Strength Progressions for Beginner and Intermediate Lifters

TAGS: intermediate, david allen, programming, program design, personal training, beginner, muscle, athlete, strength training, barbell, bench press, training

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The period of time for the greatest increases in strength performance occurs when people first begin their journey of strength training. During these first several months, a lifter can enjoy the experience of seeing his lifts increase day by day, week by week and month by month. As his body adapts to the new stimuli placed upon it, he can see exponential improvements. Over time, the rate at which improvements occur tends to slow down and more advanced training methods are required to further the strength gains.

The journey of any iron sport athlete will be full of periods of growth and stagnation. At times, lifts will seem to increase no matter what the athlete does, and at other times, the athlete will struggle to see even the smallest improvements. This article will show a few simple strength progressions you can use to ensure continual progress for as long as possible.

One of the biggest mistakes beginners make is using techniques that are too advanced for them too early. A second common mistake made by intermediates is relying on the same training methods that they used as beginners. Also, there is no hard definition for each level of lifter. In my mind, a true beginner is someone with zero to very little weight training experience or sports experience. This could be a youth or a grown up or even a grown up with some experience but who hasn’t trained or exercised in an extended period of time. In these cases, I would likely start with a program similar to the ones I have outlined here.


MORE: Programming Progressions for Beginning Personal Training Clients


However, after a period of time, in order to build some base levels of health and fitness and motor control, the person would be ready to progress up to a beginner strength program. When it comes to beginner strength programs, there are a few things to take into consideration:

  • Use the minimum effective dose
  • Keep the exercise selection small
  • Train with submaximal weights to allow for better technique improvement

For beginners, I prefer to use a variation of the 5 X 5 method, similar to that written about in Starting Strength.


Typically, it will look like this:

Workout A

  • Box squat, work up to a heavy set of 5
  • Bench press, work up to a heavy set of 5
  • Back work
  • Posterior chain work
  • Core work

Workout B

    • Deadlift, work up to a heavy set of 5
    • Push press, work up to a heavy set of 5
    • Back work
    • Posterior chain work
    • Core work

NBS bench

The beginner will do three workouts a week, alternating between workout A and workout B, which allows him to train the same movements four times every two weeks. The first two main movements on each day are taken up to a heavy set of five (not a max set of five). This allows the beginner to train moderately heavy while still perfecting technique. In each workout, the lifter will try to go up 5–10 pounds from the previous last set. If a lifter gets to a weight and can't do it for five reps, he will continue to work up to that weight on his last set each week until he can get all five reps.

The other exercises are done to build up areas that are necessary for moving big weights in the main movements and are done at a higher volume, usually three to four sets of 10–15. There is no need to change out exercises for an extended period of time. From my experience, beginners can make improvements on the main lifts in anywhere from six to 20 weeks. They may not go up 5–10 pounds every week, but usually after two or three workouts of the same weight, they will get all five reps and be able to go up the next week. The accessory lifts can be switched out more often, as progress on them usually slows sooner than on the main lifts.

Once a lifter begins to fail on multiple lifts over multiple workouts or begins to go backward in weight on more than one lift or on more than one workout, I know we've gotten the most out of that program. Like I said earlier, progress can usually continue all the way up to around five months. After completing that program, I've found that most people can reach a two times their body weight squat, a one times their body weight bench press and a two times their body weight deadlift using a predicted one-rep max. With those numbers, I would consider someone to not be a beginner anymore.


When it comes to intermediate strength programs, there are a few things to consider:

  • Only make one change at a time. Again, minimum effective dose and minimum effective change.
  • Technique should be ingrained better so that working more maximally is good.
  • The overall fitness is higher and therefore the ability to recover should be improved as well so greater volume can be used.

Going along with the minimum effective change, there are two potential initial changes that I would make from the program above:

Option A

Workout A

  • Box squat, work up to a heavy set of 3
  • Bench press, work up to a heavy set of 3
  • Back work
  • Posterior chain work
  • Core work

Workout B

  • Deadlift, work up to a heavy set of 3
  • Push press, work up to a heavy set of 3
  • Back work
  • Posterior chain work
  • Core work

It's the same exact setup as before, except now the lifter works up to heavy sets of three instead of five. Everything else is done exactly as it was before.

NBS squat

Option B

Workout A

  • Squat heavy, 3 x 5
  • Accessory work

Workout B

  • Bench heavy, 3 x 5
  • Accessory work

Workout C

  • Deadlift heavy, 3 x 5
  • Accessory work

Workout D

  • Push press, 3 X 5
  • Accessory work

This would follow similar guidelines as our initial program, except it will be a four-day week training program instead of a three-day week program. The main lifts are done working up to a heavy set of five reps with an additional two sets of the same weight afterward. Accessory work is still done at a higher volume. Now more work can be done and the work can be more specific to the main lift.

Once progress has stalled, there a couple different options:

  • Option 1: Main lifts now go to a heavy 3 X 3. Once progress stalls, go to a heavy 3 X 2, 2 X 2, 3 X 1, 2 X 1 and so on.
  • Option 2: Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program can be implemented where the volume on main lifts rotates between heavy 5s, 3s and 1s.
  • Option 3: Movements can be changed (i.e. squat becomes yoke bar squat, bench becomes floor press, conventional deadlift becomes sumo deadlift, push press become military press), and the set and rep scheme can follow the same progressions of heavy 5s and then to heavy triples and so on.

Once these types of options have been maximized and progress has again stalled, a more advanced training methodology can be implemented. Until then, learn to be smart, have fun, train safe and enjoy watching your lifts go up week to week.

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