Have you ever wondered whether you’re a beginner, intermediate or even advanced lifter?
Browsing through websites and workouts with labels like ‘perfect for beginners’ or ‘advanced lifters only’ wondering where you fit in?
Perhaps wondering whether it even matters?
Well, turns it does matter.
It matters enough that knowing which stage you are at, will influence the type of workout you do, lifts you use and recovery you need.
In this article, we’ll go over what it means to be a beginner, intermediate or advanced lifter and how to figure out which one you are.
We’ll also look at how you can determine when you need to transition from beginner to intermediate and intermediate to advanced.
If you’re wondering why lifting level matters, then let me tell you.
Depending on your training experience and lifting ability you will want to adjust your workouts to match your level. This is because lifters at different stages of their journey need different things to make the most progress possible.
For example, there is no point giving a beginner a more technically demanding and complicated lift like the front squat if they’ve not yet mastered the bodyweight or goblet squat.
Additionally, there is little use in getting an intermediate lifter to try and rapidly gain weight as they’ll be way past the ‘newbie gain’ stage and will instead gain a lot of unnecessary fat.
In short, knowing your lifting level allows you to do 3 things:
However, the main issue most people face is that the typical methods for determining your lifting level leave a lot to be desired.
When it comes to figuring out where you fall in the beginner, intermediate, advanced bracket you’ll find there are 3 commonly used methods:
These methods are often less than ideal, and not very accurate when it comes to figuring things out. Let’s look at each in turn.
The first method looks at your total training experience i.e. how long you’ve been lifting for and puts you into a category based on this:
Now this isn’t exact, and the brackets can shift depending on where you look, but you get the idea. Anyone with less than a year is a beginner, one to two years is intermediate and anything beyond that is advanced.
Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as tallying up your gym time and see which bracket you fall into. Let me show you what I mean:
The next method of determining your lifting level is to look at how strong you are. This often includes people throwing about arbitrary strength standards you must meet to move for beginner to intermediate and beyond:
This method is also often expressed as strength standards based on your weight, which breaks down your progress into different weight classes and whilst knowing how strong you are is useful to gauge your progress over time, it also has issues.
This method doesn’t take into account:
The last method commonly used to determine your lifting level is the amount of muscle you have. With the idea being that the more you have the longer you must have been lifting for and therefore the more experience you must have.
It usually looks something like this:
However, these numbers are just a rough benchmark and in my opinion, this method is the least accurate of the 3 as everyone has their ideas of what constitutes a muscular body. It also fails to consider:
Ok, so we saw earlier than knowing your lifting level allows you to know which lifts are appropriate for you, which approach is best suited to your situation and how quickly you should expect to see progress.
This is important because you’ll need to do different things in different lifting stages to get the best results. For example:
The trick is being able to accurately determine your lifting level in a way that accounts for all the factors we discussed earlier.
In my opinion, the best way to do this is to view your overall training experience and strength in the context of consistent and intelligent training.
In my book, you are a beginner lifter for your first 6 – 12 months of consistent and intelligent training as this gives you enough time to learn good technique and get familiar with weightlifting, maximise your newbie gains and start seeing results.
After this point, you become an intermediate lifter which is further characterised by having a good level of strength and muscular development as well as be familiar with and proficient in all common exercises (deadlift, bench press, shoulder press, chin-ups, rows, squats, etc).
As for an advanced lifter, this is someone who has been training intelligently and consistently for a long time (5+ years) and has already got most of their results i.e. near their genetic potential.
A lot of people like to think they’re advanced, not many are. Truth be told this is not something you’ll need to worry about now and becoming a truly advanced lifter is a stage most people do not reach.
Ok so now you should have a pretty clear idea of whether you’re a beginner or intermediate lifter. Now, we need to look at how this influences your training frequency, exercise selection and overall progression.
Beginners will benefit the most from compound exercises that are easy to learn and progress with. This means things like the flat bench press, barbell back squat, barbell rows and bicep curls. It could also mean using machines to do exercises like lat pulldowns, seated cable rows, the leg press or bodyweight exercises like the press up or squat.
What you choose will depend on your access to equipment, confidence in the gym and current level of strength. Whichever you choose the goal is to build strength and get comfortable doing these movements before progressing onto more difficult exercise or variations.
You will often find you start with just the unweight barbell as a beginner lifter and build up your strength from there. This is normal.
As for training plans, beginners will benefit most from a repetitive, moderate frequency plan like a 3-day full body split that has them doing a small selection of exercises 2 – 3 times a week. This is for 2 reasons; first, it allows them to build strength and get proficient quickly and secondly, beginners are primed for adaptation which means they can see more results with less training variety than intermediate or advanced lifters.
Finally, due to something called newbie gains, beginners will often benefit from the ability to build muscle and lose fat at the same time as their body adapts to regular weight training. This means beginners are in the perfect situation to pack on a lot of muscle in a relatively short period.
When you get to the intermediate stage you will begin to outgrow some of your beginner exercises and need to transition to the more complex compound movements like deadlifts, front squats, chin/pull-ups, shoulder or push presses, dips and bench press variations including the incline bench press.
This isn’t to say you won’t do any exercises you did as a beginner; it just means you can look at introducing more complicated movements to compliment and advanced your beginner routine. Again, what you choose will be dictated somewhat by access to equipment, but most gyms should have what you need to do these exercises and more.
Intermediate lifters benefit much more from exercise variety which means you’ll want to experiment with what works for you and try adding in some additional accessory exercises to help round out your physique.
You’ll also want to consider moving from a full-body split to something like the upper/lower or push, pull, legs split which allows greater training variety and adjustable weekly frequency to better suit your goals i.e. less training when losing fat and more training when building muscle.
You should still be regularly building strength as an intermediate however the gains will not come as quickly or as easily as when you were a beginner. This phase will be the longest and where most people spend their lifting careers.
If or when you reach this stage, you should have a very clear idea of what does and doesn’t work for you and your body. At this point you will be close to your genetic potential and your progress will become much slower and more incremental.
At this point, this is no best training program, but you will still want to prioritise compound movements whilst also using isolation exercises to help with any lagging areas or sticking points in your physique.
You’ll also want to look into program periodisation to ensure you’re still making progress over time. It’s generally accepted that as this stage progress will be very slow and instead of progressing your lifts weekly, you’ll be looking at adding weight to the bar monthly instead.
Not many of us casual lifters will ever reach this stage.
Let me kick this off by saying that there is nothing wrong with being a beginner, in fact, there are some advantages:
People who have been lifting for years often pick up bad habits, either avoiding training certain body parts (never skip leg day people) or not learning the correct form.
Being a beginner you’re a clean slate.
This is perfect and means you can really get your technique down when you start, which will serve you well for the entirety of your lifting career and give you better results in the long run.
Then there are newbie gains. Newbie gains are the term given to the ability for beginner lifters, those who have never lifted weights properly before, to make rapid gains in both strength and muscle even when in a calorie deficit.
How long this effect lasts depends on your age, genetics and starting weight, but common estimates put it at about 6 months. So next time you go wishing you were an intermediate already give this a second thought.
Ok, so we already know that the general transition from beginner to intermediate lifter is around the 12-month mark provided you’ve been training consistently and intelligently during that period.
However, this still leaves the question of how soon after this point should you ditch your beginner workout and move to an intermediate one?
You might be tempted to think you should do this right away, but that would be wrong.
Instead, what you want to do is only change your workout when you see a significant and continued drop in progress from your beginner routine. If you’re still making progress there’s no need to change, it doesn’t matter if it’s 6 weeks, 6 months or 6 years.
If you’re still gaining strength and muscle then there is no need to mess with things. The only thing I would recommend doing is adding a few isolation exercises for the biceps, triceps and side and rear heads of the shoulder to round out your routine.
Other than that, just keep going and let you rate of progress determine when to change the workout.