3 Mistakes Intermediate Lifters Make When Continuing a Fitness Program. And How to Fix Them

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Last week personal trainer, Shane McLean, wrote a guest post for this site titled “4 Mistakes Beginners Make When Starting a Fitness Program (and How to Fix Them).”

In case you missed it you can check it out HERE.

When I read it I was like, “goddammit, this is good.” How dare you Shane, HOW DARE YOU, SIR, FOR WRITING SOMETHING SO SIMPLE AND ACTIONABLE AND THEN MAKING ME LOOK BAD ON MY OWN SITE.


(throws chair through window).

After my tantrum (and explaining to my landlord why a chair was tossed from the 13th floor) I got to thinking: “What about the intermediate lifter? They make mistakes too. A lot of them, in fact. How about an article directed towards them?”

I suck at intros.

Let’s go.

4 Mistakes Intermediate Lifters Make When Continuing a Fitness Program (and How to Fix Them)

I guess the first order of business is to define what the heck an “intermediate lifter” is.

The definition of intermediate is as follows:

In-ter-me-di-ate (adj): Having or suitable for a level of knowledge or skill between basic and advanced.

So, an intermediate lifter:

  • Has 2+ years of consistent (serious) training experience.
  • Can perform the basic barbell lifts (deadlift, squat, bench press, among others) with competency and acceptable technique.

NOTE: You’re still a beginner if this is my reaction after watching you perform a set of deadlifts:


  • Has achieved a decent level of strength.1
  • And, most important of all, refers to a kettlebell as a kettleBELL and not kettleBALL

I’d garner a guess that most people reading this site identify as an intermediate lifter. You know, past the point where merely looking at a dumbbell makes you stronger, but not quite to the stage where you’re deadlifting 3x bodyweight or competing at the Arnold Classic.

In short, we could likely make the case that most people will stay in the intermediate category their entire training career. More to the point, I’d make the argument that unless you’re competing at a high-level – whether it’s in powerlifting, bodybuilding, Olympic lifting, Strongman, CrossFit, Hunger Games, etc – and either placing and/or getting paid to do so, you’re an intermediate lifter.

I mean, I still consider myself an intermediate lifter and I started lifting weights when New Kids on the Block were telling us to ‘hang tough.’

I’m such a Danny.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that most intermediate lifters are legit lifters and have a fair amount of experience. It’s just, much like beginners, they have their own set of mistakes they fall prey to as well.

1. Emulating the Programs of Elite Lifters

I get it.

We’re often inspired (or better yet enamored) by what we see our idols doing (or have done) in books or on Instagram and YouTube. It’s hard not to study the likes of Ed Coan, James Fitzgerald, Eddie Hall, Jen Thompson, or Arnold, to name a few, and not want to start a Smolov squat cycle, like this afternoon.

Clearly, if only we followed their programs and what they’re currently doing, the harder and more advanced the better, we’d reap the same result. We’d be the envy of everyone at the gym…

…jacked, diesel, and maybe, just maybe, Tina at the juice bar will actually make eye contact with you.

*fingers crossed*

Unfortunately, things don’t quite work this way. Mirroring what your idols do in the gym is the wrong approach. And, quite frankly, is probably going to get you hurt.

What You Should Do

A better, more cogent, reframe would be to think to yourself:

“I need to follow the program(s) that so and so did when they were a beginner/intermediate lifter. What did (s)he do 5, 10, 15 years ago that allowed them to build their base wide enough to attain a higher peak in order to do what they do now? “

I guarantee it was a program that was very basic and vanilla.

Here’s a simple example of a protocol I use with many of my own clients/athletes. I revolves around the concept of “Inverted Sets,” where you flip-flop sets/reps of a given exercise during the week.

Let’s use squats in this example.

Day 1

A1. Front Squat – 2×5 @ 75%
A2. Filler Exercise

(the rest of the day’s program goes here)

Day 2

A1. Front Squat – 5×2 @ 75%
A2. Filler

One way to periodize week to week is as follows:

Week 2: Day 1: 2×5 @ 77.5%, Day 2: 5×2 @ 77.5%

Week 3: Day 1: 2×5 @ 80%, Day 2: 5×2 @ 80%

Week 4: Day 1: 3×5 @ 75%, Day 2: 5×3 @ 75%

The idea is to increase exposure to QUALITY reps which is a concept I feel gets lost in the weeds with many intermediate lifters. More often than not the mentality is that the only way to progress is to make every workout as hard and challenging as possible.

Stealing a line from Dan John, “easy training is good training.

2. But Training Still Needs to Be Hard

Serving as nice counterpoint, I love this quote from John Meadows I saw on his Facebook Page recently:

“Stop saying the only way to get bigger is to get stronger!

This is ABSURD.

Getting stronger is awesome and can work…do it!

BUT do you realize that when you get to an advanced stage, and have trained for years, you wont just keep piling up the reps and amount lifted. If you can congrats on benching 2000 lbs or repping 1000 15 times (and having adamantium for connective tissue), cause that’s what will happen.

You will have to find other ways to tax the muscle, for example judicious use of high intensity techniques that some people like to say do no good. So get strong, gain muscle, but realize at some point you are gonna stall and you must now actually think and include other ideas in your plan.

Please stop saying stimulating a muscle is all it needs. No it is not. The daily 3×10 with many reps left in the tank on barbell curls will not give you massive biceps. It’s called a warm-up. You will need to activate, LOAD, and EXHAUST fibers to get the desired affect once you get past the novice stages of training.”

I recognize he was directing his ire towards “advanced lifters,” but I do feel it’s a message that should resonate with intermediates as well.

As much as I’m a fan of not making a habit of training to failure or missing reps incessantly, I do find a lot of trainees fail to make continued progress in the gym if for no other reason than they don’t push themselves.


What You Should Do



You don’t have to shit your spleen or anything, but get uncomfortable from time to time.

Try this:

  • On your next bench press session work up to a challenging set of FIVE (meaning, take as many sets as you need to in order to work up to a weight heavy enough where you can’t complete a sixth rep).
  • Whatever that weight ends up being, drop the load by 10-15% and on your next set or two (or three) perform as many reps as possible (AMRAP).
  • That sucks.

Or this:


That really sucks.

3. Being Too Strict With Technique

I encourage proper technique with all exercises.

I’m on your side.

Really, I am.

But being too strict with technique – to the point where someone becomes that asshole nun from Game of Thrones and shames everyone within a block radius whenever they see the slightest deviation from perfect form on any exercise – isn’t doing anyone any favors.


Yo, relax.

Listen, I want my clients (and you) to stay as safe as possible when lifting heavy things. When working with beginners (and holding them accountable with regards to their technique) I am that nun.

Much less assholey, of course, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t adamant they use strict form at all times.

That being said, there comes a point where it behooves everyone to loosen the reigns a bit.

Take the DB row for example.

Now, it’s one thing for someone to look as if they’re having an epileptic seizure – or as if they’re using an industrial strength Shake Weight – when performing the exercise.

It’s another thing altogether for me to permit “some” body english in order to allow progressive overload or time under tension to occur.

The strength curve of the DB Row – as broken down in THIS article by Nick Tumminello – almost guarantees that, at some point, a little shimmying is inevitable.

And it’s okay. The world will continue to spin.

Moreover, it’s important to lean into the fact that as you get strong(er) the more likely it is your body will explore precarious positions when performing compound movements like squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, etc.

I’m fine with that.

It serves as a vaccine in a way.

The more small doses of these precarious positions the body is “introduced” to the more likely it’ll be able to defend against them when shit really hits the fan.

All of this to say…

…be relentless and practice good technique. Be a champion of it.

But understand that there will be a small window (say, 5% of the time) where it’s okay to deviate.2

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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Plus, get a copy of Tony’s Pick Things Up, a quick-tip guide to everything deadlift-related. See his butt? Yeah. It’s good. You should probably listen to him if you have any hope of getting a butt that good.

I don’t share email information. Ever. Because I’m not a jerk.
  1. I’m not a fan of tethering myself to strength standards because they’re arbitrary. But let’s just say “decent level of strength,” in this case, is strong enough to elicit a few bro nods at the gym.

  2. Just don’t post it on Twitter or the technique trolls will get ya.

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