Monday, July 2, 2007

Intermediate routines

Have you left your 5lb dumbbells outside for a month without realizing it -- or missing them?
Has sore muscles become a way of life for you?
Do you have the superhuman strength to open even the stubbornest of pickle jars??

If these do, or could, apply to you, perhaps you're thinking of moving past your beginner routine. There's no litmus test to distinguish between beginner and intermediate; chances are you just know. Unfortunately, this often leaves you wondering where to go next. There is such a dizzying array of workouts that it's difficult to choose just one. This piece is designed to help map out a path for you.

The biggest mistake that I see people make as they begin to progress is just blithely adding in tons of little isolation exercises. These routines generally take one of two forms. Often they are routines from popular fitness magazines which incorporate a ton of wussy isolation exercises using resistance bands, and include about five ab exercises. The rest are generally some reimagination of the typical bodybuilder's 4-day split: chest and triceps, back and biceps, legs, and shoulders and abs. These have you working out four days per week, hitting each muscle group once a week.

I opine that more isolation work does not necessarily mean that you get a better workout -- particularly if the number of exercises causes you to sacrifice frequency of training! Heavy isolation work is only necessary if you are a body sculptor or competitive bodybuilder. Physique athletes have highly specific goals regarding symmetry, muscle separation, and so on. This necessitates isolation work for tweaking their bods in infinitesimal detail. Unfortunately, these routines seem to have trickled down to the average Jane who wants to be fit, strong, and sexy, but doesn't necessarily care if her left serratus anterior muscle is asymmetrical to her right.

I advocate either continuing with some form of a full-body routine (though this doesn't necessarily mean the same routine at each workout), or doing a two-day split, such as alternating one upper body day with one lower body day. My reasons are as follows:
  • Improved hypertrophy as well as motor learning due to the frequency of training each muscle group
  • Compound movements are more metabolically demanding -- a big plus if you're trying to drop fat
  • You're less likely to pace yourself, eg half-heartedly do your bench press and push ups because you have tricep work waiting for you
  • You don't need to train as frequently to see results
  • All of the other reasons outlined in my beginner routine
So, now that we have cleared that up, here are some ways in which you can further modify your routine.

Mixing It Up

You can still maintain a full-body routine, just select different exercises for each muscle group in order to keep your body guessing. However, if you're just doing basic compound movements, such as squats and bench presses, it may be a better idea to do variations rather than a completely different exercise. For example, do an incline bench press on Monday, a flat bench press on Wednesday, and decline press on Friday. Swap your dumbbell shoulder presses for military presses, do Bulgarian split squats, sumo deadlifts...the list goes on and on! It can even be as simple as using a barbell instead of dumbbells. Variations are too numerous to list here, but you can find some good ones just by googling or checking ExRx. Just don't trade your squats for the leg extension machine!

Movements, Not Muscles

Find exercises that you'd like to include in order to tap into an additional plane of motion. In terms of functional strength, the body knows movements moreso than muscles. So, you may add something like tricep dips just so that you have a downward pressing movement. An example routine could be a two day push/pull split routine, where on each day you do an overhead, horizontal, and downward motion, either push or pull depending on the day. Add squats and optionally calf work on the push days, deadlifts and optionally ab work on the pull days.

Also, you might add in some exercises, not because of the muscle group, but because of the joint exercise. For example, I do standing calf raises solely for the ankle extension/flexion. For more information on joint-based training approaches, check out this article.

More Than Looking Good Nekkid

You may choose a program geared toward a specific goal for a little while. For example, you may spend six weeks just working on maximum strength, or power, or endurance. Check out this sets and reps guide for more information on building such a program.


Periodization entails switching up your set and rep schemes. This way, you're constantly challenging muscles in new ways. It gets a little complicated, so check out the periodization page for a deeper explanation. Or, if you just want to cut to the chase and see a great periodized routine, take a look at Chad Waterbury's Total Body Training

Ultra Super Happy Fun High Intensity Methods

These include supersets, drop sets, and so forth. gives a great rundown of plateau busters. However, I wouldn't do these at every session, just once in a while when you feel like your body needs to be shocked.

Isolate, Don't Annihilate!

I've saved this one for last: I'm not globally opposed to isolation movements. If you want to add in a couple of your favorite fine-tuning exercises for muscles that just won't budge, it won't kill you. Just don't do them at the expense of your basic compound exercises; do four of your big movements and add in one or two isolation movements at the end. Either pick a muscle group that you want to work on more, such as biceps, or choose an auxiliary movement to fully fatigue a large muscle group. For example, when doing a bench press, the relatively weaker muscles such as triceps and anterior delts might give out before the pecs are exhausted. So, you can do a few sets of flies to really make your chest beg for its life.

A Final Word

When you leave the comfort of your good ol' beginners workout, you may encounter a big scary world of routines, each promising to REVOLUTIONIZE THE WAY YOU TRAIN! It can be overwhelming to try and pick just one. It's easy to get incredibly obsessive over minutia, particularly when a routine claiming to be "revolutionary" overstates the disadvantages of other workouts. When it comes down to it, there is no "right" way to train. There is no ultimate workout. The key doesn't lie in one principle, it's in all of them. Allow enough consistancy to make improvements, but incorporate enough variety to keep your body guessing. If you see a routine that looks fun and interesting, do it until it becomes easy and then find something else. Just keep a big bottle of ibuprofen on hand.


sighofrelief said...

love the blog! i came here from MUA (user name: kissykissy) and love reading your entries! keep 'em coming!

Sara said...

I also LOVE your blog and came here from MUA (I'm jimcha). I'm interested in periodizing my workout routine and this is exactly what I was looking for! I'm going to try out the Chad Waterbury one, have you tried it yourself? I can't wait!

Keep up the good work! :)