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Taking it to the next level - a guide to Intermediate Bodybuilding
Note: ‘Taking it to the next level’ is the second article in a two part series. The first article can be found here - So You Wannabe a Bodybuilder?
A breed apart
If you have made it this far, give yourself a nice pat on the back. Many people that set out to become bodybuilders never make it past the beginner phase. They quit for several common reasons. Most often it’s because they failed to see amazing results right away.
With the unrealistic expectations fed by dramatic ‘before and after’ photos in ads, untold thousands of would-be bodybuilders prematurely give up on their goals out of frustration and impatience. Maybe they gave it their all for a few weeks or a few months, but at some point they became so dissatisfied with the progress they had made in terms of muscle or strength gain and/or fat loss that they decided they were wasting time and effort. It’s unfortunate, but we now live in a ‘microwave oven’ society. Thanks to technological advances like the Internet, most people have been conditioned to expect nearly instantaneous results.
But you, my friend, you didn’t give up. You saw some progress, and even if it wasn’t anything to shout about from the rooftops, you understand that sculpting an exceptional physique does take significant time and effort. That’s why it’s a special thing to be built like a bodybuilder. Regardless of your genetics, nobody gets a great body overnight, and nobody looks like a bodybuilder without having put in their fair share of gym time. If you have consistently trained for at least six months to a year, you have made it past the beginner stage. Consider yourself an intermediate bodybuilder.
What does ‘Intermediate’ really mean?
You could think of intermediate status in a couple ways. It’s sort of like having graduated from boot camp, or high school. You’ve learned all the basics and gone from a raw novice who was essentially clueless to someone who had a good idea of what’s going on. To be more specific in our case, you should have learned the form on all the basic exercises. I hesitate to say ‘mastered’ the form, because that’s something that typically takes at least a couple years. The same can be said about mind-muscle connection. You should be in touch with all your muscle groups to the point where you can definitely feel the target muscle contracting and stretching during exercises like presses, curls, and rows. True mastery of this subtle art will come later and only through increased experience.
When it comes to nutrition, you should have a firm grasp of the basic principles. You should be on a regular eating schedule of about four or five solid meals a day plus a shake or two. In any case, you don’t go longer than three hours between meals because you understand the critical link between keeping a steady stream of nutrients and making gains. You should also be paying attention to rest and recuperation by making it a point to sleep a solid eight hours every night and grab naps whenever you have the chance. As far as your physique goes, the amount of progress you have made thus far will depend on factors like your age, your genetics, and how much effort you have been putting into your training and nutrition. But regardless, you should be bigger and stronger than you were when you started. If you diligently followed the type of routine I outlined in the article for beginners, you should definitely have made substantial progress. Nothing works like the classic free weight basic movements.
Ron Harris shows how he sculpted an exceptional physique through hard work and patience
Time to split things up
In the article for beginners, “So You Wannabe a Bodybuilder?”, the routine called for working the entire upper body in one session, and the lower at another workout. The exercises for upper body were different over the course of two workouts, yet they still covered the entire musculature of the upper body. Now you are ready to divide the body into more distinct groups. How you do this is really a matter of personal preference. You can arrange your bodypart groupings in many different ways, depending on factors like which days you have available to train, how many days you can train in a row before feeling burnt out, which bodyparts need more attention (something that will only now begin to become apparent since you have been working the entire physique for at least six months), how many bodyparts you can work together, and so on. There are no real rules except for those of overlap. For example, training biceps before back day would not be a good idea, as the fatigued biceps would compromise the performance of just about all back exercises. The same can be said about working triceps the day before either chest or shoulders, or doing chest and shoulders on consecutive days. Beyond that, there is quite a bit of room to customize your own schedule. Here are just a few examples of common bodypart splits you can adopt:
- Monday: Chest and triceps
- Tuesday: Back
- Wednesday: Rest
- Thursday: Legs
- Friday: Shoulders and biceps
- Saturday: Rest
- Sunday: Rest
- Monday: Back
- Tuesday: Chest
- Wednesday: Legs
- Thursday: Shoulders
- Friday: Arms
- Saturday: Rest
- Sunday: Rest
- Monday: Chest and shoulders
- Tuesday: Legs
- Wednesday: Back
- Thursday: Rest
- Friday: Arms
- Saturday: Rest
- Sunday: Rest
- Day one: Quadriceps
- Day two: Chest and biceps
- Day three: OFF
- Day four: Back and hamstrings
- Day five: Shoulders and triceps
- Day six: OFF
- Day one: Chest, shoulders, triceps (PUSH)
- Day two: Back and biceps (PULL)
- Day three: Legs
- Day four: OFF, repeat (or take additional rest day if needed)
You don’t have to feel ‘locked in’ or obligated to continue on any one split indefinitely. In fact, it’s a good idea to switch things up from time to time. Many bodybuilders have found success with working weaker bodyparts on their own day, and hitting them after a day of full rest also seems to be advantageous. And it’s not even a bad idea to return to basic, beginner type workouts from time to time for a change of pace.
Beyond the basics
Now that you have built a solid foundation on the basic compound movements, it’s time to start adding in more exercises per bodypart. This is possible because now you aren’t trying to work every muscle group in one workout. Rather than only do deadlifts or barbell rows or chins for back, for example, you can do all of those plus add in one-arm dumbbell rows and lat pulldowns. You are also free now to incorporate isolation movements as a supplement to the basics. Just a few examples: leg extensions for quads, pec deck for the chest, and lateral raises for the shoulders. By doing a greater variety of exercises for each muscle group, you can hit the muscle from different angles and work it through its various functions. More mass gains will be simulated, as well as superior muscle shape. The gains you will make in your first few months after going from just the raw basics to a more well-rounded routine that includes more isolation movements are often nothing short of astounding.
You may want to check the gym rules before copying Ron’s no top approach!
Avoid the dual temptations: losing the basics and going all-machine
Before you get too enthusiastic about adding in isolation movements, it is critical that you never stop doing the basics. They are still the exercises that deliver the most ‘bang for your buck,’ and getting away from them is a serious mistake. Consider someone like Ronnie Coleman. Even after he had been training for over twenty years and had already won the Mr. Olympia title several times, his workouts still featured classics like squats, bench presses, deadlifts, military presses, and barbell rows. Those were the cornerstone of his training from day one and he wisely continued to do them. There is always a temptation to replace free weight movements with machines. Instead of squats, bodybuilders do leg presses and hack squats. Instead of pressing with barbells and dumbbells, they use Smith machines and other machines. Rows – same thing. Barbells and dumbbells are out, replaced by cables and machine. The problem with this is that you can’t really replace basic free weight movements. As great as some machines are, and there are some excellent lines out there today, they are still not as effective as free weights at building muscle size and strength.
Most bodybuilders make the majority of all their progress in their first couple years of training, then gains slow to a crawl and stop completely. Muscle gains will always be the most rapid at the outset of anyone’s lifting career because the stress of training is a new stimulus, but that’s not the only reason behind this phenomenon. Equally to blame is the fact that most bodybuilders abandon the basic exercises, under the mistaken impression that they are really only meant for beginners. Bodybuilders who instead keep working hard and getting stronger on the basics while also making judicious use of isolation movements, machines, and cables typically build the best physiques. Keep that in mind whenever you feel tempted to drop an exercise like squats, barbell presses, or deadlifts from your routine.
Do NOT copy the pro routines!
Another common error bodybuilders make once they move into the intermediate stage of training is to adopt the training routines of the pro’s. Firstly, professional bodybuilders are advanced. Most of them have been training hard and consistently for anywhere from ten to twenty years or more. In many cases, they aren’t even trying to build any additional size. Their goal now is to ‘add detail’ and muscle maturity. I have yet to meet a bodybuilder who was ready after just six months to a year of training to stop training for more muscle mass. Usually at that point you still have a lot of growing left to do before you even think about being ‘big enough.’
Another factor to consider is that pro bodybuilders often follow routines that would leave the average guy horribly overtrained. Not only do pro bodybuilders often have a lot more time to eat and sleep than you do, but they are also genetically gifted athletes that can tolerate a great deal more exercise than the average person and still recover and grow. And yes, steroids are also part of the picture in pro bodybuilding. Steroids enhance recovery to such a degree that a non-user attempting to recover and grow from the same high-volume and high-frequency routines that most pro’s follow is doomed to fail. Rest and recovery are just as important as an intermediate as they were when you were a beginner. Actually, because you are stronger now and thus capable of inflicting more damage to the muscle cells at each workout, it’s even more important now that you balance your training with ample rest and proper nutrition. Generally speaking, you should have at least one day a week when you don’t train with weights at all, and for most bodybuilders two or three days is even better.
Up until now you should have been doing entirely straight sets. Now you can begin to incorporate techniques like drop sets, super sets, pre-exhaust, rest-pause, and forced reps. (see Glossary at the end of the article for definitions) However, it must be stressed that these techniques are to be used sparingly as a means to shock a given muscle group. If you choose to use all these techniques, all of the time, you will very soon become overtrained to the point where not only will you not be getting any bigger, but you will actually start getting smaller and weaker! Hard work on straight sets should still comprise 90% of what you do in the gym. Reserve intensity techniques for stubborn bodyparts that require a bit more stimulation to respond. Used judiciously, the various intensity techniques can be just the thing you need to stimulate extra gains. Overused and abused, they will have the opposite effect.
Time to add in more supplements
With beginners, I try to discourage extensive discussions about supplements for the simple reason that getting your nutrition in order is the absolute most important thing you must do. Too many beginners are obsessed with using all the latest supplements and expecting them to deliver miraculous results while neglecting to make a real effort to eat quality solid food every two to three hours. As we said before, as an intermediate you should have a good handle on your eating. Now, ‘supplements’ can really come in handy, because they are doing what they are meant to do – supplement a good diet and not replace it!
Now is the time to use things like a good creatine product, protein powder, L-Glutamine, BCAA’s, a post-workout shake, nitric oxide boosters, weight gainers, and fat burners (obviously not all of these at the same time – certain products are geared toward specific goals). Here is one small example of what I’m talking about. If a guy is only eating two solid meals a day and trying to make up the rest of his meals with protein shakes, his results won’t be very good. But, if a person adds in two or three protein shakes in between meals and is eating four or five good solid meals a day, he will experience much better results. When a person is training hard, eating well, and getting enough rest, adding in a decent supplement regimen can make a big difference.
Okay, so how long does this phase last?
So now you may be asking, how long am I going to be an intermediate, and when do I graduate to advanced status? There is no definitive answer, as various people have their own interpretations of this. Some see the stages purely in terms of time, and will decree that you must have trained for X amount of years before you can consider yourself advanced. Others view the definition in terms of your physique development, wherein you should have the ‘look’ of a bodybuilder before you can call yourself advanced. Personally, I take both those factors into account but also consider a person’s knowledge to be a determining variable. If a bodybuilder takes the time and effort to educate him or herself on a regular basis and attain a level of training and nutrition expertise worthy of teaching others, I would call that bodybuilder advanced. But as always, I urge you all not to think of bodybuilding in terms of being a destination. Rather, think of it as a journey and a process. You never stop learning, and there is always room for improvement. As an intermediate bodybuilder, you are well on your way!
Suggested Intermediate training routine:*
Monday: Chest and triceps
- Incline dumbbell press 3 x 8-12
- Flat barbell press 3 x 8-12
- Pec flye machine 3 x 12
- Lying EZ-bar extensions 3 x 12
- Weighted dip 3 x 8-12
- Rope cable pushdown 3 x 12
- Chin-up 3 x 8-12
- Deadlift 3 x 8-12
- Lat pulldown 3 x 12
- Barbell row 3 x 8-12
- Seated cable row 3 x 12
Thursday: Legs and calves
- Squat 4 x 8-12
- Leg press 3 x 12-20
- Lying leg curl 4 x 12
- Stiff-leg deadlift 4 x 12
- Leg extension 3 x 12-15
- Standing calf raise 3 x 10-12
- Seated calf raise 2 x 20
Friday: Shoulders and biceps
- Seated dumbbell press 4 x 8-12
- Lateral raise 4 x 10-12
- Rear lateral raise 4 x 10-12
- Barbell curl 3 x 10-12
- Preacher curl 3 x 10-12
- Hammer dumbbell curl 3 x 10-12
*Warm-ups are not shown – always warm up thoroughly!
Ron Harris shows what can be achieved through sixteen years of training experience
Written by Ron Harris
Drop sets - Upon reaching failure on a set, weight is reduced by taking plates off, changing the pin in a weight stack, or grabbing a lighter pair of dumbbells and immediately resuming the set.
Super sets - Performing two exercises back to back. Typically the exercises are for the same bodypart, but not always. It’s common to see a biceps and a triceps exercise super setted.
Pre-exhaust - A specific type of super set in which an isolation movement for a bodypart is immediately followed by a compound movement for the same muscle. Examples include pec deck and bench press, lateral raises and military press, or leg extensions and leg press.
Rest-pause - When muscular failure is reached, the set is stopped only long enough for the trainer to regain some strength. At this point, the set is resumed once again until failure is reached. This may be done more than once in the course of a rest-pause set.
Forced reps - When a trainer is unable to complete any further reps on his or her own, a spotter provides just enough assistance to allow the completion of another 1-3 reps. Forced reps should always be done only after at least a few reps have been done with no help at all.
Discuss, comment or ask a question
If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums - Taking it to the next level - a guide to Intermediate Bodybuilding discussion thread.