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 3×8–12 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

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

Read Next:

Always Training To Failure?

That's probably not the best way to optimize your gains.

Learn why, and learn how to auto-regulate your training intensity. Subscribe to our updates and get our free email course.

I take your privacy seriously. No spam. Unsubscribe at any time. Powered by ConvertKit

  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.

197 Comments

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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. 🙂

  4. 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 ! 🙂

  5. 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!

  6. Nizzo says:

    If your doing 3 sets of 10 at first set rpe 8, what’s more beneficial when your fatigued;

    100lbs: 10 reps at rpe 8
    100lbs 10 reps at rpe 9
    100lbs: 9 reps at rpe 9

    Or

    100lbs: 10 reps at rpe 8
    100lbs: 10 reps at rpe 9
    95lbs; 10 reps at rpe 9

    Where in the second example you reduce weight to stay in the 10 rep range without going over your rpe

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Nizzo,
      I can’t see it making any meaningful difference either way as they’d both be ‘hard sets’.

  7. Carlos Vanegas says:

    Hi Andy,

    I’m transitioning from the novice to the intermediate program, I’m almost 40, my goal is to stay healthy and develop a nice looking upper body without strong legs. I have 2 questions:

    1) In regards to doing DL on the same day as squats. I want to be conservative on preventing my lower back from injury by doing DL in a fatigued condition, what would be your recommendation? move DL to other day? reduce intensity on DL? I noticed that for second edition you have also moved DL to same day as squats on the novice program. Any particular reason for this move?

    2) There is a big jump in volume from novice (55 sets) to intermediate (79 sets), how do you recommend to implement this transition? add 5 sets every 4 weeks? if so which lifts would you recommend to start the increase, strength or volume lifts?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Carlos,

      1. I think you underestimate what you might be capable of if you work your way in slowly. But if you wish, you could swap the deadlift with day 3’s hip hinge.

      2. The issue is you’re looking at these samples as programs to be followed, rather than what they are, which is examples of how one might go about organizing the training principles we have laid out in our book in a way that is likely an appropriate starting point for a novice and intermediate trainee, respectively. You don’t jump from one to the other, you build on what you have adding volume where necessary to continue to cause progress.

      This related article may be helpful: How to Break Training Plateaus

  8. Rob says:

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks for the advice.

    I’ve been trialing the intermediate bodybuilding program for a couple of weeks. I just wanted to ask you if you add specific ab routines & cardio in addition to the program.

    Rob

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Rob,
      1) See the section titled, “Why There Are No Shrugs or Direct Abdominal Work in the Bodybuilding Programs”
      2) Have a read of this article on cardio.

  9. Matt says:

    I notice this program changed after the 2nd edition of the book was released.

    What’s the reason for the removal of biceps on pull and flys on push? The previous push/pull days already seemed fairly low on volume, but now seems way too low? 12 sets and done?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Hi Matt, thank you for asking.

      The weight of the evidence suggests 10–20 hard sets per muscle/group or movement is an appropriate volume to prescribe when no fore knowledge of individual needs/tolerance/genetics exist.

      Previously, the first edition programs were based on a 12-year old systematic review (Wernbom 2007) that looked at reps per body part, per week vs. the current meta analyses we have today, based on ‘hard sets’ per body part/movement per week. Thus, in the present programs, there were instances where we decided to reduce the volume as the first edition programs had volume that was too high based on current evidence.

      We have brought volume in line such that the novice programs provide a number of sets per movement/muscle group towards the low end of 10-20, intermediate towards the middle, and advanced towards the upper end.

      This may or may not be less volume than what you are already doing, what you like to do, what ‘feels’ right, or compared to other popular programs or what your favorite athlete or influencer does or suggests. But, unless you are an experienced lifter who knows from well recorded observations over years what your specific volume needs are, I’d advise at least trying to progress using similar volumes to what we recommend first, before deciding it’s too low.

      If you don’t make progress and it’s too easy… fantastic, just do more volume and now you know more about your body’s needs. But in my experience as a coach, it’s just as likely (if not more likely) that you could progress just as well, if not faster, with a lower volume. If that ends up being what happens for you, you also just learned something very valuable; and when you do stall moving forward, you know you’ll easily be able to handle a volume increase to keep progress going as it was an amount you used to (unnecessarily) perform.

      ^ This is from Eric after we just discussed it. You actually caught me in the few days between editing all the programs and I will be emailing this out in the next few days letting everyone know the programs are updated.

      1. Matt says:

        This is a seriously great response, way better than I expected. Thanks for sharing.

        I have been following the first edition program for a while in a deficit and made great progress. Switching it up to a mass gain phase, and was considering changing my program and saw the change in the book / your site.

        Thanks again for the response, super happy to see the success of the 2nd editions so far.

  10. Caio says:

    Hi Andy,
    Congratulations for the books, I have just read the Training Pyramid book and it was amazing i really recommend for anyone who enjoys lifting. So, i decided to run the intermediate bodybuilding program but i was wondering if it is a good idea to put the deadlift and the squat in separate days, because i struggle doing them in the same day, how would you set those exercises?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Are you struggling to do them because you’re trying to do the same loads you were previously, but now on the same day? It’s natural to need to lower the weight.

      1. Caio says:

        When i do the deadlifts first my strenght on the Squat is a lot lower and if i do the Squats first i have trouble maintaining a neutral spine, i was wondering if i should put one of those exercises on day 3 or just lower the weight and try to progress on a lower RPE range( 6-7).

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          Sure. You could make that change and see how you do. There will always be a compromise no matter how a program is structured. That is to say, what you’re experiencing is natural.

Questions welcomed. (Over 16,000 answered)

For the sake of other readers, please:
  • Keep questions on topic,
  • Write clearly, concisely, and click reply when responding,
  • Don't post diet calculations or full training plans asking me to critique them as it depends too heavily on context.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.