How to Keep Progressing as a Novice and Intermediate Trainee

What follows are the exact initial guidelines on training progression that I give to clients. They are an abbreviated version of the guidelines in The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid book that I co-authored with Eric Helms and Andrea Valdez.

They are exceptionally logical and structured, the antithesis to the approach of just hitting the gym, smashing some weights and hoping for progress. They will stop you from wrecking your joints when starting out by increasing the weight you lift too quickly, and they will help prevent you from stalling for months on end, often without you realizing it. If you put the effort to read, understand and implement these instructions they are going to pay off for you big time. I will be waiting in Tokyo for you to buy me an overpriced craft beer as a thank you. 😉

Novice Progression: For Use When You Are Able to Make Load Increases Session to Session

The following progression rules work well for exercises you are able to make incremental progressions in weight session to session with. This is what defines the “novice progression” category. This is not about how long you have been lifting, or how much you can lift. My friend Greg Nuckols took his deadlift and squat to over 500 lbs before he needed to use some form of non-linear progression (periodization) as you will when you get to the “intermediate progression” rules, and yet no-one would look at those lifting stats and call him a novice. Admittedly, he is a genetic freak and was born to lift, but the point is that I want you to separate your ego from the name of each of the progression rules. Do not skip this section just because it is titled novice progression.

Novice progression is faster than intermediate progression, so use these rules while you can.

You will progress more quickly with some exercises than others. You may have more experience with some exercises already than others. You may have taken some time off from performing an exercise which means you would benefit from changing your progression style from “intermediate” to the novice style temporarily. Therefore, for some exercises in your program you may use novice progression rules, but for others, you may need to use intermediate progression rules.

How to Choose the Weight You Lift Initially

If you are new to a lift or returning to a lift after some time off, on the first workout just choose a weight where you feel comfortable performing all the sets and reps listed, with that same weight. You don’t want to be pushing to a maximum here because you will be learning (or relearning) the movement.

If you see, Squat 2×8, listed in your program for example, then choose a weight you feel comfortable performing 8 reps for, for two sets.

Sometimes you may see exercise listed like this, Squat 2×8 (~70% 1RM). This means perform 2 sets of 8 reps, using a weight that is approximately equivalent to 70% of your one rep maximum (1RM) for the first workout. Now, it’s important to note that this is just a guideline to help you choose a weight. If you are new to an exercise you will just have to guess at the initial weight you use because you won’t know your 1RM, and it doesn’t make any sense to test for it at this stage because you will get better quickly with practice.

For those that have experience with a lift but don’t know their 1RM, it’s possible to use a 1RM calculator. Just plug in the number of reps and the weight you can lift it for and it will tell you your estimated 1RM. You can then take a percentage of that number to set the weight you will lift with.

For example, if you know the maximum you can squat for a single set of 5 reps is 200 (5RM), and your program lists, Squat 2×8 (~70% 1RM) on the one day, and Squat 3×4 (~85% 1RM), on the other, you have two options for choosing a starting weight:

  1. Guess how much you can lift for 2 sets of 8 reps, and 3 sets of 4 reps. Your guess might be 150 lbs on the first day and 180 lbs on the other day.
  2. Plug those numbers into my beautiful 1RM calculator and find that your estimated 1RM, then just calculate 70% and 85% of that respectively. Using the calculator for a 5RM of 200 lbs gives us an estimated 1RM of 225 lbs, so from that you can get your starting weight for the first day of 157.5 lbs (225*0.7) and second day ~190 lbs (225*0.85).

Either option is fine, the calculation method is just an estimation anyway and you are only doing this for the first workout.

How to Progress After the First Session

After the first session just add weight in steady increments each time. For the heavy full and lower body compound movements (e.g., squats and deadlifts) I’d suggest you increase 10 lbs each session initially, assuming you can do so with good form. For other exercises that work less overall musculature, (e.g., the bench press, overhead presses, rows and any isolation exercises) you’ll want to progress in 5 lb or 2.5 lb increments.

There will be a point where your progress slows down and it is not possible to make increases session to session. If you have micro plates (1 lb, 0.5 lb) you can use those to keep increasing the weight each session. If you don’t have access to these (as with most gyms) just increase the weight every other session, focusing on the feeling of it being easier in that second session. Meaning, use the same weight, sets, and reps, but there will be a lower rating of perceived exertion (RPE). More on RPE later.

Here is an example of how someone would progress with this system. I’ve chosen 5×5 just to keep the numbers simple.

This is just an example, and obviously, you will want to adjust according to how you progress, but pay attention to the following points:

  • The load is increased linearly using the same rep range. This is called “single progression” (of load). Note that by increasing the load, the volume is also increased.
  • When the target repetitions cannot be completed, the load is maintained for the next session, and the repetition targets are attempted again.
  • Reduce the load by 10% if you fail to achieve your target reps in two consecutive workouts. The next workout, return to the weight you were unable to complete the target repetitions with and you will more than likely succeed. This is a very simple method of “deloading.” This is a strategy that allows built-up fatigue from weeks of training to dissipate, which in turn lets us continue progressing. There is no need to set this at specific time intervals for novice progression, but it will become necessary for intermediate progression.

If your progress starts to stall after implementing the deload as described above without a return to progress afterwards (assuming sleep, nutrition etc. are in check), it will be time to consider changing your progression pattern to that of an intermediate trainee which I’ve covered below.

Using RPE Based on Repetitions in Reserve

You’ll see that I have numbers and “RPE” noted next to the exercises in your training plan.

RPE is a useful method of measuring intensity when lifting called Reps In Reserve (RIR) based on Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). This was popularized and developed by powerlifting coach Michael Tuchscherer and has been researched by Dr. Mike Zourdos and my co-author on The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid, Eric Helms.

RPE when using this scale is based on how close to failure you get at the conclusion of each set. You simply do your sets and choose how close to failure you wish to get. A 10 RPE would be at failure (or rather, no additional load or reps could have been performed), a 9  RPE would be one rep left, an 8RPE would be two. Have a look at the table:

Sometimes we may use an RPE target to prescribe load on its own (e.g. Seated Cable Rows 3×5 @8-9 RPE), or used in combination with a %1RM (e.g. Squat 3×8 @6-7 RPE, 67.5-72.5% 1RM). This is useful because sometimes when you are in a fatigued state, you may under perform, and by doing this I am able to tell you how much stress you should be experiencing, versus what is being prescribed.

For example, let’s say your performance was slightly suppressed due to residual fatigue, but you had 5 reps at 85% of 1RM programmed. Feeling great, you might finish this set with 1 RIR (a 9 RPE). However, in a fatigued state, this might end up being to failure or you might even miss the final rep. To avoid this, I’ll prescribe not only a percentage of 1RM target but also an RPE rating so that you can adjust the load as needed to match the intended stress.

So, if one day you have Squat 3×8 @6-7 RPE (67.5-72.5% 1RM) programmed for example, but the weight feels heavier than usual today, and though you can get your target of 8 reps, you feel that you could only have performed one more rep (which would be an RPE of 9, not 6-7), then you’ll reduce the weight you lift for the next set to around the level where you will hit your RPE target. You’ll then finish any subsequent sets using that weight.

Note: Subsequent sets will be more difficult as you fatigue so use the lower end of the RPE rating for the first set. Also, bear in mind that on some days the latter sets can be disproportionately hard, and for that reason, we don’t want to go more than 2 RPE points higher than the starting setting. So, if your initial RPE setting is 7, then don’t perform any sets over an RPE of 9. If you do then stop your set, and if you have another set to perform, choose a lower weight so that you can hit the target number of reps.

This system works best when you have training experience with a lift. So for any exercises in your plan that are new to you, just bear in mind that you will get better at using this system over time with them.

[For a fuller explanation of RPE and how to implement it in your training programs check out this free email course Eric Helms and I put together.]

On Training to Failure

As it is related to RPE, I’ll include some notes here on training to failure.

Training to failure is something I was a fan of for years, but have moved further and further away from as I’ve gained more experience as a coach.

“Failure” has two common meanings:

  1. Where there is a breakdown in form during a rep but maybe an additional repetition could be performed with poor form (“form failure”), and
  2. Where the weight can no longer be physically moved (“mechanical failure”).

In general, we don’t want to perform the big, multi-joint compound lifts to mechanical failure (squat variations, deadlift, overhead press, etc.) as the risk of injury when form breaks down is too high. Even performing these lifts to form failure on a regular basis is a bad idea for the same reasons and because the systemic fatigue generated is also very high (which can limit your ability to perform for the rest of the session). That said, it is much safer to train to failure with isolation exercises that don’t require full body efforts such as bicep curls, leg extensions, or even some machine compound movements like rows, pulldowns or perhaps the leg press.

You may be thinking at this point, “Why would I ever not want to go to failure? Doesn’t failure increase the amount of muscle activation I get and ensure that I have trained the fiber completely?” Those things are true for the most part, however, that’s looking at each exercise in isolation, rather than the big picture.

If you were to do 3 sets of bench with your 5 RM load, and on your first set you maxed out and went to failure, you would probably drop down to 3 and then possibly 2 reps on your next two sets depending on your rest interval. This will be 10 reps total. However, if you were to stop and just do 4 reps on the first set, you may be able to maintain 4 reps for all 3 sets. This will be 12 reps total.

In this way, it’s easy to see that we can hurt the amount of volume that we can do by going to failure too frequently. Thinking even bigger picture, going past just the single exercise, and thinking about subsequent training sessions, there are further negative implications of training to failure all the time.

As volume is a key driver of training progress, and training to failure can hurt the amount of volume we can perform, I do not want you to go to failure with any sets unless instructed.

Intermediate Progression – When You Are No Longer Able to Make Load Increases Session to Session

We have two different sets of progression rules which I’ve split into the categories, “compound movements” and “isolation movements.” We will now have a deload every 4th week for both.


With novice progression, a simple 10% reduction in weight was all that was necessary to deload, and you did this whenever additional weight could not be added. Managing fatigue is a little more complex however for the intermediate trainee (which is probably best defined as someone who needs to use intermediate progression techniques for the majority of their lifts).

You will have lift-specific, periodical deloads built into the progression pattern every four weeks. This allows residual fatigue dissipate before it can build to a point where it hampers performance and prevents you from progressing with the workout plan as intended. It will also reduce the risk of injury by allowing your connective tissues to recover. You must resist the temptation to not deload.

Occasionally, we will have a full deload week where I will instruct you to reduce volume (and sometimes intensity) for all exercises. I will typically do this at times where life or work stresses are high and I feel you could use a break. I may also suggest one when progress just seem a little off with expectation and I think you could benefit from one. For exercises with 2-3 sets, I want you to reduce the set number by one. For exercises with 4+ sets, reduce the set number by two. If I want you to reduce the intensity also I will give a percentage I wish you to reduce the loads lifted by, typically, 10%.

Intermediate Progression Rules for Compound Movements – “Linear Periodization”

Let’s say that you have Bench Press 3×6-8, 70-75% 1RM listed in your training program.

  • Choose a weight where you can complete 3 sets of 8, without needing a spot and rarely hitting failure on the last set (RPE no higher than 9.5 on last set and typically lower). If you unsure of what weight that might be, use the percentage of 1RM listed to guide you. So, if you can lift 200 lbs, choose 70% of that to start with, so 140 lbs.
  • For each successive workout, increase the load by 5 lbs and reduce the number of reps for each set by one.
  • The 4th workout is a deload day where you intentionally reduce both the load and reps.
  • On the 5th workout, get back to 3×8 and increase the load to slightly more than what you used the prior time you used 8 repetitions.

Here is how that looks in a table:

You can see that load, reps and volume will fluctuate workout to workout, but the load being used will increase every four weeks. This is called “linear periodization,” meaning that intensity goes up as volume goes down. It is a wave loading intermediate progression because the volume increases every fourth week.

Wave Loading Periodization

For the 3-5, 4-6, 5-7, and 6-8 rep ranges, drop the rep target by 1 rep each week with only a 5-10 lb (2.5-5 kg) increase in load week to week.

For the higher rep ranges of 8-12, reduce the rep target by 2 rather than 1 each week. So for example, if you see Incline Press 3×8-12 listed you would do a week of 12’s, then 10’s, and then 8’s, while increasing the load 5-10 lbs each week. (In most cases I’d recommend 5 lbs.)

Intermediate Progression Rules for Isolation Movements – “Double Progression”

For isolation exercises, it is not realistic to increase load as quickly. Imagine trying to add 5 lbs to your dumbbell bicep curl every fifth week – it is simply an unrealistic amount of progress. That would be an increase 10 times every year, requiring an addition of 50 lbs (~22 kg) to your bicep curl each year when most people can’t even dumbbell curl 50 lbs for one rep strict. Think about it in relative terms. If your max squat is 355 lbs (~160 kg), a 5 lb increase is an increase of about 1.5%. if your max dumbbell curl is 50 lbs a 5 lb increase is an increase of 10%. So that same 5 lb increase is over six times more of an increase for a curl than a squat. Therefore, we need another approach for isolation exercises.

The approach that I’d suggest we use is to add reps week by week, instead of increasing load. This is almost a reverse linear approach, where we are adding volume before increasing intensity, rather than adding intensity while decreasing volume. This is called double progression – we don’t progress the second variable until we progress the first; we don’t progress load before we progress repetitions.

Let’s say that you have Bicep Curl 3×12-15 @7-8 RPE listed in your training program.

  • Choose a load where you feel you can get pretty close to 15 reps for 3 sets (but not quite). (Note that we won’t set load based on a percentage of 1RM for isolation movements as it doesn’t work very well.)
  • Add reps each week, trying to get to the goal of 3×15. Take as many sessions as you need to achieve this. Avoid hitting failure until the last set, or you’ll sabotage your next sets.
  • Take the 4th week as a light week (a deload week). Regardless of what happens in the week prior to the deload, in the deload week go to the bottom of the rep range and just do two sets (12, 12).
  • After the deload you will hopefully come back, find yourself recovered and improve performance (in the example we get 15, 15, 14). Then in the next week, we get 15, 15, 15.
  • Thus in the next session, we increase the load, once again working back towards 3×15.

This is an example of how you as an intermediate trainee can still make pretty visible linear progress on a more or less week to week basis. (As a side note, if adding reps is too difficult in a narrow rep range such as 8-12 or 12-15, you can widen the rep range to allow slower progression, i.e., 8-15.)

Which progression system should I choose for exercise [X]?

The line between “compound movement” and “isolation movement” can be a little blurry. Furthermore, for some exercises that are technically compound movements, the isolation movement progression rules can be better suited as they will allow you to progress between the jumps in weight.

The dumbbell overhead press is one such exercise that immediately comes to mind for example. You may be able to progress using the compound movement progression rules for only a short while before the jump to the next set of dumbbells (which is usually in 5lb increments) becomes too great. At this point, you want to move to using the isolation progression rules.

In terms of progression speed: Linear progression > linear periodization > double progression > advanced periodization techniques.

For all exercises, choose the one furthest to the left of the continuum that you can actually progress with. This is the way you’ll progress fastest. When you can’t do the one, you move onto the next.

Are you suggesting I do the novice progression or some lifts and the intermediate progression for other lifts?

Yes. Whatever lift you can do novice progression for, do so, as you’ll progress fastest.

What about advanced progression?

This is for people who have gained 80-90% of their genetic potential in terms strength and/or hypertrophy and are seeking to get the remaining 10-20%. This can get complicated. We spent 18 pages directly addressing it in The Muscle and Strength Training Pyramid, though I consider the entire 176 pages as necessary cover it fully enough, and a lifetime to master. If you enjoyed this article you’ll get a lot out of the book.

Questions welcomed in the comments. – Andy

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About the Author

Andy Morgan

Hi, I'm Andy, co-author of the highly-acclaimed 'Muscle and Strength Pyramid' books and founder of This site is my sincere effort to build the best nutrition and training guides on the internet. Some readers hire me to coach them, which I've 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, let's start the conversation. (You can read more about Andy here.)


  1. Sonny E says:


    Can double progression be used for the big compounds instead of the wave loading? I have really been enjoyng this method for my isolations and could see myselfe using it for my deadlifts and maybe bench press as well.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Better to stick to wave loading for the compound movements.

  2. Stef says:

    hi there
    say im following the novice progression scheme and i have the same movement 2 days in a week but using different rep ranges (Mon: Bench 4×5 thur: bench 3×12). If i stall on monday and i have to deload, will i need to decrease load for both workout days or only for the day where i stalled?
    Thank you

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Only the one. Treat them separately as the loads used will be different.

  3. Muhamed says:

    Hi Andy,

    I had a question about maintenance. I understand you need to progress by adding more volume gradually, then deload to let fatigue dissipate. But what about when you just want to go through a maintenance phase? How do you know how much to adjust because you don’t want to be doing too little to lose your muscle and not too much to injure your self because you’re eating at maintenance?

    Is it that you just do what you’re doing now but avoid adding more weight or reps and that should be fine or is the volume much much lower? Can you elaborate on this, please? Thank you

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      We don’t exactly, but a maintenance stimulus will be a little less than an adaptive stimulus. Simplest thing to do is to cut back on volume by cutting down the set numbers. If you maintain your lifts – great. If you start to fall back, you took it too far.

  4. Noah says:

    3 questions.

    1. I assume that I shud be lifting every other day?
    2. If #1 above is correct, do I need 2 days rest at the end of each 4 day program in a week?
    3. For the lift sets of 1-3 reps, how many reps do I decline each week? In other words, I can’t decline by 1 each week or I will be at 0 reps by Week/Session 4?


    1. Andy Morgan says:

      1/2. Spread your workouts across the week. Don’t have three consecutive days back to back. You’ll end up with two sessions back to back at the minimum, as there are 7 days in a week, not 9.
      3. On the fourth week do 1.

  5. Daniel says:

    How would one progress with the linear periodization if they train in the same rep range throughout the week, say 3×8 bench press Mon/Wed/Fri? Starting with 3×8 and then -1 Rep + 2.5Kg every 2 days will probably be too much too soon. Or does this simply reflect that the rep schemes from workout to workout also need/should be periodized and changes in load/reps should still occur only once per week?

    Thank you for taking the time.

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Change 8 to 7-9. Boom.

  6. Ethan goggin says:

    Hey Andy, I came over from Greg nuckles article on “two ways to make your novice strength training program better” the first piece of advice was petiodizing when you stall (switch rep schemes), and adding volume when you stall. For example switching 3×5, to 5×3, to 5×5, or 3×10, to 4×8, to 4×10. Do you think it would be beneficial if we implemented this on your novice bodybuilding program?

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Sure. That kind of strategy is built into the novice bodybuilding program. Check out the progression rules you stall.

  7. Ethan Goggin says:

    Hi, what if I stall at one rep range on a movement but not the other (novice bodybuilding program).

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Good question. Treat each independently.

      1. Ethan goggin says:

        Thanks for the answer, I have one more question. On your novice bodybuilding program, do you think that adding volume when you stalled on progression is a good idea? I feel like my body adapted, and I’ve been doing the same volume for 9 weeks.

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          You can certainly try that. This is the general progression model I recommend.

          1. Joe l says:

            Ive been loving the intermediate program, I’m just a little confused on the deload. After every 4 weeks I should decrease the sets by 2 or drop weight by 10% but when do I do a full deload?

            1. Andy Morgan says:

              The ‘10% rule’ is for the novice progression, the ‘2 set rule’ is part of the intermediate progression models. Novice progression is faster than intermediate progression, so use those rules while you can for the exercises that you can.

  8. Muhamed says:

    Hi Andy,

    I had a question about progression which has been bugging me and my current routine.

    I followed your book on creating a routine for my self with your guidelines.

    Here’s an example, on the low end of the rep range I do 40 reps per sessions for quads, so 80 reps per week. So 1/3 27 and 2/3 is 53. (I rounded up) Now I assigned the strength volume part to two thirds and hypertrophy 1/3. Now, you do squats, leg extensions etc.

    Now, I’m at a stage where I’ve reached the max weight on the leg extensions by doing 4 sets of 6 reps and because I need to progressively overload and I can’t add more weight to the machine, what do I do here, add another set? But in doing so, doesn’t it mess up the ratio I have in place in terms of having 1/3 in strength range and 2/3 in hypertrophy?

    How do you deal with adding more volume for a certain exercise alone without affecting the other because I can still progress in the squats for instance, its going well but I can’t do more on the leg extensions and need to progress, how do I go about it? Do I rearrange the volume globally now and say, right increase 10% and adjust the 1/3 of that straight rep range.

    Or am I so stuck on this rep range and ratios that as long as you increase volume, doesn’t matter?

    I would very much appreciate your comments on this, even though it could be simple.

    Thank you

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Yes, you’re right. Adding another set is the simplest way. Remember, these are guidelines, not rules.

      1. Muhamed says:

        Hi Andy,

        Thanks for reply.

        But I didn’t understand your answer very clearly, sorry.

        Because I have those ratios in place as you recommend, me adding another set of leg extensions changes that ratio more and favours a different intensity range.

        Here’s what I mean, because I have my strength workout in pace I’ve assigned 2/3 of that reps in the 1-6 rep range and the other 1/3 in 8-15. Now as I said, I have my squats in place and other compound but the leg extensions I do in the 8-15. Now I’ve reached the maximum so I can’t add more weight so another set is ideal but doing so changes the whole total reps in your guidelines and the ratio isn’t 1/3 or 2/3.

        So your answer was if it gets to that point, increase globally 10-15% and rearrange the volume for quads? But what if I don’t need to change anything on my main lifts like the squats since I’m doing well in that exercise and progressing and adding another set of that maybe because of the volume increase messes it up?

        I think I have a case of analysis paralysis.

        1. Andy Morgan says:

          What I am saying is that the ratios are merely guidelines from which to start. You adjust from there.

          I am not suggesting that you adjust your whole program, just those exercises.

  9. Roman says:


    I’ve integrated the intermediate/ wave loading progression model but I am not always hitting the required rep ranges. For example I hit a weight for 3 sets of 8 without any problems and then the next training session I decrease my reps (7) but increase the weight. But somehow I am not able to finish 3 sets of 7 with the new weight like 7,7,5 for example.
    How should I proceed after a set back like this ? Next training session stick to 7 reps or continue to decrease to 6 and increase weight again but maybe with the risk of not hitting the required rep ranges again ?

    I would be really grateful if you could describe how should I deal with that..

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      It’s likely just a random bad session. Try to move on to 6.

  10. Sonny E says:


    Can I use the Intermediate Progression (for compounds) with different rep ranges than the examples?

    Specifically x5-8 and x7-10. Would be one more session of adding weight and one additional training week before the deload. Will it mess up something?

    Best regards, Sonny

    1. Andy Morgan says:

      Yes, absolutely. Some people are going to look at the content of these articles and see them as rules to follow, which is fine. However, at some point it’s my wish that people see the underlying principles with which they feel free to play with.

      Thank you for asking, Sonny.

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