By Myprotein Writer
This article will mainly cover intermediate strength training programming, as novice programming can be summarised easily: perform 3-5 sets of 5 with a variation of the fundamental compound lifts (squat, deadlift, press, row) 2-3 times per week with the intent of adding weight to the bar over time (preferably every session, but this depends on how much you’re eating – it’s okay to only add weight every week). Advanced programming is similar to intermediate programming, except on a longer time scale (I will cover this later).
But why get stronger? I believe that strength is the basis for any fitness/aesthetic/performance goal, as it allows you to push harder in relevant exercise routines to better achieve these goals. For instance, who do you think will get bigger – the guy who can bench 100kg for sets of 10, or the guy who can bench sets of 60kg…? By building up a strength base first, and then adding reps/volume you can progress for longer than if you simply just tried to add volume.
Weight Progression for Strength
Hypertrophy specialist Dr. Brad Schoenfeld states that the most influential factor in muscle growth is weight progression (adding weight over time). For those trying to lose weight, getting stronger also proves essential; intensity (weight on the bar, not ‘how hard you are working’) has been touted as the biggest influence over muscle retention (you wouldn’t want to lose muscle whilst losing fat).
There is also the simple fact that lifting a heavier weight obvious costs more calories to power your muscular machinery, meaning that you can lose weight quicker or eat more food each day.
Feeling Fatigued On Your Plan?
Getting stronger is seriously draining on your system – perhaps more so than improving cardiovascular fitness or building muscle. It is important to try and manage other stressors in life (stress is cumulative!) such as diet (don’t try and do a hard cut whilst improving strength for instance), sleep, alcohol, work etc.
If you notice yourself getting worn down – losing appetite/overeating, persistent aches and pains, abnormally dark moods – then ensure you focus on recovery and try to chill out. Get some early nights, have a laugh with your friends, get a massage etc.
The Important of Recovery for Progression
It is also important to not dig yourself into the ground by out-training your recovery capacity – it is far better to progress slower and consistently than to have a burst of progression for a few weeks, but then spend a month trying to recover. Obviously this is tricky – you need to balance trying to push yourself with letting yourself recover. You won’t get stronger by failing reps – you’ll get stronger by recovering from quality training and hitting a heavier weight with a fresh and prepared body.
You may have to put other training on the back burner whilst you focus on strength training for a while – don’t go trying to set personal records in your 20k run for instance. If done properly, your strength training sessions should feel tough, but you shouldn’t feel any long term soreness. It is okay to not feel worn out – don’t go and try to do dozens more sets the day after just because you don’t feel like you have trained hard enough.
Remember | The goal is to get stronger, not feel like you are working harder. By managing fatigue properly, you will likely get far stronger and feel far better than if you were to try and go all out, all of the time. Obviously this doesn’t mean you should not work hard, and therefore not progress, but it does mean that you need to be smart about pushing yourself properly, whilst recovering completely.
Though this style of programming can be applied to Olympic lifting, you should note that there is a high skill component for these lifts, and simply getting stronger is not the be all and end all – you must look at practicing these lifts with another program if you seriously wish to get good at them.
Intermediate Strength Training
What do I mean by being an intermediate? Ideally it is someone who has done a decent 3-6 months of proper strength training (as mentioned earlier, with sets of 5, a small caloric surplus and appropriate exercises).
Just because you are a pro at doing circuits/aerobics (no disrespect intended!) doesn’t mean that you wouldn’t get far more benefit from doing a small novice routine for a couple of months as opposed to not swallowing your pride and jumping into more advanced programming.
Daily Undulating Periodisation – DUP
Daily uh what-what? Essentially this means changing the volume of each training day throughout the week. We know from a decent amount of studies that training a variety of rep ranges allows the most muscle to be built, and we can link this to how most modern strength programs (Madcow, Texas Method etc.) change the number of reps/sets throughout the week to drive over all strength.
By hitting differing numbers, we can intelligently drive the volume that a more advanced body needs for continual growth whilst also improving our strength so that we can actually lift the weight required to hit the new volume needed (basically it’s a feedback loop of getting stronger to lift a heavier weight during our volume days that is needed to get stronger and so on).
✓ It is pretty difficult for the body to adapt to multiple stimuli at the same time (for instance, training for aerobic endurance can impair resistance training), so by undulating our training throughout the week we can focus on each facet of strength training on each day.
What is actually needed for increased strength?
A larger muscular engine (increased cross sectional area of muscle tissue) will lead to more tissue being available to lift a heavier weight.
Getting bigger isn’t the only factor though- there are also neuromuscular factors involved; by increasing the rate coding (essentially how fast the muscle tissue switches on throughout the range of motion for the lift) and increasing the amount of muscle units that can be switched on by each nerve (think of it like this, who will light up their house quicker – the guy whose lights are all operated by one light switch, or the guy who has to turn on 4-5 light switches?).
So to train these two factors (muscle size and neuromuscular efficiency) we will adjust our reps each training session appropriately.
✓ For volume sets of 5-12 for 3-5 sets seem to work well. I would stick to 5-8 for compound movements, and use higher reps for any isolation moves that appropriately cover your weaknesses (this will be covered in a later section).
✓ For strength, sets of 1-5 work best for 1-3 sets (we use less volume here so we can focus on lifting as heavy as well can, safely). I wouldn’t recommend doing excessive volume on your dedicated strength training days as you don’t want to dig yourself into a hole in regards to recovery.
You would be well placed to have a few days rest in between these sessions – the fatigue from the heavier intensity session can reduce your ability to lift enough volume during the muscle building session, and vice versa.
Full Body Split Body Part Training?
These sessions can either be done as a full body workout (for instance you can squat, press, row and deadlift in the same session) or you can split it with an upper body/lower body focus.
With regards to which one you do when, there are arguments both ways and it is really up to you. By doing your upper body session first, you generate less fatigue (for instance, heavy deadlifts can leave you drained for days, and will seriously impact on your training even on seemingly unrelated body parts due to the neural fatigue) and your lower body sessions will be less impacted by this.
The converse argument is that some people really do not like doing heavy squat/deadlifts when their upper body muscles are tired as it can lead to back rounding and injuries due to their inability to remain tight throughout the lift.
Intermediate Strength Training |
Sample Training Week
|Strength Training | Full-Body||Sets & Reps|
|Monday||3-5 sets of 5 for compound & assistance moves|
|Thursday||1-3 sets of 3|
|Strength Upper/Lower Split||Sets & Reps|
|Monday||3-5 x 5 for press/row with assistance moves|
|Tuesday||3-5 x 5 for squat/deadlift with assistance moves|
|Friday||1-3 x 3 for press/row|
|Saturday||1-3 x 3 for squat/deadlift|
I’m not a fan of forcing progression by adding weight every single week regardless of how you feel – I feel this is a quick route to injury and overreaching. What I prefer to do is to add weight when you feel that you can do another solid, good form, rep at the end of your last set.
For instance: if you are doing sets of 3, and during your last set you could easily do a set of 4 or even 5, then the next week I would add weight (most gyms have 1.25kg plates, so I would jump up by 2.5kg).
You might be wondering how many sets you should do. What I would do is try to progress as long as possible with a lower number of sets (that way I could really focus on hitting a heavier weight, rather than trying to keep enough energy to do more volume).
When I get to a point that I cannot add weight for a period of at least 2-3 weeks (see the previous paragraph – at this point I would be stuck doing the minimum number of reps, or my performance may even decrease temporarily where I couldn’t even get the minimum in) I would decrease the weight for both the muscle building day as well as the muscle training day by 10-15%. I would then add another set, as you have most likely progressed in the amount of volume that you need in order to convince your body to grow. #
Alternatively you could increase the number of reps you do after you decrease the weight – some people prefer different things in regards to volume and rep/set lay out!
NUTRITION | Caloric intake
Be eating more calories, we can help relieve some of the stress on our recovery debt. What this means is that the higher your caloric intake, the faster you will recover and the longer you can stay in a strength training phase.
The issue here is that a strength program is deliberately low volume (to keep fatigue down so that we can perform at our best) which means that muscle growth is going to be minimal (and if muscle tissue isn’t demanding as much resource, then it may be more likely that more calories will go to fat cells). This is only a consideration, and it dependent on the person and the situation.
There are some people that like to cut weight on a strength program (as mentioned earlier, high intensity weight lifting is a great way to tell your body to get burn off muscle stores).
✓ If this is you, then you need to be aware that you are likely to be able to recover from less volume (so you may need to do fewer sets) and will grow at a slower rate (meaning that you may only be able to add weight to the bar every other week or even longer).
So by now you should have a set/rep plan figured out and have decided on what variations of squat, press, row and deadlift you like best. These are your core strength movements, and they involve the most muscle (so will burn the most calories/grow the most) and will progress the fastest in terms of adding weight on the bar.
Some people need/want additional arm/ab/leg work, but should only do so if they feel they have good reason to do them (extra work adds additional fatigue stress that can detract from performance increases).
To try and alleviate nervous system stress induced by lifting heavy, try to keep assistance movements to a higher rep range (this also provides the benefit of building muscle better due to increased volume).
I usually chose assistance moves based on my weaknesses. For instance, I tend to struggle at the bottom of the squat, so paused squats/front squats tend to help me best. I’m also male, and I simply must add in some bicep/tricep pump work despite those muscle group being hit adequately by presses and rows…
Squat Assistance: Front/high bar/low bar/single leg/split squat, Leg extension, hip abduction machine, Glute ham raises, hip thrusts, calf raises
Press Assistance: Bench/Overhead press, tricep extensions, pec-deck, front raise, lateral raise
Row Assistance: Rear delt row, bicep curl, rear delt raise, face-pulls, shrugs, grip training
Deadlift Assistance: sumo/conventional/Romanian deadlift, hamstring curl, calf raises, ab work, back extensions, grip training,
Advanced Strength Programming?
With more advanced trainees (those with a few years of solid training under their belt), a higher volume growth stimulus is required to force their body to eke out some more muscle growth.
By this point their muscles are probably very well trained, meaning that it is difficult to improve any neuromuscular efficiency. All is not lost however, it just means that they need to put in more time training to get slower strength/size increases.
Similar to the daily undulating periodisation mentioned earlier, advanced trainees can use weekly undulation periodisation, where they can spend an entire week training to improve muscle size (rather than a single day in the week like the intermediate) and the following week they can spend all of their time training the new muscle to be stronger. They may even have to extend to doing several weeks of higher volume before tapering.
Week 1 |
Monday/Wednesday/Friday: 5 sets of 8
Week 2 |
Monday/Wednesday/Friday: 5 sets of 3
Progression for them won’t be happening every week – only after each full undulation would they add any weight (and even then, only if they feel good and are crushing their training). It is not uncommon for some strength athletes to add a single kilogram after four weeks of muscle building work followed by four weeks of muscle training work.
Take Home Message
In summary, an intermediate strength trainee is someone who has done a solid 3-6 months of hitting the compound lifts with lower rep ranges and eating adequately.
Their bodies are becoming adapted to strength training, and progress will be much slower for them. In order to drive progress they should hit a variety of rep ranges throughout the week (focusing each day on a single aspect; muscle size or muscle strength). Assistance work should not be overdone, and care to keep stress low should be taken in order to manage fatigue.