There are now 6 training programs on the site. This can be confusing, so I hope this article helps you choose between them.

In it, I argue that training program choice should depend on our level of training advancement, but that it is foolish to try to gauge this by how much we can lift.

Instead, it’s our familiarity with the lifts and how quickly we can recover and progress that should guide us in program selection.

Note: Though my original intention was to just tweak this article to improve it (as I do many of the articles on the site), I ended up completely rewriting it July 2019.


Your Training Program Should Depend on Your Training Level

The training program you should choose depends on how advanced a trainee you are.

I’m sure you know this. But how can we define it and therefore make program selection easier?

First, let’s start with how not to define training level.

It’s not a good idea to define your training level based on how much you can lift.

I’m going to take an extreme example here to illustrate my point:

My friend Greg benched 275 lbs (125 kg) and deadlifted 425 (193 kg) on his first real day in a weight room.

He was 14 years old and weighed ~170 lbs (~75 kg), a rank novice!

Greg then went on to squat mid 500s (~250 kg), bench 400 (~180 kg), and deadlift 600 (270 kg) not long after turning 16 at a bodyweight hovering around 195-205 (~90 kg).

These are numbers that many of us dream of one day getting.

Yet, there is no argument; he was still an intermediate trainee at that time for he went on to set a few world records in his early 20s.

Now, if you were to look at his lifting numbers in isolation, many would conclude from the start that he was an advanced lifter and recommend him a program as such.

But this would have been dreadfully inappropriate.

How about defining lifting advancement by strength relative to body weight?

Well, this doesn’t work either.

Greg was benching and deadlifting 1.6x and 2.5x body weight on his first day and squatting close to 3x, benching 2x and deadlifting 3x within 2 years. — Something many of us will only achieve after many many years of grinding away, if ever.

This is the point where people say to me, “Hey, but Greg’s a clear outlier, stop using stupid examples. Bodyweight targets can be useful!”

While I don’t dispute that having a strength relative to bodyweight goal can be a great motivator, this is no way to prescribe a training program.

Just as Greg is a genetically gifted freak, what about all those that have been training hard, with good form, for years and are still below average?

Are you going to prescribe these ‘genetically un-gifted’ folks a novice program just because their relative strength pushes them into that arbitrary category, dooming them to further stagnation?

It just isn’t helpful to treat those struggling as average. Therefore prescribing training protocols based around average relative strength at each stage is a bad idea.

I think a far more instructive way of doing things is to categorize training advancement in terms of familiarity with the lifts, and then how quickly we can recover and progress with them.


How I Like to Think About Training Level

As you can tell from what I have written above, I’m not interested in any arbitrary distinctions of training advancement based on strength.

It just isn’t useful in any way.

Similarly, size doesn’t tell us how advanced of a trainee someone is either.

Sure, consistent effort, dedication, and avoiding injury play a significant role in what you can achieve, but there is absolutely no question that some people win the genetic lottery and others don’t.

(Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson was probably born with bigger biceps than all of us.)

The fact is, you’re either as strong and jacked as you like, or you aren’t. And if you are not, you gotta figure out how to get yourself to the next level.

There are only two times I think about categorizing training advancement:

  1. Estimating how quickly someone can gain muscle when in a bulk phase, and
  2. Deciding on appropriate programming.

So how do I do that?

I like to do this by considering how competent people are with the basic lifts (whether they need more form practice), and then their ability to make progress (the less complication they need in their training, the less advanced they are).

This leads me to two pieces of advice that I believe are universally applicable whether you choose to use one of the training programs on this site or not.

Keep exercise variety low, initially.

This means if you’re new to lifting, for god’s sake, get some practice in with a few key movements and choose a novice program that allows you to do that.

You will limit your long-term strength gains by loading heavy early on with shitty form. You want to ingrain the movements such that your body will naturally move in certain ways without you actively thinking about it.

If you take up many different exercises right from the start, you will have many different movements to ingrain, and this will often slow down the learning process of each exercise.

By focusing on a limited number of exercises, you will develop your ability to keep proper lifting form under heavy load, and this will enable you to train safely and more effectively.

Keep your progression method as simple as you need to.

If you’re comfortable with your form, you can think about how well you are currently recovering.

A simple way to think about recovery is how complicated we need to make our training to progress.

If you can increase the weight lifted (or the number of reps performed) from session to session, this is called linear progression.

If you can use linear progression for the majority of your exercises then I would class you as a novice trainee. The novice programs are likely a good place to start.

Don’t let the word ‘novice’ bruise your ego. If you can use linear progression, then you should use linear progression as this is the fastest way to make progress.

If you need to alternate training intensities and volume, and split your training into blocks in order to still make progress (this is called periodization), I’d class you as an intermediate trainee.

You probably need a higher level of training volume, and the intermediate programs are likely a good place to start.

Don’t try an intermediate progression model such as linear periodization too early.

Let’s put this all together.


Choosing a Training Program

For the beginner, I would suggest that you start with The Big 3 Routine. This will have you performing the squat, bench press, and deadlift every training session.

(As you gain more proficiency, you will need to tweak things in order to recover sufficiently between sessions. I have guidelines for this covered in that program’s article.)

When you are confident in your form, consider moving on to one of the following programs.

If you are proficient with the compound lifts, I would suggest you start with either,

  1. The Novice Bodybuilding Program
  2. The Novice Powerlifting Program

The former is slightly more skewed towards aesthetics and the latter more towards strength, but don’t worry about the difference, just choose based on your preferences on how you would like to train as ‘size vs. strength’ is mostly a false dichotomy at this stage.)

If you find that you can’t progress from session to session, one of the following may be your appropriate start point:

  1. The Intermediate Bodybuilding Program
  2. The Intermediate Powerlifting Program

However, only if you are:

  1. sleeping well;
  2. keeping stress low;
  3. eating a caloric surplus (If you’re dieting, more in the next section);
  4. consuming enough protein, defined as at least 0.7 g/lb+ (1.6 g/kg) of body weight;
  5. not constantly training too close to failure or too far from it (aka. minding your ‘RPE targets’, which you’ll see I’ve talked about in the training program articles); and
  6. confident that your lifting technique is solid.

Otherwise, concluding you need an intermediate training program could be the wrong decision and put you further in the recovery hole. Fix these first.

(An aside, if you lack confidence in your form and don’t have anyone local you can trust, consider this excellent video guide by my co-authors on The Muscle and Strength Pyramid books and their colleagues).

Advice On Program Selection When Cutting

So then, this leads the obvious question for some people:

“If I am cutting phase, how do I know whether the intermediate training programs are more appropriate than the novice ones, or if my lack of progress session to session is due to the lack of a caloric surplus?”

This is a very good question.

To answer this, I want you to think of your training volume as the number of sets per body part (or movement) that you do per week.

Count the number of sets you are performing each week per body part or movement and choose the program — novice or intermediate — that is the closest match to this.

(The novice programs are around 10 sets and the intermediate programs around ~15 sets per week.)

Consider also that when we’re bulking (in a caloric surplus), our training volume needs to be sufficient to drive growth (or we’ll just get fat), but not so high that we fail to recover.

When we’re cutting (in a caloric deficit), our training volume needs to sufficient to maintain muscle mass, while allowing growth if possible, ideally, without any regression.

Needless to say, the amount of volume we can handle when bulking is greater than when cutting. But your personal need depends on what you are adapted to.

This means that it is not possible to say that a routine is for cutting or bulking — what might be an appropriate volume level while cutting for one person might be too much for another.

What we can say in general though is as follows:

  1. As you switch from a cut to a bulk, the addition of a set or two to your current exercises (or adding exercises) may be a good idea.
  2. When you start cutting, if you find yourself failing to recover, consider reducing the number of sets (or exercises) performed.

Anticipated Questions

How much progress can I expect to make when cutting?

This used to be a section of this original article five years ago, but I decided to expand on the content and published it as its own article here: What is Realistic Strength Progress While Cutting.

What about classifying training level by the amount of training volume needed?

This is one of those good ideas in principle but in practice, it falls flat.

The amount of training volume we need to progress will go up over the course of our training careers.

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

So, should we say that if you’re currently progressing on the low, mid, or upper end of that range that you’re a novice, intermediate, or advanced trainee?

The problem is that on average people train with more volume than needed, and while they might be making progress, they’ll likely progress better with less.

Thanks for reading. Questions welcomed in the comments.

– Andy

195
Comments

Please keep questions on topic, write clearly, concisely, and don't post diet calculations.

avatar
700

Privacy policy.

newest oldest
Taran
Taran

Hey Andy, first I want to say thanks for all the free content.

Secondly, my question is I’ve been training for about 7-8 years now, most of which has been program hopping. I’ve made a little bit of progress and can perform most lifts with really good form. I’m a 23 year old male, 6’0, 225 lbs, and roughly 18-20% bf at the moment. I want to cut down to 205-ish so I’ll be around 10-12% bf before massing. Would it be worth it to start with the novice program and just make progress as long as possible while in a deficit and then focus on maintaining through the rest of the cut? Or go with the intermediate program? Thanks in advance!

Taran
Taran

Awesome, thanks! One other question, would it be alright to do a little extra volume for side/rear delts and arms?

Taran
Taran

Thanks!

Brian
Brian

Hey Andy, on the progress tracker that you’ve given as a free download, how would you structure the big 3? Given that the workouts change days each week, I’m wondering how to set this up on the tracker as it’s based on days of the week with weeks going across horizontally. Probably not making much sense in text form, but should make sense with the visuals.

Brian
Brian

Hi Andy, I really appreciate the reply, but I don’t think I explained very well.

Let’s say you have a ‘strong lifts’ type of routine, with an A workout & a B workout to be performed 3xpw.

On the sheet you’d have A on day one, B on day 2 & then A again on day 3 for week one, the following week you’d have B on day one, A, on day 2 & then B again on day 3,

The problem then occurs with listing the workouts on the sheet, since the workouts are changing days each week, but sheet is structured with a fixed specific workout to a specific day of the week.

I’m sure there’s other ways, but I like the simplicity of your sheet. Hope this makes sense & Thanks again

Brian
Brian

Perfect, I hadn’t though of that, thanks!

Luke Doran
Luke Doran

Hey Andy,

I have a fair few clients who can only train x2 / week – most due to life & circumstance, others as lifting isn’t their main sport (e.g combat sports being the most common)

I’ve always kept things simple and more often than not followed a linear approach to increasing volume these guys (as discussed in your article above)

After reading the strength pyramid and what looks to be “optimal” volume etc it got me thinking…

So My Q:

As it’s harder to hit those more optimal volume targets over just 2 d/week, would you lean towards having bigger longer sessions e.g more sets?

Or just keep at an appropriate level without overtraining and know progress might not be as fast as volume is lower?

How would you go about structuring a 2d/w plan for a novice and intermediate?

Appreciate any thoughts, tips & guidance! 🤗😎💪🏻!

Brandon
Brandon

Hello Andy,

I have been following your work for a few months now and definitely want to follow one of your programs. I’ve read a lot of the content on your site, but was wondering if I could get some advice on my situation to go along with the info.

I am a 22-year-old male with a couple of years of training experience, though I have been bad about program hopping and what not. I have been very inconsistent for the past six months or so and feel I have lost a lot of my strength and I have gained a good bit of fat. I figure I should start with a novice program to build back up, but am not sure whether to fo with something such as the Novice Bodybuilding Routine, the Big 3 routine, or Novice Powerlifting Routine.

Any advice is greatly appreciated!

Brandon
Brandon

Thank you so much for the quick response! When you go with either of the others, do you mean besides the Big 3? As in pick either the novice bodybuilding or powerlifting depending on which sounds most exciting?

Thanks again so much for the response and awesome content!

Sebastian
Sebastian

I’m 31 I’ve been going to gyms for 5 years now, before all i did was outdoor stuff (rock climb, mountain bike, kayak, surf, skate, etc…) when i started i had no idea what i was doing so I’ve hopped around trying many different programs from mass builders to CrossFit and HIIT, and always find myself in an overtraining situation and I think it comes from two things; initially i felt guilty if i wasn’t constantly training to get better for a navy SO contract I was chasing and now I just really enjoy exercise and working out so I tend to over do it. This program is very simple and short which i know is by design but I’m worried I’ll get bored. Is it okay to do yoga or something in addition?

My goal is a better physique I’m fine with strength levels currently. My diet is trash but I’m changing it.
6’1” 223lbs ~15-18% bf
315 bench (bad shoulder)
430 squat
520 deadlift

P.s. as someone with two very bad shoulders. I️ can’t agree more with avoiding dips and kipping pull ups. I️ even have trouble with my bench and push ups because of it.

Glenn
Glenn

I’ve been training for 1.5 years now, gained 27lbs by doing a full body routine and lately an upper/lower split. But due to my upcoming exams I can only train 2 times a week.

Would a full body (A/B) style still be effective?

Also, my TDEE is around 2400 calories, should I lower this to 2200 now that I’m only working out 2 times a week instead of 3-4?

Thanks!

David
David

Hi Andy,

How do you tell if you have sufficient recovery? I’m 190lbs, 45yo, with a 4×5 of 200 bench, 215 squat, and 280 dead about 6 months in using an ABAB weekly split. (I tried a Big 3 type AAA weekly and my lifts quickly cratered at my age). I’ve stopped progressing, and can’t tell if I should add sets or decrease volume to an ABA split. BTW I naturally have a big chest and long thin legs so the bench and squat numbers being so close doesn’t really surprise me.

Elton
Elton

Great stuff thanks Andy – you answered a couple of questions already 🙂

Jon
Jon

Hi Andy, do you have any information on training resources catered specifically to women?

I have a sister that is in the process of trying to improve her physique. She has gotten her dietary lifestyle locked in and has been shedding a lot of body fat. Now she is in a position where she wants to increase the intensity of her training. Like most women, she has the phobia of getting “too big/bulky.” I have tried to dispel these worries to an extent, telling her that at this point she still just needs to focus on weight/fat loss, but admittedly my knowledge regarding training is pretty much exclusive to men. While I believe wholly in the training approaches you espouse on the site, I would like to provide her some more specialized resources regarding training approaches for women. Any resources you would recommend? Thanks!

oliver hinojosa
oliver hinojosa

hi my name is oliver, i was wondering if you offer any time up of training program, As in work out program or service that i could maybe get to follow . I am not so good at setting up a program to do my self. i am currently trying to prep for a novice bodybuilding and want to try the methods you teach and try a workout program if you offer it of course

Andrew Colucci
Andrew Colucci

Hey Andy. I’ve been lifting for about 5 years but never really followed a solid training program. My strength numbers would leave me still at the beginner level. I always followed a bodybuilding style routine, 5-6 days per week. Would I benefit from using a 3 day split and focusing on building strength with RPT?

Gabe
Gabe

Love your site and articles, Andy. I was just wondering, if alright with you, that i can have some suggestions to further study this? Do you have textbooks i can look up or literature to search on this articles topic. I am not challenging you or doubting the information provided, i just want to learn and further research this (weight training while on a deficit, cardio, stress, and dieting). Thanks in advance 🙂

David
David

Hi Andy,

First of all, thank you for sharing your knowledge and expertise – it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say I’m on here most days.

I’m currently coming to the end of my cutting phase – 12%BF and lower abs almost visible – and began planning my bulking routine after a two week stabilisation period (I feel more a sign of enjoying the journey/thinking than rushing to the next step)

However, I’ve found that using kettlebells at home to the form of training I can stick to most – routine, cost and general enjoyment wise. 5×5 has helped me make well above expected progress towards my cutting goal along side your nutritional advice.

Would you have any kettlebell routine recommendations for the bulking phase?

I’m considering German Volume Training with front squats and military presses – however, reading of their potential detrimental effects on strength go against your advice to focus on strength and size will come.

I’d consider myself begginer-intermedieted.

Kindest regards,
David

Christine
Christine

Hi Andy,
I am enjoying all the information I have been reading on your site.
I know that it tends to be frowned on, but where could one find a good strength and endurance program?
Love lifting, but love running. I understand doing both limits strength and limits running records, but that isn’t why I do either.
Not looking for hypertrophy, more strength and physical benefits of lifting.
Thanks!

Pedro
Pedro

Hi andy , ive read that doing weighted dips could damage my shoulders in the long term, my goal is to be able to do dips 2x my bodyweight (80kg), right now I’m at bw+15kg and I haven’t had any problems and I wanna continue doing dips cause is one of the exercises I like the most, do you think I can continue until i reach my goal or should I change dips for something else? And if so what exercise do you recommend? My chest routine right now is dips and bench press rpt style, and push ups with my hands forming a triangle

Jeff Couret
Jeff Couret

Is there an example on your site of the “periodisation” plan that you are suggesting to intermediate and advanced bulkers?

mehdi
mehdi

hello Andy thank you for your answer but i think that i didn t explain my question enough i meant that if someone want to transition from a more focused hyperthrophy routine to a strenght one should he adjust his volume and see were its lead them or restart from the big 3 ps: just start reading the science of lifting

mehdi
mehdi

hello Andy what can someone who have been doing a lot of accessory work (hyperthrophy day) PHAT do to adjust to one of those routines tnx

Stephen
Stephen

Hi Andy,

I have a few questions. After I complete my cut and want to start bulking again, where do I start? Do I start over with the Big3 again even though on my cut i progressed to the A/B/C split?

I understand the part explaining cutting back on the weight lifted and start building up the volume. I’m just a little confused which routine I should start on. I progressed to the A/B/C split because I was trying to still make strength gains on a deficit. But now that I’m not on a deficit do I start over again?

Thanks

Stephen
Stephen

Yes I think so. I think I’ll probably start back with the A/B split because I prefer the 5×5 straight sets to RPT and I find the volume is too low on the 3 day split.

Thank you for the quick response.

Tobias Hupel
Tobias Hupel

Hey Andy,
I’m going to start my first cut next week. Until now I was bulking and trained like your Intermediate Bodybuilding program with just a few changes. My body fat percentage is around 12%. I estimate myself on intermediate level. (based on strength standards)

So probaply i need to shrink the training volume. I have read in “The 9 Categories Guide..” that 3 days training per week is enough to retain muscle mass. (My Category: “Muscled, a few pounds to lose”). Furthermore I have read in the comments: “Key point: adjust and modify your routine based on how you progress rather then just switching from one routine to another.”

My Question: Should I continue with the 5 day split program without decreasing volume until i feel not regenerated and then switch to a 3 full body split program or should I start with the 3 day split anyway?

BTW: Thanks for your great work! I have read the nutrition setup guide in one go, awesome! (Fortunately, I did some things right before without counting macros)

trackback
Training Effectively | Principles | RippedBody.jp

[…] Which Routine Is For Me? […]