If you have exhausted the gains from your beginner program and are looking for what to do to push your physique to the next level then this guest article by Greg Nuckols, one of the top drug-free powerlifters in the world, could be for you.
Friendly, smart, and humble we got along well when I first met him at a conference in May, and I became a fan of his blog, Stronger by Science. When I asked him to write this I didn’t realize quite how special his gift of making difficult concepts appear simple was. It is our sincere hope that this article will help to teach you to be independent with your strength training programming for the intermediate phase.
Enter Greg Nuckols…
I’ve made this conceptually simple purposefully. To this day, I sometimes feel my eyes starting to glaze over when I read periodization jargon like “preparedness” and “accommodation” – and besides, what’s the point of using proper terms if you’re going to either have to take 1000 words explaining them, or risk being thoroughly misunderstood? I understand the need in an academic setting, but there doesn’t seem to be a good resource to lay the foundation for people to understand periodization and programming in the first place. The discourse jumps directly from “do these sets and these reps and add weight to the bar?” to “mesocycles, specific physical preparedness, conjugate sequence system?” and the rest. I hope this article will be a conceptual bridge between A and B.
I’ve been meaning to write something like this for a while. People think programming is so mystical because they’re asking the wrong questions. It’s less about “what sets and reps should I do?” or “do I need to try *insert complicated periodization paradigm here*?” and more about simply training your body to be able to handle and adapt to more stress so you can train harder and see better results.
Force your body to be able to handle more work, reap the benefits of higher training volume, then when you go back to doing less work for a time you’ll adapt with ease and get a ton stronger. Then repeat the process. Easy peasy. But it took a long time of wading through jargon-laced programming articles before it actually became clear.
Is there more to it than that? Sure. But once you understand these basic concepts, the rest is easy enough to pick up without getting overwhelmed.
Most people who initially get into picking up heavy things because of the internet seemingly start on one of three programs: Starting Strength, StrongLifts 5×5, or Reverse Pyramid Training.
The standard advice for these programs – do them until you can no longer consistently add weight to the bar each session, and then find something else. There seems to be a pretty standard list of “something elses” that get suggested, such as 5/3/1, PHAT, Madcow, and Texas Method.
Rather than talk about any specific program in depth, I want to talk more generally about where you and your body are when you plateau on a beginner strength routine, what you need, and how to go from there. That way you’ll have a better conceptual understanding of what you need so you can make more informed choices about your training moving forward.
This article will not attempt to pin down strength standards concerning what you *should* be able to lift before you move on from beginner routines. Such conversations completely ignore the reality of genetic variability. Terms like “novice,” and “intermediate,” and “advanced,” when referring to training routines appropriate for a group of lifters, should refer to experience, knowledge, and time spent under the bar – not arbitrary strength attainments.
Why do I say that? From my own personal experience, I was sitting right on top of some of the “advanced” strength numbers *literally* the first time I touched a barbell. I could bench press 275 and deadlift 425 at a bodyweight under 170 because of a lucky genetic draw and a childhood of sports, manual labor, and lots and lots of pushups. That had absolutely nothing to do with my skill as a lifter or my knowledge about training. I was still a complete novice when it came to lifting and certainly didn’t need any “advanced” training methods to get stronger.
Conversely, some of the most knowledgeable coaches and some lifters who have spent their life under the bar never move beyond “intermediate” strength standards. Calling them an intermediate is bogus, though. They’ve almost certainly learned a lot more than a stronger, more naturally gifted lifter from having to scrap for every little PR their low genetic ceiling would allow. They also almost certainly don’t need a “novice” strength training routine.
I know people who have made linear progress straight to a 500+ squat, and others who have deloaded multiple times and still top out not much above their own bodyweight. Both are ready to move onto a different training program.
So, all of that’s to say, arbitrary strength standards certainly have something to say about how you’d stack up against other lifters in a powerlifting competition, but very little to say about how you need to train or how much you know about lifting.
Most beginner strength training routines have a few things in common: relatively low total volume, relatively high intensity (80%+ of 1rm), and very little variety.
This is, in my opinion, the biggest problem with most beginner routines.
Briefly, when you train, you disrupt homeostasis. Your body perceives this disruption as a threat and responds by making your muscles bigger and stronger to better handle this stressor the next time you face it. To elicit a similar adaptive response the next time you train, you have to increase the stressor – mainly by increasing weight or volume (for beginner routines, this is almost always “add 5 pounds to the bar.”). But, keep in mind, your body has to be able to recover from the stress it’s put under. Eventually, you reach a point where the amount of stress you put on your body each session to try to force adaptation is roughly equivalent to the amount of stress your body can recover from – at that point, if you increase the stress further, your body cannot respond adequately by getting bigger and stronger – it can merely return to baseline (or, if you push further yet, it will start regressing as fatigue accumulates). That’s the point when you plateau on most beginner routines.
The thing bottlenecking your progress is work capacity. Work capacity is, roughly, the amount of stress your body can recover from and adapt to each session. As your work capacity increases, your ability to handle more work and recover from harder workouts increases, so you can begin to increase the stress you’re putting on your body to the point that you once again start adapting and getting bigger and stronger. You can handle more work, so you can do more work, so you can reap the benefits (more size and strength) from more work. But it is all predicated on your body’s ability to actually handle more work.
So, after you finish a beginner training program, your work capacity is probably your limiting factor, and it’s probably relatively low (due to the low training volume of most beginner programs). If you look around at how the top lifters are training, whether it be Eastern Bloc powerlifters with straight volume-driven programs (how does 400-500 heavy reps between squat, bench, and deadlift sound to you… in one training week?), top weightlifting teams training at least daily (usually 2-3 times per day), or the lifters at Westside Barbell doing 14+ high volume workouts per week, training volume is almost uniformly extremely high. And for good reason – training volume is the primary driver of strength and hypertrophy progress. But before you can benefit from insanely high volume, you have to have an insanely high work capacity.
Here’s an illustration of this concept that I really like, comparing a sink to the process of adaptation to strength training; I think I heard it first from Mike Tuchscherer.
The amount of stress you’re subjecting yourself to is like a running faucet. The amount of stress you can recover from is like the sink’s drain. To keep making progress, you have to turn the faucet up higher and higher. If that exceeds the drain’s ability to remove water from the sink, eventually the sink fills up and overflows – that’s when you stop making progress and start regressing. But by increasing work capacity, you’re increasing the size of the drain (how quickly you can respond and adapt to increased training stress) and you’re increasing the size of the sink (how much accumulated stress you can manage before overtraining).
So, how do you increase work capacity? Instead of trying to increase the amount of weight you’re lifting, try to increase the amount of volume you handle each week or each session.
Let’s say your workout looks like this currently:
Total training volume by lift (weight x sets x reps):
Take a little weight off the bar, and try to increase your total training volume each week, taking a break from just pushing more weight up each session.
So maybe start here:
Then, over the span of a couple months trying to increase volume (sets or reps) each training session, you may be doing something more like:
At that point, you’ve dramatically increased your body’s ability to recover from a huge increase in workload – something that’s pretty easy to do with lower, moderately heavy loads (60-75% 1rm) but much more difficult with heavier loads (80%+: where you live on beginner routines).
Once you’ve increased your work capacity, you can start tapering volume and adding more weight to the bar. As you decrease volume, your body will have no problems recovering – even with heavier loads each week – because you’ve made it accustomed to recovering from a much higher total workload.
You’ll blow past your old plateaus and start making progress again. And once you hit a new plateau, just repeat the process. Drop back in weight, build your training volume up even higher than you did previously over the span of a few months, and then start adding weight to the bar again.
The focus of your training is still the same: making measurable progress each week. Only now, that measurable progress is split into two phases. In phase one, you progress by increasing how many total reps you’re doing each week, and in phase two you progress by increasing weight on the bar, just like you’re used to.
This is a good thing. If you want to lift the heaviest weights possible, you need to have practice lifting weights that are heavy to you. With programs like SS, SL, and RPT, you’re constantly handling loads between 80-85% of your 1rm – certainly heavy enough to count it toward practice handling heavy weight.
Motor learning is typified by specificity. There’s a big difference between learning how to move your body through a given motor pattern unweighted (a bodyweight squat, for example) and learning how to move your body through that same pattern with a heavy weight in your hands or on your shoulders. After most beginner routines, you’ve had practice moving fairly heavy relative loads week in and week out, so heavier loads (90%+) will not be as big of a shock to you as they would be to someone who trained with lower relative intensity from the time they started lifting.
Now, when you drop back in weight and start increasing training volume, you will likely lose some efficiency with heavier weights. However, that’s why you don’t jump from 70% one week to a new 1rm attempt the next week. By building back up over the span of (depending on your strength level) 4-12 weeks, you re-acclimate your body to heavier loading, and that efficiency with heavier weights that you previously built will come back. It takes longer to build a specific motor pattern initially than it is to recover it when it gets a little bit rusty.
I understand the reasoning for this in beginner routines. Heavy compound lifts *should* be the bedrock of your program, they’ll give the most bang for your buck, and a lot of new lifters will take a mile if you give them an inch when it comes to isolation accessory work (“sure, do some curls at the end of your workout” turns into “well, I didn’t have time to get all my sets of squats in, but I DID try out 37 new curl variations, brah.”).
But doing the exact same variations of the exact same lifts all the time will almost inevitably cause some strength imbalances eventually. Once you’ve plateaued on your beginner routine, it’s time to start adding in some more variety rather than continuing to pound your head against the wall and exacerbating those imbalances.
Also, it’s worth noting, you don’t HAVE to do isolation work if it feels silly after continually lifting heavy week in and week out for the past several months. Some people love it and some hate it. If you’re one of the latter, then choose compound variations that will address your weaknesses by emphasizing your weak muscles. If your quads are weak, then switch to high bar squats or front squats rather than low bar squats. If your triceps are weak, then switch from regular bench to close grip bench. If your upper back is weak, switch from regular deadlifts to snatch grip deadlifts.
Of course, I just want to make it clear that while heavy compounds should be at the heart of your workout, there is no shame in doing more isolation-style accessories. Are your hips weak? Well, sumo deadlifts are great, but if you want to keep pulling conventional you could toss in some hip thrusts to address your deficiency. Weak quads but want to keep squatting low bar? There are quality compound, non-squat options like step ups, lunges, split squats, hack squats, and leg press, but keep in mind that many huge squatters of yesteryear liked plain old leg extensions.
There is a lot to be said about becoming efficient in the motor patterns you want to master, but at the end of the day, a bigger muscle is a stronger muscle, all other things being equal. Identify your weak muscles and hit them with accessories or variations of compounds that will target them.
Someone stalled at the numbers in the prior example (Low bar squat 200 3×5, Bench 150 3×5, Deadlift 250 1×5)
Their squat is limited by weak quads (their butt instantly shoots up, shifting weight away from their quads and toward their stronger posterior musculature), their bench is limited by weak triceps (missing and lockout), and their deadlift is limited by a weak upper back (rounds coming off the floor, and can’t get it fully extended at lockout).
Week 2-5: increasing reps or sets each week, adding to total training volume.
Switching back to primary variations of each lift to realize the strength gains you just got done laying the groundwork for.
(change in accessories, just for some variety)
Weeks 8-11: adding weight to the bar each week, decreasing sets or reps so the body can easily adapt and recover. These workouts should be a challenge but should stop short of grinding reps.
Keep working up to a max over the next 2-3 weeks, or start back over increasing volume, and then working back to lifting heavy weights.
Or, of course, you could just jump on one of the routines floating around on the interweb for people who have exhausted their gains on a beginner’s program. But, it’s my opinion that the sooner you can learn how to write your own programming, the better. None of the programs floating around out there were written specifically for you – they’re just cookie cutter routines that should work decent enough for a broad swath of people. You know you strengths and weaknesses, you know how well you’re recovering and how your body is feeling, and – most importantly – you’ll never reach your full strength potential without eventually either hiring a competent coach long-term or learning how to listen to your body and make the necessary adjustments to your training. If you want to see how far you can truly go, the sooner you start learning how to understand programming, the better.
This article should have equipped you with enough conceptual knowledge to start tinkering with your own training once you plateau on a beginner’s routine. You’ve been under the bar long enough to start being able to listen to your body, but you’re likely not closing in on your full potential or any long-term goals. Now is the perfect time to start experimenting with your own training, applying some trial and error, learning how to troubleshoot, and getting the frustrations and setbacks of the inevitable learning curve out of the way. You’ll come out much more knowledgeable – and much stronger – on the other side.
Greg, how many days per week do you suggest people train?
The important thing is total weekly volume. If you were training 3 times per week, you can slowly add volume to those three sessions, and then increase weight and decrease volume over those same three sessions, just to take some of the guesswork out of it. Or, if you find yourself spending too much time in the gym, you could split it into more sessions so each of them is a more manageable length. That’s not going to make a huge difference either way, as long as you’re managing total weekly training volume appropriately.
You say that people should target any weak muscles and hit them with accessories or variations of compounds that will target them. Can you explain how people would identify weak points or imbalances?
This is definitely another article for another time.
Understandably. I wanted to add the caveat that this style of training isn’t suited for those that are cutting (in a calorie deficit). Can you share your thoughts on that?
Sure. I’d say that it depends on the circumstances. A person that has higher body fat percentage, has a high-quality diet, sleeps well, and lives/works in a low-stress environment is far more suited than a leaner guy or someone without those key points in place.
However, I agree with your inclusion of that caveat at the end because someone could easily misapply that. Besides, you’re writing a follow-up article on that right?
That’s right, “Which Training Routine is for Me?“. Greg, thank you for your time.
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