Leg Day Observer

Intermediate lifters: Why the awkward stage of strength can mean freedom

Knowing even if you're an intermediate weight lifter is half the challenge.

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An intermediate lifter, while not a beginner, could really be anything. That unwieldy group of lifters comprises all sorts of different skill levels and is a definition that applies to too many people.

If we’ve established beginner lifters are weak lifters, unadapted to strength training — unable to squat to 1.5 bodyweight, still building their brain-muscle connections — and advanced lifters are, well, the ones who win competitions or lift near the human limit, then are intermediate lifters just everyone else? In a sense, they’re the peloton: lifters who are adapted but with a long way to go.

These lifters have already found some success — they’ve figured out complicated kinetic movements and can express some strength. But moving past adaptation and into serious numbers involves a different calculus and approach to exercise. Once good rest and diet habits are formed, the approach becomes a given and the quality of work becomes more important.

As lifts stall and progress, and as self-diagnosis becomes a near-constant job, lifters need to get smarter as they get stronger so the stalls don’t become permanent.

But who are these lifters? Some writers argue intermediate lifters don’t exist. Mythical Strength, a helpful, brilliant powerlifting blog whose author goes by Emevas, says that defining a lifter as intermediate ensures they stay there. Experienced intermediates, stronger and more adapted than beginners, can just hang out in that “safe space for a lifter’s ego,” where lifting a bit of weight is satisfying but there’s no need to excel.

There should only be two categories, Emevas says, “beginners, and non-beginners.” Indeed, there’s no real definition: intermediates are more a convenient group than an occurring phenomenon; all that they have in common is that they’re adapted to training.

Getting over the intermediate lifter plateau

Nonetheless, there are lags, and after adaptation, progress isn’t automatic. Strength, after a while, can really plateau. The more someone can lift, the harder it is to lift more. Lifters, even motivated ones, can take years to reach a 400-pound squat — to pick an arbitrary, impressive number — and more yet to reach 500, and even longer to reach 600. As the curve levels off, lifters get injured, lead lives out of the gym, or simply lose interest.

Mostly they slow down. Progress slows because people have strength limits: a human body can only support so much weight. (Cars only have so many gears.) Squatting bodyweight multiples can blur for people who don’t lift heavy — 300, 400, and 500 pounds all seem real heavy — but those integers are wildly different. To people who don’t lift, someone who squats more than they weigh looks advanced. But making the jump from a number in that range to all-city strong means lifters must lift right, eat right, and sleep right for years.

Another reason progress slows is that strong lifters can hide their mistakes. Mid-path lifters are skilled, of course: Getting to a double bodyweight squat is a kinetic achievement. A lifter at that level has serious proprioception — bodily spatial awareness — and can make small adjustments in an exercise movement that controls whether the lift succeeds or fails. The easiest way for a weight to be lifted is up and down in a straight line. Moving along any other plane is just extra work, but sometimes, at high intensity, that work can’t be avoided.

Avoiding intermediate lifting mistakes — and injuries

How are these mistakes made? The exercise volume that builds up a lift, equal parts strength, and kinetic awareness, doesn’t always start with a perfect foundation.

Approaching those reps with a movement pattern that’s not by the book will work for a while, if a lifter is strong, and does not always lead to immediate failure. But once weight really gets on the bar, lifters get exposed. Early-stage lifters might fail in a squat because the movement is foreign, but more advanced lifters don’t have that excuse.

When a lifter gets to serious weight and hits a wall, they might have to rework their squat.

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Still, if post-beginner lifters can adjust an eighth of an inch to the left, under a bar, and save a lift, they’re less likely to do so when the weight is near max. Veering off the centerline and pushing a weight across a couple of planes — sometimes happens. But it can’t happen forever. Form is not everything, but sometimes it’s something.

The small, discrete mistakes or imperfect approaches that lifters start off with are less a bug than a feature. Not many coaches who train lifters from the beginning have an eye toward international competition, or pitch-perfect form, meaning many lifters, whether coached or not, build up their form as best they can and deal with problems later.

When a lifter gets to serious weight and hits a wall, they might have to rework their squat. Which is fine. Worrying over perfect form — the sort of Iron Curtain lifetime artful perfection that’s only achievable with 10,000 reps, preferably started in childhood — is not necessary at the start. There’s nothing wrong with doing what you can with what you have, then changing it up. If lifters have anything, it’s time. It’s a beautiful thing, to see an expression of strength have to be so cerebral.

Relying too much on form ignores a training reality: Injuries eventually occur and plans need to change. Form is in this case an expression of strength, one hard to distinguish from just strength itself. It’s said that good form activates the right muscles on a lift. But a hitch in a lift — a hang-up, the point where the exercise fails — can be due to movement, strength, or any number of causes.

One cause might be the lifter. Bad mobility is one culprit: lifters without a full range of motion might not be able to use all the muscles they need on a lift. Another is muscle weakness: plain old lack of strength. Both denote sticking points: the spots in a lift where it breaks down. There is an infinite number of sticking points, and a good coach can spot where they are and help fix them.

Here’s a helpful example. A squatter who can get out of “the hole,” the squat’s deepest and most difficult part, but can’t fully stand up, and bends too far forward, has a sticking point. Leg strength is not the culprit, it’s back strength since on the standing-up phase, the weight is held there.

Finding a sticking point is like finding the leak in a dam: once it’s identified, lifters can find a solution and progress. The lean-forward lifter would add back-building exercises — like pin squats and pause squats — and catch that body part up to their legs.

With so many sticking points on the way, a heavy-weight squat gets revealed to be as much about balance as it is about strength. As your back gets caught up to your legs, another body part might lag, which would get its own exercises — high bar squats and hip thrusts for weak glutes, front squats for quads. If acceleration slows, it’d get addressed with jump squats or box squats.

Truthfully, at this level, live coaching is best. Mid-path lifters should have someone around who’s skilled and knowledgeable enough to spot issues and program them properly. Getting to a triple bodyweight squat is mostly this process: reaching a certain weight, finding a sticking point, working on it, and moving past it, and doing it again.

As workouts get longer and more specialized, goals remain important but are also baked in. It’s unlikely someone squatting three times bodyweight, or getting close to it, doesn’t have a number of short-term goals along with their long one. Overcoming a sticking point is itself a form of periodization — a way to vary up workouts — and a cerebral one at that. Moving past plateaus involves serious variety.

The appeal of the “intermediate stage” — even if we can’t agree on a word for it — is the freedom, and reward, that comes from testing the limit. Beginner worries, like whether it’s OK to veer off a program, or add accessory exercises, melt away to irrelevance. Issues like form and mechanics become secondary to goals, progress, and weight. So often we think of strength as force, or big muscles, or powering through it, but at the top, it’s rarely just force. Strength at this level is real and based on balance, work, and attacking a problem.

Lifting isn’t forever, but this sort of hard-fought knowledge definitely is. Anyone at this stage of the game has earned their freedom to do what they want at the gym: but the good ones, given their freedom, do the same thing, only better.

Leg Day Observer is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are meant to be taken as introductory prompts for further research and not as directives. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.

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