I went looking for this article to send to a Lift Vault reader and realized that the Strength Villain domain, for whatever reason, is currently down. I’m reposting this article, “Intermediate Syndrome,” here so that others can continue to benefit from it.
Related: Greyskull LP Program
Originally posted by Johnny Pain in 2015 on StrengthVillain.com (Archive)
The belief that one has progressed from the “Novice” to the “Intermediate” stage in their strength training journey is perhaps the most common cause for an outright halt in that individuals progress.
This is something I’ve written a bit about elsewhere, but after addressing this very topic no less than five times in the last week with individuals who believed that their training had “plateaued”, I decided it was time to formally articulate my thoughts on this in post form.
Unless you’re a complete “newbie” to the strength training world, and the various books and websites that comprise the “voice” of the industry, you’ve read or heard of the practice of classifying trainees as either “novice”, “intermediate”, or “advanced” (with a few other sub-classifications often thrown in for good measure). Like much of what is put into print, these classifications, and the so-called “criteria” that they describe are often accepted as the gospel. This acceptance leads to damning beliefs being spawned in the mind of the reader; beliefs that can ultimately discourage, if not outright sabotage the success of the believer.
The common belief is that once a trainee has “exhausted” their progress on a “linear progression” program, they are then classified as an “intermediate” trainee, and therefore require different programming to continue to progress.
Before I attack this further, let me make a simple statement that may cause the sphincters of some to tighten to needle-eye diameter:
All training is linear progression, or at least it should be if you wish to make progress over time.
Hell, even the “intermediate” programs that others recommend are by definition “linear progression” programs in that the trainee is expected to lift more weight in a given movement, albeit perhaps on a longer timeline than before.
That may not fit into someone else’s definition of “linear progression”, and if it does not, that is OK with me, but in my mind “linear progression” involves increasing at least one performance variable in one’s training with each training effort.
Now, clearly it is impossible for a trainee to linearly add weight to a movement, workout to workout, indefinitely. A mere five pound increase per week on the bench press would translate into an increase of two-hundred and sixty pounds per year. Taking these numbers into consideration, it is easy to see that one cannot just go in the gym each workout and add weight to the bar.
But what if there were more variables involved than just the weight on the bar?
Oh yeah, that’s right, there are.
The program that has become known as the “Greyskull LP” (though I maintain that the GSLP is a flexible set of principles, and not a written in stone program) was born around the concept of the “Greyskull reset”.
Most of you reading are familiar with how this works. If not, let me break it down for you real quick.
Let’s say Todd is squatting today. He works his way up to three sets at his “work weight” for the day. In the basic template, the first two sets are sets of five reps, and the final set is performed to failure.
Assuming Todd is able to make at least five reps on each set, he adds weight to the bar for the next session. Now if he’s legitimately unable to make at least five reps on all three sets for two consecutive workouts (and the reason is not that he needs to man the fuck up and squat the weight like his life depended on it), the program calls for him to reduce the weight by ten percent, rounding down to the nearest even bar weight, and begin the process again the following session.
The idea here is that Todd’s reps on his final set with the reduced weight will annihilate the rep count from his final set the last time he saw that weight, which he’s of course able to look up in his training log.
Todd then works his way back up, adding weight to the bar each session, and repping out the final set each time. He’ll eventually need to reset again, but not until his pushed wayyy past the last weight that kicked his ass weeks or months ago, bringing on his first reset.
I created this method as a dramatically improved version of the old standard “drop ten percent and squat three sets of five until you get back to the weight you got stuck at before” protocol.
I found the old method to be terribly disheartening to trainees, in that they spent weeks squatting weights that they had already seen in their progression, for the same amount of reps as they had weeks ago as well. This caused many to avoid resetting like the plague, and resort to shit technique to try to “keep the ride going”. This also provided ZERO in the way of a stimulus to actually make the person stronger, and simply existed to allow the “cumulative fatigue” from the previous weeks to subside.
On paper that sounds good… wait, no it doesn’t even sound good on paper now that I think of it.
The Greyskull way allows the trainee to blast away, workout after workout, shooting for max reps on his final set, just as he had been all along, and it allows him to drive progress continually by recognizing that the bar weight was not the ONLY variable in the mix, that the repetitions performed also represent a variable in which progress can and should be sought as well.
Recognizing and manipulating multiple variables in your training is the key to continual strength gains.
Imagine that Todd runs into a snag with his bench press, he’s reset a few times, and though he’s getting farther ahead with each, the weight is heavy as hell, and he’s finding it more difficult to grind out the necessary reps to drive his gains.
What do you suppose would happen if he were to swap his bench press out with a close-grip, or incline bench press for a while?
Would he progress again?
Bet your ass he would.
Would he lose strength on the flat bench when he revisited it after weeks of driving up his close-grip numbers?
Bet your ass he would NOT.
He’d be much stronger when he returned to “old flatty” (I’ve actually never referred to a flat bench by that name before, but it seemed like the right thing to write).
What an idea, right? Recognizing that the lift itself could be a variable that could be adjusted, and that adjusting said variable would allow continual progress with a basic setup.
Awesome stuff, but don’t just take my word for it, ask Dante Trudel, the infamous “DoggCrapp” of DC Training fame what he thinks of that approach. I think he’d be for it considering he’s been using exactly that method to add slabs of muscle to already heavily muscled bodybuilders for years.
DC Training is, by the definition offered by others, “linear progression” in it’s purest form.
I guess his top-level bodybuilders are all actually still “novices” considering they are able to make “linear gains” for extended periods of time.
You can see how just one of the problems that leads to the asinine practice of one being yclept an “intermediate” in need of more sophisticated, read: slower and more complicated programming, is the unwillingness to recognize that there are more than just three or four lifts that can be used to drive strength gains. I illustrated this already, but how about another example?
It could be said that Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell fame has experienced a bit more than marginal success in training competitive Powerlifters over the years, guys that actually compete in the same lifts that some believe to be the only lifts one can use to build strength.
How does he do that you might ask?
Well, if you’re not familiar with the conjugate method (and you should be), Louie has his lifters rotate variations of the “big lifts” each “Max Effort” day, striving to set a PR of some sort, be it a one-rep max, max triple, double, etc.
This manipulating variables and progressing in one or more each time stuff seems to work huh?
So believing that because you’ve reset a time or two, usually the result of an unwillingness to sack the fuck up and push the weight despite it being heavier now than it was when you were a true “beginner”, you’re now an “intermediate trainee”, and now need to switch to a more complicated, boring as hell, time consuming, and painfully slow approach to training the same lifts is totally what you should do… if you like stagnating, and never really getting beyond your “newbie gains”.
So why are people so quick to classify themselves as “intermediates”, and shoot themselves in the foot?
Aside from the beliefs born from the writings of others whose methods are predicated on the existence of these classifications (I’ll remind you that Dante and Louie cited above do not share this belief in the importance of assigning any such label to a trainee), I truly believe that this occurs out of trainee’s desire to achieve a “merit badge” of sorts, and “move up a rung”.
Right? I’m no novice, I’m an intermediate now, I’m on to more complex shit.
Forget the fact that I’m only squatting two hundred and thirty pounds, benching one ninety, and deadlifting two ninety five, I’m a fucking intermediate, I’ve been at this a while.
When we put time into something, we want recognition for it. Some seek this recognition by classifying themselves as an intermediate trainee on a message board, for others the recognition comes as the result of their monstrous lifts or rippling muscles earned by a focus on progress above all else.
The latter is immediately evident to all, the former requires others to have read the same book as you read, understand the classifications, and sympathize with why despite your intermediate status, and your more complex programming, you still aren’t strong, and you still don’t look like you lift fucking weights.
You get what you focus on.
- Focus on progressing in one or more variable in each training session, keeping it as simple as possible, and you will progress.
- Focus on your “status” as a trainee, your need for more complexity, and your resignation to a much slower rate of progress at this point in your training career, and you will get slower progress while training in a more complex manner.
I’m not saying that there is never a point at which your progress will expectedly slow, otherwise we’d all be thousand pound squatters, but I will state that I’d be willing to bet that NO ONE reading this site is incapable of making what others would call “linear gains”.
Do me a big favor, free yourself from the chains of the beliefs of hard classifications, and their associated needs for increased complexity and slower progress.
Recognize that bar weight is not the only variable that exists in training, and that there are more than just four lifts in the universe (even if you compete in said lifts).
Do these things, focus on progress, and smash your fucking records.
See if you don’t enjoy the hell out of your training, as well as consistently make a hell of a lot more progress.
I mean eventually you do want to go shirtless on the beach and drop a few jaws, or actually bench press three wheels right?
Why on earth would you willingly adopt a progress-killing belief for the sake of assuming an arbitrary designation written in a book to slow that process down?
Drop the bullshit, and beast some fucking weights.