When lifters move past the beginner stage the truth begins to hurt. Progress slows and becomes complicated. The troika of lifting, eating, and sleeping “big” — once an automatic recipe for success — is no longer a guarantee. Progress ebbs, flows, and hits dead ends. Setbacks, injuries, and distractions mount.

It’s also more fun. With a modicum of strength established, and form drilled down, initial milestones get passed, and lifters, no longer beginners, have a solid foundation to progress or diversify. Problems need to be solved, sure. But there’s also more glory.

It’s unclear exactly what the stage after beginner entails. We know that beginner lifters’ so-called lack of adaptation allows strength to develop quickly because of neural changes between muscles and the brain.

As lifters lift, motor patterns become set and lifters adapt. Their movements become more synchronized, they recruit more motor units, get stronger fairly quickly (assuming good health). Reaching a respectable strength milestone, like squatting 1.2 times your body weight, can signal adaptation. With progress no longer automatic and inevitable, the choices lifters make determine how far they will go.

There are two ways to get to the next level. Along with the right way, there are shortcuts. For many gym-goers, a 1.2 bodyweight squat is a top-level goal. Most people can’t do that. Many can get there if they speed to the finish line. A gym-goer can dispense with calorie restrictions and pack on weight to move more weight. They can lean on equipment, like a weight belt, and avoid bracing their core; they can shorten their range of movement, and squat short and reach the 1.2 milestone.

These approaches work up to a point — a gym-goer will move weight in a lift if they focus on just that lift; they’ll get to a round number more quickly than a judicious beginner whose attention is spread between a program full of different exercises. But while it’s good to be lazy on most hard jobs, single-minded shortcuts, in the long run, hurt lifters. The methods that eke out a few kilos in the short term don’t build up strength long. Once real weight gets on the bar, progress stops becoming inevitable, and becomes tied to hard work, and goals. Doing the right things, and avoiding the wrong ones, isn’t enough to succeed. Lifters need to plan to transcend where they’re at.

How to level up in weight lifting the right way

Once lifters have graduated from beginner, they should assess themselves. What do they want? Here there are no wrong answers. If their goal is to lift even more, then that’s simple, and there are programs for that. Programs are programs, and ones that work for beginners, like 5-3-1, can help more advanced lifters succeed too. Once lifters have some strength capacity these programs become more involved. Volume and intensity go up, conditioning work gets added, rest times get reduced, assistance exercises become necessary. This dials in programs so lifters can get stronger, better conditioned, and able to lift more, more often.

While most programs that build up functional strength are powerlifting based — the big barbell lifts, a great way to get strong — they’re not a permanent path. Lifters can change course if they want. Having built a respectable foundation of strength a post-novice lifter can more easily carry their strength over to another discipline.

Transitioning to a type of strength training known as Olympic weightlifting, at once a similar and completely different protocol, is one option. While lifters with super big squats can’t snatch very well right away, bringing some strength to the platform means they can spend more time on the skill. To be sure, serious Olympic lifters require squats in much higher ranges than the beginner numbers on that chart, and a healthy squat number to start with those exercises is around the double bodyweight range. But a lifter who wants to vary their training, to that strata, or even to triathlon or marathon work, should be encouraged. The strength they picked up will return if they want to come back.

It’s time to assess your goals and your mindset

For lifters continuing their journey, there are facts to keep in mind. Beginners, who succeed on most programs, do so since their goals are built into their position. They want to get big and strong — and can. But intermediate lifters need more crystallized wants, as progress is slower. They can set size before strength, or out physique first. Defining a goal helps lifters set effort and direction, and achieve more specific results.

In this case, it’s good to swing for the fences and aim for big things. Want a double-bodyweight squat? You can do that if you train hard and with discipline. What about triple-bodyweight? Sure, but it’s a lifetime of work. Want to win in a meet? That’s possible too. Somewhat strong lifters, now off their training wheels, should not limit themselves with small goals, even though — or especially since — they’ll reach them through small steps.

Competition might be the best way. Whether it’s powerlifting, bodybuilding, Strongman, or Olympic, setting a date for a max lift attempt in front of people and judges will dial in a lifter’s effort and discipline. The looming date gives workouts more purpose: effort is the difference between glory and embarrassment.

Because competitions are broken down by weight class, lifters need to watch theirs, and either cut or bulk to switch to a new class, or maintain what they have to the gram. This dials in diets for months on end. Extras, like coaching and rehab, become necessary, and lifters, by visualizing their max lifts, can feel their program. Not everyone needs to compete, but everyone should, once. Private, self-directed goals are also helpful. A lifter with goals who puts on their blinders will put in the work to get a 500 lb. squat. In both cases, training gets streamlined and plateaus get smashed.

What injuries can you get from lifting weights?

All lifters will get injured and should expect it. At a certain point strength training becomes less a path to health than one to strength and size. And while folks pushing 400-lb. squats are not exactly Olympians — they’re not self-selected, they have day jobs and lives — they’ll still rack up injuries and face setbacks, regardless of how dialed in their form, caution, or training volume can be.

At the intermediate level, injuries are inevitable but don’t have to be the end.

To be sure, there’s no room for cowboy shit. Dialing in form and being cautious is necessary, especially on early go-rounds. Lifters should be smart. No one should lift heavy with a weak core, or their form is a mess; people shouldn’t jump weight just because they feel like it. But the relationship between injuries and lifting, much-maligned, is worth rethinking — even if you’d still rather be conservative. When weights are involved, injuries will happen, just as they do in tennis, running, or basketball. The key is knowing how to bounce back.

There are limitless ways for lifters to injure themselves, and due to this columnist’s lack of medical bonafides, I offer no specific, tangible, or even vague advice on how to avoid an injury or treat one. You’re on your own here. I can say that lifters, once hurt, can attack their injuries, and work as hard to get better as they do to get stronger. Once an injury is healed — once range of motion is restored — lifters can better decide if they want to continue lifting weights.

Injuries local to a body part can be worked around. Lifters can work out the non-injured parts of their bodies while taking it easy on the hot spot. This involves a step back from compound barbell movements and a sort of forced periodization. Jacked up your knee? Work the other one out on a machine, and do bodybuilding work on your upper body. Screwed up your shoulder? Get clearance from a doctor and do belt squats or good mornings; work out the other arm, and then your core. Injured body parts should be run by a physical therapist.

Progress can dovetail with strength. And lifting, after the beginner stage, should be distinguished from just working out to get healthy. People get healthy first, then strong. And if you don’t feel like getting strong, then you definitely don’t have to.

These are paths that cross, but it’s not the same road. After a while, lifters stay in the gym because they want to — because of their goals. There are advantages and disadvantages to this way of life. Injuries can happen and time can get sucked. But as the stakes get higher, so does the glory. Once the basics are learned, then the fun really begins. And it’s that beautiful pull that keeps so many people sticking around.

Leg Day Observer is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are meant to be taken as introductory prompts for further research and not as directives. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.

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