You're an intermediate lifter who wants to take yourself to advanced.
You’ve trained for a few years, and are well past the "newbie gains" phase.
You look and feel pretty good... but you’re not content with good, you’re chasing great. You’re no longer happy with average, and are ready to take your physique to the next level.
If you’re like most of our coaching clients you’re already doing the basics:
- You’re eating plenty of protein
- Training on a consistent basis
- Following a smart training program (and not just going through the motions)
All of that will take you a long way... but it won’t take you all the way to your potential.
This is truly one of those cases where “what got you here might not get you there” - meaning you’re going to have to dial things in further in order to really get that last 10% of physique optimization.
In this blog we’ll break it all down - exactly what you need to do to truly take yourself from intermediate to advanced.
1: SLEEP & STRESS MANAGEMENT
It may seem like we’re starting out on a boring note here, but this is one people screw up too often to leave out.
The research is clear: If you sleep poorly (<7 hours a night) you get worse results.
You’ll build less muscle, lose less body fat, and perform worse in the gym. Motivation and adherence to your plan will also suffer. (We wrote a whole blog post about sleep here, it’s that important.)
Sleep goes hand in hand with stress - they can either be a positive cycle or a negative one.
If you have high stress, sleep is more difficult, which makes cortisol higher, makes fat loss harder, maybe you have extra caffeine which makes sleep even harder, etc.
How to combat this problem and start sleeping like an elite physique athlete?
→ SLEEP KEY #1: Getting Sunlight Early
Starting your day by getting into the sun can help “set” your circadian rhythm to be awake with the sun and asleep when the sun goes down.
Melatonin is the hormone that tells your body it’s time to sleep, and it works on a cycle of low in the daytime and high in the evening/throughout the night.
Getting sunlight helps lower melatonin when it should be low, which in turn helps your body elevate melatonin when it should be elevated, which helps you fall asleep.
→ SLEEP KEY #2: Turning Screens Off
The flip side of getting early sunlight is turning screens off at night, ideally about an hour before bed-time.
The blue light emitted from screens on your TV, computer, or phone can mimic sunlight and suppress melatonin which makes it harder to fall asleep, and get good quality sleep once you do fall asleep.
→ SLEEP KEY #3: Journaling
Journaling, specifically a brain-dump journal can help you clear your head so you can fall asleep easier.
This is especially helpful if you are someone who lays awake with racing thoughts or to-do lists in your head.
Brain-dump journaling helps you get all those thoughts out onto paper so you aren’t stewing over those things or worried you’ll forget something by morning.
To do a brain dump journal you will use a blank sheet of paper (No structured journal prompts needed) and literally just write out everything that comes to mind. Get all your thoughts out (dump your brain) onto the paper so that you can fall asleep.
→ SLEEP KEY #4: Meditation/Deep Breathing
Your autonomic nervous system has two branches: sympathetic and parasympathetic.
The sympathetic branch is also known as “fight, flight, or freeze” and is the amped-up, more stressed state.
The stress hormone cortisol is higher in this state. Cortisol works opposite to melatonin.
When cortisol is up melatonin is suppressed, and vice-versa.
On the other hand, your body has the parasympathetic or “rest and digest” state.
In this state, you're more calm, and heart rate and blood pressure lower in this state. In order to get to sleep you need to be in the parasympathetic nervous state.
Meditation and deep breathing are tools to take you from sympathetic to parasympathetic. We recommend a guided meditation app that will take you through a session.
Some great options:
Deep breathing is another tool to switch you into a parasympathetic state.
I recommend 4/4/8 breathing:
1. Inhale for 4 seconds
2. Hold for 4 seconds
3. Exhale for 8 seconds.
4. Repeat the above 8-10x.
Inhaling increases your heart rate, and exhaling slows down your heart rate, so taking longer exhales than inhales will slow down your heart rate and help you get into a restful state to fall asleep.
→ SLEEP KEY #5: Stay Out Of Bed, Until You're Ready For Bed
If you are working or eating in bed you will set up an association with your bed that isn’t sleep. When you only get into bed to sleep, your body starts to get tired in response to being in bed.
If you’re working you could associate bed with stress or other thoughts. So stay out of bed until you're actually ready to sleep.
→ SLEEP KEY #6: Create a Bedtime Routine
You can essentially turn falling asleep into a habit by creating a bedtime routine.
Our bodies like habits. It’s why you get hungry at the same time you normally eat lunch if you miss it. It’s part of the circadian rhythm... your hormones can get on a schedule.
So if you create a routine and do it consistently before bed, eventually you will start to get tired at that time of night in response.
You can put together any of the previously mentioned tools, or add any of your own that you think would be helpful. Make sure it’s a solid routine but also short enough you can follow through consistently.
A good routine might look something like:
- Cup of decaf tea
- Deep breathing in bed
→ SLEEP KEY #7: Get to Bed Earlier
If your main problem is not getting to bed on time, you will need to get to bed earlier in a step-wise fashion.
Trying to make your bedtime two hours earlier all at once will mean you just lay there awake for at least that two hours, because your body is on it’s clock and used to being up doing things at that time.
A good rule of thumb is to get to bed about 15 minutes earlier every 1-2 weeks. It will take longer to get to the desired bedtime but it will gradually accustom your body to the earlier sleep time.
2: MEAL PLANNING & FOOD SELECTION
You can take your physique to an intermediate level with a pretty flexible diet.
Flexible dieting and IIFYM has gained popularity over the last decade because prior to that most people thought in order to get into great shape you needed to be on a structured meal plan that could never be deviated from.
The problem with that is, meal plans don’t work for most people, and I’d argue don’t work for anyone in the long-term.
That’s why IIFYM was such a game changer for so many people, because you could swap things out macro-for-macro making the diet easier to adhere to, and therefore a more sustainable lifestyle.
But, as time went on, as things always do, it swung to the extreme end. IIFYM went from swapping out green beans instead of broccoli, or chicken instead of white fish, to seeing how much processed food a person could fit in their macros and still get lean.
I’d say most people have come back toward being a little less flexible than fitting in Oreos and ice cream every day, but when someone wants to go from good to great one of the issues is usually that they’re still being too flexible.
Some typical issues are:
- Frequently exceeding calories and just “borrowing” them from the next day to make up for it
- Winging it through the day with no plan for your macros
- Having wildly different foods day to day and just aiming to average out close to targets over the week
- Fitting in lots of meals out
The problem with these isn’t that it’s necessarily bad to eat this way...it is still better than not having a plan at all.
But when you want to really dial it in, you can’t rely on the nutrition facts from lots of different packaged foods and restaurants, and have a lot of inconsistency day to day.
Now, technically the most important factor is your total calories over the course of the week... but anecdotally there is a huge difference in results between those who have a plan and nail it on a daily basis vs. those who have huge variation and just average out on target Monday to Sunday.
Also, realize that nutrition facts on packaged foods can also legally deviate from their actual macros by up to 20%, and the amount in the package could be pretty different from the actual serving size listed.
All of this adds up to a pure if it fits your macros approach often not being as optimal for your physique results... even if it looks like you're hitting your macros on paper.
The solution we've found within online coaching?
The flexible dieting meal plan (learn how to create yours with this blog).
This is the strategy our clients often use to create a flexible meal plan that fits your macros targets, is composed of foods you actually love, while also allowing you flexibility when you have something come up (like a surprise date night).
CREATING YOUR OWN MEAL PLAN
1. CHOOSE HOW MANY DIFFERENT “TEMPLATE DAYS” YOU’LL NEED FOR THE WEEK: Usually 1-2. From here, you’ll simply be plugging foods into MyFitnessPal (or your macro tracking app of choice) to create a plan for these days that aligns with your macros.
2. CHOOSE YOUR PREFERRED NUMBER OF MEALS: 3-5 meals/snacks daily works best for most. Choose times you can consistently eat each meal, and stick to those - this helps prevent cycles of under/overeating, or playing “macro tetris” too often.
3. PLAN YOUR PROTEINS: Choose a primary protein source for each of your meals, & adjust the serving size until it gives you 25-50g protein, or add another protein source to reach the 25-50g range. (We want to divide protein evenly between meals, most will hit their goal with 25-50g at each meal.) ⠀
4. PLAN YOUR CARBS: Now you'll know what carb sources will pair well with your proteins - choose 1-2 carb sources for each meal, and adjust serving sizes to fit your macros. (Making the meals around your workouts more carb heavy is more optimal.) ⠀
5. PLAN YOUR FATS: Your protein (and some carb) sources will have fat, so we're waiting until last to add fats as needed to meals. (Timing these further from your workouts is more optimal.)
...and you now have a template day planned out. Figure out how many times you’ll be repeating it this week, so you know how much food to get while prepping.
But remember, you’re wanting to go from good to great, so you can’t just throw in a bunch of frozen dinners, packaged bars and low-quality processed foods just because they can fit in the meal plan.
There isn’t morality to food choices, and it’s not bad to eat those things, but if you want to look elite, choosing at least 80-90% whole foods helps because...
→ They’re more consistent. Whole foods don’t have wildly different macros from source to source.
Yes, nothing is fully 100% consistent (maybe one chicken is more jacked than another and your chicken breast today is a little leaner than it is next week) but it is more consistent than anything else.
→ You’ll improve your health and get more micronutrients. This matters in the long term. A healthier body can maintain a better physique for longer, can push harder and recover better from training, and is hormonally in a better place.
→ They have a higher thermic effect. Whole foods burn more calories than processed foods through the thermic effect of food (for example, this study seemed to show a 50% increase in thermic effect when comparing a cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread with real cheese vs. a white bread and “cheese product slice” sandwich.)
3: MEAL TIMING
Peri-workout means “around your workout,” so these are the meals you’ll eat before, during, and after training. (Check out our blog The Best Pre-Workout And Post-Workout Meals, According To Science for a deep dive into this topic.)
The fitness industry has had a major pendulum swing on this topic just like with meal plans and IIFYM.
It used to be said you had to eat within 30 minutes of finishing your workout or the workout was a waste of time. Every serious lifter had a shaker cup with protein powder ready to go as soon as they finished the last rep.
More recently, you’ll hear a lot of people saying timing doesn’t matter at all, and will even recommend eating just 1-2 times per day.
Per usual, the answer is somewhere in the middle. You can get to the intermediate level doing things either way, but to gain the last few percent advantage you’ll need to have some focus placed on this.
THE PRE-WORKOUT MEAL
The purpose of a pre-workout meal:
1. Top off glycogen storage to give you energy to train
2. Provide amino acids to stimulate muscle protein synthesis (MPS)
3. Prevent catabolism (breakdown of muscle tissue)
An ideal pre-workout meal would look something like:
PROTEIN: 20-40g of protein from a quick digesting, high leucine source like protein powder, chicken breast, lean ground turkey, or egg whites.
CARBS: .25-.5g of carbs per pound of bodyweight from a quick digesting source like white rice, rice cakes, cream of rice, instant oats, or bagels.
Combining a starchy carb source (see above) and a fruit will potentially be more optimally for both quick and sustained energy.
FAT: Keep it light.
→ 5-15g if you’re training in <90 minutes.
→ 10-25g if you’re training in >90 minutes.
→ Eat 60-90 minutes before training if… you’re eating quick digesting foods like cream of rice or instant oats + a whey shake.
→ Eat 1.5-3 hours before training if… you’re eating unprocessed foods that’ll take longer to digest, like sirloin steak + a potato.
THE POST-WORKOUT MEAL
The purpose of a post-workout meal:
1. To spike MPS again
2. Refill glycogen storage
3. Provide adequate fuel for recovery.
An ideal post-workout meal could look something like:
PROTEIN: 20-40g of protein from a quick digesting, high leucine source like protein powder, chicken breast, lean ground turkey, or egg whites.
CARBS: At least .25-.5g of carbs per pound of bodyweight from a quick digesting source like white rice, rice cakes, cream of rice, instant oats, or bagels.
Try to get 1/2 (or more) of your daily carb intake fit into the pre and post-workout meals.
FAT: Much less important than ensuring you have plenty of carbs and protein in this meal. But could be slightly more optimal to have <20g.
→ Eat as soon as possible if... you're training fasted.
→ You're ok to wait 1-2 hours if... You ate a pre-workout meal that fit the above guidelines.
→ Don't let there be more than 3-5 hours between your pre-workout and post-workout meal.
PROTEIN TIMING & DISTRIBUTION
Protein is the one macronutrient we want to be pretty evenly distributed across meals.
The reason for this is the Muscle-Full Effect.
This is the limit to the amount of amino acids can be used for MPS at a time, and beyond that the protein is used for other things in the body.
Getting anywhere from 25-40 grams seems to maximally stimulate MPS.
After you hit this muscle full effect, it takes around 3 hours for amino acids to fall back to baseline, when it’s ideal to spike them up again.
From this info we can conclude that 4-6 times per day, every 3-4 hours, is ideal protein meal timing.
Chrononutrition is eating in alignment with your body’s clock, or circadian rhythm. This might sound a little “one-weird-trick-esque” but it’s had some really cool research done around it, and this also ties in with a few of the above points, like meal timing, and sleep.
The circadian rhythm works on a 24-hour clock, and some of your body’s systems that occur within that rhythm are:
- Sleep/wake cycle
- Body temperature
- Immune system activity
There are a lot of ways eating can affect your circadian rhythm, and vice-versa:
- Ingestion of nutrients can either synchronize or desynchronize your body’s circadian rhythm. So, if you’re eating beyond dark when your body’s circadian rhythm would prefer to be sleeping, you could throw off that body clock.
- Gastric emptying peaks in the morning
-Beta cells that produce, store, and release insulin function 15% higher in the morning
- Glucose response is less variable after eating in the morning
- Diet-induced thermogenesis is 44% lower in the evening vs. morning
- We’re more insulin sensitive in the morning
All of this leads us to believe it’s a good idea to:
→ Eat early in the day
→ Eat your highest carb meals early in the day
→ Make later meals smaller
→ Stop eating before dark, and at least 2 hours before bedtime
One caveat to this is if your chrononutrition conflicts with your peri-workout nutrition.
If you train late in the day, it’s still a good idea to have your highest carb meals around training. Your training improves insulin sensitivity. I would just try to arrange your day so that you aren’t training within a couple hours of going to bed, if possible.
4: EXERCISE SELECTION & EXECUTION
You may have already ditched bro-splits in favor of a more optimal training frequency, and know you can make better gains with certain movements than others.
But taking your physique to great will require you to put an extra emphasis on which exercises fit your body best, and how to execute those exercises correctly so that you’re hitting the target muscle effectively.
A lot of beginner to intermediate programs will include a lot of big compound lifts like bench press, barbell back squat, and deadlift.
These are great fundamentals and will get you stronger, but if you want to optimize your physique and focus on hypertrophy they may not be your best option.
"But how do you decide which movements suit you best, since everyone is different?"
There are a few basic guidelines that will apply to everyone:
1: You need to include the 5 basic movement patterns: push, pull, hip dominant, knee dominant, core.
2: Choose movements with a good stimulus to fatigue ratio (learn more about stimulus to fatigue ratio here)
3: Choose movements where the rate limiter is the target muscle
4: Choose movements that can be overloaded/progressed over time
If you have a list of movements for each movement patterns that tick all those boxes, then it comes down to your anthropometry. For one person trying to grow their quads a barbell back squat may feel great. For another they may prefer a hack squat.
Variables to consider when determining how good a movement is for building muscle:
1: How is the pump you get from this exercise?
2: How much disruption do you feel doing this exercise?
3: Are you able to go through a full range of motion?
4: Is there any joint pain or does anything just feel off?
Give your movements a fair shot before deciding they don’t work for you, but try different ones out to be sure they meet all of the above criteria. And, a movement will always work better for you when you perfect the last variable, which is execution.
We’ve probably all had that time where you change up one little thing in a movement and it just clicks.
You can do a squat one way with x foot position, stance, and bar position and feel it all in your knees and lower back, then switch up to y foot position, stance, and bar position and it lights your quads on fire. That’s a difference in execution.
Since everyone is different I can’t say how to set up every exercise to best fit you, but what you should be looking for short-term in an exercise is...
1. A good pump
2. A good mind-muscle connection during the session
3. A little soreness after the session
These aren’t the only things that are important, and if your set up and execution are on point you’ll be hitting the target muscles even if none of these 3 are present, but they’re a good place to start.
Two helpful pieces of information when doing a movement is where does the muscle insert and attach, and what is the function of that muscle.
The pecs origin point is at the sternum, and insert at the top of the humerus (upper arm bone), and their function is to adduct the arm (bring it in toward the body), and internally rotate the arm.
So let’s say you're doing a dumbbell bench press... instead of just thinking about pressing the dumbbells up toward the ceiling, it would be more helpful to think about bringing the upper arms closer together (adducting) and thinking about shortening that space between the sternum and the humerus as much as possible, and then fully lengthening and getting those as far apart as possible at the bottom of the rep.
If a movement doesn’t make sense anatomically for the muscle you’re trying to target, it’s probably not ideal.
Tempo and Momentum are two more major factors when you’re looking to improve your execution.
Tempo is one of those things that is not of huge importance when you’re looking at the hierarchy of hypertrophy training; in fact, Eric Helms, the author of The Muscle and Strength Pyramids puts it at the very top and least important of all the factors in hypertrophy training.
But it’s a great tool when you’re learning to execute your movements properly.
Taking out momentum from the initiation of the movement and slowing down the tempo to a 2-4 second eccentric is really helpful in ensuring you’re using great form and going through the movement using the muscles you want to be using.
From there, it’s all self-experimentation, and continually learning from those in the fitness industry who are educating on proper exercise execution and set up. This blog post is a great place to start.
5: INVEST IN A COACH
This one might seem like an obvious one coming from a coaching service company. But this is truly the one that can make the most significant impact on your results.
Coaching provides you external accountability that you’re paying for, and when you are making an investment and paying money, you pay more attention and actually follow through on what you keep telling yourself you’re going to do.
Researchers from The Miriam Hospital’s Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center did a study comparing weight loss groups, one group worked with a coach and one went at it alone. The group who worked with a coach lost 1.5x the amount of weight (9% vs 6% of their total body weight).
And when you’re working with a good coach, they’ll teach you what you’re doing so you can not only make great progress but also maintain those results once you’re finished with coaching.
When you have someone you trust, who knows what they’re doing and how to hold you accountable your results skyrocket.
If you’re to stop spinning your wheels, and finally start seeing the results you've always wanted, CLICK HERE NOW to apply for coaching with our team.