the intermediate's guide to building muscle guy dumbbells

The Intermediate Lifter’s Guide To Building Muscle

Once you’ve accumulated a couple years of quality experience in the gym, gained your first 20 pounds of muscle and built a decent foundation of strength, you can classify yourself as an intermediate.

The problem is, many of you will be stuck as an intermediate for years on end, and in some cases, forever.

After milking your newbie gains, where you often make progress in spite of what you do, many of you will find yourself spinning your wheels in search of the magical program that’ll keep the gains coming.

This is when you’ll start to turn to the bodybuilding magazines and begin copying the routines of your favourite IFBB pros. Or maybe the latest big name on Instagram, who’s advice is often routed in what’s worked for him, rather than what works in the real world with real people.

Which is where this guide comes in, where I plan to delve into what really works for the intermediate who wants to build muscle.

To begin with, I’ll cover the top ten principles that every intermediate should live by, before finishing with a sample routine that you can directly implement to kick-start your gains again.

Muscle Building Principles For The Intermediate Lifter

1. Train 4 Days A Week

For the average guy with normal life stresses and average genetics, I’ve found four days a week of strength training to be most optimal.

Most intermediates think they’re too advanced for their own good, and begin to follow programs like Arnold’s famous 6-day pre-contest protocol. All this typically leads to is burn out and more frustration.

Remember, you can only train as hard as you can recover from, and so you need to prioritise recovery just as much as training.

the intermediate lifters guide to building muscle dumbbell bench


2. Focus On Big, Compound Exercises

The meat and potatoes of your training should always be the big, compound exercises like squats, chin-ups, presses, rows and deadlift variations.

These are the exercises that’ll provide the most bang for your buck, and be responsible for 80% of the progress you make in the gym.

When selecting these exercises, they should fulfill the following criteria:

  • Suit your mechanics
  • Be pain-free
  • Allow you to keep tension on the right muscles at all times

I would then pick 2 to 3 exercises per movement pattern that you can rotate between and strive to set PRs on.

For example, my personal ‘indicator’ lifts are as follows:

Upper Body Push: DB Floor Press, Dip, DB Shoulder Press

Upper Body Pull: Bent Over Row, Wide Pull Up, Chest Supported Row

Lower Body Push: Hack Squat, Leg Press, Walking Lunge

Lower Body Pull: Lying Leg Curl, RDL

This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with isolation exercises like curls, lateral raises, pushdowns etc., but they should only make up 20% of your exercise pool.

Their potential for loading is minimal and limited, which brings us onto our next key principle…

3. Pay Attention To Progressive Overload

In your beginner years, it’s easy to get stronger. All you need to do is show up on a weekly basis and do something. Chances are that even if you’re on the worst program, you’ll still get stronger.

Once you rinse your newbie gains though, just turning up isn’t enough. Now you need to focus on the single most important factor of muscle building – progressive overload.

The reason most intermediates stop building any muscle is because they stop getting stronger. Instead, they chase the pump, ‘shock’ the muscle and experiment with fancy techniques to trick themselves into thinking they’re being productive and building muscle.

The reality is though, if you’re still lifting the same weights as you were 3 months ago, chances are you look exactly the same.

Which is why you need to focus on driving up performance on your big, compound ‘indicator’ lifts as much as possible.

I can guarantee that when you go from squatting 60kg for 8 reps, to 100kg for 8 reps, you’ll be a bigger person.

4. Use Perfect Form

Intermediates who make no progress typically have big egos. They’d rather see the weight on the bar go up at any cost, as opposed to taking pride in their lifting.

This usually happens because they’ve been following the wrong program, have made zero progress, and so want to try ‘force’ new progression by making large jumps in weight.

However, progressive overload always comes with a caveat. It only counts if you maintain perfect form, execution and muscular tension.

If you increase your squat from 60kg to 100kg, but your depth has gone from below parallel to a 45-degree knee bend, you’ve made zero progression.

Form always comes first.

the intermediate lifters guide to building muscle dumbbell row

5. Train Each Muscle Group At Least Twice A Week

As a beginner, you can train muscle groups 3 to 4 times a week and continually get stronger. Because the loading won’t be high, your body can recover easily and adapt accordingly.

When you enter your intermediate years, you still want to maintain a high training frequency, and should aim to train each muscle group at least twice per week.

The mistake many intermediates make is beginning to transition to ‘bro splits’ of advanced bodybuilders, where they’re training one body part a day, once a week. If you’re really strong and advanced, this can work well, but for intermediates, twice a week is still the way to go.

6. Use A Low To Moderate Amount Of Volume

One of the biggest mistakes natural, intermediate level lifters make is doing too much volume.

If you to want to stimulate muscle growth on a frequent basis by training body parts twice a week, somewhere in the region of 12 to 18 total sets per workout works well.

Some can get away with less if they can really apply intensity, but this is usually saved for more advanced trainees.

If you’re training hard, there’s rarely a place for more. Following your favourite IFBB pro bodybuilder’s workout from FLEX Magazine is something I see far too many intermediates get suckered into. You know the ones I’m referring to… 30 sets of chest on Monday, 30 sets of back on Tuesday, and so on.

But if you can resist, not only will you be able to train more frequently, but you’ll allow your body to recover in order to continuously get stronger and apply progressive overload.

7. Use The Right Rep Ranges

I like to apply to 80/20 with everything in life, and training is no different. Just like you should be spending 80% of your time doing the big compound lifts, I believe you’ll get 80% of your results from progressing within the 5-8 rep range.

This rep range works so well because it allows the perfect blend of maximal muscle recruitment as well as metabolic stimulus.

That being said, there is merit for intermediates to also include sets in the 8-12 rep range, and even some sets up to 20 reps for the lower body.

For beginners, they’re typically too weak to derive any benefit from higher reps, but once you’ve built a good strength foundation, it can help accelerate muscle growth.

My favourite way to set this up is to have one ‘strength’ day where the focus is on being progressive in the 4-8 rep range, and another ‘hypertrophy’ day where you train in the 8-12 rep range.

The other alternative is to focus on 5-8 reps each day, but add in slightly higher rep back off sets after those main sets. This gives you the best of both worlds in one day.

8. Stick With ONE Program For At Least 12 Weeks

In the age of information overload, program hopping is at an all time high.

One week it’s 5×5, the following week it’s Jay Cutler’s Olympia routine, then it’s German Volume Training, followed by DC training.

The body craves consistency and time for progression to occur, not confusion.

If you’re someone who’s suffering from training ADD, this principle might be the biggest ‘game changer’ in your pursuit of muscle growth.

On our recent podcast with Jason Maxwell, the owner of JMax Fitness, he told us about the greatest muscle building mistake he’s made so far in his training.

After gaining 27 pounds of muscle in his first three months using a full body, progressive overload approach, Jason decided to switch it all up in search of a better program to continue his gains.

What followed was a period of time where Jason made zero progress, and found himself jumping from program to program thinking the next one would be ‘the one’.

In hindsight, his best call of action would have been to stick with the program that was already delivering great results, and milk it for what its worth.

We’ve all been in this situation, and if there’s one thing you take from this, it’s that you need to ‘buy in’ to ONE program that fits your personality, then stick with it for as long as it’s delivering results (AT LEAST 12 weeks!).

the intermediate lifters guide to building muscle front squat

9. Maximize Recovery

If you want to build muscle, you need to maximize your ability to recover.

Your body grows when you’re resting, and you can only train as hard as you can recover from.

The time spent in the gym is only a signal for growth. Once stimulated, your body needs food, sleep and plenty of rest to be able to grow.

If you’re up partying all night, sleeping only 4-5 hours a night, stressed out all day and under eating, you’re not going to be building any muscle.

Start prioritizing high quality sleep every night. Eat in a consistent calorie surplus with the right foods. Manage your stress. Get massages, and stay on top of soft tissue work.

Another point to mention here for intermediates is to pay attention to your training intensity.

If you want to stay healthy and make long-term progress, you need to train hard, but also smart. That’s why you need to be careful with how you approach training to failure.  

You want to mostly train at around 90%, with the odd set here and there being strategically taken to failure. Where I see intermediates go wrong is taking every set to failure, and digging a deeper and deeper hole into their recovery capabilities.

Train hard, but recover hard too!

10. Eat In A Consistent Surplus

You can train hard on the perfect program as much as you like, but if you’re not providing the body with the right amount of fuel, you’re going to find it difficult to build any muscle.

Eating for muscle growth is relatively simple – you just need to ensure you meet your minimum protein requirements and stay in a calorie surplus.

Where the problem often lies is a lack of consistency.

How much should you be eating?

A good starting point for most people would be around 16-18 kcals per lb bodyweight. This’ll place you at above maintenance calories in a small surplus.

From here, see how your body responds after 10-14 days and then adjust accordingly.

When setting up your diet for muscle growth, use the following guidelines for your macronutrient intake:

  • Aim for around 1-1.2 grams per pound of protein per day
  • Aim for around 20-30% calories to come from fat
  • Save the remainder of your calories for carbs

If we’ve got a 175lb male, this would leave him with a starting point of 2800 calories (16 kcal/lb), aiming for 175g protein, 75g fat and 350g carbs.

As an example, here’s how the diet may look to begin with:

Meal 1 – 3 Whole Eggs, 4 Slices Ezekiel Bread

Meal 2 – 30g Whey, 100g Oats, 10g Peanut Butter

Meal 3 – 125g Chicken Breast, 100g Rice, 2 tsp E-V Olive Oil, Greens

Meal 4 – 30g Whey, 100g Oats, 10g Peanut Butter

Meal 5 – 150g 10% Beef Mince, 400g Sweet Potato, 10g Butter, Greens

If you’re training hard 4 days a week and in good condition, this number will probably need to go up, but it’s always best to start on the lower end of the scale and increase after.

Once you do reach the realms of 20-24 (maybe more) kcals per lb bodyweight, this is where you’ll need to stick at it and push yourself to eat the food. Providing you’re not just getting fat, being consistent with these high calorie intakes will be necessary to spark further muscle growth.

It’s often at this time appetite becomes the limiting factor, which is why you’ll hear of many ‘hard gainers’ claim they eat ‘loads’ but never put on weight.

In these scenarios, opting for hyper-palatable/ calorie dense foods work well, as well as using more liquid meals in the day. Some good examples include: whey/oats/nut butter blends, olive oil added to food, post workout cereals, etc.

Example Intermediate Muscle Building Program

No one understood the training principles I’ve discussed in this guide so far more than 6x Mr. Olympia, Dorian Yates.

One of my favourite Dorian routines is the split routine he used between 1983 and 1986 in the lead up to winning his first British heavyweight title.

This is how it’s set out:

Workout 1: Chest, Back, Delts & Abs

Workout 2: Quads, Hamstrings, Calves & Arms

On this program, you can train either 3 to 4 days a week, depending on your recovery capacity. Each workout consists of typically 3 to 8 sets per body part, trained in the 6 to 10 rep range. The idea was that when you could hit the top end of a rep range without failure, you add weight.

If you’re an intermediate, this is one of the most results-producing splits that you can train on. I use a variation of this with almost all of my male muscle-building clients, and the results speak for themselves.

the intermediate lifters guide to building muscle dip

Example Workout

Workout 1: Chest, Back, Delts & Abs

  1. Low Incline Dumbbell Press 3×6-8
  2. Incline Bench Press 3×6-8
  3. Chin Up 3×6-8
  4. Bent Over Row 3×6-8
  5. Press Behind Neck 3×6-8
  6. Side Lateral 2×8-10
  7. Rear Bent Laterals 2×8-10
  8. Hanging Leg Raises 3×10-15

Workout 2: Quads, Hamstrings, Calves & Arms

  1. Lying Leg Curls 3×6-8
  2. Back Squats 3×6-8
  3. Hack Squats 2×8-10
  4. Standing Calf Raises 3×8
  5. Hammer Curl 3×6-8
  6. Lying EZ Extensions 3×6-8
  7. EZ Curl 2×8-10
  8. Overhead Rope Extension 2×8-10

Key Points:

  • Always maintain perfect form
  • Add weight when you reach the top end of the rep range
  • Rest between sets only as much as you need to apply equal intensity to the set again
  • Keep a training journal to monitor progress.

In the example above, there are only two workouts to rotate between. Once you’ve milked this program for what it’s worth, I’d advise using the ‘heavy-light’ approach, whereby you’ll have one ‘heavier’ day in the 4-8 rep range, and a ‘lighter’ day in the 8-12 rep range.

Concluding With Consistency

If you’re an intermediate with muscle building goals, the real secret to your success is simple – consistency.

Once you’ve dried up your beginner gains, PRs are harder to come by and progress slows down significantly. While this is completely normal, it can be easy to become distracted with the latest trends and fads, only to end up spinning your wheels into a long, dreaded plateau.

As an intermediate, it’s important to shift your mindset and play the long game. Muscle building is a marathon, not a sprint. The more you can embrace the process, the better your results will be.

Focus on creating laser-like focus and consistency on:

  1. Getting stronger over a wide variety of rep ranges with exercises that suit your body type
  2. Maintaining perfect form at all times
  3. Executing a diet that works for your lifestyle and needs

Work the plan everday, keep ticking the right boxes, and you’ll surprise yourself in a year’s time with how much muscle you’ve built.

About the Author

Akash Vaghela specialises in transforming the bodies of City executives, CEOs, actors, physique athletes and regular people who want to be in the best shape of their lives. He blends scientific knowledge, evidenced by his 1st class Sport Science degree from the University of Birmingham, with the practical experience of successfully competing in both powerlifting and bodybuilding, to generate maximum results in minimum time for his clients.