Strength Training Principles: The Intermediate Athlete

After months and sometimes even a year, progression methods that we used for the beginner will no longer work. A​dding weight to the bar from workout to workout in all the primary barbell lifts stop producing results. This is normal, and a good thing. At this point in the athletes training career ​he or she has built a solid base level of strength, motor control, muscular endurance; ​and likely has put on some muscle mass. The athletes body has adapted towards better recovery in between sessions. However, this will be slightly offset because they are now able to cause more homeostatic damage each session. These things now warrant a change in the programming for strength training and this athlete can now be considered and intermediate lifter.

Most athletes never advance past this stage. For sports performance, ​ strength training is just a means to an end to perform better in the athletes given sport. It​ does not require them to be complete experts in all lifts just good enough to move correctly and see a benefit on the field. Even in the sport of fitness I would not consider even the best lifters advanced. Multiple dudes snatch over 300 now at the CrossFit games level.  ​However, compared to an international level Olympic lifter that would be considered warm up weight. That’s not a bash on these guys, a 300lb snatch is still a huge accomplishment of strength, power and coordination.  Just like the football player they are not required to specialize in the clean and jerk and snatch. They simply ​must be good at it​, along with a hundred other tasks. Spending time just becoming an advanced lifter would be counterproductive to your success in your sport unless lifting is your sport.  For example, power lifting, weight lifting, and strongman.


The Intermediate lifter now has specific sports performance goals, rather than just developing strength, motor control, and proficiency in the lifts. T​he Development of these traits ​will never go away, you always want to​ progress these attributes​.  ​The new specific goals will dictate in​ which direction training goes, and sport played.


Exercise selection for the intermediate lifter will be highly specific to the athletes’​ sport, time of year, and individual weaknesses. If your ​sport is powerlifting, ​the​n your program will largely revolve around the bench, squat, and deadlift. If it’s the sport of fitness or strongman it becomes every lift you can imagine. T​hese athletes must be ready for any variation of any lift to pop up in any competition. For these athletes, ​ strength training movements are no longer a means to an end like it would be for a field sport athlete​. T​he lifts themselves are the sport in a sense. At this phase the athlete has developed enough of a base of strength and muscular endurance to now make the Olympic lifts and plyometric’s a high emphasis in the program. They have built the necessary strength to now perform these lifts at high loads and speeds safely and effectively. As mentioned above the athlete only needs to perform what is needed for their sport​.  Performing any lift that will not have a direct carry over to the sport is counterproductive use of volume.  ​This will disrupt work capacity in other areas, such as practicing the sport itself. An exception of this would be in a rehabilitation setting which is out of the scope of this article. A common mistake made in exercise selection and execution for field sport athletes is trying to make the lift mimic the sport. An example used in ​P​ractical Programming for S​trength Training by Mark Rippetoe would be for a javelin thrower to mimic that motion with a dumbbell, essentially training the athlete to move slower. Make the athlete strong under the bar, then take that new developed strength and use it to make him better at his sport in sport practice. Exercise selection doesn’t always look like the sport, but it should be energy system specific.


In this phase of an athletes​ career adding more variance to the program is acceptable if it’​s more specific to the sport. For absolute strength training we like to stick with deadlift, back squat, front squat, strict/push press, bench press, ​and all their variants. For

​st​rength speed, we stick with the Olympic lifts and all their variants. A good rule of thumb is: ​ if the athlete cannot squat 1x body weight, perform three strict dips and pull ups, and deadlift 1.25 x body weight then they are not strong enough to effectively maximize this attribute. For speed strength, we stick to low % barbell cycling of the Olympic lifts​; ​med ball throws, and plyometric’s. For absolute speed, we train all out sprint on the Assault bike, running, or sled pushing.


Exercise order in a training program should be organized in a way that lets you train the exercise of priority first thing in the day while the CNS and body are in their​ most fresh state. This will depend on the lifters ability, time of year, and sport that is being trained for. Basic guidelines state that if strength is the priority of the training program then lifts such as squat, bench, and deadlift variants Squat variants, Bench press variants, or deadlift variants should come first in the day. If power or technical proficiency is priority, then it would be wise to place the Olympic lifts first within the days training. Exercise selection, order, and technical drills that you choose for your athletes will always be based on the needs of the athlete (which will be dictated by our assessment). As another general rule, full body compound movements should come first within the day followed by accessory work that may resemble body building type movements​. ​ These are great for correcting structural balance issues or aiding in working through injurie​s​. An important concept to remember is that fatigue will decrease the speed, precision, and skill in barbell movements. ​High skill movements such as the snatch should be performed first. But, as mentioned​, ​ that will be dependent of the time of year and the ​need of the athlete. ​


Sets, reps, and rest are highly dictated by the exercise, intensity, volume, gender, phase of training, and goal. The main lifts of focus will have the highest volume of sets and reps daily and weekly​.  This is​ due to their carry over to the sport and the amount of overload they cause, meaning they produce the best results. Olympic lifts are less physically taxing and require more touches weekly to hone in technique. This means they will likely receive the highest volume weekly compared to the absolute strength movements. In a strength building phase of someone whose weakness is just not being strong enough, the absolute strength movements will receive more volume than the other lifts. If someone is strong but needs to get better at applying that strength to the Olympic lifts, then Olympic lifts will be the focus. A good way to tell what rep and set range your athlete will benefit from most is to test their neuromuscular efficiency.  This is basically testing your nervous systems ability to recruit muscle fibers and produce force. How you test this is test your 1RM back squat, rest 10 minutes, then perform a max rep set at 85% of that new found 1RM at a 30X1 tempo. 1-3 reps = high neuromuscular efficiency, meaning they can dig deeper into their CNS and they will benefit from lower rep strength protocols at higher intensities, A moderate score = 4-8 rep, and the athlete would benefit from moderate rep ranges around 5 reps. A low NME score = 9+ reps, meaning they would benefit from lower intensity higher rep strength work. The higher the intensity the more rest. The lower the intensity and higher reps calls for less rest. If absolute strength is the intended benefit, then 3-5 minutes of rest between sets is recommended. This amount of rest is necessary to allow your body to fully recover its CP stores before the next lift is executed. The recovery rate between the sets is largely dependent on the intensity of the set and the nutritional status of the athlete. If muscular endurance or hypertrophy is the intended stimulus very little rest is needed, 45 seconds to 90 seconds. This is also very effective for training CP battery, teaching your body to recover quicker between sets. This will be a huge factor in many events in the sport of fitness and strongman.


Frequency for the intermediate athlete is highly dependent on the sport, time of year, and what the lifestyle will allow. Training three days per week like the beginner usually will not work any longer; but that is not always the case. An in-season college football team will not be in the weight room two hours a day for five days a week.  That accumulated volume would leave no available room for sport practice. During in season of any sport, the practice of that sport itself should be the focus.  An intermediate or even advanced athlete may only be in the weight room for two to three days a week. Even for a fitness sport athlete strength training five days a week may not be necessary since they must leave some training volume in the week for the other tasks they must master. For power lifters, they may only lift heavy two to three times per week due to the taxing nature of their training, 5 days a week of heavy lifting would be too much.


For intermediate lifters to train more than three days per week, the week needs to be divided into splits, unlike the multiple full body sessions a week for the beginner. Monday could be dedicated to an upper body push/ hip hinge focus. Tuesday being a pull/ squat focus.  Wednesday being a unilateral upper/lower day. Thursday active recovery.  Friday upper push/ hinge.  Saturday upper body pull/ squat focus. Or you can do upper lower splits, or volume Intensity splits.  In this practice, specific days of the week would be dedicated to high intensity low volume and specific days would be dedicated to low intensity high volume. With this technique, it is wise to place 48 hours between intensity days. This is just a few of many ways you can lay out a week for an intermediate lifter. The point I want you to grasp is that the Monday, Wednesday, Friday full body sessions may no longer work due to the amount of fatigue they can cause per session.


A daily structure for an intermediate lifter could look like this:



A.) Squat snatch 6×2 @ 70-80% rest 2 min btw sets

B.) Back squat 5×3 @80-85% rest 3-5 min btw sets

C.) Strict press 5×2 @80-85% rest 3-5 min btw sets


D1.) Bulgarian split squat 3×10

20 sec rest

D2.) seated single arm dumbbell press 3×15

20 sec rest

D3.) 60 second plank

90 sec rest


At the front end of the session, the priority should be absolute strength movements. At the back end would be muscular endurance unilateral sets that would be treated like a circuit. It is important to place the muscular endurance circuit at the back end so it does not interfere with the strength speed and absolute strength movements. Notice how this differs from the beginner routine. The beginner routine is solely a circuit of two opposing movements back to back with little rest which will develop strength, motor control, and muscular endurance for the beginner. This is no longer optimal for the intermediate athlete. Now we must put an emphasis on focused strength with ample rest and given intensity zones to ensure the athlete is receiving the stimulus we intend for them as well as the proper rest to accomplish the next set effectively.


Stay tuned for the last week of this knowledge series to learn how to apply basic strength training concepts too advanced lifters. Interested in working with a professional coach? Follow the link.

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Justin Biays

Justin is the founder and head coach of Dark Horse Performance. He is a former United States Army 11B (infantry). He served 1 tour of duty in Afghanistan, realizing quickly that standard gym routines did not cut it for the duties he was expected to perform. He found his love for "Functional Fitness" returning from Afghanistan, then he decided it was time to try CrossFit. After leaving the Army in 2012 he attended the Metropolitan State University of Denver, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in exercise science with a minor in nutrition.