When to switch to an intermediate program?
January 14th 2019
As I have been strength training over the years, I wondered - when should I switch to an intermediate program?
As a beginner, you were told to start a linear progression program, which increases your workload every session. For an intermediate program, you will increase your workload every week. While every lifter wants a specified date of when to switch programs, the reality is that it is not black and white. Different lifters progress at different rates, which also vary depending on your life circumstances, so if it is not broken, do not fix it!
Are you a beginner or intermediate lifter?
There are strength calculators out there on the internet that labels us into different categories. Based on these categories, we are supposed to follow a certain style of programming that would best meet our recovery limitations. These strength standards are measured with respect to your bodyweight. For example, let's think about a 315lbs bench press. A 200lbs male who benches 315 lbs might be great, even a lifetime PR for that lifter. But a 165lbs male who bench 315lbs will have a more impressive bench press and will be deemed stronger for that lift.
But numbers should not be the only determining factor to say if you are an intermediate lifter or a beginner lifter. How fast you recover from each workout is also taken into account. By definition, a beginner or novice lifter should be able to add weight every workout and be able to recover. This is one of the reasons why many beginners experience “newbie gains,” a fast acceleration of progress in size, strength, and power.
Another popular metric that people use to measure if you are a beginner or intermediate lifter is your training experience. Typically, people who just started lifting weights, with no prior weight lifting experience, are titled beginners. People with at least two years of lifting experience are titled intermediate lifters.
It really depends on a lot of varying factors. And even with these factors, they do not really mean that much. For example, I have been strength training for over six years now and that should title me as an advanced lifter. However, my squat, bench press, deadlift max, and overhead press max are not in the “advanced level” yet, according to the strength calculator records linked above. Does that stop me with training and accomplishing my goals? Absolutely not, but it is just a way to measure progress and organize your routine. Plans and strategies are best made when everything can be identified and all variables are understood
So, while it does help to know where you are at on a macro level, you should not really get too focused on it. This is where tunnel vision works best. You have your goal and you are intensely focused to achieve what you envisioned. After your success or setbacks, you reanalyze and make up a new game plan. Sometimes, you even keep your old plan because there was nothing wrong with it. This is why one of the best pieces mottos to follow in training is the following - if it is not broken, why fix it?
Texas Method - Intermediate Programming
One very popular intermediate program is the Texas Method (TM), which is a strength training program that is known for bringing intermediate lifters to advanced lifters in 18-24+ months of continuous training. Unlike beginner programs that increase weight every session, the Texas Method balances the increase in weight with varying volume to ensure an adequate recovery period for the gym goers.
The Creation of the Texas Method
The Texas Method was created with the help of Mark Rippetoe and Olympic Weightlifting coach Glenn Pendlay. If you do not know who Mark Rippetoe is, he is the creator of Starting Strength, a beginner strength training program (I tried his program and reviewed the progress here), and has written about the Texas Method in his book, Practical Programming for Strength Training (You can get the book here).
Anyway, Pendlay and his lifters were training at Mark Rippetoe’s Wichita Falls Athletic Club. As usual, the lifters were doing their 5 sets of 5 reps of squats on a Friday afternoon. One of Pendlay’s lifters complained about the squat workload, so coach Pendlay gave him a challenge - if he could hit a squat PR for a set of 5, he would only do one set for that day. The athlete accepted and smashed a new 5 rep PR. This was the birth of the Texas Method. So, instead of doing 5 sets of 5 reps of squats on both Mondays and Fridays, which was their programming at the time, athletes were now tasked to hit a new PR for 5 reps on Fridays. As a result, Mark Rippetoe documented and published a book for the Texas Method, Practical Programming for Strength Training (you can find that link above). This book has gained popularity and attention nationwide as more athletes found incredible success with Rippetoe’s beginner program, Starting Strength.
Texas Method Programming
If you follow or read about the true Texas Method, you will know that it would include power cleans. I have done that style of programming with Starting Strength and Greyskull lp.
Monday: Volume Day
- Squat 5 x 5 @ 80-90% of 5RM
- Bench Press or Overhead Press 5 x 5 @ 80-90% 5RM
- Power cleans 3 x 5
Wednesday: Recovery Day
- Squat 2 x 5 @ 80-90% of Monday’s work weight
- Overhead Press (if you bench pressed Monday) 3 x 5* or Bench Press (if OHP on Monday) 3 x 5 @ 80-90% previous 5 x 5 weight
- Chin-up 3 x Bodyweight
- Back Extension or Glute-Ham Raise 5 x 10 * at slightly lighter load than previous OHP weight
Friday: Intensity Day
- Squat: warm-up, then work up to one single, new 5RM
- Bench Press, (if you bench pressed Monday) or Overhead Press (if OHP on Monday): work up to one single, new 5RM
- Deadlift: warm-up, then work up to one single, new 5RM
Just like in Starting Strength, the program is incredibly simple. Mondays are the volume days, where you should get most of your work done. Wednesdays are a light days, which was planned to give lifters a chance to recover to set a new PR on the next session. Fridays are the intensity days, where lifters will go and set new 5 rep PRs. This style of programming is essentially a block periodization, which has been shortened into one week. Block periodization is usually organized when lifters spent a couple weeks training with high volumes, then a few weeks focusing on recovery and then the final week will be dedicated to hitting new PRs. The Texas Method does all these attributes in one week. It is this modification of volume that makes it a good choice for intermediate athletes.
The Texas Method did not set a completion date, so you are able to do this program as long as you want to. This is the best answer because it is difficult to make a general recommendation for thousands of athletes, with varying training experiences. So, the best way to know if the Texas Method is working for you is very straightforward. Are you making progress? Yes, then continue running the program.
Early Intermediate Lifting Programs
If you are beginning to stall with your beginner novice program, you have several options to consider. One of these options is that you may want to switch to an intermediate lifting program. Some lifters want to transition into an early intermediate program since they are not a true beginner and maybe even an advanced beginner. I decided to do some research to see if there were any programs like that available.
I found a mixed bag of opinions. There is one school of thought that one of the best ways to have an early intermediate lifting program is to make one yourself. You can do this by applying strategies learned in the Practical Programming for Strength Training (link is posted above). Another school of thought is that you can smoothly transition yourself into an intermediate level programming and just use your last novice workout working sets as a baseline.
So, there are several ways to can go about doing so. So, your last best workout, 3 sets of 5 reps, was at 300lbs. With your transition, you could make 300lbs or 305lbs your intensity day.
Here is a sample of how you can transition. Note that is this a more aggressive approach.
Last week of Beginner Linear Progression
295, 3sets of 5 reps
265lbs, 2sets of 5 reps
300, 3sets of 5 reps
First Week of Texas Method
275,5sets of 5
250, 2sets of 5
So, it is important for the lifter to understand his training and the strategies used in order to maintain progress. Weekly volume should be tracked and monitored. Intensities, with respect to your 1 rep max should also be noted. Frequency, by default, will be noted. All this data, along with your goals, are the foundation for setting up a great plan to accomplish your goals.
Texas Method Complaints
Feeling too beat up
With this weekly linear progression, there will be a lot of work done. Lots of hard work. 5 sets of 5 reps is no breeze. Top that with a PR set of 5 reps at the end of the week and you could be exhausted all the time.
Many lifters will complain about their recovery not being on point. This is true. If you do not think you can dedicate enough time to your recovery and nutrition, the Texas Method may run you into the ground. But at the same thing, strength training is about challenging yourself and breaking your limits. Do you think you will be one of the greatest by doing “easy” light weight stuff? Definitely not and the Texas Method will keep you honest about that.
For some people, they definitely need a different program. But for most people, they simply need to think about what is important.
All programs work. The key factor that determines a program’s success is YOUR commitment. Are you willing to put in the work necessary to elevate your strength to the next level?
Solution 1 - Lower the volume
In the book, there are several suggestions in order to mitigate feeling “run down” by the volume day. Instead of doing 5x5, you can do 3 sets of 5 reps instead. Though you are sacrificing an extra 10 reps of work, it is a much more manageable workload.
Solution 2 - Use a lower intensity
This goes back to the three main fundamentals of programming - volume, intensity, and frequency. Instead of focusing on volume, we are now targeting intensity. If you are feeling burnt out by the Texas Method, why not try doing 70% instead of 80-90% of the 5 rep max? This way, you can get significant work in without killing yourself each week. The volume day is supposed to make you work hard, not completely wipe you out.
Too little deadlift volume
Like many linear progression programs, the Texas Method only has one set of 5 reps for the deadlift. After lifting for over 6 years now, one set of 5 reps does not work for me. What I did was that I needed to increase my total deadlift volume. After I did that, I was able to make progress with my deadlift. How much volume? You will need to determine that for yourself. The latest Practical Programming for Strength Training book has guidelines you could follow and modify to suit your programming needs.
Time to start learning
If you look for a general strength training program online, you will get a mixed bag of results. For some lifters, it is the best program ever. For others, it just simply did not work. As an intermediate lifter or soon-to-be intermediate lifter, it is your duty and responsibility to learn how to program for yourself and to make sure you are training at a pace most suitable for you. For some people, they train on teams and have coaches that monitor their progress. If you are not involved in these team activities, it will be up to you to determine your own progress.