Intermediate Programming Step 1: Define Your Goals

by Nate Mielke | November 23, 2022

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The Novice Linear Progression (NLP) is simple, easy to understand, and works every time it is followed correctly. There’s not much to think about. You’ve been handed the cheat sheet for making the fastest strength progress you’ll ever make in your life. All you have to do is follow the program exactly as it is laid out in the blue book. There’s no guesswork involved. There’s no wondering if you should be doing something else. Nothing else gets you strong this quick. This program has been tested and proven, time and time again, by thousands and thousands of people, and it works every time. It doesn’t matter if you’re a 70-year-old elderly woman trying to keep up with your grandkids or a 15-year-old high-schooler on the football team, the NLP is what you start with.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stay this simple forever. Eventually your NLP will end, and you will graduate to Intermediate Lifter status. An intermediate lifter is a lifter that can no longer complete the stress/recovery/adaptation cycle within 48-72 hours as was previously possible during the NLP. The cycle becomes longer, as the training stress required to drive further adaptation can no longer be recovered from in a matter of days. This means that by definition, an intermediate lifter is making slower progress. This can be discouraging for some, who grow accustomed to watching their weight progress every time they step foot in the gym. However, if the lifter actually did the program, they should already be handling weights they never thought possible. This, along with the coach setting proper expectations from the beginning that 5 lb jumps every workout doesn’t last forever, helps mitigate some of the discouragement.

The first question every intermediate asks themselves is “What program should I hop on?” Before you spend hours researching different programs, you need to start by defining your goals. A program is a road map leading you to a specific destination. If we’re training and not exercising that means we’re heading somewhere. That “where” is going to determine the map you use.

There are four main destinations people pursue: maximal strength, improved athletic performance, general health, and improved physique. Let’s be clear: getting stronger improves your athletic performance, general health, and your physique, but there is a significant difference between using strength to help you reach your destination, and “maximal strength” being the destination. I’m defining “maximal strength” as the pursuit of maximizing your strength potential on a defined set of lifts. For powerlifters, these lifts are the squat, bench, and deadlift. For a strengthlifting competitor, the OHP is substituted for the bench. For Olympic lifters, the lifts are the snatch and the clean & jerk. For a strongman, it’s whatever crazy lifts strongmen do in their competitions. It can be whatever arbitrary lifts your heart desires, but the point is you are trying to get as strong as possible on those lifts.


This is quite different from the goals of a collegiate athlete. A collegiate athlete is training to improve performance in the sport. If they’re smart, they understand that a crucial piece of the puzzle is getting stronger. But it’s not the only piece – they still need to practice their sport, and each sport comes with a certain degree of physical stress that needs to be factored into any training program. That means they shouldn’t be running a powerlifting program in season that has them squatting 3x a week. This may, however, be appropriate for an athlete in a strength-dependent sport in the off season, when the recovery demands of the sport are lessened and attention can be directed towards making big jumps in strength.

There comes a point for some athletes when the amount of stress needed to make significant leaps in strength becomes counterproductive to increased performance in their sport. This isn’t a common situation, as most athletes are significantly weaker than they should be. However, this can occur when the required stress for further strength adaptation places too high a recovery demand on the body, and thus interferes with practicing the sport.

For example, an Olympic sprinter needs to get stronger, but he doesn’t need to get his squat up to 700 lb. The only way he could get his squat up this high would be to gain a significant amount of weight (including some fat) and do less sprinting. This would allow him to recover from the training requirements of a 700 lb squat, but would not make him faster. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t benefit from strength training. He still needs to maintain a base level of strength, and getting stronger helps from both an injury prevention perspective as well as an increased force production perspective. However, a large amount of focus in his training needs to be directed towards sprinting, and he therefore cannot recover from the same amount of stress in the gym that a powerlifter can.

General Health

Another group of people who walk into the gym are those focused on improving their “general health.” A lot of these people are in the older training population that understand that the barbell is the best anti-aging drug on the market. It’s also the people who don’t particularly enjoy lifting and don’t spend their free time like some of us watching lifting videos and dreaming about hitting their next big PR. They know they need to strength train to be physically and mentally healthy, manage pain, and improve their quality of life, but they have no grand aspirations in the gym.

You need to pay special attention to these people. It’s one thing to experiment with a 22-year-old powerlifter by adding in a bunch of volume to see how he responds. It’s a completely different thing to do this to someone from this population. That’s a terrific way to go out of business as a personal trainer. Pay careful attention to how these people are managing recovery and always be thinking in terms of minimum effective dose.


Finally, we have our last group of people: those focused on their physiques. These people are probably the majority. If you walk into a commercial gym, you will realize that most people are there to improve the way they look. This becomes apparent by the type of clothing they are wearing and the amount of time they spend staring at themselves in the mirror between sets. If you walk into a Starting Strength gym, you will likely find the complete opposite. Does this mean that Starting Strength people are more mature, less conceited, wiser, and generally more fun to be around? Probably. However, I am not going to neglect the fact that these people exist and there are at least a couple of them reading this article right now. While it’s true that the best way to improve your physique is to get stronger (have you ever seen a champion weak bodybuilder?), certain muscle groups may need some additional attention. There is no need for curls in a strength program. However, curls are a highly effective tool for someone who wants bigger arms.

Exercise variation is commonly used in hypertrophy training as a way to target certain muscle groups. For example, a person with long femurs and a short torso will have a more horizontal back angle in a correctly performed low-bar squat than someone with short femurs and a long torso. This means that the moment arm between the bar and the hips is longer for the person with long femurs, and they therefore have a more “hip-dominant” squat. When we’re training for strength, we don’t care about this. The low-bar squat allows us to recruit the most amount of muscle over the longest effective range of motion which allows us to lift the most weight. If the long-femured individual does care about quads, he could benefit from adding some front squats, safety bar squats, hack squats, or other quad-dominant movements to place more stress on the quads. Similarly, a powerlifter may decide to bench with the widest competition grip allowed in order to gain a mechanical advantage through the reduced range of motion. This decreased range of motion, however, is not beneficial for hypertrophy. Many have advocated for using dumbbell bench presses, which allows for a greater range of motion, to grow the chest.

These are just a few of the considerations when choosing the appropriate program for your goals. You might be thinking, “What if I have multiple goals?” Most people have multiple goals. The grandma who just came in to improve her health may also have the goal of deadlifting 135 lb. The powerlifter or athlete might want bigger arms. The gym bro still wants to increase his bench press. The key is choosing a primary goal and realizing the other goals have to take a back seat. If you are a powerlifter, your primary goal is to lift the most weight possible on the squat, bench, and deadlift. You can add in some accessories, but you can’t let them distract your time and energy away from the lifts that make you stronger.

If you’re lifting for general health, you can’t be hammering your body with a ton of volume. This will interfere with your everyday activities, sleep, and enjoyment of life. If you’re an athlete, you need to be realistic about your rate of progress. Lifting is not your sport. Focus on getting stronger and using that strength to get better at your sport. If you’re focused on your physique, you need to clean up your diet and add in an appropriate variation of exercises, but you can never allow yourself to forget about the exercises that build the most muscle: squats, benches, deadlifts, and presses.

The more focused on your primary goal you are, the better progress you will make on that goal. All the other goals are detours on the path to your desired destination. You can’t arrive at Peak Strength Island and Peak Shredded Island at the same time. Those are two separate destinations. If you are a powerlifter, but you also want to have abs for the beach vacation, just know you’re sacrificing weight on the bar. If you’re an athlete, you’re going to have to sacrifice some “health” to get to the top. The best athletes aren’t particularly focused on being “healthy.” They’re focused on winning.

You need to be honest about what you want. If you want to be the strongest version of yourself, you’re probably going to be a little fatter than you’d like. If you want to have a “shredded” physique, you’re not going to reach your maximal strength potential and you're also not going to the healthiest version of yourself (maintaining an extremely low bodyfat is not healthy). So, before you think about what program you should do, sit down, and write down your goals. You need to know where you’re going before you find the best way to get there.  

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