Intermediate Programs for Strength Training

fit couple

If you've been successfully, and regularly, performing your Beginner Weight Training Program for a period of at least six consecutive months, now is the time to decide whether you'd like to stick with your current beginner program or graduate to the Intermediate Weight Training Program.

By choosing the former, it's likely that you'll maintain or slightly improve your current physique and levels of both body fat and muscle mass while continuing to tone your body, though significant gains in muscle mass and density may be minimal. By choosing to graduate to the intermediate program, you'll set yourself on the path to major gains in strength, definition, muscle mass and muscle density.

Graduating to the intermediate program is entirely optional, and many fitness seekers will be perfectly satisfied with continuing the beginning program (albeit with regular modifications in order to keep the exercises challenging and motivation high). At the same time, it should not be assumed that the intermediate and advanced strength training programs are only intended for body builders.

On the contrary, these programs can be extremely useful to individuals ranging from endurance athletes to working professionals looking to improve their physical capabilities and have more energy.

The intermediate strength training program is largely an extension of the beginning program, though it introduces several new concepts as well. The most important advice to take away is to take the changes in stride and ensure a full understanding of the concepts before you actually realize them in the weight room.

Things You Must Accomplish Prior to Starting the Intermediate Strength Training Program

Maintaining your personal safety is of the utmost importance any time you strength train. By graduating from the beginning weight training program to the intermediate one before you're ready, you'll greatly increase your chances of sustaining an injury. At the very least, an injury will force you to modify or temporarily suspend your strength training program, if not your overall fitness program. At worst, a serious strength training injury could permanently prevent you from engaging in some or all forms of strength training, not to mention other forms of physical activity.

Even if you manage to avoid injury, performing an intermediate strength training program before you're mentally and physically prepared is not recommended. You'll be more likely to use the incorrect form, and more susceptible to quitting your program if you find it be more intense than you were expecting.

For these reasons and many more, we strongly advise all strength trainers to accomplish the following prior to moving on to the intermediate strength training program:

  • Identify and understand the primary and secondary muscle groups, including how they interact with one another and their defined range of motion

  • Understand how to properly use the various types of strength training equipment

  • Understand how to perform the exercises with the correct form

  • Gain at least six months of experience with the Beginner Weight Training Program, comprising regular (not sporadic) training

  • Develop a solid foundation of core structural strength

  • Understand the correct number of sets and repetitions to perform for each muscle group

  • Understand the correct frequency with which each muscle group should be exercised, as well as the importance of getting the appropriate amount of rest in between workouts

  • Understand which muscle groups to work on the same day, and which muscle groups are better exercised on separate days

Remember, graduating to the intermediate program is completely optional. It's perfectly possible to keep your body in sound physical condition simply by continuing with the beginner program. However, additional major strength and muscle mass gains will be unlikely unless you modify your routine and increase the amount of weight you use for each exercise.

Concepts to Explore During the Intermediate Strength Training Program

As you work your way through the intermediate weight training program, it will be important to explore a number of concepts that bridge the gap between beginning and advanced strength training. Some of these concepts will be familiar to those who have completed the beginner weight training program, while others may be completely fresh. A few of the concepts you'll learn more about as you perform the intermediate strength training program include:

  • The difference between push and pull muscle groups

  • Concepts, benefits and drawbacks associated with push/push, pull/pull and push/pull strength training routines

  • Specific methods of weight training such as pyramiding and supersetting

  • The difference between "good pain" and "bad pain"

  • The dietary requirements you must meet in order to realize gains in lean muscle mass and density

  • The purposes of various nutritional supplements

  • The differences between "fast twitch" and "slow twitch" muscles

  • The differences between rhythmic and explosive exercises

  • The importance of performing additional exercise types behind strength training in order to support your overall fitness and health

Primary Muscle Groups

If you've spent a sufficient amount of time with the beginner weight training program, you should have a solid understanding of the major muscle groups of the human body. The location of each major muscle group is described below:

    major muscle groups
  • Abdominals: The muscles that make up the front of your mid-section.

  • Biceps: The muscles located on the front of your arm between your shoulder and elbow.

  • Calves: The muscles that make up the lower portion of the back of your leg below your knee.

  • Deltoids: The muscles that make up a large portion of the curve of your shoulder.

  • Forearms: The muscles located on the lower arm between the elbow and wrist.

  • Gluteals: The muscles of your posterior.

  • Hamstrings: The muscles located on the back of your leg between your gluteals and knee.

  • Latissimus Dorsi: The muscles located on the sides of your upper back under the arm pit.

  • Pectorals: The muscles of your chest.

  • Obliques: The muscles on the sides of your mid-section.

  • Quadriceps: The muscles located on the front of your leg between your hip and knee.

  • Trapezius: The muscles located on the sides of your neck.

  • Triceps: The muscles located on the back of your arm between your shoulder and elbow.

Nutritional Requirements for Building Lean Muscle and Burning Fat

As you move from the beginning strength training program to the intermediate one, the increases in exercise intensity and overall energy expenditure may require you to consume more calories, particularly on your workout days. However, all calories are not created equal, and you should continue to ensure that you maintain an appropriate balance of carbohydrates, fat and protein in your diet.

Pre-Workout Meals

Of special concern will be the types of foods you eat immediately before and after your workout. One of the most common misconceptions held by intermediate strength trainers is that you can eat virtually whatever you want as a per-workout meal. In reality, consuming something with a high glycemic index, such as a bagel, will create an insulin response that both reduces your energy stores (making it more difficult to exercise properly) and prevents fat loss.

Fortunately, you can achieve the opposite effect by eating a pre-workout snack with a low glycemic index. By eating a low-glycemic food, such as fettucine, spaghetti, or an apple, orange or peach, you'll have the energy necessary to successfully perform your workout with the correct form, and prime your body for fat loss. Ultimately, this will allow you to recover from your workout more quickly and progress at a more rapid rate.

Post-Workout Meals

Post Workout nutrition

Your post-workout meal will be equally important to your rate of progression as an intermediate strength trainer. Immediately after a strength training workout, your body's metabolism will rise similar to how it elevates when you wake up in the morning (which also happens to be why eating breakfast is so important).

If you deny your body food during this period of elevated metabolism, your body will turn to your muscle tissue as a source of energy, breaking it down in the process. The metabolic rate will also drop when your body realizes that it is not being fed appropriately. Both of these results are obviously undesirable for strength trainers of all skill and experience levels.

Consuming protein is crucially important after a workout. A 1995 study conducted by McMaster University indicated that protein synthesis doubles during the 24-hour period following a workout. During this period, your body is literally hungry for protein, protein that it will use to repair and grow your muscles.

Any post-workout meal should also include carbohydrates. Unlike in a pre-workout meal, your post-workout meal should focus on carbs with a high glycemic index as opposed to a low one. Eating a high glycemic index meal, such as one that includes white rice, a baked potato, macaroni and cheese or cornflakes cereal, will quickly restore your body's supply of glycogen (energy you burn during a workout) and prevent your muscles from breaking down.

Appropriate Ratios for Fat, Carbs and Protein

As a general rule of thumb, strength trainers should try to ensure that their post-workout meals contain relatively more protein than their pre-workout meals. This is because your muscle tissue will require more protein after a workout when it is attempting to repair, rebuild and ultimately become stronger, denser and larger than it was prior to the workout. To accomodate the additional protein, your post-workout meals should have commensurately less fat.

In fact, the meal you consume immediately after a strength training session should include approximately twice as much protein and carbs, and subsequently twice as many calories, as the other meals you eat during the day. For example, you should eat an 800-calorie meal after a strength training session if you eat five meals per day for a total of 2,400 calories. In this scenario, your other four meals would average 400 calories each. The sooner you consume this 800-calorie meal after your strength training session, the better.

Achieving the appropriate balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat is something you must concern yourself with at all meals, not just the one you consume immediately after exercising. However, the ratios to which you adhere will partially depend on whether your goal is to strictly add muscle mass or to tone your muscular definition while cutting body fat:

Muscular Toning and Sculpting with Fat Loss

  • Protein: 20% to 30%
  • Carbohydrates: 50% to 60%
  • Fat: 15% to 25%

Adding Muscle Mass

  • Protein: 30% to 40%
  • Carbohydrates 40% to 60%
  • Fat: 20% to 30%

Most experts agree that strength trainers should consume at least 0.8 grams of protein for every pound of body weight. Under this scenario, a 200-pound individual would need to consume approximately 160 grams of protein each day, totaling 640 calories of protein. Individuals with a faster metabolism, as well as those who exercise more intensely more frequently, may need to consume additional protein per pound of body weight. For example, a serious endurance athlete with a very fast metabolism may need to consume 1.2 grams of protein for every pound of body weight.

Intermediate and advanced strength trainers should also be well aware of the various nutritional supplements and how they can be incorporated into a weight training routine. Even strength trainers with a completely optimal nutritional diet may still benefit from the use of certain nutritional supplements in various combinations.

The Importance of Effort and Intensity in Your Workout

Simply going through the exercises included in the Intermediate Strength Training Program without any concern for how much weight you're moving or how many times you're moving it (divided into sets and reps) will minimize the efficiency of your workout. Whether your goal is to build raw muscle mass, strength and density or to burn fat and tone and sculpt your muscles, careful attention should be paid to both the effort you put into each individual exercise and the intensity of your overall workout.

Different Intensity Strategies for Different Intents

In general, strength trainers can choose between two general weight lifting strategies:

  • A small amount of weight with a relatively higher number of repetitions

  • A large amount of weight with a relatively smaller number of repetitions

The intent of lifting relatively small amounts of weight with a large number of reps is to burn fat, tone your muscles, and sculpt and define your overall physique, or at least the area you're targeting with the specific exercise. Since this strategy results in longer sets, it also works your cardiovascular system, increasing your blood flow and driving more oxygen to your cells.

Meanwhile, the intent of utilizing large amounts of weight with relatively few reps is to realize gains in muscle mass, density and strength. In short, this is the strategy to choose if your primary goal is to bulk up. Bodybuilders obviously use this technique to prepare for competitions, though it has a place in many other sports conditioning and personal fitness programs as well.

One recent study suggests that muscle mass will develop just as quickly, and to the same extent, regardless of whether you use the first or second technique. However, all of the participants in this study exercised to failure, meaning that they performed repetitions of a given exercise until they were physically incapable of performing another rep. Pending further research, the consensus remains that lifting small amounts of weight with a higher number of repetitions won't produce the same level of muscular mass and density as lifting heavier weights with fewer reps - at least not as efficiently.

The Importance of Exercising to Failure

exercising to failure

The practice of performing a certain exercise to failure is defined as repeating that exercise until it becomes impossible to perform another rep. Performing exercises to failure will help you to gauge the appropriate level of intensity, or more specifically the amount of weight you should use, for a given exercise.

For example, let's say you perform three sets of any given exercise using 100 pounds of resistance. For the first two sets, you decide to perform 15 repetitions, while you decide to exercise to failure during the third set. When you actually perform the third set, you do 25 reps before arriving at the point where you can no longer lift another rep. In this example, you've learned that you'll need more than 100 pounds of resistance for this particular exercise in order to achieve the desired intensity level.

However, contrary to old beliefs regarding strength training, it is not necessary to exercise to failure with most strength training exercises. This is because your muscles will be stimulated to grow through progressive increases in intensity, not just through actual failure.

As you continue to strength train and increase the intensity of each subsequent workout, your muscles will respond and adapt in order to handle the additional work you're asking them to do. At the same time, exercising to failure is certainly an option for intermediate and advanced strength trainers looking to gain strength, muscle mass and muscle density, though it's not a necessity.

Supersetting and Pyramiding: Two Methods of Increasing Workout Intensity

One of the best ways to add intensity to an intermediate strength training workout is through a process known as supersetting. During a super set, you'll perform sets of two or more different exercises in quick succession, with only a minimal amount of rest in between. You'll alternate between exercises with each subsequent set. A super set can focus on one muscle group or multiple muscle groups.

For example, if you were to super set three different exercises, the progression would look like this:

  • 1st set of the first exercise
  • 1st set of the second exercise
  • 1st set of the third exercise
  • 2nd set of the first exercise
  • 2nd set of the second exercise
  • 2nd set of the third exercise
  • ...and so on, until all desired sets have been completed for all exercises

One of the biggest advantages of supersetting is that you'll be very likely to achieve an aerobic effect, defined as elevating your heart rate to its target level and keeping it there for at least 20 minutes. Your target heart rate is defined as 75% of your maximum, and can be calculated here. By achieving an aerobic effect, you'll greatly enhance the cardiovascular intensity of your workout, allowing you to burn additional fat while improving the strength and health of your heart and lungs.

Another advantage of supersetting is that it's an ideal way of overcoming strength plateaus. For example, if you're having difficulty making additional gains for a certain muscle group, supersetting multiple exercises for that muscle group may be the solution. Regardless of whether you're trying to break through a strength plateau, supersetting is an excellent way of aggressively pursuing gains in muscle mass, strength and density. It also happens to be a great way of reducing the overall length of your workout since you'll be spending a minimal amount of time resting between each set.

Pyramiding is one additional method of increasing the intensity of your workout. As with supersetting, pyramiding can be applied to both single muscle groups and multiple muscle groups. By applying the concept of pyramiding to any given weight training exercise, you'll perform fewer reps and add additional weight with each subsequent set. A brief example of this is given below:

  • 1st set - 10 reps at 135 pounds
  • 2nd set - 8 reps at 185 pounds
  • 3rd set - 5 reps at 235 pounds

It's also possible to perform additional reps with progressively less weight for each subsequent set. This is known as a reverse or inverse pyramid.

The advantages of pyramiding are many. You'll add variety to your workout, more extensively exhaust muscle tissue, and have an opportunity to monitor your strength gains, particularly in terms of the maximum amount of weight you can lift when performing a given exercise. A pyramid routine also makes an ideal warm-up exercise since you'll be starting with smaller amounts of weight and larger numbers of reps, increasing the flow of blood and oxygen through your body and warming up your ligaments, tendons and muscles in order to prepare them for the remainder of the workout.

Supersetting and pyramiding are both examples of higher-level strength training techniques that should not be implemented by beginning strength trainers. Pyramiding techniques in particular should always be performed with the assistance of a spotter in order to minimize the chance of injury.

How a Spotter can Enhance Your Workout

weight training spotter

If you never utilized the assistance of a spotter during the beginning weight training program, the intermediate program represents a great time to begin.

When performing his or her job optimally, a spotter can both reduce your chance of incurring an injury and increase the effectiveness of your workout.

The main responsibility of a spotter is to prevent you from injuring yourself as you're performing a weight training exercise. The spotter will do this by standing or sitting in a position where he or she is ready to assist with the exercise in the event you need help.

For example, a spotter can help you to lift the straight bar if you try for too many reps or too much weight during a bench press exercise, preventing the bar from slamming down on your chest (or worse, your head). Aside from injury prevention, most of the advantages gained from using a spotter involve maximizing the efficiency and effectiveness of your workout.

Using a Spotter to Allow for Additional Repetitions Beyond Failure

In terms of boosting the effectiveness of your workout, one of the most common tasks for a spotter to perform is assisting the primary strength trainer with forced reps. A forced rep is defined as an exercise repetition that you perform after the point of failure. Once you reach failure, the spotter will assist you in performing approximately two to four additional reps.

The overall effectiveness of forced reps will be determined by how much assistance the spotter provides. Ideally, the spotter should provide only enough assistance to allow you to complete two to four beyond-failure reps without injuring yourself. If the spotter provides too much assistance, it will devalue the repetitions. If the spotter provides too little, you'll be forced to discontinue the exercise early.

Using a Spotter to Perform Negatives

Another intermediate-to-advanced strength training method that can only be implemented with the assistance of a spotter is known as negatives, or negative repetitions. In order to perform negative reps, you'll need to do the following:

  1. Perform a given exercise to failure.

  2. Once you reach the point of failure, have your spotter assist you in lifting the positive portion of the rep. The "positive" part of the rep is the portion in which you're lifting the weight against gravity.

  3. Perform the negative portion of the rep slowly (for approximately three to five seconds) without the assistance of your spotter.

  4. Repeat this process until you've completed approximately three negative reps.

Most strength trainers agree that the best time to perform negatives is at the end of a set containing no more than 10 reps. If you're using additional reps and a lighter amount of weight, the negative reps won't be challenging enough to stimulate significant muscle growth.

In order to maximize the value of your spotter, it's crucially important that the two of you learn to communicate effectively and efficiently. The last thing you want is for your spotter to misunderstand what you're asking of him during an exercise, only to have him drop the weight onto you.

The Importance of Working Each Muscle from Multiple Angles

If you keep presenting your body with the exact same challenge session after session, it will adapt to that challenge. However, your gains will plateau when your body realizes that no further improvement is necessary in order to rise to the level of your workout. For this reason, it's absolutely critical that you work your muscles in varying combinations, in multiple ways, and from several different angles.

This concept is the exact reason why successful intermediate and advanced strength trainers never rely on just one or two exercises to work a given muscle group. By using several different exercises to target the same muscle group, and by working different muscle groups in varying combinations, successful strength trainers keep their bodies guessing as to exactly what challenge might be coming next. In turn, their muscles grow in strength, mass and density in order to accommodate these varying challenges.

Another important benefit of working your muscles in multiple ways and from multiple angles is that doing so will add much-needed variety to your workout. If your workout stays exactly the same for each session you perform, you'll be more likely to become bored, skip workouts or abandon your strength training program entirely. Ensuring a high level of variety in your strength training routine is an excellent way to keep motivation levels high while adding to the overall challenge and effectiveness of your workout.

The aforementioned supersetting and pyramiding techniques are two examples of easy ways to add variety to your workout.

As you make your way into the intermediate strength training program, you'll want to ensure that you're solidifying your understanding of several concepts, including those related to push and pull muscle groups, training methods such as supersetting and pyramiding, and the importance of listening to your body in order to determine appropriate intensity levels and reduce the chances of injury.

triceps rope pushdowns

While beginning strength trainers can sometimes get away with poor or questionable dietary habits, this is less of an option for intermediate and advanced strength trainers. In order to realize significant gains in muscle mass, strength and density, it's absolutely crucial that you monitor your daily nutritional intake and pay careful attention to what you're feeding your body.

Your meals should contain the appropriate ratios of carbohydrates, protein and fat, and you should have a thorough understanding of the various nutritional supplements that can be used to support a weight training routine.

With all of that said, the point that cannot be stressed enough is that moving from the beginning to intermediate strength training program is 100% optional. Continuing to follow the beginning program (albeit with regular modifications) will keep most individuals in excellent physical shape.

However, if your goal is to make further gains in muscle mass, strength and density, graduating to the intermediate program (and later considering the advanced program) is a wise course of action.