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Intermediate Strength Training: Programming when "It depends"

If you've participated in strength training for any significant amount of time, you have run into plateaus from time to time, and understand that they are a normal part of training. For those of you who are pretty new to training, the first time you run into a plateau can feel like the beginning of the end. However, an existential crisis, it is not. With proper coaching and consideration, this mountain can be turned into a molehill. So what adjustments do you need to make to your program as you make the shift from beginner to intermediate? The answer is the favorite answer of every internet expert on any topic: It depends.

Bench Pressing has many potential variations in intermediate programming

But what does it depend on? The more specific your answer to the following questions, the easier it is to limit the factors affecting your next course of action. First and foremost, the goals. For what purpose are you training (and have your goals changed now that you've gotten a bunch stronger)? Secondly, what are your constraints on your ability to train? Do you train at home with limited equipment? Do you have to fit training into your lunch hour? The third consideration is your temperament. In your current state, are you willing and excited to continue pushing heavy loads week after week, or are you in need of serious training pivot that allows a mental break? Are you the type of lifter to push themselves and seek out extra activity to their own detriment, or do you find yourself trying to give the lowest amount of effort? The answers to these second tier questions can fracture the program design into a million directions. There are many right answers, so don't stress yourself into oblivion when making the decision. This isn't a time for paralysis by analysis, it's a time for experimentation. I'll provide some relevant examples and hope they demonstrate the continuum of decision making for your new intermediate strength program clearly.

For the purposes of each scenario below, I am assuming the following:

  • You have appropriately answered the first three questions

  • You have run and completed a novice linear progression, to the point of stalling on at least 2 of the "Big 4" lifts (Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift, and Press)

  • You have exhausted multiple rep schemes, such as 5x5, 1x5 with back-off sets, and various iterations of triples, doubles, and singles

  • You are already using a four day split, where one day of the week is a "heavy day" for each life and the other is a "volume day"

Scenario 1: You have time constraints

In this instance, choosing modifications to your training that require little, if any swapping or adjusting of the equipment is he way to go. Usually, this means choosing a supplemental movement of the one you are currently trying to get un-stuck. This is important if you're trying to bust a plateau but can't just keep adding and adding to your training sessions. Let's examine how this would look for the Bench Press: if you move from Bench Pressing as your primary movement to the Close Grip Bench Press for your auxiliary work, all you need to do is strip some weight off and the movement is set up.

Adjusting your programming intelligently will help you bust plateaus

Another way to navigate having limited time is by adding a timer to your volume work. Adding this layer of difficulty creates a whole new challenge in your training, and is a way of artificially augmenting your volume without actually increasing it.

Scenario 2: You are on the verge of burnout

Let's not bury the lede here: The important point in this case is that you continue training. If you have to change many things in your program to keep yourself in the gym, do what is necessary in order to continue training.

This is the best case for taking your current training style and adding something radically different as a supplemental or auxiliary lift. For the Bench Press, this would be the right scenario where you swap out one barbell movement and add dumbbell work. You may be swapping out a volume Bench Press for a Flat or Incline Dumbbell Press, Single Arm Presses, or even heavy tricep work like LTE's with a curl bar.

Alternatively, you can alter your programming of the lift drastically to get yourself to set new PRs in different rep ranges. One such method would be to take a relatively light weight (60-70% of your 1 RM) and add an AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible) set to the end of your Bench Press session (I'd recommend leaving 1-2 in the tank if you're going to try this for squats).

Scenario 3: You decide to try a powerlifting meet

When you set a goal as specific as creating new 1-rep maxes in the Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift (as are the tested lifts in a powerlifting meet) it clarifies immediately the aim of the tweaks to the program. For example, since we know you'll be testing your Bench Press in, let's say, 12 weeks, we are going to examine different overload movements for the Bench Press, and we are likely soon going to drop your Press training for a while. This adds an additional Benching slot to your week. When selecting which type of Bench Press you are going to add in this slot, you'll want to choose a variation that is as close to a regular Bench Press as possible while also addressing your weak point. This allows you to accumulate stress in a similar movement pattern and create the desired adaptation. For example, if you are slow off the chest, you would add in Pin Bench Presses, where you have to press the bar from a dead stop for each rep. If you struggle with your lockout, you could also Pin Bench Press, but from higher up. You could also use a Close-Grip Bench Press to put more emphasis on the triceps and improve your lockout that way.

If you apply this type of thinking to each lift, you can find a variation that will help you bust through plateaus. Even if you aren't competing in a powerlifting meet, prioritizing one or two lifts over the others can help you break plateaus, while doing just enough volume on the other lifts to maintain their strength.

Scenario 4: All or none of these scenarios apply to you, you just want to get stronger

In the end, stress must go up over time if you want to bust plateaus. There is no formula where you do less work and the weight on the bar magically increases. How you manage to implement that additional stress is up to you, and there is more than one way to get the job done, so don't let the decision cause you more stress than the training. The big points are

  • Swap your "volume day" movements for others that are similar to the main movements

  • Make reasonable jumps on those movements and progress them

  • Continue to work train each main movement regularly.

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