When Your Novice Linear Progression Ends, What Next?
Time to Read: ~13 Minutes
Take Home Points:
- The novice linear progression (NLP) for strength training is your friend. It is the easiest, most efficient way to build size and strength.
- The NLP can be very short or last for many months depending on a host of factors such as age, genetics, nutrition, and adherence to the program.
- When the NLP starts to end, the best thing you can do is to keep training for strength. Weekly strength gains are still a very good deal!
- If you decide to change your strength training focus after your NLP, you should do so in accordance with your current goals and life priorities.
- Any change in focus that gives less time to your strength training or more time to other activities will require changes to your strength training program.
- In nearly every case, accommodating other outside activities or goals will result in a slower (or no) progression in your strength training.
- Weigh the costs and benefits to your program changes carefully.
As mentioned in two of my previous articles (one, two), strength training is the best starting point for everyone's fitness journey and conducting a novice linear progression (NLP) program like Starting Strength, will be the most efficient way to proceed in this manner. After progressing with this type of program for a few months many trainees will start looking to the future and begin prodding with questions that hint at "what next?" There is, of course, a time and a place for this questioning and in this article we will take a closer look.
How Long Does the NLP Last?
First, let's address the question *everyone* asks me: how long (in months) will the NLP will last. The answer is, it depends. The reason is because age, sex, nutrition, training history, life stress, outside activity, genetics, technique, missed workouts and adherence to the program can cause the length of your NLP to swing wildly. For example, a young, gifted trainee who is eating and sleeping a ton may run their NLP out for upwards of 9 months. On the flip side, an older trainee who has trouble eating and is very stressed from work outside the gym, may see their NLP end in less than two months.
How You Know the NLP is Ending
When your NLP begins to end it will not necessarily be when you "feel" your lifting has become "hard." Training for strength is alway hard once you are no longer a complete beginner. Instead, your NLP will be coming to an end when you are no longer able to make progress by adding weight to the bar each day you train.
Note that each of the four main lifts (squat, press, bench press, and deadlift) will progress at different rates. Thus, there is rarely a situation where you are cleanly done with your NLP for all the lifts at once. Instead, you are more likely to have a situation where some lifts are progressing fine, but the other lifts need some form of advanced modification. Advanced novice programming is our friend here and can include various programming tweaks such as light days, using top sets + back off sets, and so on.
Taken together, when you reach a point where all your lifts truly have run out their NLP, you will already have some of those lifts being trained with advanced novice or intermediate programming.
Why Wait? Let's Switch!
After realizing how the NLP actually runs out, some trainees wonder why we don't just change up the programming as soon as one or more lifts run out. There are several reasons. First, as already stated, the NLP is the most efficient way to build strength, so you want to stay on that for a given lift as long as you can. Second, large scale changes to programming make it very difficult to keep progress moving smoothly; the more things you change, the harder it is to know what is working and what is not. So, you really want to stay with simple programming as long as you can.
When the NLP Ends
When your NLP does actually end, what should you do next? I am a bit biased on this matter and my answer is that you should continue to train for strength. Strength is extremely hard to acquire. It takes a lot of time, so really, the longer you train for strength, the sooner you will reap the majority of possible rewards your body will allow (muscle mass, bone mass, force production, etc.) based on your genetic potential (and age). What this means is progression to intermediate/advanced programming with minimal changes that continue to drive strength adaptations. There are many ways to do this and several examples can be found in the book Practical Programming.
Although continued strength training is what I recommend, it has been my experience that many trainees want special considerations or want to do something different. We will discuss the possibilities shortly, but first I wanted to mention what I often do when the NLP ends. Basically, I add in some intermediate programming with the primary goal of cycling reps from 5s to 3s, then 2s and then 1s. Thus, trainees get exposure to heavier weight and are able to put some popular benchmark repetition maximums (RMs) in their books. A two-rep maximum (2RM) or 1-rep maximum (1RM) for a lift tend to be an easier way for trainees to comprehend just how strong they are.
A Time to Reassess Goals & Priorities
No matter how the NLP ends and no matter what the coach wants to do next, you will need to reassess your training goals and life priorities at this time. The reason is because progress can no longer be made each day in the gym. Instead, progress will be made only weekly and eventually, if they keep training, only monthly. Breaks from or missed training sessions (family events, vacation, long work days, etc.) become much more disruptive to one's training, the more trained they are. So, you will need to ask yourself what you want to spend time on as well as how much time you have available to spend on those things. For example, can you still commit to spending 3-4 days a week in the gym for 60-90 minutes, or do you (or your family) want some of that time for other activities?
Managing Post-Novice Expectations
After your NLP, training becomes more complex, specific, and individual. This is perfectly manageable if you have no family commitments and no interest in participating in any other type of physical activity on a regular basis. However things can get very tricky if priorities change. For example, your family wants an additional day or you decide you want to spend 3 extra days doing martial arts. These kinds of added variables get even more complicated to manage the older you get (recovery is harder with increasing age). To split your focus into other areas along with strength, you will need different programming and possibly even carefully customized programming. You will also need to understand and accept that progress will be slower and more inconsistent. Even if you stick with a pure focus on strength training, the gradual increase in complexity will require certain sets of commitments that are now more demanding in different ways.
Example Paths & Requirements
Let's cover some real-life case scenarios from clients I have worked with in the past. The figure below covers some more straightforward scenarios, namely, clients who want to focus on strength, but in a different way.
In each of the above sample tracks the individual wants to switch how they do their strength training and this results in necessary modifications to the programming. In the first case (Basic Barbell Program), the trainee wants to keep going, but they want to restrict the process a bit focusing on the main lifts for only 3 days each week. This can employ programming similar to what they had in their NLP, but there will be bit more exercise variation and workouts that will invariably run longer than 60 minutes, especially when weights are heavy. In the second case, the desire to focus on specific muscles getting more defined and developed will require a different program (Bodybuilding) and a fully equipped gym with resistance training machines. It will also require many days training in the gym. In the third case, an individual is going to be very irregular getting to the gym week to week and/or may have days where they are extremely drained from other life stressors. This too will require a new program (Conjugate). Conjugate helps solve this problem by working off of training maxes for the day, but the tradeoff is that a tremendous amount of exercise variation will be needed and one's equipment repertoire must grow accordingly.
Now let's cover some examples were individuals want to change their training in such a way that they still conduct strength training, but now it takes a back seat to other, major priorities. Three examples are given in the next figure:
In the first example the individual is going to spend several days doing regular outside activity or sports. The nature and amount of this activity will force them to customize their strength training, likely with some combination of less volume, intensity, and/or frequency. In the second example the individual wants to focus on fat loss. To minimize muscle mass they will need to continue to strength train, but they will not be able to handle very heavy weights like they have in the past. In these first two examples, a common result is that hitting new levels of strength will be hard to do. PRs will be fewer and far between, and possibly even non-existent during this time. In the third example, the individual is focused on a sport competition and will therefore need to focus their strength training during times of the year when sport practice is less intense. If they hit their strength hard in their strength blocks they can make solid gains during those times. However, the stronger one gets, the longer it takes to ramp up to previous strength levels after time off. So, careful planning will be required for sport athletes as they progress in their training.
What if I Just Want to Maintain?
You may have noticed that I did not give an example for a trainee that just wants to "maintain" their newfound strength. This is a question deserving of its own article which will be the next in this series. For those that are burning to know, spoilers: strictly "maintaining" isn't possible.
Hopefully after reading this article you have an appreciation for how complicated training can become once you leave your NLP and decide to incorporate additional factors. Even if you stick with a focus on strength you are going to have to commit to more training time (at least on certain days) and more exercise (and equipment) variation. If you want to start adding or increasing other activities, strength training becomes very tricky and your progress will be notably slower, and you may not even progress to new strength levels at all. So, whichever way you decide to go, be sure to weigh the costs and benefits and make sure they align with your short- and long-term goals. You can always go back and make up lost ground, but there are costs to that as well.
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