It is inevitable that for any lifter making periodic progress, the Novice phase will run out and a switch will need to be made towards some type of Intermediate Programming, that will involve addition of more volume.
These are some of the considerations that need to be looked at, in depth, before making the switch.
Let us look at each of these considerations in more detail.
Stalls and Injuries happening often
While Novice Linear Progression (NLP) is the simplest, fastest and perhaps the easiest way to progress with strength gains, how/when can we decide when to stop with NLP and switch over to Intermediate style programming?
If stalls (and even injuries) begin to happen on any lift or on multiple lifts, even after multiple resets (a 10% reduction in intensity/weight and working your way up again, in small increments), and this happens despite maintaining manageable stress levels during training through proper use of RPE, then, the first thing that needs to be looked at is the recovery.
Particularly, if this happens very early on, in the Novice Phase, then, almost certainly, it can be attributed to a lack of proper recovery. In fact, even if these stalls/injuries happen much later and towards the end of the Novice Phase, recovery status still needs to be analyzed and determined if it is happening in full.
Recovery of course, consists of adequate rest and nutrition in appropriate quality and quantity, and needs to happen in full, throughout training.
Thus, if adequate amount of rest is not provided, and this can happen either due to a smaller number of hours of sleep (less than 8 hours) every day, or if many other activities take precedence over getting a good rest (activities such as those related to other sport workouts, everyday life activities such as walking, physical efforts etc.), then, this MUST first be corrected.
The other important factor towards recovery is nutrition which must happen adequately in terms of quantity and quality. If there is a calorie deficit (calories eaten is less than calories spent), or if protein is not consumed in adequate quantities (#grams of protein = 1.5 to 2 times body weight in kilograms), then, this also MUST be corrected.
Additionally, other activities and stresses related to life in general and in case of athletes specifically, trainee’s main sport related practices and workouts, all need to be considered to assess how much they are affecting recovery. These must be addressed as much as possible, which would then extend trainee’s further progress while still continuing with NLP.
Note that there is just absolutely NO WAY TO GET AROUND all these if trainee is not recovering from workouts. If these factors are not corrected, then, stalls will happen continuously, injuries are very likely to happen often and trainee will enter overtraining zones, all of which are best avoided altogether, when complete recovery is allowed to always happen.
What is the RPE levels that could signify the end of the Novice Phase, and how can these be used to switch to an Intermediate Programming?
That would depend on the trainee and on their specific and personalized training program. For trainees interested in pursuing their Powerlifting opportunities, NLP can be milked as much as possible, even at higher RPE (Rated Perceived Effort) levels (9, 9.5 or even at 10), till no further gains can possibly be had by increasing the intensity from workout-to-workout.
For others, especially for athletes in sports other than powerlifting, where lower risk of injuries from Strength and Conditioning training is an important training goal, RPE can be a valuable tool, when used judiciously. When using RPE, it is very important that trainee is used to evaluating RPE with sincerity and has become proficient to some extent, in determining it. Thus, trainee must have been recording his/her RPE during work-sets for some time, before using RPE to decide to switch over to Intermediate programming.
Therefore, if RPE 8 to 8.5 (or less) have been maintained throughout NLP and, when RPE starts climbing to 9 or 9.5 and above consistently, then some actions need to be taken.
Assuming optimum form has been used and maintained on the lift/s then, the first and foremost action at this point, as discussed above earlier, would be to check the recovery status of the trainee.
However, even after all possible changes have been made to the recovery parameters, if RPE levels stay at very high levels or start to climb up again after a brief lull, then, it is indeed time to make a change towards an Intermediate Style Programming.
Things to watch out for
a. Do not switch programming early, just for the fleeting initial joy that might occur when making any change in general
Novice Linear Progression is the simplest, fastest, and perhaps, the easiest way to make progress in Strength. Any changes from NLP towards a more Intermediate Style programming is going to be more complex and slower, while definitely getting harder.
Also, people who make changes just for change’s sake, maybe due to getting too bored, often, with the same kind of routines, and when losing focus on the long-term, hardly make significant progress. They keep on switching from one program to another, but meaningful progress eludes them, precisely for that very reason (switching programs continuously and too often).
Therefore, try to milk as many gains from NLP for as long as possible (within acceptable RPE levels), before switching over to an Intermediate Style program.
b. As reiterated earlier, RPE levels need to be determined by trainee (for work-sets) in a very diligent manner. RPE, by definition, is a perception of the effort that can be determined by the trainee alone.
Unfortunately, the concept of AMRAPS (As Many Reps As Possible) cannot be utilized to determine RPE, as it might entail a high risk of injury. Also, possible number of repetitions is never a constant, even for the same weight and can change from workout to workout and sometimes, even through a single workout, (due to accumulating fatigue and such). Therefore, over a period of time, the trainee gets better skilled at determining RPE, if it is ALWAYS done in a conscientious manner.
Trainees also need to watch out for when discussions about Intermediate Style programming happen, and soon thereafter, they start feeling their work-sets approaching higher levels of RPE. This is similar to any person reading about symptoms of any particular illness and it could then appear to all be relevant/happening to them. Thus, determination of RPE is important…this needs to be fully understood by the trainee and need to be done ALWAYS (for work-sets), and in a very sincere manner.
The principles of KISS (Keep It Simple and Stupid) and MED (Minimum Effective Dose)
It is a mistake to make things more complicated than they should be. Keeping it Simple and Stupid is always a good idea to get things working smoothly, to make sustainable progress and to make it easier and possible to identify problems when they occur and to take corrective actions as required.
The concept of Minimum Effective Dose relates to making just one (or very few) changes at a time, and only when necessary. Thus, if a bunch of changes are made at a time, then, if things go wrong or even if there is progress, it is quite difficult or even impossible to identify what all caused it, and to make further changes as and when required.
Therefore, it is best to make as few changes (perhaps, just one change) and make it as small as can be effective, then see the results and decide what other changes might be required.
The above principles will apply to making programming changes too, in a properly designed Strength and Conditioning program. For example, if the number of sets, weights and perhaps even addition of some more exercises are all changed by a whole lot, at the same time, then, it becomes very difficult, or even impossible, to determine correctly what change/s might have caused a progress/decline in performance and by how much.
Therefore, adherence to both the above principles of KISS and MED are vital considerations in programming design for Strength and Conditioning, and are important even when switching over to a different type of programming, (such as when changing from an NLP to an Intermediate Style programming).
What type of Intermediate Programming will suit the trainee’s requirements and training plan?
While there is a myriad of Intermediate Style programming available for trainees who graduate from the Novice stage onto the Intermediate stage in their Strength training progression, using the above discussed principles of KISS and MED would be very helpful in determining appropriate programming changes.
Inevitably, there will be increases in volume, in addition to increases in intensity. Obviously, increases in
intensity will no longer be feasible from workout to workout at this Intermediate stage. Increases in intensity are spread over a week (or even a two-week period), although, increases in volume (# sets and reps) at the same intensities are also definitely considered as progress. They all mean increase in stress and must be meaningful and effective at producing progress in strength levels of the trainee.
Using some sort of a percentage-based approach as a skeleton framework, and to then use RPE levels on top of that, to keep making appropriate increases in stress applied is a good way to make progress on any program. Then, when these RPE levels keep rising to unacceptable levels, and continue to happen even after ensuring proper recovery, it might be best at that point, to make the inevitable switch to the exercise programming again This is perhaps the best way to continue making Strength gains continuously.
One of the very proven Intermediate programs which have been used as the basis for designing many other Intermediate Style programs, is Doug Hepburn’s “powerbuilding” program. While maybe not the fastest, this is a very effective program that can be used along with RPE (in a conscientious manner to minimize risk of injury), to continue to make significant Strength gains throughout trainee’s Intermediate phase, for a very long time, (for a year or even a couple of years or more).
Conclusion: Realize your priorities and results achievable thereof – and do not compare yourself with outliers
Recovery is a mandatory and inevitable part of making progress with Strength Training. Recovery is made up of adequate amounts of rest and adequate amounts of proper nutrition, including protein.
If trainee is a vegetarian with limited opportunities to consume appropriate amounts of quality protein, then progress will inevitably stall quite early. If trainee is a student, who gets limited amounts of sleep everyday (less than even eight hours of sleep per day), then also progress will inevitably stall quite early. If trainee is unable (or unwilling) to use the correct optimal form to perform any particular exercise, then also, progress will stall quite early.
However, in all the above examples, proper priorities need to be thought out by the trainee. If being vegetarian/vegan (whatever trainee deems that to be) is the topmost priority, then such trainees cannot be forced into consuming non-vegetarian food, (even though meat and eggs are very good sources of protein). However, they must be made to understand that if remaining vegetarian/vegan is their topmost priority, then, their strength gains will happen much slower and in a limited manner, in comparison to another person who is able to consume good quality protein in adequate quantities.
The same can be said of rest too. If trainee is a corporate professional, maybe needing to travel often and does not get much more than 5-6 hours per day to sleep, let’s say. This trainee again, cannot be forced to give up their career for the sake of making optimum strength gains. However, trainee must be made to understand that this amount of rest, will lead to slower and much limited strength gains, in comparison with someone who gets adequate amounts of rest (at-least eight hours…or more…per day).
At the same time, a trainee who parties late nights quite a lot and is therefore, not able to gain strength optimally, might be able to re-determine their priority and make changes to their partying habits appropriately (and therefore, increase their resting times every day), which could then result in increased strength gains.
Parents of younger trainees also need to understand that their sons and daughters cannot,
- prepare for entrance exams such as for IIT JEE, NEET, Civil Services etc.,
- Obtain State First in their Board Exams,
- Get to play for the state and country in Cricket/Badminton/Tennis/Boxing/Wrestling…,
- Make fantastic (optimal) gains in their Strength and Conditioning training, all at the same time,
- While also remaining vegetarian/vegan!!!
Any/all the above are trainee’s priorities alone. However, they must be made to understand that they cannot have their cake and eat it too, so to speak. At the same time, if small enough changes can be made to their lifestyle, then, their strength (and health) can perhaps, improve considerably – they must be made aware of this too.
A lot of people also quote experiences (or what has been shared on social media and on other media) of celebrities (in sports, movies and from other areas) when talking about results and what needs to be done to get there. World class sportspersons Virat Kohli being vegan (we do not know if this is even true), Javagal Srinath being a vegetarian, Martina Navratilova being a strict vegan or Kapil Dev not doing weight training etc., cannot be quoted as situations that may apply to common everyday people. These world-class athletes are likely outliers, perhaps due to their genetics, and not everyone can be such extraordinarily gifted people. Of course, all these world -class athletes did not achieve greatness due to being genetically gifted alone, but most definitely, also due to their work ethic, focus and such.
Therefore, trainees (and their parents, in the case of younger trainees) need to understand and prioritize and need to also accept results accordingly.