Intermediate Madness

TAGS: imtermediate, improve, technique, robertson, PR, bench, strength, deadlift, squat, powerlifting, training

As I traverse the bumpy road that leads to elite level lifting, I’ve pondered what things can hasten the journey.  Most trainees can rapidly progress from being a beginner to an intermediate level lifter, but many often plateau and never move out of the intermediate phase.  This article is designed for the intermediate level lifter, to help them kick-start their process and get back on the road to elite lifting!

Chances are, if you are reading this, you are an intermediate level lifter.  By powerlifting standards, a good cut-off to determine between intermediate and elite level lifters is the qualifying total (QT) for the Senior National meet, or achieving an Elite classification by the old USPF standards.

Now, let’s figure out how to get you there!

Improve technique

It’s crazy, but I’ve actually heard people say things like “He’s not stronger, he just has better technique.”  BS!  Whoever has more plates on the bar and properly executes the lift is stronger; plain and simple.

In powelifting, technique is often the difference between a PR and a disappointment; finishing a lift or getting injured.  Technique is a dynamic process, meaning what constitutes perfect technique at 400 pounds would be terrible technique at 600 pounds.  As your body changes, your leverages change, you get stronger, and gear improves, technique as well must change and improve.

But what if you don’t know what good technique is?  Or what if you just need to brush up and make sure your technique is flawless?  Dave Tate, Eric Cressey and I have all written articles that can help you.  Here are several good articles that discuss proper technique on the power lifts (which should be staples in every trainees program):

10 Tips for Flawless Squatting

Squat 900 Pounds

Yo, How Much Ya Bench?

The Road to 600

Precision Pulling

The Dead Zone

Deadlift Diagnosis (Ok, this one isn’t purely a technique article, but it will help you move more weight nonetheless!)

Force the assistance lifts

By now it’s pretty common knowledge that we should be using the goal-setting process to help expedite our training progress.  Last year, my training had stalled for a few months and I couldn’t figure out what the problem was; all my main predictors were up (repetition squats, ME bench movements, etc.), but my total wasn’t moving like I thought it should.  What was wrong?  I wasn’t forcing my assistance lifts!

Beginners often get a huge carryover from just learning the competitive movements (e.g. squatting, benching and deadlifting).  They are reaping the benefits of improved intra and inter-muscular coordination, as well as those of motor learning.  But as we progress in training age and ability, the assistance lifts play a much greater role in our progress.  A soft upper back, dormant glutes, or a weak lower back will not rear its ugly head until we are lifting near maximal weights.  In this case, we must treat the assistance lifts just like our main lifts if we want to continue our ascension to the top.  Zatsiorsky refers to this as Delayed Transmutation (developing accessory lifts that will build our primary lifts).

We set goals for our primary lifts, why not set them for our assistance lifts as well?  In other words, think about what kind of weights you’ll have to be moving in your assistance lifts to hit the primary lifts you want.  For instance you might be doing RDL’s with 225 and currently have a max squat of 405; your next goal is to squat 455.  I’m assuming by the time you are banging out RDL’s with 255 or so, you’ll also be on your way to squatting 455.  In this way, you aren’t just focusing on the primary lift, but the assistance lifts that develop the primary lift as well.  Dave often refers to these lifts as your “Indicators,” and I’m in total agreement that these will help predict your future strength levels.

Here’s another example:  When I’m improving my strength on the glute-ham, my deadlift is typically coming up with it.  For 2 months I pounded my glute-hams, often performing them twice a week with different set and rep schemes, variations on the distance to the toe-plate, and adding resistance.  For the next 2 months I shattered all my previous pulling PR’s, and even with a torn meniscus pulled a PR in my following meet.

Train harder….

As discussed in the previous point, beginning trainees can often just get in the gym, work on the primary movements with any set/rep scheme imaginable, and it carries over to their competitive lifts.  However, as we progress, we learn that volume that was once very easily performed is now very hard and leaves us overtrained.  This is where the delicate balance of volume and intensity must be managed; we need to focus on more intense training versus more voluminous training.

Training the primary lifts in the 6-8 rep range will no longer get you the results you desire.  The majority of your training should be in the 3-5 rep range, with periods of recovery work interspersed into the program.  Heavy singles can and should be taken from time to time, but not as frequently as someone who is at the elite level.  Since you are now training harder from an intensity standpoint, this leads us into my next point.

…But know when to back off

I’m still amazed at how many trainees do not know the benefit of taking planned time off in their training.  If you are unfamiliar with the concept, here’s the definition of Delayed Transformation from Zatsiorsky’s Science and Practice of Strength Training:


“Because of the time delay between an increase in training load and improvement in performance, the training load should be decreased before an important competition (the period of delayed transformation).  In essence, this is the time an organism needs for rest and adaptation.”

What he’s saying is that we must take time off for our bodies to realize our strength gains; even more simply, fatigue masks fitness.

Beginners can often get away with protocols where they train for 5-6 weeks without taking an unload period (noted as 5-6 load: 1 unload); however, I would argue that most would be better off with a more traditional scheme of 3-4:1.

But what about intermediate lifters?  Their technique is improving, they are using more weight, and therefore the fatigue they induce is much deeper than a beginner.  Low-level intermediates should not go over 3 consecutive training weeks, while most intermediates will benefit from 2:1 schemes, and even the occasional 1:1 scheme for very voluminous or intense training methods.

Success begins in the eye of the beholder

One conundrum that faces all lifters is “How do I spend more time training/in the gym, without overtraining?”  Too often we get caught up in the fact that if we aren’t roasting our muscles, we aren’t doing anything to coax gains; this totally disregards the benefits of proper diet, supplementation, massage, stretching, etc. and how they influence performance improvements.  As well, another tool that is often overlooked is visualization.

Visualization is a very powerful tool that many elite athletes use.  In powerlifting, say you want to squat 500 at your next meet.  You obviously can’t squat that 100 times in the gym (if you could, it wouldn’t be much of a goal!)  You can, however, visualize yourself performing the lift 100 or more times at home.  The more realistic you can make your visual, the better it works.  Imagine your handler putting a cast-wrap on your knees.  The music is blaring in your head phones.  Feel the knurling on the bar.  Imagine the weight feeling effortless as you walk out of the racks.  Your technique is dialed in and you smoke the weight like it’s an opener.  The more realistic, vivid and powerful you make the image, the more effective it will be.  As the saying goes, “If you think you can or can’t do something, you are probably right!”

Train with those stronger than you

This is one of those oh-so-simple tips, but one that never gets enough attention.  I’ll relay my story to you.

When I was at Ball State, I had the privilege of training with some of the strongest lifters in the country (our men’s team took 3rd place at Collegiate Nationals my last year there).  However, I was always training with guys that were about my ability, maybe a little weaker or stronger, but nothing astounding.  We always pushed each other, trained our asses off, and did what we could to succeed.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t making gains like I thought.

Fast forward to when I moved to Ft. Wayne; the training climate was no different, but now I was training with someone who squatted 700 pounds to my 400, benched 500 to my 300 and pulling 640 to my 500.  After a while, you get cold and calloused; you start to think, “This person isn’t any better than me, why are they so much stronger?”  I didn’t care that the guy outweighed me by 70 or 80 pounds, all I knew was I wanted to beat him.  All of a sudden, the gains started coming faster than ever before.  This is what it means to really train with someone stronger than you.

If you are currently the strongest person in your gym, seek out another gym with stronger people.  If you are not the strongest person in your gym, start training with whoever is.  You don’t have to change anything else, but I guarantee this will take your training up a notch.


Being intermediate sucks.  You definitely aren’t the weakest person at your gym, but you aren’t the strongest either.  When you go to power meets, you can dominate a large majority of the competition, but the elite level lifters are still kicking your ass.  I hope this article will give you the tools necessary to take your performance up to an elite level!

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