deadlift, woman deadlifting, strength training, weight training

An Efficient Strength Training Program for the Intermediate

0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 0 Flares ×

Featured photo courtesy of Amber Karnes.


So, you’ve decided you want to get physically stronger. Maybe you’d like to be a better athlete. Maybe you understand that lean muscle is healthy and leads to longer lives. Maybe you want to prevent injuries. Maybe you want to look great naked.

Whatever your reason, when it comes to fitness, and especially formal workouts, what gets you the most bang for your buck is an efficient strength training program. Need help in the garden?  No problem.  Need someone to help you move?  Easy. Jar needs opening?  Pass it here.  Want to play football/ultimate/soccer /basketball/baseball?  Sounds like fun.  Go for a swim?  Sure.  Bike ride?  Why not?  With a strong body, you can do it all.   Strength is universally transferable to any activity.  It’s totally awesome to be strong.

That all being said, a lot of time can be wasted with poor training practices. There’s a lot of weak and inefficient advice out there, and I have taken most of it at one time or another. When you realize that the goal of strength training is the result (a stronger and better performing body), then getting the greatest return with the least time investment is of utmost importance. This is directly in line with a Sustainable Balance type approach: effective, but not overwhelming. A strength training program can be designed to be both very effective and time efficient.

For a few years, I had a different approach to my strength training program. I used to spend two hours a day, six days a week in the gym lifting weights and running on the treadmill. I got the results I wanted, but it came at a huge cost: time. Plus, I was always exhausted, and caught colds every couple months or so from being so run-down (I wouldn’t admit it at the time, but looking back, that’s what it was).

Nowadays, I am stronger and have more muscle than ever, and I accomplished this while training two and a half hours a week. And that’s tops. Some weeks are even less than that. It has freed up a lot of time to learn about other topics, develop other skills, form and maintain more relationships, and to simply enjoy life more knowing that I am physically developing myself as best I can without devoting the vast majority of my free time to it.

The strategy is two fold:

  1. Focus on compound exercises 
  2. Bring the intensity 

Compound exercises use multiple muscle groups and joints at once. Examples include the deadlift, the squat, the bench-press, shoulder press, pullups, and rows. These exercises work more of your body at once, and releases the most muscle building hormones.

Intensity means you give it everything you have at least once per exercise during the training sessions. This means pushing to the point where there isn’t another rep possible.This is called “failure” and it is when significant micro-tears occur in the muscle which upon recovery results in muscle growth.

This post will outline an efficient program for someone who’s fairly strong to begin with (intermediates), and comfortable enough in a gym environment. Next post I will be outlining ways to get stronger for real beginners.

Without further ado:

The Strength Training Program:

This program is heavily inspired by the training style of Martin Berkhan at Leangains, along with me throwing in a day for sprint training. It works off a seven day cycle (a “week” as they say), which is what generally works best for the modern world. Day 1 is Monday, Day 7 is Sunday. There are three training sessions per week (on a full week). Two are in the gym with weights and focuses on pure strength. One is a bodyweight/sprint day that focuses more on speed and power. The other workout can be done outside or on a track.

For each of the gym workouts, there are two “main” lifts, with the less important “assistance” lifts after. For the main lifts,  there are 5 total sets, in a pyramid fashion:

  1. Empty bar or bodyweight warm up
  2. Weighted warmup – 5-6 reps at ~60% of top weight)
  3. Top set – aim for 5 reps at top weight (to failure)
  4. Lower set – reps on top set +1 at 10% lower than top weight
  5. Cool down set – 7-8 reps at another 10% lower

Rest 2-3 minutes between sets. Maximum intensity is on the top set. Intensity is brought on the lower set as well, but do not go quite to failure.  Going to failure too often can result in burnout as it is very stressful. Progress is determined on the top set. If you get 5 reps, then the next week 5 lbs is added and you go for 5 again. If you only get 4 reps, then the next week you go for 5. This is called double progression and results in each week the goal being another rep, or a higher weight. There won’t be progress every workout, but over longer periods (length depending on training status), there most certainly will be.

After the two main lifts are done, 1-3 assistance exercises are selected. 1-2 sets of 6-10 reps for each assistance exercise. Progress the assistance lifts as well by going to failure on 1 or 2 of them once per workout and adding reps or weight every as you get stronger. If pressed for time, skip the assistance lifts and focus on the main lifts only; they are the most efficient. Progress the bodyweight and sprint day by trying for more reps and more and longer sprints, and if it’s an option, sprinting uphill. Every six weeks or so, take a week off, or really back off on the intensity. This will allow your body’s connective tissues and nervous system to recover, so you can keep this up indefinitely.

The “days” can be moved around a bit, but always leave at least once day between workouts, and try to get two days in a row off at least once a week. Recovery is a critical component to this program, but so is flexibility.

Here we go:

Day 1 – Push Day

Focus on squats and bench press:

Main lift 1 – Back or Front Squats (can alternate each week)
Main lift 2 – Bench press
Assistance exercises –  incline press (bench or dumbells), dips, calf raises, tricep extensions, shoulder press.

Time: 1 hour tops. 45 mins if you hustle.

Day 2 – Rest – Lots of walking!

Day 3 – Bodyweight and Sprint Day

Do the following 2-3 times (depending on your stamina):

Pushups: as many as you can
Pullups: as many as you can

Then, soon after (you may have to go outside):

6-10s sprint at about 50% intensity
1 min rest
6-10s sprint at about 80% intensity
1 min rest
6-10s sprint at 110% intensity (full out)
1 min rest
As many more 6-10s sprints as you can muster at full intensity

Once you can’t bring full intensity to your sprints with 1 min rests, you are done. Walk around until you recover, and then go about your day.

Time: 25 mins tops.

Day 4: Rest – Lots of walking. Maybe some stretching or yoga to aid recovery.

Day 5: Pull Day

Focus on deadlifts and weighted chinups.

Main lift 1 – Deadlifts
Main lift 2 – Weighted chinups
Assistance exercises: weighted horizontal rows, shoulder shrugs, bicep curls, back extensions.

Time: 1 hour tops. 45 mins if you hustle.

Day 6 – Rest! Keep moving though.

Day 7 – Rest! Go for a long walk and toss a frisbee/smell the roses.

Total time: 2.5 hours tops of focused, effective training. More like two hours if you’re really efficient.

That oughtta do it. This is just a starting point, and can be adapted. As long as when you do train, you train hard, this is plenty!

Next post will be a simpler training schedule for beginners.

Until then,


2 thoughts on “An Efficient Strength Training Program for the Intermediate”

  1. Hi Graham, I found your website via your series on sleep and serotonin/melatonin which helped me immensely; thank you so much!
    Have been wanting to put together a split workout like this so thanks for this too! Might tweak the exercise mix a little but love the structure.
    Question for you though: no abs?

    1. Hi Laura,

      Thanks for the comment! I love to hear from readers. I’m glad you got value out of the sleep series!

      For abs – If you’re using good form on deadlifts, squats, pullups/chinups, and sprints, I don’t feel as though direct ab work is really required. If you’re going for the most efficient way to an athletic and aesthetic body, I’d ditch direct ab work.

      That said, if you’re willing to put in some additional time and effort, you can squeeze out some more development in your abs. I still think that the above exercises will provide the bulk of your returns, but you can get a little more with direct work.

      For direct work, I recommend hanging leg raises, ab rollouts (use good form, can be hard on the back), and all forms of planks.

      Thanks again!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.