The vast majority of intermediate level lifters hit a point in their training where they are stuck on just about everything. In fact, you could argue that experiencing this frustration is the defining moment of being a intermediate lifter. The newbie gains have worn off awhile ago, progress is still alright for a good time after, you’re getting into respectable territory and then bam- nothing is working.
Assuming one’s diet is solid, good form, and that there is ample recovery and sleep occurring, it usually comes down to programming. At a certain point, newb oriented programs like StrongLifts, Starting Strength and the like provide diminishing returns. It’s here where a lot of dudes start experimenting with weird voodoo Men’s Health shit trying to bust through, but that rarely works because they end up trading a good beginner-oriented program for a shitty wishful-thinking-oriented program (I’ve been there). It is the cookie-cutter nature of newb programs that is itself the problem. Intermediate lifters need to start introducing more flexibility into their programming by moving towards more “feel” based and less strict rep and set based schemes as well as making more effort to address weaknesses.
I covered this awhile back in “Don’t Outsmart Yourself In The Gym” but that was meant to be more general and inspirational and was lacking in more specific advice. These past five months have given me a chance to develop an intermediate template of my own that has worked pretty damn well, and I’m at the point where I can confidently say it works. It certainly got me out of the intermediate “stuck” period and on to totals I couldn’t imagine a year ago.
Before I start, though, I’m going to point out the obvious for the dumbasses and nit pickers out there: This worked really well for *me*. It will hopefully work just as well or better for others, though it is possible it may not. I do not care if you don’t think it is theoretically sound or if it violates your mental rules of weightlifting. Additionally, this program assumes good diet and recovery (I was on the Apex Predator Diet the whole time). As far as how to classify an “intermediate” lifter, I’ll leave that up to each individual but most people know it when they are or aren’t yet.
For some background, I took much inspiration from the philosophies and programs discussed by Jim Wendler’s 5x3x1 book (yes, I bought it even though it’s easily researchable on the web- help those that help you), Westside, Chaos and Pain, and various EliteFTS athletes and coaches. Those of you familiar with them will definitely see that in this program.
Seeing as one of the necessary ingredients of pushing through the intermediate level blockage is flexibility in approach, nothing about this is cut and dried. There ended up being three phases so I’ll stick to that formula, but even those were a bit superfluous. How I felt and how well I was doing played a large role in how far I pushed things on any given day and no two sessions were the same. The overarching objective that governs everything, though, is pretty straightforward- beat last session. Sometimes I went H.A.M and would pound out two more sets or put up ten more pounds than the previous week. Other times I nearly shat my pants trying to get one more rep than last time. Regardless, there were only two or three days that I was unable to best the previous session in some way.
My squat max went from 345 to 390, deadlift max went from 440 to 470, and bench went from 285 to 300 (though it wasn’t until I introduced banded bench towards the end that this changed). Considering this came in a four/five month period that followed a long period of being stuck, I consider these results a big success.
This is the most structured part of the program in that it sticks pretty close to 5x3x1. The philosophy behind this phase was touched on in “Reasons You’re Plateauing“, particularly reason 4- you’re training to close to your max; a common problem for intermediate lifters. 5x3x1 makes you back way off and work from the bottom up again, and it also helps build up a high-rep “base”. Building a high-rep base is a common technique for early contest prep for powerlifters and it works just as well here.
While I strongly encourage you to buy the book and get the full treatment along with his various modifications and style ideas, you can go here for Wendler’s basic description of 5x3x1 at T-Nation because I am not explaining all that here.
I did not deload because I don’t need to and you don’t either if you’re intermediate, so I had 3 week cycles. My main assistance lifts were good mornings, chained dips, RDLs, strict barbell rows, and pull ups. If I squatted, my assistance lifts might look like 5×10 RDLs and 3×12 leg press. On bench day, it might be something like 6×12 pull ups and 3x(failure) chained dips. Since this is feel-based the reps and sets varied daily, but 5×10 is a good number to strive for. Each day ended with short ab sessions involving one or more core lifts like weighted planks, leg lifts, and back extensions, to name a few.
After a few cycles, I began to deviate from the script and do 1-3 extra sets of the main lift after the final shred out set (at the same weight and doing reps until just short of failure each set). It’s not recommended and therefore makes it not 5x3x1 anymore, but I felt like I had a lot left in the tank so I did more and I thought it helped.
This is where the structure of the program mutated significantly to incorporate heavy weight-low rep days for bench and squat in addition to the 5x3x1 cycles. Overhead press day was eliminated and I instead alternated between Klokov press and strict military press as a high rep assitance lift on bench days. In stark contrast to the other three big lifts, my deadlift was going absolutely nowhere with high rep sets so I moved to doing a ton of heavy singles and doubles ranging from 75-95% of 1 RM, and it worked really, really well. I still did the assistance lifts and ab work.
- Day 1: Squat 5x3x1
- Day 2: Bench 5x3x1
- Day 3: Deadlifts, heavy singles and doubles
- Day 4: Bench, 3+ sets of heavy triples at 80-90% 1RM
- Day 5: Squat, 3+ sets of heavy triples at 80-90% 1RM
To reiterate a common thread here, the heavy triples and deadlift days were feel based. I had bare minimum targets for sets and reps, but fairly often I was doing way more. If I was feeling good and doing well I didn’t see any point in stopping at some arbitrary number.
The final phase sees the introduction of banded bench press and box squats. The “pyramid” style scheme is the one I detailed in the banded bench press post, where I would work up to a few sets of heavy triples- the top of the pyramid- and then do high-rep shred outs on the way down the pyramid.
- Day 1: Box Squat, 3+ sets of heavy singles/doubles/triples at 80-95%
- Day 2: Bench, 3+ sets of heavy singles/doubles/triples at 80-95%
- Day 3: Deadlifts, heavy singles and doubles
- Day 4: Banded Bench, pyramid
- Day 5: Box Squat, pyramid
Just as before, feel plays a large role in the total amount of sets done and at what precentages of the 1 rep max. Assistance lifts and core work continued as usual.
After a month or two in the third phase, it’s time to start back at phase one using your brand new, hopefully much higher, 1 rep max. That’s where I’m at now.
As you can see this is a pretty “vague” program in that it’s mostly a blueprint. It starts with high-rep, medium weight sets and gradually morphs into low-rep, high weight sets. It is very frequency intensive, though- regardless of the rep amounts in each set, there are a lot of sets getting done.
The 5x3x1, while it may not always feel like it is “working”, almost certainly laid the base for what was to come later- so don’t skimp on it. Get at least 4 cycles in before you move on to phase 2.
You could, and probably should, mix in box squats and banded/chained bench press in phase two. I will be this time around.
Regardless of what assistance lifts you choose to supplement your big lifts, always keep in mind you will never go wrong working your posterior chain.
And of course, if you have any questions feel free to ask in the comments. This is my first time putting a program of (mostly) my own out there and I know there is a good chance I left some things too ambiguous or assumed too much.