Progressing as an Intermediate Bodybuilder; 5 Key Lessons


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2016 will mark my 5th year of consistent ‘proper training’ and ‘intelligent nutrition’ as a bodybuilder.

First let me clarify, in simple terms:

  1. Proper training – planned workouts with progression schemes in place
  2. Intelligent nutrition – eating sufficient macros and thus total Calories to fuel my training & goals

This is an important distinction to make, as you may well have trained 10 years, but if 5 of those were going into the gym and winging it and you paid little to no attention to what you ate, then they almost don’t count. Which on one hand sucks, because you’ve wasted a shed load of time, but on the other hand it means you have a lot more potential gains to make.

As you advance as a bodybuilder progress slows, not just that but to actually see any improvements at all you must have a high degree of planning, intelligent eating and training structure. Where as a novice you could just go into the gym and seek to increase weights every few weeks and eat in a Calorie surplus, you now need to refine your efforts.

This is what I am going to go over below, and these refinements are actually fairly advanced in my opinion, but can speed up your progression as an intermediate bodybuilder to a large degree. So without further ado 5 key lessons I learnt as an Intermediate bodybuilder.

1.] Allow myself to Gain Weight

As an intermediate bodybuilder you have developed a significant amount of muscle mass.

Typically you’ve also got lean at least once, and you’re reasonably happy with how you look. There is then a strong temptation to try to limit as much fat gain as possible whilst building muscle. This is exactly how I approached a lot of my ‘offseason’, trying to gain lean muscle mass over long periods of time.

This lead to a lot of nothing much.

One month I would be up a pound or so, the next one it would fluctuate back down. I basically developed what’s know as adiposephobia, and this really set me back.

The thing is the rate of muscle growth and the rate you need to gain weight to get that muscle are two different figures. If you try to gain weight at the limiting rate of muscle growth you’re cutting your gains short. This means if you can build say 1lb of muscle a month you shouldn’t aim for 1lb because, you may do what I did and gain little muscle or fat, or you might just gain fat.


Probably the best thing I did was to allow myself to gain decent amounts of scale weight. What’s decent? — This would be 0.5 to 1% of your current bodyweight every 2 weeks, or 1 to 2% every month. That meant as someone who is around 180lbs I would look to gain around 1 to 2lbs every 2 weeks, which is basically half the speed of a fat loss phase.

This did a few things:

  • It allowed me to embrace massing and eating plenty of food
  • It prevented long periods of time in which little to nothing happened with my physique
  • It provided a tonne of energy that subsequently increased the amount of training volume I could perform

This may not be a problem for many people (I mean who struggles to gain weight right?), but as someone who has always tried to stay as lean as possible and who has competed at extremely low body fat levels, embracing the scale going up really escalated my results.

Oh and no, I didn’t just get fat either, there is a sweet spot of gaining fast enough to gain a lot of muscle and a bit of fat, but not so fast you get real fat.

2.] Creating Sufficient Stress

As I mentioned in point 1 the extra food I was eating allowed me to train harder.

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Now I’ve typically followed sound training splits, from 5/3/1 to Ultimate Hypertrophy Training and having a coach that used block periodisation with DUP programming. However, I never really found my groove with any of these approaches, largely because my experience and understanding was limited.

I read Practical Programming by Mark Rippetoe and Kilgore, amongst many other training books and knew as an intermediate my rate of progression would be a lot slower than it was in the past. Gone were the days of hitting PRs every week, and now I would struggle to hit them every month, as you can see below as the number of years training progresses your rate of adaptation decreases.

Practical Programming
Practical Programming

After taking the reigns of my own training for more than 2 years now I developed an understanding of what my body could handle. And that I needed to accumulate lots of volume to provide a sufficient stress to provoke an adaption, without this the body has not reason to improve. Aiding me in coming to this conclusion was the theory of Maximal Recoverable Volume (MRV), which I first came across within The Scientific Principles of Strength Training and have written copiously about it and highly recommend.

Using this knowledge I began running mesocycles in which each week I’d purposefully increase my training intensity and or volume (depending on goal and fatigue measurements) along with my rate of perceived exertion. This lead to a build up of fatigue over several weeks, to a peak, in which I believe lead to myself overreaching before taking a deload.

I’d never really appreciated the importance of a deload until this point, because I had never really produced a significant stress to force my body to adapt, now all my clients ‘earn their deload’.

3.] Realising the Importance of Specificity

Related to the above I realised I needed to really focus on being specific within my training, and continually ask:

Does my current training promote my current goal?

As in the past I’d have a pretty decent set up, but there would be things within my programme that conflicted with the overall goal. For example I’d be training for muscle hypertrophy, but within some of my training weeks I would be using very heavy loads, and some weeks I would hit doubles on my main compound lifts.

As we know training at high volumes is key to growing lots of muscle, now because my intensity was so high my training volume was dramatically cut back. What ended up happening is my main compound lifts would look like they were programmed for a powerlifter, for strength development and I’d add-on assistance work in the traditional hypertrophy rep range. This worked as an early intermediate, but after that it led to a lot of what I’d call hitting my head against a brick wall, in that my strength work took away from my hypertrophy work and vice versa for my hypertrophy work.

I didn’t get very big, or very strong.


This lesson taught me how important it is to be very specific with your programming, in that everything you’re doing in the gym should directly support your current training goals. And that you goals need to be specific as well, did I want to get bigger or mostly focus on strength?

Once I got this in place the results flew in.

4.] Nutrition & Training Periodisation

In the past I had only heard of cutting and bulking.

My view was that you could bulk until it was time to cut, and this went hand in hand with my aversion from gaining fat, as in my head I thought this meant more time bulking, and thus more muscle to be gained. As I said this lead to a lot of going nowhere.

Now I was providing a specific very overloading stress to my body I was seeing great results, but these things have limits. The body begins to resist adaptions, things become stale, areas start to ache, and therefore you need to break up your programming, periodise it along with your nutrition.

So rather than very slowly ‘bulk’ for months on end I would have blocks dedicated of bulking and hypertrophy training, and then blocks of maintenance and strength training. Whilst I was lean this allowed me to continue to gain a lot of size, the maintenance phase allowed my body to recover and re-sensitise to higher volumes and allow me to play with heavier weights, getting stronger.

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What this looked like:

  • Hypertrophy Block & Calorie Surplus (~15 weeks split into 3 x 5 week mesocycles)
  • Strength Block & Maintenance (~4 weeks)

Why maintain? Well the training volume provided is low, because the intensity is high, and so the hypertrophy stimulus is also quite low, and to bulk through this time would add needless amounts of fat. I cycled between these two phases until my body fat levels got to a point at which it would be unproductive to bulk further, at this time I took a mini cut.

5.] Focus Blocks

As an intermediate bodybuilder you have decent development.

By this time you have developed strong points and can identify weak points. Now you don’t necessarily need to specialise just yet, but I certainly benefitted from having times at which I focussed on particular muscle groups. This meant I did aim to bring up my entire physique, but provided more volume to certain body parts.

A split I ran with great success was:

  • Upper – emphasis on focus area
  • Lower – emphasis on focus area
  • Upper – focus area worked lightly
  • Lower – focus area worked lightly
  • Full Body – only focus areas
  • Off
  • Off

The key to this was that your focus areas were being worked 3 times per week, with one heavily overloading workout, one lighter workout and one medium workout. This allowed for more volume to be put through these muscle groups, and I tended to undulate the amount of volume through the week, with the initial emphasis day having the most. I would generally pick 1 upper body area and 1 lower body area.

So if I was focussing on say hamstrings and back it would be as follows:

This was the first sketching out of my split

For me personally my back and quads were two areas I really wanted to bring up I therefore focussed on them for 10 weeks out of a 15 week hypertrophy block. The first and final 5 weeks would be all about squats and pulls, and in the middle they would be put on the back burner, to allow them to somewhat recover and re-sensitise again for a beating in another 5 weeks.

To help make this more clear here is an example of a back focus day:

  • Bent over row- 4×10
  • Barbell bench press- 2×10
  • Chins- 4xAMRAP
  • OHP- 2×10
  • Lateral Raise- 2×10
  • Rear Cable Fly- 2×10
  • Bicep curl- 2×12
  • Tricep extension- 2×12

^ As you can see back is hit with 10 sets, whereas chest and shoulders only get a combined 6.

These sessions were fun and worked very well for me and my clients.

Rounding up

There are a bunch of well-developed guys out there who have the potential to grow more muscle.

A lot of them are happy to keep going about things the way they are, but a lot want to be bigger and more muscular. I personally believe some of the key reasons they’re not progressing, and may never get much further than they are now is related to the points above.

Specifically the need for a very specific and significant training stress along with purposeful and sufficient nutrients to allow for adaptions to take place. Once these two have been achieved it is then key to stay focussed, consistent and place your trust in the process.

If the above resonated with you, stop pissing away time training and eating in a way that won’t take you further towards your end goal; being the best bodybuilder you can be.


If you liked this, you will love:

Join my free facebook group or add me on snapchat (revivestronger) and ask your question there, I will respond asap. Or if you’re after a fresh training programme I have a free 4 week plan using DUP that you can download for free here.

One more thing…

Do you have a friend who would love the above? Share this article with them and let me know what they think.

[bctt tweet=”Progressing as an Intermediate Bodybuilder; 5 Key Lessons” username=”revivestronger”]

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