Plateaus—a lifters worst nightmare (even worse than cardio). We’ve all been there. You start lifting for the first time and you see your maxes fly up. You go from barely being able to move the bar to repping a plate. The world is yours. There’s nothing you can’t do. Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, the progress stops. You’re working out 6x a week, doing everything right, but you haven’t seen any progress. You’ve hit a wall. You’ve plateaued. What do you do? Well, hopefully I’ll be able to answer that question for you right now!
But first, we must ask ourselves, “What truly is a plateau?” Interesting enough, this is one of the many existential questions Aristotle asked Plato. The best way to realize if you’re hitting a plateau is to keep track of your lifts and of your progress (McArthur, 2020). I have written about many great ways to track your progress in the gym, but it is also important to log all of your workouts so you can keep track of how you’re progressing. This can easily be done in a notebook or on your phone. Just input what weights and reps you used on each exercise and how you felt afterwards. Then take a look at these notes the next week and make sure you’re advancing in some way, whether it be weight on the bar or reps.
If, while logging your workouts, you start realizing that you’re seeing no progress after identical workouts in TWO consecutive weeks, then that is a pretty good sign that you’re hitting a plateau. Keep in mind, this needs to be in all your exercises. If you’re still seeing improvement in all your moves but one, then you’ve probably not plateaued completely. Just consider changing up that one exercise (Vaillancourt, 2020).
Plateaus can be due to many reasons, but to put it in easy-to-understand terms, plateaus occur mostly because your muscles get bored. Muscle growth occurs when we continuously stress our muscle fibers, causing them to tear. They then repair themselves, but muscle fibers aren’t dumb, so they come back bigger and stronger so that they can’t be hurt by the same stress they’ve already been exposed to (Vaillancourt, 2020). That is why you must keep increasing your volume in the gym-to keep giving your muscles a reason to build back even stronger. However, eventually your muscles grow bored of this game and stop giving in. This could be due to overtraining and lack of rest, or simply too much repetition, but your muscles will plateau, and you will no longer see an increase in hypertrophy (size) or strength. When that happens, here are some things you can try:
Taking a week off is a good idea to give your muscles, your central nervous system, and your motivation a break and time to repair and relax. If you add a break week in your plan, it also gives you something to look forward too; a goal to reach. NSCA personal trainer, Joey Vaillancourt suggests taking this one week off for every 6-8 weeks of training. He argues that after this week off, you’ll comeback to the gym relaxed and refreshed, ready to smash through any old plateaus.
However, if you’re like me, and going to the gym is your entire personality, you don’t have to take the week off. You could instead incorporate a “deload” week, where you simply decrease the volume you’re using for each exercise, whether that be your weight or your reps. Take this time to focus on form and not worry about how much weight you’re using (McArthur, 2020). Don’t ego lift. This time is for you to better yourself.
There’s a variety of training methods out there designed to beat plateaus. The Post-failure Heavy Overloading Method involves taking a short rest (20-30secs) after your last set and then doing as many additional reps as you can with the same exact weight you used on your last set (Vaillancourt, 2020).
Drop-Sets are when, after your last set, you drop your weight by 1/3 or 1/2 and do as many additional reps until failure. You should only do one drop-set and it should only be done after all your other sets as to not interfere with them.
Supersets are when you take two exercises that either work out the same muscle group or opposite muscle groups and do them back-to-back with zero rest. Vaillancourt mentions the “New School” approach to supersets where you should use a weight in which you are hitting 6-8 reps for each exercise.
Forced Assisted Rep Training should be done very carefully and with the assistance of a trusted and trained spotter. I’m going to use the bench press as an example to explain this type of training. Let’s say you’ve been doing 3 sets of 8 reps and you have not been able to progress past the same weight from week to week. This time, on your last set, explain to your spotter that you want them to assist you to lift the bar. Then after you have hit your normal 8 reps on your last set, you will focus on slowly lowering the bar to your chest (the eccentric movement) then the spotter will assist you raise the bar off your chest (the concentric movement). This should be done for an additional 2-4 reps, making your last set a total of 10-12 reps in this example (Vaillancourt, 2020). Remember to help your spotter lift the bar back up, they are not doing all the work, merely assisting.
All these techniques can help you stress the muscle in a new and extreme way, allowing for a surprise that gets your muscles to start growing and reacting again (Vaillancourt, 2020). Remember to use a spotter for all of these new forms of training, especially when you are putting yourself in a vulnerable position, such as bench pressing or squatting. Also remember to take things slow. Try out one of these new techniques at a time and for no more than a few weeks. You should then return to normal training and hopefully start seeing a steady progression again. Also keep in mind that you are trying new things here. You may have to decrease weight in order to do them and that’s okay. Leave your ego at the door if you truly want to beat your plateaus.
Although, I’ve never personally tried this one, Saul McArthur, a UK powerlifting coach swears by the technique of simply switching up how you put weight on the bar to beat plateaus. For example, if you can’t seem to move past benching a plate (45lbs on each side), try putting a 25lb plate, a 10lb plate, and two 5lb plates on each side. McArthur argues that this helps to trick your mind that it's a completely different weight all together (even though it’s not) and gets you past any fears you may have of lifting heavy, allowing you to smash through your plateaus.
A plateau can be when you stop seeing progress in your goals over time, but they can also be when you simply lose motivation for going to the gym. The monotonous routine of doing the same thing at the gym every single week can grow boring and you can lose any inspiration and drive that you once had for the gym. To solve this problem, you simply need to change things up and fall in love with the gym all over again.
You can change things up by trying new rep ranges. If you’ve always done 3 sets of 8 reps, try 4 sets of 10 reps, or 5 sets of 6! Vaillancourt suggests changing up the rep ranges every 4-8 weeks to keep you on your toes and motivated to keep coming back to the gym.
You can also vary the exercises you are doing. There is usually more than one way to work a certain muscle and if you’ve been doing the same thing over and over again, switch it up! Try something new. Try a new grip on your bench press, try using dumbbells instead of barbells for your shoulder press, do laying leg curls instead of seated leg curls…
As I have explained in previous blog posts, in order to gain weight, you must eat more calories than you burn, and in order to lose weight, you must eat less calories than you burn. If you figured out the secret number of calories you must eat to reach your goals, that’s great! But here’s the problem—as you move towards the directions of your goals, you have to continually reassess your calories and change it up. If you want to gain weight, you’ll have to continuously increase your calorie intake as you start gaining weight (and vice versa for losing weight). Usually, this reassessment and change will be just what you need to get you back on track and moving in the direction of your goals again (McArthur, 2020).
However, it may not be. You may also have to take a look at your macronutrients. Even though certain macro splits may have been working for you in the past, maybe you need to try something new now. Maybe you need to eat more healthy fats, or less protein, or try a new gym supplement (McArthur, 2020). Take it slow and try one or two new things at a time, give it a week or two to allow you some time to see if the changes work and then reassess and try it all over again.
Stress increases a hormone in your body called cortisol. An increase in cortisol can lower testosterone and negatively affect your training. Many relaxation strategies, including MEDITATION have been shown to decrease these cortisol levels and therefore help get your workouts back on track (McArthur, 2020). It’s easier said than done, put that’s yet another reason to try to cut stresses in your life, or maybe just find a new way to cope with these stresses. I guess it doesn’t have to be meditation but find something that works for you—yoga, spending time with friends and family, treating yourself to a good book, journaling, whatever it may be.
If you count by the numbered bullets, I just gave you 5 amazing strategies to try and beat your plateaus. But, if you actually count, I think I gave you more than that. (It’s no big deal, I’m just super nice and helpful). So, next time you start to stop seeing results in the gym for two consecutive weeks on the same workout, give one of these strategies a try. But take it slow! Don’t change everything at once. Try one or two strategies at a time, give it a couple weeks and then return to your normal training protocol again. If that strategy doesn’t work, take note of it and try something else. And remember that the most important strategy may just be to REST!
McArthur, Saul. “10 Tips to Smash Through a Training Plateau.” Breaking Muscle, 30 June 2020, breakingmuscle.co.uk/uk/fitness/10-tips-to-smash-through-a-training-plateau.
Vaillancourt, Joey. “7 Ways To Bust Any Plateau.” Bodybuilding.com, Bodybuilding.com, 14 Apr. 2020, www.bodybuilding.com/content/7-ways-to-bust-any-plateau.html.
A special thank you to all my friends and family who have not only supported me on my journey but have helped along the way. None of this would be possible without them. Remember to take time to appreciate those in your lives!
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