Illustration of a beginner, intermediate, and advanced bodybuilder lifter

Are You a Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced Lifter?

How can you tell whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced lifter? That’s a good question. The answer can change which bulking lifts you build your routine around, which workout program you pick, how quickly you should gain weight while bulking, and how quickly you can add weight to the bar.

So in this article, we’ll go over the common ways of determining your lifting level. Then we’ll demonstrate why some of those methods are flawed. And then we’ll cover a more useful way of doing it.

The Standard Ways of Determining Lifting Level

There are a few conventional ways of determining someone’s lifting level. Unfortunately, most of them are flawed. There’s a certain logic to them, but they fall apart as soon as we start poking holes in them. Let’s go over their pros and cons.

How Long Have You Been lifting?

The first lousy method relies on how long you’ve been lifting weights. The classification goes something like this:

  • Beginner lifter: someone who’s been lifting for less than six months.
  • Intermediate lifter: someone who’s been lifting for six months up to around two years.
  • Advanced lifter: someone who’s been lifting for more than two years.

Now, these numbers can change. Sometimes the advanced label is reserved for guys who have been lifting for over a decade. That’s okay. No matter what the numbers are, this remains an ineffective way to classify someone’s lifting level.

Let’s consider a few examples.

  • Someone’s been lifting weights poorly for ten years. They still can’t squat or deadlift with admirable technique. Are they an advanced lifter?
  • Someone’s been bodybuilding for two years without gaining muscle. Because they haven’t been eating enough to gain weight, they haven’t gained a noticeable amount of muscle yet. Are they an intermediate bodybuilder?
  • Someone who’s been strength training for five years without gaining much strength. Imagine someone who’s been trying to gain strength for several years without any success. Does failing for longer make you more advanced?

How Strong Are You?

Illustration of a man doing a barbell overhead press

You’ll often hear is that you’re a beginner until you can overhead press 135, bench 225 pounds, squat 315, and deadlift 405. The strength standards vary, but the classification system might look something like this:

  • Beginner lifter: someone who can’t lift much weight yet.
  • Intermediate lifter: someone who can barbell curl 100 pounds, overhead press 135, bench press 225, squat 315, and deadlift 405. 
  • Advanced lifter: someone who can barbell curl 135 pounds, overhead press 185, bench press 315, squat 405, and deadlift 495.

This method has some problems, but it’s also rather fun, and I enjoy it quite a lot. After all, it’s a blast to have strength benchmarks to aim for. It makes lifting more like a video game, where every level is clearly defined, and progressing simply means achieving a list of arbitrary requirements. I dig that.

It isn’t actually all that useful at determining someone’s lifting level, though, no matter how much we may (or may not) enjoy it. Consider a few examples:

  • You’re trying to build muscle, not become a powerlifter. Unless you’re a powerlifter, you don’t need to centre your training around improving your low-bar barbell back squat, your wide-grip bench press, and your deadlift. Strength training isn’t ideal for building muscle, so why would you base your experience level on it?
  • You’re naturally weak or strong. Genetics and lifestyle play an enormous role in determining someone’s strength when they first begin lifting. Some guys start off benching 315 pounds; other guys, such as myself, start off benching the barbell. Does that mean that some guys start as advanced lifters, whereas others will be beginners for years? 
  • Weight classes confound things further. These strength standards are typically organized into weight classes. However, as you gain muscle, you’ll advance through the weight classes. That means that your experience level will fall backwards whenever you gain enough muscle to move into the next weight class.
  • Overweight people have much stronger lower bodies. The more overweight you are, the more weight you’ll need to carry around, so the more muscle you’ll build in the muscles that have to do that carrying. This means that overweight people can often squat quite a bit more weight than skinny guys.
  • Genetics influence strength on several levels. Our anthropometrics can influence how much we can lift (and which lifts we should be doing). Someone with a barrel-shaped ribcage will be able to bench press more weight than someone with a shallow ribcage. Someone with naturally longer arms will be able to deadlift more weight than someone who looks like a tyrannosaurus. But that tyrannosaurus will probably have a killer squat. This gets even more nuanced when we take into account muscle insertions, which influence leverage, and muscle fibre ratios, which influence force production.
  • You have different goals. Let’s imagine that you want big biceps. The bench press, squat, and deadlift won’t help with that. So perhaps you choose chin-ups instead. Does that mean that you should add in chin-up or barbell curl strength standards? Perhaps. I would. Actually, yeah, let’s do it. I’ve added the curl. You won’t even realize that it wasn’t always there.

How Muscular Are You?

Illustration of a bodybuilder flexing

We’re a bulking site for skinny guys, so this one hits closest to home. It’s common for people to judge someone’s experience level by how big and muscular they are.

The system might look something like this: 

  • Beginner bodybuilder: someone who’s still reasonably small. Maybe they’ve got 12-inch biceps.
  • Intermediate bodybuilder: someone who looks like they lift. Maybe they’ve got 14-inch biceps.
  • Advanced bodybuilder: someone who looks like a bodybuilder. Maybe they’ve got 16-inch biceps.

Now, it’s rarely this clearly defined. This system usually involves just taking a gander at someone to gauge their muscularity. If someone is small, maybe they don’t even lift, and so they must be a beginner. If they’re jacked, they must be an advanced bodybuilder.

Judging experience level based on muscularity fails to take into account a whole slew of important factors:

  • How muscular you are naturally.
  • Your genetic muscular potential.
  • How good you are at lifting weights.
  • What kind of workout program you’re most likely to benefit from.

A variation on this is judging a bodybuilder based on how much muscle they’ve built:

  • Beginner bodybuilder: someone who’s gained 20 pounds of muscle or less.
  • Intermediate bodybuilder: someone who’s gained 20–30 pounds of muscle.
  • Advanced bodybuilder: someone who’s gained more than 30 pounds of muscle.

The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t tell you which lifts you should be doing, it doesn’t tell you what kind of workout program you’ll benefit from, it doesn’t tell you how quickly you should be bulking, and it doesn’t tell you how fast you should expect to gain strength.

Why Your Lifting Level Matters

The first thing we need to do is figure out why we even care about a lifter’s experience level in the first place. As far as I can figure it, we care about our lifting level for three reasons:

  1. We’re trying to figure out which lifts are appropriate for us. Should we be doing simpler lifts that are easy to learn, or should we be doing more technical lifts that allow for heavier loading?
  2. We’re trying to figure out how quickly we should be gaining weight while bulking. Should we be capitalizing on newbie gains and gaining weight quickly, or will we benefit from a slower bulk because we’re nearing our muscular genetic potential?
  3. We’re trying to figure out how quickly we should be adding weight to the bar. Should we be doing a program that has us doing the same lift several times per week in an attempt to rapidly increase our strength? Or should we be attempting to gain strength less often than that?

If we can answer these questions, then we can find the level of workout program that suits us best. Let’s go through them one by one.

How Good at the Lifts are You?

Our goal here is to figure out which lifts you’ll get the most benefit from. That means that we don’t just care about how strong at the lifts you are; We also care about how skilled you are at doing the lifts with proper technique.

When it comes to building muscle, we could define a beginner as someone who will most benefit from the beginner variations of the main bulking lifts. A beginner, then, is someone who: 

  • Can’t do 20 push-ups with a full range of motion.
  • Can’t do a few chin-ups in a row.
  • Can’t get into position to do a front squat.

With this classification system, it’s more about technical skill and baseline strength than how far away you are from your muscular potential. 

The Bench Press Versus the Push-Up

Let’s go over a couple of different examples, starting with the reasons why push-ups tend to be better than the bench press for beginners.

Illustration of a man doing a push-up

There are a few good reasons why beginners should be doing push-ups:

  • Push-ups are much easier to learn.
  • Push-ups can be made easier or harder based on your experience level and strength. If you can’t do a classic push-up, you can do them from your knees or with your hands raised on a bench.
  • Push-ups work our shoulder joints through a larger range of motion, stimulating a greater number of overall muscle fibres.
  • Push-ups are easier on our shoulder joints, especially for skinny guys, and especially for beginners who aren’t lifting with stellar technique yet.
  • The bench press is excellent for bulking up our chests, shoulders, and triceps. The push-ups are just as good at that, but they also bulk up our abs and serratus muscles. 

Until we do at least 20 push-ups with great technique, there’s little benefit to benching. Not only are push-ups simpler, easier, and safer than the bench press, but they’re also better for building muscle—if you’re a beginner.

Once you can do 20 push-ups, you’re going to start running into problems. If you keep increasing the repetitions, you’ll soon begin to challenge your cardiovascular fitness and pain tolerance more than you challenge your muscle strength. At that point, it’s time to approach the bench.

Illustration of the barbell bench press

The bench press is a fantastic lift for intermediate lifters. Being able to add weight to the bar steadily means that you can stick to the rep range that’s best for building muscle (often 6–12 reps for the bench press).

Caveats: there are other ways to progress to the bench press. You don’t have to begin with push-ups. Another approach that we use is starting with the dumbbell bench press, which works especially well for guys with stubborn chests.

The Front Squat Versus the Goblet Squat

The front squat is another good example. The front squat is the best squat variation for building overall muscle mass, but it’s also a hard lift to learn. In fact, it’s often borderline impossible for a beginner to learn. You need decent posture, solid upper back strength, and flexible wrists and ankles.

Illustration of a man doing a barbell front squat

There’s a simple solution to this problem, though. If you can’t do a front squat, start with goblet squats instead. Just like a front squat, goblet squats have all the same benefits as front squats: 

  • Front-loaded squats allow us to keep our torsos more upright, allowing us to squat deeper. That broader range of motion makes them better for bulking up our lower bodies.
  • Holding the weight in front of our bodies challenges our upper back and core muscles, making them superior for gaining overall muscle size.
  • They challenge the postural muscles all along our posterior chain, helping to improve our posture.

Front squats and goblet squats are similar in the most critical ways. The goblet squat is better for beginners, though, because it doesn’t require much skill or flexibility. It’s a brute strength lift. You pick up the weight in your hands, and you squat it. Beginners can skip the learning curve and build muscle from day one.

However, once you’re strong enough to do ten goblet squats with the heaviest dumbbells you have, you’ll start running into problems. That’s where the front squat comes in. It has the very same advantage as the bench press: it allows you to progressively add more weight to the barbell. That way you can keeping lifting within the narrow rep range that’s best for helping you build muscle (usually something like 4–7 reps for front squats).

Progressing to Your First Chin-Up

Chin-ups are another great lift that’s hard for beginners. Yes, chin-ups (with an underhand grip) are by far the best lift for building a big upper back and killer biceps. However, until you can do 5–10 chin-ups, you can’t reap those rewards.

Illustration of a guy doing a chin-up

Furthermore, chin-ups are best when they’re done with a massive range of motion, starting from a dead hang and then bringing your chest up to the bar. That’s no easy feat!

What we want to do with beginners is set them on the proper path to badass chin-up strength, but it might take a few months of hard bulking before they’re able to do a proper set of chin-ups. 

That means that a beginner is often best served by doing lowered chin-ups, curls, and rows until they’ve developed the strength to do classic chin-ups.

Now, when it comes to the difference between an intermediate and an advanced lifter, we’re talking about someone who’s having trouble making progress on these big compound lifts. If someone is having difficulty gaining strength on the bench press, front squat, chin-up, deadlift, and overhead press, then we might need to bring in some even more advanced variations.

Progressing the Deadlift

We skipped over the deadlift before, so let’s talk about it here. At an intermediate level, you’ll probably make progress by merely grinding away at your deadlifts. Maybe you add in some stock assistance lifts, such as Romanian deadlifts, and some stock accessory lifts, such as rows. That’s going to help you bulk up all of the relevant muscles, so as long as you’re eating a proper bulking diet and pushing yourself in the gym, your deadlift should progress reasonably smoothly.

Illustration of sumo barbell deadlift

However, at a certain point, you might notice that some muscles are holding you back. Some aspects of your technique are crumbling. Perhaps you see that your back is rounding when you try to lift heavier. That might be a hint that your back is tired because you’re overworking it. Or, more likely, you haven’t been working it enough. 

These are the kinds of nuanced decisions that advanced lifters need to deal with. In this case, maybe you decide to switch to doing snatch-grip deadlifts, which require more hip mobility but do a better job of developing your upper back. Then, as an accessory lift, perhaps you add in some bent-over barbell rows to help bulk up your spinal erectors and lats.

Do the Lifts That Suit You Best

The purpose of this classification system is that it helps lifters figure out which workout program they should be doing:

  • Beginner: If someone is brand new to lifting weights, they should be doing a bulking program that uses beginner variations. 
  • Intermediate: if they’re already too strong for beginner variations, they should choose a program that features heavier variations.
  • Advanced: if someone is having trouble making progress on those heavier variations, they should choose a more advanced program that takes a more customized approach to assistance and accessory lifts.

What we do in our Bony to Beastly Bulking Program is start beginners off with a Phase Zero, where we teach them the ropes. This phase is all about mastering push-ups, goblet squats, Romanian deadlifts, and building some basic upper-back and biceps strength to prepare for chin-ups. (We also start getting people’s shoulders ready for pressing overhead, broadening their shoulders with lateral raises.) 

If someone has more lifting experience, we have them start right into Phase One. Here, we begin to get into the bigger bulking lifts, focusing more on progressive overload.

When people run into problems progressing their lifts, we help them in the coaching community. That’s where our expertise can help guys figure out how to keep improving at a more advanced level.

How Quickly Can You Gain Muscle?

The further you are from your muscular genetic potential, the more quickly you’ll be able to gain muscle. That means that you may benefit from bulking more aggressively, eating more calories, gaining more weight each week.

However, the rate that you can gain muscle has less to do with how long someone has been lifting, more to do with how muscular someone is. For example, if a skinny guy has been lifting for ten years, the fact that he’s still skinny is what matters. His frame still has a ton of room for growth, so he can probably handle a pretty aggressive bulking diet. In fact, failing to eat an aggressive bulking diet is likely why he’s still skinny after all these years of lifting.

For another example, if someone is skinny-fat, then being far away from their muscular genetic potential means that they stand a good chance of gaining muscle while losing fat. It’s easier to do that while losing weight—while in a calorie deficit—so this might indicate that they should begin with a cutting phase. Or maybe not. But at least it’s giving us useful information.

Again, this classification isn’t just arbitrarily dividing people up into different levels; it has a definite purpose:

  • Beginner bulker: someone who can still take advantage of their newbie gains by eating an aggressive bulking diet.
  • Intermediate bulker: someone who will benefit from a slower and steadier approach to bulking.
  • Advanced bulker: someone who may need to pick between gaining an even mix of fat and muscle while bulking, or gaining muscle at a languid pace with a so-called “lean bulk.”

To be clear, how quickly you can gain muscle isn’t tied to how long you’ve been lifting or even how much muscle you’ve already built. I bulked up aggressively for two years, gaining 55 pounds. During that time, I never ran into the wall that intermediate lifters hit, let alone needing to worry about lean bulking.

It’s only now that my body is already fairly saturated with muscle that continuing to bulk up is getting tricky.

We’ve got a couple of articles that might help you:

How Quickly Can You Gain Strength?

Gaining strength and gaining muscle are similar. The more muscle we have on our frames, the higher our strength potential is.

For example, if we look at bench press research, we see that how much someone can bench press is directly correlated with how big their chests, shoulders, and triceps are. Muscle size and muscle strength are intimately linked together.

Illustration of a skinny guy bulking up and becoming muscular

However, just because someone is bigger doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll be stronger at the big compound lifts. For example, if someone bulks up their legs with the leg press, they may never develop the back strength that they need for heavy front squatting. This adds some distinction between the size and strength sections.

Anyway, when it comes to strength gain, we want to make sure that we’re choosing a program that’s going to allow us to progress as quickly as possible.

Beginners Can Gain Scary Amounts of Strength

If you’re newer to lifting weights, you’ll be improving your coordination, gaining muscle size, and learning how to contract your muscles more forcefully. This is going to allow you to gain strength at breakneck speed. During this period, it can help to do each lift multiple times per week, allowing you to add small amounts of weight to the barbell more often.

For example, let’s say that you do goblet squats once per week, aiming for eight repetitions each time. Let’s say that if you succeed in getting those eight reps one workout, you add five pounds to the lift in your next workout. With this progression system, your workout program allows you to add up to five pounds to your squat every week.

Now, that’s pretty substantial progress. I mean, theoretically, that would add 275 pounds to your squat in a single year. That’s silly, I know. People don’t gain strength linearly. But you’ll hear people say that kind of thing.

However, many beginners can gain strength much faster than that. A beginner might be able to add five pounds on Monday, another five pounds on Wednesday, and then another five on Friday. That allows you to pile fifteen pounds on your squat every week.

Theoretically, that would add a whopping 825 pounds to your squat in a single year. Now, of course, that doesn’t happen. As you blast through your newbie gains, your progress will slow. You’ll start gaining strength at a mere human rate.

However, during your early weeks of lifting, it pays to progress as quickly as possible. That’s going to have you gliding into the intermediate phase with a ton of strength under (and over) your lifting belt.

A beginner’s ability to rapidly gain strength is one reason why beginner programs often program the same lift several times per week. (Another reason is that it allows beginners to get more practice with the lift, helping them improve their lifting technique more quickly.)

So a beginner’s lower-body lifts might look something like this:

  • Monday: Goblet squats and Romanian deadlifts
  • Wednesday: Goblet squats and Romanian deadlifts
  • Friday: Goblet squats and Romanian deadlifts

Now, of course, after a couple of months of this, your progress will start to slow. You’ll spend a few workouts in a row struggling to lift the same weight. There are a couple of reasons for this:

  • Your muscle growth is slowing. You’ve exhausted your newbie gains.
  • You’ve become proficient at doing the lifts.

Your slowing strength gains marks the next stage of your progression.

Intermediates Benefit From More Variety

At an intermediate level, smaller compound and isolation lifts are often introduced, and some people find that they aren’t able to train as hard as often. Once your strength starts to plateau with a beginner program, it often makes sense to switch to a plan with a greater variety of exercises, but to train those lifts with a slightly lower training frequency: 1–2 times per week instead of 2–3 times per week.

  • Greater exercise variety means that you’ll stimulate a greater variety of muscle fibres, making them bigger and fuller (study). 
  • Different lifts have different strength curves and emphasize different muscle groups, yielding more balanced overall muscle growth.
  • Varying your lifts reduces your chances of developing overuse injuries, such as developing cranky shoulders from incessant bench pressing.

At an intermediate level, training a muscle twice per week seems to be just as effective as training it three times per week. As a result, you might choose to train each movement pattern less often. 

Your lower-body training might start to look more like this:

  • Monday: Deadlifts and goblet squats
  • Friday: Front squats and Romanian deadlifts

On Monday, you’re fighting to add five pounds to your deadlift, and you’re also doing some assistance work to improve your front squat. Then on Friday, you’re battling to add five pounds to your front squat, and you’re doing some assistance work to help with your deadlift.

There are many different ways to do this. Another popular approach is daily undulating periodization (DUP), which uses heavier and lighter days, like so:

  • Monday: Heavy deadlifts and front squats
  • Friday: Lighter Romanian deadlifts and goblet squats

The Law of Diminishing Returns

So if we classify someone’s lifting level according to their rate of strength progress, we get something along these lines:

  • Beginner lifter: someone who can add weight to the bar multiple times per week. For example, they add five pounds to their squat every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
  • Intermediate lifter: someone who can add weight to the bar every week. For example, they add five pounds to their squat every Monday.
  • Advanced lifter: someone who can only add weight to the bar every few weeks. At this level, training is typically organized into phases (or blocks). An advanced lifter would add weight to the bar at the end of every training phase.

This definition helps people know whether they can get away with more straightforward programming and quicker weight progressions. You’d milk the beginner phase for as long as you can, gaining strength with fearsome speed. Then when that stops working, you switch to intermediate workout programs, persisting with them for as long as you can manage. When that stops working, you gear into advanced programming and fight for any hint of progress.

The idea is to progress as quickly as you can, so it’s better to stay at a beginner level.

This way of classifying a lifter’s experience level isn’t arbitrary; it’s necessary. It takes the law of diminishing returns into account, helping people align their workout programming with their rate of progress.

Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced Bulkers

An illustration of a beginner lifter, an intermediate lifter, and an advanced lifter

Okay, so, let’s take a fresh look at these three physiques. The skinny guy on the left is probably a beginner, and the muscular guy on the right is likely a more advanced lifter, but it’s hard to say for sure.

The skinny guy might have excellent lifting technique and mobility, allowing him to do deep front squats with ease. The muscular guy might have bulked up his lower body with the leg press, never developing the back strength or the shoulder mobility that he needs to even get into the starting position for the front squat.

By that same token, the muscular guy clearly has a muscular chest, big shoulders, and burly triceps. There’s no doubt that he’s going to be able to bench press a good amount of weight. In fact, he may already be getting quite close to his muscular genetic potential on the bench press.

Furthermore, given the sheer amount of muscle mass in his shoulder girdle, his bench press is probably well over 300 pounds. That huge amount of weight that he’s pressing may warrant an intermediate program, using a greater variety of exercises in order to keep his shoulder joints healthy.

Anyway, the point is that someone’s lifting level doesn’t always correlate with how long they’ve been lifting, how muscular they are, or how strong they are. Furthermore, some guys are beginners in some ways, advanced in others. Still, we can make some good generalizations. Then, if you understand the underlying principles, you’ll be able to modify them accordingly.

Beginner Bulkers

Beginner Bulking Lifts

The best lifts for beginners are the brute strength exercises that are easy to learn. Think of lifts like push-ups, goblet squats, Romanian deadlifts, dumbbells rows, biceps curls, and lateral raises. These lifts are simple, which will help you bulk up in a hurry while improving your lifting technique and overall coordination.

You can stick with these lifts until they become hard to progress with. There’s only so heavy you can make a push-up or goblet squat. Or you could blast past these lifts quickly, progressing to heavier variations as soon as you feel ready for them.

Beginner Bulking Programs

The best workout programs for beginners tend to be somewhat repetitive. They probably involve doing the same lifts several times per week, often in the same repetition range. Since you’re learning new skills and developing new habits, though, this repetition is a good thing.

For example, you might be doing 8-rep goblet squats 2–3 times per week. That’s going to give you plenty of practice with the lift, and you’ll have a chance to outlift yourself a couple of times each week. That’s going to allow for incredibly quick progress.

How Quickly Should a Skinny Beginner Bulk?

Due to a phenomenon called newbie gains, beginners often benefit from pretty aggressive bulking. We often recommend that beginners eat a hearty bulking diet, with a calorie surplus of around 500 calories, aiming to around a pound per week.

This aspect of bulking is easier said than done. For us naturally skinny guys, eating enough calories to bulk up can be incredibly difficult. This is how ectomorphs often get stuck at a beginner level, sometimes for years. It’s how I got stuck, anyway.

The beginner phase is a flash of beauty. Enjoy it for as long as you possibly can. I gained forty pounds this way, but I was exceptionally skinny. You’ll probably gain less.

Intermediate Bulkers

Intermediate Bulking Lifts

This trick with bulking up as an intermediate lifter is to get stronger at the big compound lifts. This is where the Big 5 compound lifts come in:

But intermediate lifters also benefit from greater exercise variety, so feel free to include a good bunch of assistance and accessory lifts. That will help you build stronger, rounder, fuller, and more aesthetic muscles while keeping your joints healthy and strong.

Intermediate Bulking Programs

The intermediate phase is long, and you’ll be gaining more strength, skill, and knowledge as you progress. Experiment with a variety of different programming styles to see what you and your muscles prefer.

How Quickly Should an Intermediate Bulk?

Intermediates aren’t able to gain size and strength as quickly as beginners, so they’ll often benefit from a less aggressive bulking diet. Aiming to gain 0.25–0.75 pounds per week usually works well.

I gained a pound per week all through my intermediate phase, taking little breaks here and there to trim off any excess fat. There’s no right or wrong way to do it.

The intermediate phase is where you’ll live. You won’t be growing as quickly, no, but you’ll get to experience the joy of living in a fitter, stronger, healthier, and more attractive body. The progress will come slowly, but it will come.

I’ve gained another 25 pounds since leaving the beginner stage. I’m 65 pounds heavier than when I started. Progress is harder to come by, but to be honest, I don’t care. I just feel grateful to be in this body.

Advanced Bulkers

Advanced Bulking Lifts

Advanced lifters should still focus on the Big 5 bulking lifts, but they might spend months at a time training different variations or doing various programs. The lifts they choose will depend on their own specific strengths and weaknesses. They’ll know how to pick them.

Advanced Bulking Programs

Over the course of their long intermediate phase, an advanced lifter will likely have learned what style of programming their body responds best to. There’s no single best program or training approach for an advanced lifter.

How Quickly Should an Advanced Lifter Bulk?

How advanced we are can determine how quickly we should gain weight while bulking. Some experts, such as Eric Helms, PhD, recommend that advanced lifters gain a fraction of a pound every couple weeks. The idea is that progress is slow, so a slower rate of weight gain will lead to leaner muscle growth.

Other experts, such as Mike Israetel, PhD, recommend that advanced lifters start bulking more aggressively again, gaining up to a pound per week. The idea is that progress is hard, so a faster rate of weight gain will give an advanced lifter a better chance of gaining muscle size and strength.


There are many different ways to sort people into beginner, intermediate, and advanced lifters. The most popular way of sorting people is based on their general strength, such as how much they can squat, bench press, and deadlift. But it’s usually wiser to classify people based on their ability to properly perform the lifts, such as whether they can squat deeply with good technique, bench press to their chests without hurting their shoulders, and deadlift from the floor with a neutral spine. That way people pick the lifts and programs that best match their abilities. How strong someone is matters much less when it comes to lift selection.

Illustration of a skinny hardgainer building muscle and becoming muscular (before/after).

When it comes to whether someone is an beginner, intermediate, or advanced bulker or bodybuilder, we’re asking a totally different question. We’re not talking about how good at lifting someone is, we’re talking about how close to their genetic potential they are, and what they’ll need to do to inch closer to it. For example, someone who is still skinny can still make newbie gains, allowing them to bulk quite fast, whereas someone who is a more advanced lifter might struggle to gain just a few pounds of muscle per year. For another example, a beginner might be able to bulk at full speed with just 2–3 full-body workouts per week, whereas a more experienced lifter might need to train more often, do longer workouts, or go through phases of specializing on just a few muscle groups at a time.

Overall, the point is that the way we classify ourselves should actually help us adjust our training variables to allow us to make better progress. Judging someone based on their squat 1-rep max or the size of their biceps is a poor way of doing that. On the other hand, which lifts someone can perform, how fast they can build muscle, and how much volume they need is crucial for picking the right bulking program.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and has a degree in design from York University in Toronto, Canada. He's personally gained sixty pounds at 11% body fat and has nine years of experience helping over ten thousand skinny people bulk up.

Marco Walker-Ng is the co-founder and strength coach of Outlift, Bony to Beastly, and Bony to Bombshell, and is a certified trainer (PTS) with a Bachelor's degree in Health Sciences (BHSc) from the University of Ottawa. His specialty is helping people build muscle to improve their strength and general health, with clients including college, professional, and Olympic athletes.

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  1. Alex on September 24, 2019 at 4:35 pm

    HI! I was a roofer during highschool summers and my back got a decent workout during that time period. Due to physical labor I was around 145lbs at 6’0″.

    Years later (like a year and a half ago, I’m 37) I started regularly working out. My lats and other back muscles EXPLODED well beyond where I was when I was younger (nice!) but everything else is majorly lagging behind. Since I did gain muscle nicely in my back and very little elsewhere that makes me wonder about a few things. 1, is there any research that shows taking a long break and coming back to bulking causes that bulk to be MORE successfull than if there was no break? 2, since I did make gains somewhere I assume I was eating sufficient protein/calories. Why wouldn’t the other muscle groups grow even half as much as my back?

    • Shane Duquette on September 24, 2019 at 7:05 pm

      Hey Alex, that’s a really cool question.

      I think what happened is that you built muscle in your back as a roofer. When we build muscle, we pull more nuclei into those muscle fibres. Those nuclei stay there forever, so during those summers, you could say that you were permanently improving your muscle-building genetics in your back.

      When you start lifting weights, what happens is that the muscles in your back have all this growth potential because they have all of these extra nuclei. Your back explodes in size. Your other muscles don’t explode in size because you never pulled more nuclei into those muscle fibres.

      What’s going to happen as you continue bulking up is that you pull more nuclei into all of the other muscles that you succeed in growing. So over time, you’ll have that same improved muscularity in all of your muscle fibres.

  2. Doc G on September 30, 2019 at 5:41 pm

    Glad to know someone else started out benching the barbell! (And when I started, even THAT almost didn’t go up…)

    • Shane Duquette on October 4, 2019 at 4:19 pm

      Ahaha definitely!

      It seems like having long and lanky arms can make it hard to learn the bench press at first. It was brutal for me. Not just the heaviness, but also the overall awkwardness. What’s cool, though, is that the trend disappears in trained lifters, at which point muscle mass becomes a much stronger predictor of bench press performance. Lifters like Lamar Gant, who are known for having remarkably long arms, are able to bench with the best of them once they develop enough muscle mass 🙂

  3. EJ on October 1, 2019 at 4:06 am

    Great article, but I have a question I’ve been unable to resolve. The classification of beginner/intermediate/advanced lifter aligns with what I’ve seen in other research, so in theory, I SHOULD be considered an advanced lifted at this point. I have 6+ years of consistent training (along the B2B model, using big, compound lifts). During that time, I have worked hard on improving and perfecting my form on all of the major lifts (and minor, isolation work), so in that sense, I’d say I’m ‘advanced.
    However, if you look at the benchmarks to aim for (in the article), I’m still in many cases a beginner! I can only max 140kg (310lbs) x 5R on my deadlifts and about 80kg (175lbs) x 5R on a bench press. My squats are also terrible. What gives? Progress in upping the weight on the bar has been slow with lots of plateaus. I have had significant muscle growth since the beginning, but there’s no way I can hit those kind of benchmarks described in the article. Could it just be that I started off super ectomorphic – as in 196cm (6’5″), 77kg (170lbs) – with a super fast metabolism? I am now resting at about 94kg (207lbs) and about 13-15%BF (have just begun cutting). Would be interested to get your thoughts!

    • Shane Duquette on October 4, 2019 at 4:56 pm

      Heya EJ, thanks for posting this here. This is a question that we get a lot, and I think it’s an important one.

      So, first of all, strength being misaligned with experience level is common enough that I think it pokes a real hole in that method of classifying lifters. You’re going to have some people who are simply much stronger than others, regardless of how long they’ve been training or how muscular they are. Perhaps their bone structures give them better leverage, perhaps they have better tendon insertions, perhaps they have more fast-twitch muscle fibres. The strongest predictor of strength is overall muscle mass, but still, there are just so many confounding factors.

      That’s why I listed those strength benchmarks as a poor way of categorizing lifters.

      We do have an article about realistic strength standards for naturally skinny guys, though. In that article, I agree with your guess. Strength is very closely associated with muscle mass, so if we’re starting off with less muscle mass, then we’ll need to gain more strength in order to hit those strength standards.

      I also make the argument that skinny guys are often starting off with much less muscle mass than the average guy. The reason is that most people are overweight, and overweight people develop quite a lot of muscle even without lifting weights. After all, if you imagine a guy who’s fifty pounds overweight (which is fairly standard), just imagine how strong his legs, glutes, and core need to be in order to carry around that weight all day long. That’s going to make him a much better squatter.

      An interesting factoid is that the highest level of lean mass ever recorded was in a sumo wrestler, not a bodybuilder or powerlifter.

      However, you should still be trying to get stronger, you should still be concerned when you run into an insurmountable plateau, and you can still expect to hit those advanced strength benchmarks (if you’re willing to fight for it). Benching 300 or deadlifting 500 might seem impossibly far away, but I think we’re further away from our strength potential than it seems.

      As for how to continue getting bigger and stronger, I think powerlifters have the right approach. What they do is organize their training around their competition lifts, always training specifically to get stronger at their main lifts. If they can’t lock out the bench, they improve their lockout strength with skull-crushers and close-grip benching until it’s no longer a problem. Or if they can’t get the barbell off their chest, maybe they emphasize the spoto or pause bench. They don’t just increase volume or take their sets closer to failure. They don’t just follow statis programs. They have a whole tailored system designed around obliterating plateaus.

      We aren’t powerlifters, so I don’t think those lifts are ideal for us, and I don’t think we should feel a need to test 1RMs, but I think there’s a lot to be learned from their approach to gaining strength at an intermediate level.

      I ran into the same problem as you in my own training. I spent years spinning my gears without actually adding pounds to my big lifts. It was too easy to get distracted about what I was really training for. And that was okay with me. I added an inch to my arms, my health and fitness improved, I was happy with cruising along. But I’ve started getting hungry for real gains again.

      So we’ve been thinking about this a lot lately—about approaching bulking with a more methodical and strength-oriented mindset. Marco and I are going to write about the principles over on We bought the domain a few months ago with the goal of teaching people how to continue “outlifting” themselves after the strength and size gains stop coming easily. The entire site is going to be about answering your question.

      It’s a new site still. Most of the articles aren’t finished. But check this article out. That’s the best answer I have for your question so far, and I’m curious to hear what you think of it.

      I hope this response is okay. I used to answer it in a much simpler way. But I think the correct answer might be tens of thousands of words long.

  4. […] to be clear, there are a lot of ways to sort lifters into beginner, intermediate, and advanced stages. We aren’t talking about lifting skill or even strength, we’re just talking about how […]

  5. […] the bench press, they’ll all help you build up a bigger and stronger upper back. Furthermore, if you’re a beginner, then we usually recommend starting with the push-up instead of the bench press, and the push-up is […]

  6. Chase on December 27, 2019 at 8:27 pm

    Do you plan on ever doing an article directly related to skinny guys and crossfit? My friend who does crossfit says he has gained a ton of strength from doing it. I’m skinny and have been working out for years and feel like my I’m progressing too slowly. I’ve never done crossfit but I’m thinking about trying it. Thanks!

  7. […] than good. Better to go into our compound lifts as fresh and strong as possible. However, for more advanced lifters, if there’s a stubborn muscle group that we’re trying to bring up, or if we’re […]

  8. […] deadlifts, chin-ups, bench press (or push-ups), overhead presses. The lifts will vary depending on your experience level, but the idea is to choose bigger compound movements that work all of your major muscle groups. For […]

  9. […] enough calories to gain weight: the ideal rate of weight gain depends on how skinny you are, how new to lifting you are, how lean you are, and how aggressive you want to be with your bulk. But the important thing is […]

  10. Mike on May 18, 2020 at 6:12 pm

    I’d classify myself more of an advanced lifter for the upper body and more intermediate on my lower body at 10 yrs training. I typically train ~5 days/wk on average to further spread out my sessions making them easier to handle. I see a lot of pros/cons in my various training split structure options. I know ULPPL is the option typically mentioned but I’m currently training delts/traps/biceps (and calves) 3x/wk (Mike Israetel methods inspired) and the push and pull days back to back every week messes with the recovery on that. And it sounds weird but I tend to prefer the free-flowing nature of rotating splits so I don’t have to train the same muscle on the same day each week.

    I could think of many other variations of splits here but I see 5 main ones. Rotating PPL which is closer to your ideal UB:LB ratio at 67%/33% but then it falls a little below the ideal 2-3x/wk freq. And being that my legs are a weak point if anything I’d see them being better off above 2 rather than below.

    Rotating UL is an option that puts you a little above 2x/wk freq (in the 2-3x range) but its naturally a little more lower-body focused (50%/50%). However, you could always perform slightly more volume on upper days and slightly less on lower days (I.e. 8 exercises Upper day and 6 exercises Lower day). Less upper body spreading may be less ideal for general aesthetics, I don’t know.

    Rotating Push/Pull (quads on push, hams on pull) is another option a little above 2x/wk freq and you can be more customizable with volume distribution each day (Say 4 UB and 3 LB in each session if you include calves). Session length day to day seems a little more balanced than UL (I.e. 7-7 rather than 8-6). Plus you potentially have higher quality work because quad work won’t take away from upper body pushing as much as upper body pulling would (Full push day compared to Upper day). But my worry with this split is training the shoulder girdle in every single session. It seems more likely for an overuse injury. A similar effect for the ligaments and whatnot of the lower body training every day even if you’re using different patterns. And I have no idea if this would even be a factor but possibly more mental/physical fatigue from the lower body being involved 5 days/wk?

    Another option is ULULU where the middle U can be weak-point oriented. Same 60%/40% 2x/wk set up to ULPPL but the upper body related days are all separated making it more efficient for delts/traps/bis isos 3x/wk. I tried this for the first time last year. It’s ok but one it’s not rotating and two that ‘easier’ weak-point day made the two upper days extra fatiguing because they not only were longer but they also had more compound work since the weekly compound sets were only spread across 2 sessions rather than 3. The final option is the split I recently started and its a hybrid of the above. It’s Full Push/Full Pull/off/Push/Legs/Pull/off. It has a lot of the positives of the above splits. 60%/40%, 2x/wk, at least 3 separate upper-body sessions, upper compounds evenly distributed, still has a slightly high freq of shoulder girdle work but at least it’s not all 5 days. The main downside so far is it’s not rotating.

    Any thoughts on this book I just wrote or your preferences? Lol

    • Shane Duquette on May 19, 2020 at 8:52 am

      I think most of those sound like pretty good options, to be honest. I think when you’re training five days per week, there are many effective ways to get the right volume and frequency for hypertrophy. There are a lot of good approaches.

      If you’re training for aesthetics you might want to consider some of the bodybuilding splits. For instance, something like:

      Monday: Chest (and shoulders, triceps)
      Tuesday: Back (maybe deadlift, biceps)
      Wednesday: Shoulders (again with triceps)
      Thursday: Legs (squat, deadlift, and so on)
      Friday: Arms (biceps, triceps, shoulders, forearms)
      Saturday: Rest
      Sunday: Rest

      Each day is different, but most muscles are worked 2–3x per week. Chest Day might start with a wide-grip bench press, arm day might start with a close-grip bench press. Back Day might start with pull-ups, arm day with chin-ups. So all of these days work the big muscle groups with compound lifts, it’s just that the emphasis and exercise selection is changing. The benefit of having an “arm day” is that guys with naturally lanky arms often needs a fair bit of arm work to keep them in balance.

      The approach I’ve been playing around with lately is based on our Big Five Hypertrophy Lifts. I build each workout around one of the five lifts, like so:

      Monday: Bench Press + chin-up assistance + accessories
      Tuesday: Front Squat + deadlift assistance + accessories
      Wednesday: Chin-Up + overhead assistance + accessories
      Thursday: Deadlift + squat assistance + accessories
      Friday: Overhead Press + bench assistance + accessories
      Saturday: Rest
      Sunday: Rest

      That way we’re training our upper-body muscles 3x per week, our lower bodies 2x per week, and all muscle groups are covered by at least one main lift (e.g. front squat) plus one assistance lift (e.g. Zercher squat or leg press). And then the accessories are highly customizable, allowing you to focus on certain muscles or lifts that you’re eager to grow. It also spreads out the effort fairly well. Each workout has one big heavy lift (e.g. deadlift), a moderately heavy lift (e.g. Zercher squat), and then 2–3 lighter ones (e.g. hanging leg raises, calf raises, and so on).

      Your options are great, too. I’m just trying to add a sequel to your book. There are a lot of correct approaches. And now that you’re mentioning it, this would be a really cool article to write over on Outlift.

  11. Chloe on September 9, 2020 at 9:59 am

    I am a beginner when it comes to lifting.

  12. Chloe on September 9, 2020 at 10:54 am


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