During my Personal Training course in 2008, I learned two main lessons:
1) What a plank is
2) Spinal positioning is a thing
I'm not sure what I did with my back positioning at the time but the process led me from beginner lifter to intermediate lifter.
For the lifter, this article may help you gauge whether you are out of the beginner stage yet.
For a coach, the following article may help you form a road map for guiding your clients out of the beginner stage towards autonomy, and confidence while training alone.
Before we begin, I need to explain what the explore vs exploit trade-off is.
Conceptually.org defines it in the following terms:
The exploration, exploitation trade-off is a dilemma we frequently face in choosing between options. Should you choose what you know and get something close to what you expect (‘exploit’) or choose something you aren’t sure about and possibly learn more (‘explore’)? This happens all the time in everyday life — favourite restaurant, or the new one?; current job, or hunt around?; normal route home, or try another?; and many more. You sacrifice one to have the other — it’s a trade-off.
One of the main differences between beginner and intermediate lifters is the amount of exploration someone engages in.
Beginners are pure explorers while intermediates hold the ground between spending a lot of time exploring, learning, and trying new things and exploitation, which is practicing things already learned.
Advanced or master lifters thrive on almost pure knowledge exploitation, they are specialists, who will try new things in training infrequently compared to beginner and intermediate lifters. Paradoxically, if they do want to explore other ways of training, master lifters will be able to dabble in other areas while keeping a small amount of their "main" lifts or activity with very little issue unless the new activity injures them or something. This is mainly due to the amount of time they've spent doing a given discipline.
Beginners spend most of their time exploring. It's impossible not to, as everything is new.
For example, someone's first gym session is almost 100% exploration. For the beginner, it can be an exciting journey of discovery if they experience the right circumstances.
Beginners exploration may include:
Lots of movement variation- every workout may include something new
Other beginners may have very little variation as there is already so much exploration at this stage and new things will be learned during each repetition of a workout
Learning gym etiquette
Learning how to operate pieces of equipment
Trying various training styles
Trying lots of new exercises and making many technical errors
Using different tempos
Experimenting with different training frequencies
Interception (your ability to interpret what your body is feeling)*
*exercise creates a lot of raw data for your body to interpret. It's like learning a new language, but a language that has to be interpreted by your senses in an environment where everything is new. I think this is one of the many reasons why beginners struggle to pace themselves. So much data is coming into the system that they only realise they've gone too hard, too fast when it's already too late.
Changes From Beginner To Intermediate
Movement variation decreases as a lifter develops exercise preferences, identifies problematic movements and strengths are identified which can be attacked and exploited
Gym etiquette is mostly subconscious (I hope)
Commonly used equipment will be used more competently by intermediate lifters
Intermediate lifters have usually settled into a routine incorporating ways of training they are familiar with. They are no longer searching for new ways to train in the way a beginner might
An intermediate lifter has fewer exercises to explore than a beginner and knows at least some of the exercises which work for them, don't hurt them, and they enjoy. There are still hundreds of variations to try, but the core movements are usually locked in place
Intermediate lifters have plenty of training experience to draw on to make better training decisions than beginners
Beginners move strangely. Sometimes they will move far too fast, sometimes too slow. One of the most fun variables to look out for is lifting tempo. A beginner lifter will tend towards less control of a movement. An intermediate lifter tends to be better at judging how they should move during most exercises they are vaguely familiar with
Most intermediate gym goers will train between 3 and 5 times a week. Maybe more if you factor in conditioning and mobility work. Most of those who arrive at that decision by assessing their life, their recovery, and their goals (exploiting the data) are intermediate lifters who have a decent understanding of what is required to either make or maintain progress
Intermediate lifters tend to understand and be able able to navigate dips in motivation better than the beginner. This makes sense as if someone can't navigate the peaks and troughs, they can't build the experience to reach intermediate status and gaze down from on high, with a sense of superiority
A beginner will not know how to process lots of the sensory data their senses are picking up during training. While intermediate lifters don't possess clairvoyance, they have a better idea of what their body is telling them. They'll have a clearer idea of when to finish a set a rep early, or when not to push through a particular pain. This is probably because they've been injured in the past and recognize the warning signs or know when not to utterly tank their recovery by going harder than necessary. Or an intermediate lifter has gathered that they are terrible at assessing the above and hire a coach to make the calls for them
An intermediate lifter will be able to tell if they need a slightly longer warm-up today, or if they should skip a couple of warm-up sets because the body is feeling good and moving well
The above are all examples of the explore vs exploit problem we discussed above. The intermediate lifter can use or exploit the raw date far more effectively than the beginner.
Some things not required to go from beginner to intermediate lifter:
Visible abs- plenty of master lifters have never seen their abs, equally, loads of terrible lifters are in great shape. Being in great shape might indicate being an intermediate bodybuilder, which is a very different discussion
More weight on the bar- some people are freaks. I've seen natural talent move HUGE numbers. They are still beginners, albeit incredibly strong beginners
Low bar squats- sorry Starting Strength
Barbell bench press- sorry Starting Strength. Required to be an intermediate powerlifter though.
Deadlifts- sorry Starting Strength. Required to be an intermediate powerlifter, but a recreational lifter who has put the time in and knows deadlifts don't work for them and has viable alternatives for training the hip hinge? This sounds like someone who has gathered their data and reacted appropriately
Muscle growth- someone with a condition resulting in no muscle growth could be an intermediate lifter
Training with a coach- Like a self-taught guitar virtuoso, someone can teach themselves how to be a lifter of any level. A good coach helps someone ascend the levels quicker, but the destination remains the same
Competition- plenty of amazing lifters have no interest in competing
Training for 3-5 hours at a time- the most advanced lifters know varying session lengths are required to train around the demands of life
Being neurotypical- Many of the best lifters in the world are on the autistic spectrum, are neurospicy in some way or don't fit within the category of neurotypical
Constant progress- you are allowed to struggle sometimes! Equally, we all decline. Constant progress is a myth
Steroids- steroids build muscle, not competence
Injuries** Some of the best athletes and strength coaches in the world didn't get injured until decades into their career. Some master lifters have never been injured
How do you know when you're an intermediate lifter?
You make better decisions in the gym compared to beginners
You back-off when needed. Or just stop lifting and give up because you've completed it (lol)
You can adapt to training if you get injured (unless you are hit with the huge depression that can accompany injury)
You miss fewer reps than beginners. Failed reps are mostly shite for progress. A few people can take them in their stride and see them as a win, but it's rare I find
You pace themselves better than beginners
You may move better than beginners.
You have a better idea of what works for you compared to beginners.
I think the best way to reach the intermediate stage is to consistently hit the gym, to adopt a growth mindset, and to hire a coach. By doing those 3 things, you are almost guaranteed to see those subtle changes adding up towards being an intermediate lifter.
You'll have a realization you've hit the intermediate stage when you look back and see how far you've come and the improvements you've made. A coach will realize their client has reached the intermediate stage when good decisions are being made in solo training, feedback is relatively accurate and training has been a consistent part or their life for months or years.
By Chris Kershaw
The Heavy Metal Strength Coach