

    2. What’s your opinion on replacing the LP variant with BB squats (in this case I would do them first, prior to the HH variant) and leg extensions with LP on day 3? Given that I can recover from that. I‘m not a big fan of leg extensions tbh.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Lukas,
      1. Sure, could be. This is just a recommended start point from which to adjust, after all, depending on your individual response and needs.
      I’d stick with the back extensions as the moment arm position is going to make incremental loading much harder if you attempt to do it with a cable row.

      2. Feel free to swap things around in any way you wish as long as you have reason to do so and can recover and progress.

  2. Brian Phillips says:

    I just thought I would let you know your post says for SL variant day 1 3×8-12, but the book and your phone chart both say SL variant day 1 3×6-8. Which is it? Also, thanks for the recommendations on rear lunges. That helped resolve my knee pain. Had patellar tendonitis before, and the lunges are really hard to keep from controlling the front toe position going forward. But backward, it is fixed. Closed chain exercises FTW!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      The book is correct. Thank you for pointing that out, Brian. I’ve fixed the article now.

      Also, glad to hear!

  3. MD says:

    Hi Andy,

    I’ve just read the book. First of all, a huge thank you for the amazing job! Has really helped me. I do have some questions though, that I hope you will answer.

    1: I’m coming from Starting Strength, I’m considering starting on the Intermediate BB sample program – just as a start. Do you think this would be a fine place to start, or should I go with the novice program instead?

    2: You mention in the book, that if it’s an aggressive cut, you recommend to switch it program to a level down. Do you consider a 500 deficit an aggressive cut?

    3: Is it fine to do the same exercise two times a week, or would it be better to maybe switch it up?

    4: Would it be better to use another exercise (personal preference would be to use the Back Extension)?

    Even though I have personal preferences for some of the things, I would be willing to sacrifice that, if the alternative is better.

    Thanks.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi MD,

      Thanks for the questions and for getting the book.

      1. Depends how advanced you are after coming off of Starting Strength. If unsure, consider starting with the Novice Bodybuilding Program and moving to this intermediate one.

      2. You’ll see that this is at the lower end of the fat-loss rate guidelines and isn’t considered aggressive.

      3. Fine and actually advisable if you’re getting used to the form as you’ll likely progress better with fewer exercises. (Related: A Guide to Exercise Selection When You Don’t Have Access to a Coach.)

      4. Either way is fine.

      You’ll see I modified your questions. You broke the brevity rule, so instead of deleting your comment (like I commonly do), I shortened your questions for other readers and answered this one time.

      If you have further questions about book-specific content (outside the context of the sample articles), please hit us up on the book’s support page so that other people reading will find the answers relevant. Thank you.

  4. Daniel Weeks says:

    Hey Andy, love the books! Re. Intermediate BB program, I’ve played around with it and wondered re. Day 1 if Highbar Squat followed by Traditional Deadlift is appropriate or if Deadlift should be dedicated to another day and instead do RDL after Squat? Thanks again! Cheers, Dan

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      If you find that you can progress better and recover, then please feel free to swap things around as you like. However, to those that don’t have good data to confirm that, I’d suggest you go with what we’ve written. An unusual level of soreness for the first time you try any new workout/exercise is normal, so don’t jump to any conclusions based on that.

  5. Fernando Schamber says:

    Hi Andy!!
    1) Do you add or change something for a women?

    2) how you count the training volume for bíceps or triceps when you do vertical pull or horizontal/vertical push?

    3) When you do a vertical push like military press, you count the set for a shoulder Andrés Chest too? Why?

    Sorry for my English, i am from Argentina. Thanks for your time!!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Fernando,
      1) No, but any individual can have specific needs and goals which would mean adjusting the template.
      2) I count it as half.
      3) I don’t understand this question, can you rephrase it?

  6. Fernando says:

    Hi Andy!

    Thank you for your work. It is very clear, concise and helpful.

    I was wondering what the ideal numer of sets and at which RPE would be ideal for Chest and Calfs (my two weakest parts)? I don´t mind spending an extra 15 minutes in the gym if more volume is going to help and not be counterproductive.

    In addition, if you think I could add more sets, how exactly would you add them to this program?

    Thank you in advance!

    Best,
    Fernando

      1. fernando says:

        Thank you Andy! Will read that right now.

        Best,
        Fernando

  7. Anton Golikov says:

    So this program is for 5-days in the row training, with rest only during weekend?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Inserting a day of rest so that you have no more than three sessions back to back would likely help with recovery and thus work a little better.

  8. João Pedro says:

    Hey Andy. Are the side delts stimulated enough in this routine without the need for isolations?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      We’ll have an article on that soon. But basically, yes. 🙂

  9. Ryan says:

    The book mentions that the sample programs are available for purchase in the gravitus app but I see no way to do this from the app or anywhere else. Also what would be recommended substitutes for face pulls and flys? Thanks.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Bent over DB reverse flyes would work.

      No idea on the app. Ryan, haven’t used it. This is Eric’s baby. (I personally like a pen and paper and then transfer it to a spreadsheet at the end of my training week cause I spend too much bloody time on my phone already. I can understand the appeal though.)

      Here’s the support email address: info@gravitus.com

      1. Ryan says:

        Bent over reverse flys would replace both face pulls and flys?

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          Ah, sorry for missing that. The flys don’t have any obvious replacement I can think of, but you can use dumbbells or cables which every gym should have.

  10. Arturo Murcia says:

    Hello Andy,

    Great job. I’ve read completely both books .Inspiring 🙂

    I have a doubt analyzing the intermediate routine.

    1- I’ve been training for 10 years, with great visual results ( big and shredded), but low strength. No evolution in the 2-3 last years . I’m used to more series ( more than 20 per muscle) and less intensitity ( 10 -12 )- I’m totally conviced to vary the intensity as you state in your book, however, Should I stick to intermediate or to upgrade to advanced ( in sets per muscle)?

    2 – Getting into detail, your routine has a lot of middle shoulder work, but mostly secondary . Would it be usefull to add lateral raises?

    Many thanks . Willing to change my mindset and achieve new objectives 🙂

    BR from Spain 🙂

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Arturo,
      1. Have a read of this: How to Break Training Plateaus.
      2. For the vast majority of people it’s not necessary.

  11. Julian says:

    Hi,

    For the triceps I always did tricep dips instead of an isolation excersice on the previous routine. I’m planning to do the same on this routine. Would this reduce the progression rate of other muscle groups?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      It could go one of three ways: work better, work the same, work less well.

      The purpose of our training is to give the body enough stimulus to grow and recover. If we do too much, we can fail to recover; if the volume isn’t sufficient, we won’t progress as well as we otherwise could (or at all). With the dips you have overlap to consider with the shoulders and chest. The only way to know is to try and see.

  12. Ryan says:

    Love the books. Bought them a few years ago and rereading them now after the updates. Do you have excel templates we can use to track our progress?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Ryan, thank you. We don’t.

  13. Jeff says:

    Hi Andy,

    I’ve been doing this program for 7 weeks with 1 week of deload (4th week) and the results were great. How long do you recommend I continue doing program? or Should I change the exercises and keep the same sets/reps/RPE?

    Thanks again for sharing your knowledge!

    Thanks in advance!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      For as long as things keep working! 🙂

  14. mohd says:

    hello andy 🙂 first i wanna thank for this site , learned a lot from it 🙂 anyway my question as an intermediate do you think this split (upper,lower,ppl) is the best option ? cause i was thinking abt a days split kind similar to this its like this : upper , lower . chest&back, legs , shoulder and arms . in your opinion can this one work or the one you recommnds is better ?
    many thanks in advance 🙂
    P.S sorry for bad English

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Mohd,
      This split is just one of many options. The start of our How to Build Training Programs guide covers other options and considerations at the start.

      1. mohd says:

        thnx man really appreciate your answer 🙂 but just to make it clear, in your opinion is there any advantages / disadvantages to do upper,lower,ppl OR upper,lower , chest&back , legs , arms and shoulders ?
        many many thanks in advance and sorry if im repeating myself here

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          They’re quite similar, but I probably wouldn’t dedicate a day to arms and shoulders.

  15. gustavo says:

    Hello! I have a herniated disc of the lumbar spine l3. Can I do squatting and deadlift?

    I am waiting for the translation of the books into the Portuguese language.
    Thank you Andy!

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Gustavo,
      This is something you need to ask a medical professional about.

  16. Mario Pasquarelli says:

    Hi Andy! Is there a way you’d recommend I split it if I we’re trying to make this a four day split?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      You’d need to take the same volume/exercises, and split them across four days.

      You’ll see on the Quick Start Guide to Programming, page 206 that with four days per week your options when rearranging things are: 1) Upper, Lower, Full Body, Full Body, 2) Lower, Upper, Lower, Upper, 3) Full Body, Full Body, Full Body, Full Body.

  17. Oscar says:

    Great program! I only have one question: Why dont you have incline press in your program?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

  18. Rodrigo says:

    Andy, I’m doing the Big 3 for a cut (down 20 kgs already, there’s still 13 kgs to go). Would it be ok if I switch to a BB program since I’ve plauteud in my lifts?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Yes, absolutely, but use the novice program next, not this. Good work by the way. 🙂

  19. Chris says:

    Hello Andy, new follower here and i have a couple of questions and i would appreciate if you can answer me so i can start the program
    1. At the beginning of this article you have a photo which is the breakdown of the intermediate programe and says chest 13 sets/week, back 14 sets/week, biceps 18 sets/week, triceps 19 sets/week. Is that valid ? Because at your program i see only on upper body 3 sets of biceps and 3 sets of triceps.
    2. To further up the first question, you state this new version it recommends 10-20 hard sets per muscle group, then why only 3 sets for biceps and triceps ?
    3. All the exercises is RPE 8, which that means to could do 2 more reps for each set, is that correct?
    4. For progression, im starting with small increases (novice progression) and when i cant increase more im moving to intermediate progression whoch means linear periodization for compound movements as u desribe in your article and double progression for isolation movements, correct ?
    Thanks in advance.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Chris,
      1/2. Yes. Don’t forget that the biceps and triceps are trained in all your pull–push movements, respectively.
      3. No, this is for the first set.
      4. Yes.

      1. Chris says:

        Thanks man, all clear ! 🙂

  20. Cody says:

    Hi Andy.

    Love the program.

    Could it be suitable for a cut? I’m guessing that it could so long as the volume was reduced.

    Or would it be better to go with a 3x full body or a simple upper/lower?

    I’m 32, a new dad, and not getting the best sleep and recovery at the moment 🙂

    Thanks in advance ^_^

    *p.s. I tried to submit a question before, but I don’t think it uploaded. Sorry if this message comes through twice

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Cody,
      Here’s how you can make a guess as to whether the volume is appropriate or not:

      1) How much volume are you currently adapted to (used to) and does that match up with this? If so, are you progressing? If yes, don’t change it. If no, consider increasing it (if you’re recovering find and feel it’s not sufficient) or decreasing it (if you’re not recovering fine — you feel sore all the time perhaps — and it’s too much).

      Also, consider the following:
      2) When cutting, your recovery capacity is reduced a little, progressively more so with the severity of the calorie deficit and the longer you diet.
      3) When your sleep is screwed up, your recovery capacity is hampered also, and you can expect this to scale with the severity.

      So, if these are new circumstances affecting point 1, factor that in.

      Ultimately, you’re making guesses and will have to try and see. Then track and adjust according to this progress decision chart:

      When Unsure How to Progress Flowchart

      1. cody says:

        I only just saw your reply! Thanks Andy!

        I think this is literally the best website on the internet. No joke.
        I’ve been following you since the early days, way back since the original LeanGains Facebook group, when you were just starting out. 6-7 years ago maybe?
        Its been brilliant to watch the site, content, and followers grow.
        You have done, and are doing great! Love it! 🙂

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          Most welcome and thank you!

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