The Reader is now quite familiar with strength and its application. He understands the nature of athleticism and has accepted the harsh truths that lie therein. He has also completed the Novice Linear Progression (NLP), as taught and prescribed by Mark Rippetoe of Starting Strength. If the Reader has not completed his 6-12 weeks, he will go do that before he returns to this page, as he has not yet tapped his ability to put more weight on the bar every time he enters the gym. And, if he can do that, why wouldn’t he?
The Un-Novice Lifter™
The world of the Un-Novice is a scary one. So many options, so little time. Do I dare try Texas Method? Should I become a bodybuilder and follow a generic program from bodybuilding.com? What is this 5/3/1 everybody is talking about on the Forums? Are You My Mother?
Nobody said this would be easy. The Reader, if he is so inclined, can skip every word in this article and simply follow The Program offered below. However, this article is essentially a thought experiment. I am walking the lifter through the process necessary to understand how training can be assessed, properly quantified, and optimized. That said, it is not mandatory reading, but it only helps the lifter be a more competent and useful man.
The Reader has found that three sets of five repetitions and 48 hours of recovery are no longer adequate for his Stress, Recovery, and Adaptation (SRA) cycle. The NLP fails because reps are missed, as the weight has become too heavy to hit for three sets of five. There are some who believe we should run this out by dropping to five sets of three reps or four sets of four reps, et cetera. This is only necessary if we are under the impression that the most important aspect of our training right now, through these next couple of weeks, is to get more weight on the bar during every set. If one is planning on competing in a meet, fine. Continue this line of programming. If not, then we are looking at what is the best programming move for the next training session, microcycle (week of multiple training sessions), mesocycle (block of 3-6 microcycles), and macrocycle (year of training), i.e. the next logical step if the Reader is interested in training for the rest of his life, which he is.
Why Did My Dear Reader Fail?
If the universe was a fun place that is fair to everyone and we weren’t merely transient morons standing at the base of Niagra Falls being crushed by the thousands of gallons of pain and suffering every minute, we would be able to continue the NLP until we were deadlifting 5,000 lb and had 25″ arms.
There is a bit of controversy on this here topic, but my belief is that the intensity (load, usually displayed as a percentage of one’s 1RM) is the main issue. Volume (sets multiplied by reps) needs to go up because we can’t continue to add weight to the bar and lower the sets/reps to perform, say, 10 sets of one rep for every exercise. Work capacity (the total amount of work, force multiplied by distance, of which one is capable) is one of, if not the most important results of training. Performing 10 reps (10 sets x 1 rep) of volume is not necessarily an increase in work capacity compared to the 15 reps (3 sets x 5 reps) done in the NLP, and, at a certain point, that prescription of volume will not even be enough to elicit an adaptation.
We can roughly check our work capacity as tonnage (resistance multiplied by sets multiplied by reps). So, it’s just the product of volume and resistance. Let us say that one ended their NLP with a squat of 250x5x3. That’s squatting 250 lb for 3 sets of 5 reps, which would give us 3750 lb of tonnage. Then, say, we ran out the NLP by ending up with 315 for 10 sets of 1 rep. That would give us 3150 lb of tonnage. We had more weight on the bar, but did we do more work? No, and near-1RM singles would be more generally fatiguing than 3 sets of 5 reps well below our 1RM. So, this training philosophy is harder, lasts longer, and will not improve our work capacity or give us any serious hypertrophic gains. In other words, it is Not Smart™.
The Reader was essentially performing a 5RM every time he squatted/pressed/et cetera during the end of his NLP. This is not entirely accurate, as a 5RM would not be an effort that could be repeated for three sets. Moreover, a novice cannot put maximal effort into a barbell just yet. He has not realized enough neuromuscular efficiency nor has he practiced the skill of a grinding single repetition. We can call it a rough 5RM because he had never lifted that weight before and he is only as strong as the weight he has recently lifted (not estimated), but it’s likely between 75 and 90 percent of his true 5RM as he stands today. Plus, every rep at the end of the NLP, especially if it’s run out for a while, feels like death.
A true five-rep maximal effort lift is approximately 85% of a lifter’s one-rep max effort. So, if he is between 75 and 90 percent of a true 5RM, he is currently working at approximately 64 to 76 percent of his true 1RM. The Reader may be thinking this is a relatively low intensity, but the novice has a few problems at this point.
1) He is working at too high of a percentage of his 1RM for him to sustain good form under the heaviest weight he has ever lifted (the skill of lifting heavy is not there) since the weight is increased every session.
2) He has accumulated too much fatigue over the last few weeks of training, making his intra-workout sets too difficult, which usually results in missed reps, sometimes even regression in weight.
3) He has accommodated to the three sets of five reps performed every session quite thoroughly, making it too low of a volume prescription.
These are all reasons to cause stagnation and/or regression in training. There are other reasons, but these are the simplest and most likely. We shall always refer to Occam’s razor. The lifter will have put substantial weight on the bar over the last 6-12 weeks, but a 1RM estimation is still not the lifter’s actual 1RM.
However, every set now feels exceedingly difficult. This is because adaptations are not being made like they were in the first few weeks on the program. My belief is that a bigger stimulus is needed to reach an overload event. I don’t think that increasing intensity is necessarily the best way to increase the stimulus. It is harder, but it is not more work. In other words, I want a more robust stimulus instead of a such a pinpointed one.
At the end of the NLP, one is left with working sets that are getting closer and closer to a 5RM effort and are therefore climbing as a percentage of the lifter’s 1RM. We can see from the chart below that a 5RM would be approximately 86.3% of a lifter’s 1RM.
It’s no wonder, now, why one fails the NLP. As we get closer to realizing our potential given our current bodyweight, lean body mass (LBM), training history, neuromuscular efficiency, and genetic realization, we can’t continue the effort at such intensities. This is why we need to increase volume at a lower intensity to drive new adaptations. We achieve more and are capable of more if we up the workload but lower the intensity so that we can get through the workout with less intra-workout (set to set) and microcycle (weekly) fatigue.
It’s time for us to take a good, hard look at our current level of training volume in order to see where we need to go. Our programming prescription can be placed into five categories (our thanks go out to Dr. Mike Israetel).
- Not enough to elicit any meaningful adaptation.
- Enough to elicit some meaningful adaptation, but below the threshold of what we can handle.
- Training that is at our Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV), which is, obviously, the most amount of volume from which we can currently recover.
- Volume that is just beyond MRV, making it tough to recover from but not lethal.
- Death by Volume (DbV). This amount of volume is far too spendy, a net negative on training.
Novice Linear Progression: ENHANCE
The NLP is, as described in The Book, the squat, press, bench press, deadlift, and power clean. It’s possible to have barbell rows and/or chin-ups in there by the end (week 9-12). Squats occur every session, press and bench press every other. Deadlifts occur every session for a week or two, then power cleans pop into workout B, rendering each an every-other lift. Then, it can turn into deadlifting on Monday, power cleans on Wednesday, and barbell rows/chin-ups on Friday. At this point, the lifter is likely running it out, perhaps squatting for 5 sets of 3, maybe with a light day of 2-3 sets of 5 @80% of Monday’s weight on Wednesday. It’s time to make a leap into the great abyss and abandon the NLP. The Reader has earned this.
How do we modify our programming? We start with assessing where we’ve been and where we’d like to go. The NLP covers the three fundamental movement patterns: Squatting, Pressing, and Pulling.
The NLP prescribes 45 (3 sets of 5 reps for 3 sessions) reps of volume on the squat for each microcycle. This needs to increase. How do we do that? Well, it depends on our goals and MRV. If we want to start worrying predominately with hypertrophy, it’s likely we need to start regularly implementing 10+ working sets per movement per week (I wrote a great deal about what studies have told us about hypertrophy here). However, anything beyond 20 repetitions is called “masturbation”. The rep range of one to twelve seems to be most effective for strength and hypertrophy.
The Squat can be an exceedingly fatiguing exercise, so this needs to be titrated intelligently. Hopping into 5 sets of 20 repetitions (100 working reps) is an obvious increase in volume from the NLP, but is it a tolerable increase in stimulus and an improvement to our training? What does it mean to the Reader’s MRV? We need an effective dose of stress, not just a bigger one. If I were to push the Reader down a mountain and he fell for a couple of minutes while breaking several bones, we could say he has received a heavy dose of stress. Was it a useful stress? How long will it take to recover? What will the adaptation be?
The NLP alternates a bit as one week will call for two of workout A and one of workout B and the next week will have two of B and one of A. This means 30 reps of volume for the bench press and 15 reps for the press one week, and vice versa for the next. A total of 45 reps is carried across the weeks, but the press involves the pectoralis muscles to a slight degree compared with the bench press so that a smaller weight must be used and in a quite different movement pattern. In addition, the press has a much longer kinetic chain. While they are both pressing movements, they do require different skills and result in different adaptations.
Do we want to specialize in the press in order to compete in the United States Strengthlifting Federation or do we want to compete in Powerlifting? Do we have no interest in competing but still desire to get absurdly strong? Do we have body dysmorphia and want to stare in a mirror for hours every week and compete in bodybuilding?
The deadlift, as the Reader is undoubtedly aware, is the most taxing of all the main lifts. It is a total exercise and it leaves nothing untouched. Because of this reason, we cannot recover from it as easily as the other exercises, but we still need to increase our current prescription of 5-15 reps of pulling volume per week. As we spend time with anything that disrupts homeostasis, our body will adapt specifically to this stimulus. Such is the nature the Specificity of Adaptation to Imposed Demand (SAID) principle. So, even though the deadlift is extremely taxing, we still adapt to its stress just as we do with any other exercise.
Freedom Breeds Anxiety
The volume needs to be boosted on all fronts, but how do we know where to start? And what intensities should be used for every lift? What should we do about the exercises? Is it time to add more or replace one with another? The good news is that the answers to these questions are up to the lifter, but the bad news is that the answers to these questions are up to the lifter.
At this point, my Dear Reader is flirting with the What About This Syndrome (WhATS). This afflicts millions of lifters across the globe. WhATS is an acute form of analysis-paralysis that stems from having too many options and not being able to decide on one over another. Many lifters find that after they spend a few hours perusing the Internet for programs, receiving advice from the community elders, and not properly defining their goals, they will be surrounded by infinite stairways to heaven but have absolutely no idea which step should be their first. Often they will pick a program template and begin with the first step or two, but succumb to a chronic issue that is much more dangerous, Intermittent Programming Disease (IPD).
IPD is perhaps just as prevalent as WhATS in our day and age considering the sheer volume of information one would need to comb through if they did not know where to look. A lifter with a bad case of the WhATS suffering from heavy IPD symptoms will pick a program, do everything it asks for a week or two and make a bit of progress, then switch to another program and repeat, ad infinitum.
Keep It Relevant Stupid (KIRS)
Let us use the general strength lifter coming off the NLP as our subject for how we should go about modifying our programming. The SAID principle says that we will adapt specifically to the stress we place on the body, so our programming should elicit as general of a strength adaptation as possible. We are not specializing in powerlifting, weightlifting, strengthlifting, bodybuilding, et cetera. However, a general strength program will look similar to a power/strengthlifting program but with emphasis on maximizing higher reps, probably in the 3-6 range, instead of on 1RM’s for three lifts.
It should also be stated that the cross-sectional area of a muscle belly is somewhat positively correlated with strength. That means bigger muscles are stronger muscles, so hypertrophy will at least be a minor goal in any general strength program. Again, I wrote the a definitive guide of The Literature™ on hypertrophy here.
1 – Volume
We must titrate the volume up while lowering the intensity of the lifts. Volume is of paramount importance for hypertrophy, but it is certainly a factor in strength goals. As a general rule, lower volume = better strength gains & higher volume = better hypertrophic gains. Of course, each is going to have a point of diminishing returns. One set of one rep every workout falls into a Category 1 blunder and, as I said earlier, 5 sets of 20 will certainly elicit our SRA cycle and is an increase in volume, but how much of our resources will be spent repairing our crippling soreness vs adding LBM or getting stronger? This, at our current level of training, would be a Category 5 storm.
2 – Intensity
We know that intensity cannot climb forever and the higher it is the more fatiguing our sets and workouts will be while not allowing us to accumulate a lot of volume. However, intensity is still quite relevant for strength and hypertrophy gains. We need to work with heavy weights if we are to continuously gain strength and we need to stay above a certain threshold (approximately 60-65 percent of 1RM is the general cutoff) to efficiently train for hypertrophy while not getting too close to 100 percent because of the volume we need to accumulate. 5 sets of 5 reps at 80% of our 1RM is a vastly different stimulus than 5 sets of 5 reps at 62% of our 1RM.
3 – Frequency
This is an essential domain to address if we are to gain strength and/or hypertrophy. Obviously, we will not be able to squat heavy 5 days per week unless we take an extended period of time to work up to that ability, but if we want to get stronger in the squat we need to squat often. Concurrently, if we want only to gain mass in the leg and hip musculature, the same can be said about frequency, i.e. the more often we train a movement/muscle group the better our results will be. The low-bar squat is the movement that will allow the Reader to move the most weight possible, so that is going to be the most fatiguing. Perhaps the high-bar or front squat could be supplemented into the microcycle as a way to keep a squatting slot (one exercise in a single workout) but have it be less generally fatiguing than the low-bar squat done for all of our squatting slots for the microcycle. Another option is a pause or box squat. This forces the lifter to stop the stretch reflex at the bottom position and will subsequently call for a reduction in intensity, rendering it less fatiguing even though it still may feel quite difficult.
Plug It In, Plug It In
This is a 12-week template that would be an excellent program to follow after the NLP has been exhausted. Really, it’s a great program for most lifters. If the Reader is looking for a reset, or just needs a general strength (with a minor in hypertrophy) template, this is a great choice. It’s also going to be a lot more fun than the end of the NLP, as the intensity will drop slightly while new exercises will be introduced and practiced. It is still recommended to attempt a slight increase (~5 lb) in resistance every week. Caloric maintenance or surplus is recommended, but the program could be followed in a deficit if the Lifter has a waist that needs trimming.
Our Hypothetical Lifter just finished his NLP with a squat of 250x5x3, deadlift of 315×5, bench press of 225x5x3, and a press of 145x5x3. Let us also say that these sets were extremely difficult and it felt as if HL had maybe one rep left in the tank after each set, so everything felt like a 6RM effort. The above chart would say that is roughly 83.7 percent of HL’s 1RM. From that, I can get estimated (NOT ACTUAL) 1RM numbers for each lift.
Squat ~ 299 lb
Deadlift ~ 376 lb
Bench Press ~ 269 lb
Press ~ 173 lb
These will give us solid numbers with which we can base our first week of training with this template. Most of the percentages are quite conservative so the first week or two may feel like a deload. If a set feels absurdly easy, add weight to the bar. For the new exercises, use the best judgment that my Dear Reader can muster. I wrote rough percentages, but if the warmups feel particularly difficult or awkward, go easy with the weight and jump up 10 lb next week if need be.
By the beginning of phase 2/week 7, the percentages will seem high, but this is because the Reader’s e1RM will have increased a bit, so the actual percentages are lower than they appear. The singles are supposed to be approximately a 3RM effort, so it should feel quite difficult, but the Reader should also be under the impression that about two reps were left in the tank. If it felt like a 2RM effort, just repeat that single next week and see if it’s closer to a 3RM.
I present to The Reader:
The Un-Novice Lifter™ Template
- Low-Bar Squat w/ Belt – 5 reps @ 78%, 5 reps @ 81% x 2 sets
- Press w/ Belt – 6 @ 75%, 6 @ 78% x 2 sets
- RDL – 8 @ 50-60% of DL e1RM x 3 sets
- Bench Press – 6 @ 75%, 6 @ 78% x 2 sets
- Chin-Ups – Max reps with good form x 3 sets, add 10 lb if 8+ reps on first set
- Tempo Squat – 10 @ 65% x 3 sets, 3-0-3
- Deadlift w/ Belt – 1 @ 87-90%, 2×3 @ 87-90% of previous set
- Close-Grip Incline Bench – 8 @ 65%, 8 @ 68% x 2 sets
- 2 ct Pause Squat – 6 @ 65% of Low-bar e1RM, 6 @ 68% x 2 sets
- Low-Bar Squat w/ Belt – 5×5 @ 81-84%
- Press w/ Belt – 5×6 @ 80-83%
- RDL – 4×8 @ +5 lb
- Bench Press – 5×6 @ 79-83%
- Chin-Ups – Max x 3 sets, add 10 lb at 8+ reps on first set
- Tempo Squat – 4×10, 3-0-3
- Deadlift w/ Belt – 1 @ 91-95%, 3×3 @ 87-90% of previous set
- Close-Grip Incline Bench – 4×8 @ 68-75%
- High-Bar 2 ct Pause Squat – 4×6 @ 68-72%
- Low-Bar Squat w/ Belt – 1 @ 93+%, 5×5 @ +5 lb
- Press w/ Belt – 1 @ 93+%, 5×6 @ +5 lb
- Stiff-Leg DL – 2×8 @ 55-65% DL e1RM
- Bench Press – 1 @ 93+%, 5×6 @ +5 lb from last week
- Barbell Row – 3×8 @ 40-50% DL e1RM
- Front Squat/Leg Press – 4×7
- Deadlift w/ Belt – 1 @ 93+%, 3×3 @ 87-90% of previous set
- Close-Grip 1 ct Bench Press – 4×8 @ 73-77%
- Tempo Squat – 4×10, 3-0-3
- Low-Bar Squat w/ Belt – 1 @ +5 lb, 5×5 @ +5 lb
- Press w/ Belt – 1 @ +5 lb from last week, 5×6 @ +5 lb
- Stiff-Leg DL – 3×8 @ +5lb
- Bench Press – 1 @ +5 lb, 5×6 @ +5 lb
- Barbell Row – 4×8 @ +5 lb
- Front Squat/Leg Press – 5×7
- Deadlift w/ Belt – 1 @ +5 lb, 3×3 @ 87-90% of previous set
- Close-Grip 1 ct Bench Press – 5×8 @ +5 lb
- Tempo Squat – 5×10, 3-0-3
At this point, most of this should be self-explanatory. The goal of the lifter should still be to put weight on the bar every week. However, the workload and volume are important improvements of this program. If we have to hit the same weight two weeks in a row on a certain lift, so be it.
Chin-ups will be done with perfect form, so leave two ugly reps in the tank. I don’t want to see flailing around and lunging the chin at the bar, and I definitely don’t want to see kipping. If 8 solid reps can be hit on the first set, wear 10 more lb. Tempo squats are normal squats but done continuously with a given cadence. The one prescribed is 3-0-3, meaning three seconds for the eccentric movement, zero seconds for the isometric pause at the bottom, and three seconds for the concentric movement, i.e. 3 seconds down, no pause, 3 seconds up. Cardio!
The Barbell Row prescription is quite conservative because of the newness, but they should be performed like this, although I’m fine if the Reader feels more comfortable with a pronated grip. The front squat seems to move about 80% of the weight that a low-bar squat moves, so the weight used by the Lifter in week 7 is going to be highly dependent on whether he has ever done them before. If he has, he will probably be able to lift some weight in week 7. If not, he will need to work on form and sit around 50 percent of our estimated 1RM of the low-bar squat.
Week 1-2 Volume
- Squat – 9 sets for 63 reps
- Press – 6 bench sets for 42 reps, 3 press sets for 18 reps – 9 sets for 60 reps
- Pull – 6 sets for 31 reps (Chins not included)
Week 3-6 Volume
- Squat – 18 sets for 89 reps
- Press – 9 bench sets for 62 reps, 5 press sets for 30 reps – 14 sets for 92 reps
- Pull – 8 sets for 42 reps (Chins not included)
Week 7 Volume
- Squat – 14 sets for 94 reps
- Press – 12 bench sets for 63 reps, 6 press sets for 31 reps – 16 sets for 94 reps
- Pull – 9 sets for 50 reps
Week 8-12 Volume
- Squat – 16 sets for 111 reps
- Press – 11 bench sets for 71 reps, 6 press sets for 31 reps – 17 sets for 102 reps
- Pull – 11 sets for 66 reps
There it is. We have an increase of 40% in squat volume, 33.3% in press volume, and a 106.7% increase in pulling volume in week one compared to the NLP. From there, everything titrates gradually until weeks 8-12, where we have a 146.7% increase in squat volume, 126.7% in press volume, and 340% increase in pulling volume as compared to the NLP. By the end of this program the lifter will have put good weight on the bar while improving work capacity immensely, improved skills in the main lifts, learned new exercises and added some LBM (if he is in a caloric surplus).
After week 12, the Reader’s e1RM can be re-calculated using the heavy singles prescribed before the lifts. If the Reader followed the program well, their heavy singles should have felt as if they were a 3RM effort. If they were, divide the weight lifted by .922 to get a new estimated 1RM for each lift. If the single felt like a 2RM, as in it might have been possible to do only one more rep, divide by .955. It is time for a minor deload, and that could be achieved by doing week 1 in this program. It is much lower volume compared to the last four weeks and the percentages will be quite tolerable. The Reader could certainly repeat the program if desired.
“Well, that about does her, wraps her all up… I guess that’s the way the whole darned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself, down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands of time until we– aw, look at me, I’m ramblin’ again. Well, I hope you folks enjoyed yourselves. Catch ya later on down the trail.” – The Stranger