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We talk a lot about what it’s like to start lifting weights, or to start exercising at all. But one day, you’ll come to the end of your beginner stage, and some things will have to change.
There will come a day when you’re strong. Maybe not as strong as you want to be (who ever is?), but a lot stronger than when you started. Loading a 45-pound plate onto the bar will no longer be a whole workout by itself.
As you get stronger, some of your habits in the gym will have to change. So will the programs you follow and maybe even the exercises you do. Here are a few of the ways you’ll need to adapt as you transition from beginner to intermediate and beyond.
You’ll need to pay more attention to doing things right
As a beginner, good technique is a learning tool. As an intermediate, it’s a safety issue.
For example, if you’re still working on learning how to squat at all, it doesn’t really matter which direction you face when you’re taking the bar out of the squat rack. But by the time you have hundreds of pounds on your back, you need have the hooks set appropriately and you need to do an efficient three-steps-backward walkout. No goofing around.
Or take deadlifts. You can lift 95 pounds any old way. But when you’re pulling double bodyweight, you need to learn to pull the slack out of the bar during your setup so you don’t get a sudden yank as the bar leaves the ground. (Technically, at lower weights you are pulling the slack out of your own body and not necessarily the bar, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
It’s best to start working on these things while you’re still in the beginner stage, but it’s never too late. Tighten up your setups. Load your plates properly. Know when to use a rack and when to use blocks and when to use crash pads. And politely, helpfully, teach the noobs in your gym the same.
You’ll want stronger friends
Even though lifting weights is a solo sport, there’s a lot of value in community. I don’t just mean in a social way, although that’s important, too. I mean that when you hang around people who are stronger than you, you learn a lot about how to get strong.
You’ll see how they set up for their lifts, and all the little things we discussed above. You’ll probably notice that they do a few things differently than the way you were taught, and you’ll be able to ask them why. You’ll get new ideas that you might want to try out yourself.
You’ll also get to experience a lot of things vicariously that you aren’t able to experience yourself yet. This can be encouraging, but it can also show you what awaits in your future. Do you want to train as hard or as often as the strongest person in your gym? Do you understand what it takes to get there?
Your workouts will take longer
This one sneaks up on you. When you’re brand new, five sets of five reps is a quick thing you can bang out in maybe fifteen minutes. A set with the bar, a set with 95 pounds, a set with 135, and then three sets with 155 with two minutes’ rest in between. Easy peasy.
When you’re strong, each step of the way takes a lot longer. You need more warmup sets to get to your working set for the day. And because those working sets are heavier, they’re more absolute work for your body to recover from. More ATP to regenerate, more metabolites to clear, and so on. This means you need more rest between your sets: three to five minutes, now, instead of just changing the plates and being ready to go. Heck, changing the plates itself is more work, since there are more of them and they’re heavier.
A little tip on keeping workouts from lasting all day: Work on your conditioning. The better your cardio fitness, believe it or not, the quicker you can recover between sets. You may never get back to a two-minute rest between heavy squat sets, but you can stay in the three-to-five-minute range instead of being the guy who needs ten minutes.
You’ll need a good program (or a good coach)
As a beginner, the only thing that really matters is that you’re doing more work than before. And when your baseline is zero, literally anything will give you gains.
There are a few popular beginner programs out there that are fun and simple because they let you ride this wave. (Starting Strength and Stronglifts are two of the most popular.) Pick a handful of lifts, do them for a few sets of a few reps, and watch your numbers soar. You can often add weight every single workout, and you don’t have to do any boring accessory work.
But these programs don’t work forever, and soon you’ll discover their shortcomings the hard way. They don’t give you enough volume, and some of them will have you do less work when you get stuck even though the reason you’re getting stuck is that the program didn’t give you enough volume in the first place. They also culminate in you working at the top end of your strength—your five-rep max for five reps—which will leave you feeling beat up and could give you some minor injuries. If you’re frustrated with stalling numbers and your knees kinda hurt, it’s time to move on.
What’s next? That depends on what you want to do, but you’ll be best off finding a coach, trainer, or proven program that can give you a broader base to build on. Key features include more sets, more variety, and less time working with weights that are at your absolute max.
For example, after ditching one of those programs that gives you five sets of five reps on squat once or twice a week (which led to, you guessed it, stalling numbers and achy knees), I ended up on something where a typical week would give me 6 sets of 6 reps on squat, 6 sets of 8 each on leg press and pause squat, and instructions to do a certain amount of bicep and tricep work, cardio, and core work. I thrived.
Your nutrition will matter more
Just like beginner programs, beginners’ nutrition isn’t critical to success. You’ll gain muscle no matter what. And even if you don’t gain muscle, you’ll still get at least a little bit stronger, since a lot of those early strength gains are just your body learning the skill of lifting.
But as you get stronger, and your workouts become more demanding, you’ll want to fuel yourself well for them. If you skip breakfast and do a long workout first thing in the morning, you’ll find that making yourself eat a banana or a shake beforehand makes a big difference in how strong you feel.
More importantly, you’ll discover that undereating isn’t healthy. If you need to lose weight for health reasons, so be it; but as soon as you take a break from that diet, you’ll find your strength skyrockets. You’ll have more energy in the gym, and if you allow yourself to gain weight you’ll have a much easier time gaining muscle.
If I could summarize a strength athlete’s diet in a few words, it would be: Eat a lot of protein, an appropriate amount of calories to make your weight go in the direction you need it to go (up, down, or steady), and eat some damn vegetables.
You’ll stop obsessing over new PRs
When the personal records roll in week after week, it’s easy to focus on those as your measure of progress. But those PRs will slow down someday. That doesn’t mean that your progress is slower, just that it has more components. My weightlifting coach has told me many times that progress isn’t linear; it comes in stair-steps. There might be a long horizontal stretch where you don’t hit any PRs at all, and then all of a sudden you make what seems like huge progress.
In between those PRs, other things are happening. You’re building more muscle, honing your technique, learning to be more consistent, attacking weaknesses, and doing a million other things that make you a better and stronger lifter. During these times, you’ll want to look for progress in all of these other areas. Maybe my jerk has stalled but my squat is going up. Maybe I haven’t hit a new 1RM yet but I can do my 80% for more reps than I used to.
Sometimes I miss those early days, when I was guaranteed a PR just for stepping into the gym. But then I remember how much weaker I was! A two-plate deadlift was a pipe dream back then; now it’s a warmup. Getting strong is really satisfying—you just have to stop training like a beginner and allow yourself to progress.