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I'm looking at my progressive intermediate weight training program, and I'm a little more than halfway through my 12 week program. As expected it's been terrific, I've steadily been gaining strength in all areas, and I'm PR'ing every week.

But if I'm able to squat 300 (3RM) right now, and I'm going to keep chugging away at the intermediate program schedule, a 2% weekly increase means that in 52 weeks I'd be squatting 840lbs (I did some quick Excel math).

So my questions would be:

  • Is there something inherently off in my math?
  • Rippetoe and others have said that most folks will spend their entire lives in the intermediate range, which makes me think that there's something much bigger going on since strict adherence would propel you out of the intermediate stage within a year.
  • Or we're saying that someone squatting 840lb is "intermediate".
  • Are there hidden de-loading / weekly rest periods going on that I'm missing, and are these documented somewhere?

My spreadsheet math below. I tried to follow the idea of weekly compounding 2% gains. I capped the time at 26 weeks for sake of not having an incredibly long image below, but at 52 weeks it gets to 840.

enter image description here

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Nothing inherently wrong in the math, just in the model you are using. As it turns out, Greg Nuckols just published an article on Muscle Math, which sheds some light on why it is simply not feasible in practice to go from 300x3 to 840 lbs in 1 year (52 weeks).

Some of the major take-aways are:

  • Recovery activities have a power law distribution (i.e. the law of diminishing returns), which means there's a practical limit to how much food and sleep you can use to recover from the work.
  • Training stress is like a parabola, up to a certain training volume and you will get stronger. Over that training volume you will get weaker.
    • Newbies and early intermediates have a high parabola that is narrower. This means you get more benefit from every training session, but you can't do as much as an advanced trainee.
    • Late intermediate and advanced lifters have a flatter and wider parabola. This means you can do a whole lot more work, which is necessary to getting stronger, but the overall benefit to that work goes down.

He has some practical applications to this muscle math, but it will at least help you understand that the path to getting stronger is not linear. In fact, I'm not aware of any biological processes that are. It definitely feels like you could keep going right now, but don't be surprised when your progress slows down. All you need at that point is a different way to manage your training volume and intensity.

You should also consider that the number of people who can hit an 840 lb raw squat (i.e. no squat suit) are very few.


Transitioning from Beginner to Intermediate and Beyond

First, I'd like to recommend not worrying about whether you are advanced or intermediate. The whole concept of classifying yourself either by someone's strength standards or by your recovery rates (a bit more accurate) is a bit arbitrary. You can draw the line anywhere you want, and that's really not the point. The point is really what do you do when you can no longer PR every week?

This is where we have to introduce the concept of periodization. Put simply, periodization is the way you organize your training over the long term. You will be getting to a point where increasing weight will be increasingly difficult for a few reasons:

  • You start feeling like you are in a fog all the time, and you start dreading going into the gym.
  • Where exactly that happens is a bit different for everyone.
  • You get to a point where you are no longer building strength, but merely demonstrating what you attained so far.
  • The most assured way to build strength is to increase the volume of work.

Looking back at the muscle math article, you'll notice that there are units of work that are needed to build strength and as you get stronger you need to perform more units of work to get stronger. That's a good way to think about it. Essentially, you have to arrange the work you do so that you can increase the volume over time. This is where we get into the Texas Method (an intermediate program) concepts of a volume day, a light day, and a heavy day. The volume day builds strength, the light day provides active recovery while keeping the movement patterns fresh, and the heavy day lets you set a new PR.

The periodization article provides a number of tools to balance the demands of recovery, building strength, and demonstrating strength. You'll find that people with an 840 lb squat or better can't do that every day in the gym. They have to work up to it over the period of several weeks as they prepare for a competition.

The good news is that you can introduce these tools a little at a time. For example, if you are increasing the weight every time you squat, you can transition to the Texas Method approach to squat three times a week, but still PR at the end of the week. When weekly progress isn't happening any more, you simply use the same concepts and work on increasing your PRs at a slightly slower rate.

The point is there is nothing wrong with slowing down, and it will be very necessary after a while. I personally didn't pick up a barbell until I was 39. Linear progression on the squats lasted until I could do about 310 lbs. Weekly progression got me to 325 for a triple. I then went to a monthly program, felt a whole lot better and got over 400 lbs squat before I turned 40. Due to some life events and injury, over the next couple years I was only able to increase the squat to 450 (no belt, in a competition).

Every person's journey is different. You may surpass my squat in the same amount of time (particularly if you are fairly young). The point is to find a way that you enjoy training, and continue getting stronger. Use the tips in the two articles I linked to, or use someone's out of the box program. Just put int the work and enjoy the process. An 840 squat takes years--on the order of over a decade.

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  • I guess taking it a step further (and maybe you could answer this) is there a way to stay in the intermediate range and adjust the increase rate, rather than get frustrated and/or flip to advanced? – Eric Nov 17 '14 at 19:17
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    @EricKaufman, I've updated the answer with how to progress over the long term. But the simple answer to your question is this: you can't stay in intermmediate (weekly progress) if your body can't keep up with it. The only way to get stronger is to add more volume, and the only way to add volume is to add more time before your next attempt at a PR. – Berin Loritsch Nov 18 '14 at 2:53
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Your math is fine. The problem is you're just plotting your current progress. From Aimee Avaya Everett:

New people come on the scene, their lifts continuously go up week after week, and they are the fucking bomb! Their confidence is through the roof! Do we have the next World Champ? [They think,] 'At the rate I am PRing in my snatch and clean & jerk, 3-5kgs a week, I will be beating all these bitches, all these top 10 girls or boys, and I will be amazing! I will be an Olympic medalist for sure...' as they are calculating what their lifts will be in 6 months at this 3-5kg per week increase.

And then reality sets in. You can’t PR every week forever. New people to the sport have a level of strength and a level of technique. Once those two things match up, they hit a wall. New folks PR every week because they are new to the sport, and they are going to naturally progress to where their limit is, based on their athletic ability. When they reach their limit, they find PRs are not coming every week. Or every two weeks, or maybe not even in a whole month.

You're extrapolating 2% increases until...when, exactly? Your own death?

You're going to get injured, you're going to take a vacation, you're going to miss a meal or two, and even if you don't, you're going to come up against the limits of physics, of the optimal tensile properties of human tissue, of your genetic potential. You're going to get older, and your body will become weaker as it stops responding to training for reasons we don't fully understand.

Even if you do everything right, the human body can only get so big, and human tissue can only do so much. At some point you're going to put five more pounds on the bar and you're just not going to be able to lift it. There's no getting around that. You'll get kicked out of intermediate programming because you won't follow it perfectly. If by some miracle you do eat every meal, sleep every dark hour, make it to every workout, and avoid all injury, eventually your body will simply not be able to respond to the stimulus you give it.

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    I guess where I'm going with the question is why are people like Rippetoe saying that, if followed properly, you'll be in the intermediate stage for years. – Eric Nov 17 '14 at 21:59
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    I don't think I can answer that intelligently until I hear your chain of reasoning for why they wouldn't. On any kind of programming, novice or intermediate or advanced, you're going to take two steps forward and three steps back sometimes. The response is just to get right back on the horse, which for someone on the intermediate level would usually mean a few weeks of novice programming (maybe only on some lifts) and then returning to intermediate programming a few steps back from their peak. – Dave Liepmann Nov 17 '14 at 22:16
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    I'm not a great example because lifting is usually secondary to my other sports, but I had a >2xBW deadlift and almost 300 pound back squat for a few months in 2013 before a latent hip mobility problem metastasized into an injury and I had to take a few months off. Then I moved. I worked all the way back up with novice programming while not playing any other sports. Then I found my other sports again, and my lifts went to intermediate programming, regressing in some places and slowly advancing in others. Then I went on a multiweek vacation, my lifts dropped off a cliff, and so on, and so on. – Dave Liepmann Nov 17 '14 at 22:20
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    If I were a purely strength athlete, then the story might involve a 2.5xBW deadlift or 400 pound squat when injury/vacation/whatever intervened, but those curveballs would be coming almost no matter what. It takes tremendous prioritization of strength over other things in life to overcome those obstacles. If you do, then you start bumping into your genetic maximum, and you get to play with advanced programming. – Dave Liepmann Nov 17 '14 at 22:24

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