- A weightlifting plateau where the key (usually compound) exercises for a major muscle group are stuck at a certain weight for a certain number of reps for at least three weeks.
- Most weightlifting plateaus are caused by an imbalance between training and recovery.
- Whatever the case, you can pinpoint what has you stuck by following the simple strategies shared in this article.
It sucks to feel stuck.
It’s frustrating, demotivating, and often confusing, especially when you’re showing up every day and putting in the work.
That’s true of most activities, certainly of weightlifting, and if unresolved, a lack of progress leads to extremism, complacency, or quitting, usually in that order.
First are the brutal, excessive training regimens that may get the needle moving again, but end in burnout or injury.
Then comes the resignation—the acceptance that meaningful improvement is no longer in the cards—and workouts become a chore, like brushing your teeth or doing your laundry.
Finally, the will to go on expires, and the towel is tossed.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though.
You can’t avoid training plateaus (they’re normal), but unless you’ve reached your genetic potential for muscle and strength, you never have to remain in a rut.
With the right know-how and actions, you can always reach the next level of body composition and strength, even if it’s only a slight improvement. And that’s what this chapter is going to give you.
And in this article, you’re going to learn everything you need to know to do just that.
Let’s get started.
- What Is a Weightlifting Plateau?
- What Causes a Weightlifting Plateau?
- The 6 Best Ways to Break Through a Weightlifting Plateau
- 1. Are you training hard enough?
- 2. Are you sleeping enough?
- 3. Are you eating enough?
- 4. Are you deloading enough?
- 5. Are you using good form?
- 6. Are you doing too much cardio?
- Breaking Through a Weightlifting Plateau, Step by Step
- The Bottom Line on Breaking Through Weightlifting Plateaus
Table of Contents
What Is a Weightlifting Plateau?
Whenever people tell me they’re stuck in the gym, my first question is, what do you mean “stuck”?
Sometimes, it turns out they are making progress, but not as much or as quickly as they’d like.
For instance, this is common among those whose “newbie gains” have recently expired, and who are baffled and concerned by their inability to continue adding ten pounds to the bar every week or two.
Read: Everything You Should Know About Newbie Gains, According to Science
In this case, all that needs to change is their expectations and benchmarks.
Once you’ve entered your intermediate phase of weightlifting, your goal should be to increase the weight of at least your key lifts once every two or four weeks for the same number of reps. In other words, to get a bit stronger every month.
So, for example, if you’re deadlifting 400 pounds for five reps in January and 405 pounds for five reps in February, you’re progressing.
How you accomplish that will depend on the weightlifting program you’re following.
One might prescribe specific loads based on your one-rep max (1RM) that go up over time (forcing you to add weight to the bar on a set schedule), while another might instruct you to only increase weight once you’ve reached a rep-related target with your current working weight, like three sets of five reps (Starting Strength) or one or two sets of six or ten reps (Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger).
Either way, unless you’re new to the iron game, headway will be measured in inches, not feet—slight, incremental improvements that add up. This isn’t a plateau. This is life as an experienced weightlifter.
Thus, after your first year of proper training, your attitude should be more like “progress is progress,” not “not enough progress.”
That is, so long as your weights are going up, you’re doing just fine, and you don’t need to change anything.
“But what if I could do better?” I hear you wondering.
You probably can’t—especially if you’re in your third year of proper training or beyond—because the margin for improvement shrinks to where any progress is precious. And eventually, there’s nothing left to gain no matter what you do.
So, getting back to the original question, here’s how I define a true training plateau:
A plateau is where the key (usually compound) exercises for a major muscle group are stuck at a certain weight for a certain number of reps for at least three weeks.
Put differently, if you haven’t been able to add weight or reps to any of the compound exercises for your chest or back, legs, shoulders, and so forth, for at least three weeks in a row, you’re stuck.
And that’s true even if you’ve progressed in your “accessory” (isolation) exercises, because if the prime movers (compound exercises) aren’t moving, your whole-body muscle and strength won’t budge either.
Additionally, it’s easier to compromise your form and force out an extra rep or two now and then on an isolation exercise, like the leg extension, than it is on a compound exercise, like the barbell squat, making the latter a better benchmark of your capabilities.
Summary: A weightlifting plateau is where the key (usually compound) exercises for a major muscle group are stuck at a certain weight for a certain number of reps for at least three weeks.
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What Causes a Weightlifting Plateau?
There are several reasons people plateau, but to understand the most common one, you first have to understand how your body adapts to exercise.
We don’t need to get into the nitty gritty details, but the long story short is this:
After a bout of intense resistance training, hormones and other chemicals are released in the body that trigger your muscle cells to grow bigger and stronger.
Read: The Best Way to Stimulate Muscle Hypertrophy (Build Muscle)
Naturally, this process makes weights that were once hard to move easier to handle and thus less conducive to further muscle and strength gain.
This is why the key to continued muscle growth is forcing your muscles to work ever harder over time, and this is mostly accomplished by using heavier weights and doing more volume.
When you do this, you’re progressive overloading your muscles, and if you do it enough, you’ll gain more muscle and strength. If you don’t, you won’t. It’s that simple.
Many people don’t know this, and show up week after week to do the same exercises, weights, and reps, and as a result, look the same month after month and even year after year.
No progressive overload means no appreciable improvement in strength and muscularity. Full stop.
So, that’s the mechanical explanation of why most people hit a training plateau—little or no progressive overload—and in most cases, the reason they’re falling short comes down to one or more of the following mistakes:
- Poor workout programming
- Poor nutrition
- Poor recovery
Let’s take a closer look at each.
1. Poor workout programming
As with most things, there are many more wrong than right ways to lift weights, and sometimes, it can seem rather confusing.
Everywhere you turn, you find another opinion on optimal volume, training frequency, exercise selection, rep ranges, and the rest of it, and without a grounding in the fundamentals, you’re all but guaranteed to wind up at sea.
Thus, it’s no surprise that most people do not understand what to do in the gym and constantly change exercises, sets, reps, weights, and so on without rhyme or reason.
This makes for good exercise (moving your body, working up a sweat, burning calories) but not training (systematically working toward performance or body composition goals), because by shuffling too many workout variables too often, you make it almost impossible to progressively overload your muscles.
As the margins for improvement shrink with training experience, it’s no longer enough to just strive for “good workouts.”
You must have productive workouts, and that requires paying close attention to the details to ensure you’re moving ahead.
Many people don’t, and stop progressing because of it.
Another common programming mistake that causes stagnation is avoiding heavy, intense weightlifting and opting for milder (higher-rep, lower-weight) training instead.
Read: Is Getting Stronger Really the Best Way to Gain Muscle?
Usually, this is because the former is intimidating and uncomfortable. As you have to keep getting stronger to get bigger, middling, cozy workouts will not cut it.
You have to throw your shoulder to the wheel every time you step into the gym.
Similarly, you can’t neglect compound exercises and expect to get anywhere. A compound exercise involves multiple major joints and muscle groups, as opposed to an isolation exercise, which involves only one or two joints or muscle groups.
Read: Are Compound Exercises Better Than Isolation Exercises?
For example, the back squat (compound) trains the upper and lower back, core, hips, butt, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves, whereas the leg extension (isolation) primarily trains your quadriceps.
Therefore, compound exercises deliver a lot more muscle and strength bang for the buck than isolation exercises, which are more suited to targeting small, stubborn muscles and correcting muscle imbalances.
Read: 8 Highly Effective Ways to Get Stronger on Your Isolation Exercises
This is why any serious workout routine worth its salty sweat revolves around squatting, deadlifting, pressing, and some additional muscle-specific work, especially for muscle groups that lag, like the biceps, triceps, and shoulders.
Yet another programming blunder that puts on the brakes is not tracking your workouts.
To progressively overload your muscles, you need to push harder over time, and you can only accomplish this if you keep careful records of what you’re doing. Otherwise, you won’t know when to increase and decrease volume or weight on the bar and whether your strength is going up.
Instead, you must rely on intuition and feel, and this doesn’t pan out in the long run.
Summary: Many weightlifting plateaus are caused by poor workout programming, including constantly changing their routine, avoiding heavy, intense lifting, focusing on isolation exercises, and not tracking workouts.
2. Poor nutrition
This mostly comes down to eating enough calories and protein, which is crucial to gaining muscle and strength.
Your body’s muscle-building mechanisms work best when energy and protein are abundant.
Many people stuck in the gym don’t understand this and don’t eat enough calories or protein or both. Or they get it, but think they’re eating more than they are.
Many people stuck in the gym simply don’t understand this and don’t eat enough calories or protein or both or do get it but think they’re eating more than they really are. This seems to be particularly common among women.
The good news is that you don’t have to eat that much food to maximize muscle growth.
For calories, 16 to 18 calories per pound of body weight per day should get the job done, and for protein, 0.8 to 1 gram per pound of body weight per day is plenty.
Although not as important as calories and protein, carbohydrate intake matters too, and many weightlifters don’t eat enough carbs.
A higher-carb diet is better for muscle and strength gain for several reasons:
- It increases whole-body glycogen stores, which enhances performance during intense exercise (like weightlifting), improves muscle recovery, and protects against symptoms related to overtraining.
- It improves post-workout genetic signaling related to muscle growth and repair.
- It positively influences mood during intense exercise, which naturally translates into better performance and more enjoyable workouts.
- Low-carb diets increase cortisol and reduce testosterone levels in athletes, which can slow down muscle growth.
So how many carbs should you eat to maximize muscle growth?
Assuming you’re getting 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight and around 0.3 grams of fat per pound of body weight (my general recommendation for fat intake), the rest of your calories should come from carbs.
Summary: Many people fail to eat enough calories, protein, or carbs to effectively gain muscle and strength. Correcting this can end a plateau.
3. Poor recovery
Progress isn’t just limited by how hard you can push yourself in the gym, but also by how well you can recover from your workouts.
That is, you can take #nodaysoff, brutalize yourself with tons of volume, and do every “advanced” training technique out there, and still get nowhere if you can’t recover from it.
Remember—you don’t gain muscle during your workouts. That happens afterward, when your body repairs the damage and prepares itself for the next round of training.
And for this to occur, you must give your body the right amount of stimulus (training) and recovery (sleep, downtime, deloads, food, relaxation, etc.).
When you’re a beginner, threading this needle is easy.
Your body responds superbly to training, and it doesn’t take much to gain a considerable amount of muscle and strength.
Furthermore, even if you overdo it a bit when starting out, the weights won’t be heavy enough to take much of a toll on you.
All this changes when you become an intermediate weightlifter, though. You have to work much harder to keep gaining muscle and strength and to handle heavier weights, and this makes balancing training stress and recovery more difficult.
You also have to avoid the most common recovery mistakes people make, which include . . .
- Not sleeping enough
Studies show that getting sufficient sleep improves performance, recovery, and alertness, whereas neglecting sleep does the opposite (among many other negative things).
If you’re not sleeping enough—and many people aren’t, (getting less than seven hours of sleep per night on average)—you’re guaranteed to plateau at some point.
Also, keep in mind that just being in bed for around eight hours per night doesn’t mean you’re sleeping enough. If your sleep is restless, intermittent, or low quality, you still may not be getting enough.
- Not eating enough
To recover effectively, you need to eat more calories than you burn consistently.
Many people don’t want to do that, however, because it entails some fat gain. Instead, they try various dietary strategies to get around the need for a steady calorie surplus like intermittent fasting, calorie cycling, and carb cycling, but to no avail.
Without the regular calorie surplus, muscle growth will lag and stall.
- Doing too much
You have to work hard to continue gaining muscle and strength as an intermediate weightlifter, but you can only subject your body to so much punishment.
This is why research shows that extremely high volume training programs produce worse results than lower-intensity routines.
If you’re stuck and doing, let’s say, six or seven heavy and hard resistance-training workouts per week, or maybe fewer but with a lot of physically-demanding activities as well, it may be time to rein yourself in to allow for more recovery.
Summary: Your ability to gain muscle and strength is directly limited by how well you recover from your workouts, and the three main reasons people don’t recover from their workouts are not sleeping enough, not eating enough, or doing too much in the gym.
The 6 Best Ways to Break Through a Weightlifting Plateau
There are several reasons you can get stuck in a rut, and getting back on track will require pinpointing and addressing what’s in the way.
To do that, you need to consider the following questions:
- Are you training hard enough?
- Sleeping enough?
- Eating enough?
- Deloading enough?
- Are you using good form?
- Are you doing too much cardio?
Let’s discuss each question in more detail.
1. Are you training hard enough?
Many people are stuck in the gym, because they’re just not working hard enough. End of story.
Either they aren’t pushing themselves enough in their workouts, or their workout routine isn’t challenging enough, or a bit of both.
And I understand.
Early on, I spent several years more or less treading water, because I was following poorly designed workout programs pulled from bodybuilding magazines. I’ve also encountered many workouts where my body was going through the motions, but my mind and heart were elsewhere.
Maybe it was because of a chatty or lazy workout partner, or workaday worries, poor sleep, nagging aches and pains, or something else.
No matter the reason, the fix is the same—more effort—but how you get there depends on what’s holding you back.
Maybe it’s time to let Chatty Cathy know that all the socializing is detracting from your workouts?
Maybe you could use a music playlist that gets you more fired up?
Maybe you need to focus more on your training?
At allowing yourself the privilege of setting aside your problems and concerns for an hour?
Maybe you should try working out at a different time, when you feel strongest and most energetic? In the afternoon, for example?
Maybe you need to screw up your patience while an injury, strain, or the like heals—in other words, stop reaggravating and reactivating it?
Or maybe you just need to get better at grinding through the suck? At doing the things the thorny part of you doesn’t like?
On the other hand, if you’re going great guns in your workouts, but not getting the results you want, chances are either your programming or execution is to blame.
The following questions will help you understand the matter.
1. Are you achieving progressive overload?
As you know, the primary stimulus for muscle growth is increasing tension levels in your muscles over time (progressive overload).
The two most effective ways of doing this are lifting more weight (getting stronger) and doing more volume (reps or sets).
That means to keep gaining muscle, you need to keep increasing the amount of weight you’re lifting or volume you’re doing (or a bit of both). And the former is more conducive to muscle gain than the latter.
So if your one-rep maxes on your key lifts aren’t trending upward over the course of your training cycles, you will stop gaining muscle; if your volume is flat for too long, your one-rep maxes will flatten out.
This is why you can’t gain any muscle to speak of oscillating around a certain level of whole-body strength, and similarly, why adding volume that doesn’t result in lasting strength gains doesn’t much affect muscle growth, either.
Many people who have plateaued think they’re achieving progressive overload, but they’re just gaining and losing strength cyclically, with no change in the long-term averages.
For example, maybe you add 10 pounds to your bench press over three weeks of intense training.
Things are moving. Yay!
Then, over the course of the next few weeks, you lose 10 or 15 pounds on it thanks to poor diet, training, recovery, or whatever. You get back on track, though, and grind your way to where you were and feel you’re progressing again.
You could repeat this process for years on end and see no appreciable change in your physique, because you’re missing the forest for the trees.
If you aren’t stronger or doing more volume now than you were a few months ago, not to mention longer ago, you aren’t achieving progressive overload.
To get bigger, there needs to be a clear, steady rise in strength and enough volume to produce it. When that’s the case, you’ll forge ahead, and when it’s not, you won’t.
So, if a lack of progressive overload is what’s holding you back, there are different ways of going about fixing this problem.
A simple one is just trying to add more weight to your lifts with something like double progression. This involves working with a given weight until hitting the top of a prescribed rep range for one to three sets, then bumping up the load and repeating the process.
Listen: How to Use Double Progression to Get More From Your Workouts
For instance, squatting with 275 pounds until you can get one or two sets of six reps, at which point, increasing the weight to 285 pounds and working with it until you can get one or two sets of six reps, and so on.
Or maybe that’s too much, and you need to increase the load by just 5 pounds. Either way, the weight goes up.
Another workable way to advance the amount of weight you’re lifting systematically is with a linear style of periodization that has you increasing your weights on a set schedule.
For example, bench pressing 185 pounds for five reps one week, 190 pounds for the same reps the following week, 195 pounds the week after, and so on and so forth until you can’t add weight any longer. Then you deload and pick up where you left off, or switch to a system like double progression.
If you’ve tried various progression models and are still stuck, you may just need to do more volume.
Beginners don’t have to think much about this, because it doesn’t require a large amount of volume to add weight to the bar every week or two. About ten sets per major muscle group per week is plenty.
Eventually, however, as your body becomes more adapted to the challenges of training, it gets harder and harder to continue lifting heavier and heavier weights. In time, if you change nothing in your approach, you stop advancing altogether.
Therefore, assuming you’re following a well-designed workout program that uses an effective system for achieving progressive overload, like double progression or linear loading, and eating and sleeping enough, you can often claw your way out of a rut by doing more volume.
For instance, the once-newbie, who has gained a fair amount of muscle and strength doing nine or ten sets per major muscle group per week and is now running in place, may be able to bump that up to twelve or thirteen sets per week to get moving again.
It’s also worth noting you don’t need to subject yourself to the crushing amounts of volume found in workout routines like German Volume Training, Smolov, or Sheiko. For most people, such programs are a high road to overtraining and burnout.
In most cases, adding just a couple of additional sets per week per major (stuck) muscle group to what you’re already doing gets the job done.
An easy way to do this is to add sets to your compound exercises.
For instance, let’s say you’re not progressing in your pressing. Your primary upper body work comprises nine sets of barbell and dumbbell bench pressing and three sets of military pressing per week, supplemented with a few sets of dumbbell pressing, side and rear lateral raises, and biceps curls and triceps pressdowns.
To increase volume, you could increase your bench pressing to eleven or twelve sets per week, or your military pressing to five or six sets, depending on what you want to focus on more (chest versus shoulders) and change nothing else in your routine.
You can also increase volume using “special” training methods, like rest-pause sets and blood flow restriction training, with the added benefit of putting less stress on your tendons, ligaments, and joints.
What if you’re already doing a lot of volume, though?
At what point should you look elsewhere for a solution to your slump?
Here’s a good rule of thumb: You can profitably increase volume up to about twenty sets per major muscle group per week, at which point adding more isn’t likely to produce additional benefits.
Moreover, you rarely want to maintain this maximum level of volume for over three to six months before reducing it to aid in recovery.
Not that you need to do twenty sets per major muscle group per week, though, now or ever.
If you’re getting everything else more or less right with your diet and training, you’ll likely find that you never need to exceed fifteen sets per major muscle group per week to make progress.
Summary: The prime directive of the muscle and strength game is you must achieve progressive overload, and that mostly boils down to doing enough volume with enough intensity to continue increasing whole-body strength over time.
2. Are you ending most sets close to technical failure?
When people talk about training to “failure,” they’re usually referring to absolute failure, which is the point where you can no longer move the weight.
Read: Does Training to Failure Help You Build More Muscle? What Science Says
“Technical failure” is a less understood concept, and it’s the point where you can’t do another rep with proper form (two or three reps shy of absolute failure for most people).
Many lifters make the mistake of training to absolute failure too often and court overtraining, burnout, and injury. They do this because they think it’s beneficial to muscle and strength gain, but research shows it’s no more so than ending sets a few reps shy of absolute failure.
Regular training to technical failure isn’t as problematic, but it can still increase the risk of injury and ingrain poor technique.
Another common error is ending sets too early—five or six or more reps shy of absolute failure.
This is counterproductive, because unless you’re new to weightlifting, it doesn’t produce enough muscle tension to trigger much in the way of growth. And even in beginners, pushing harder is more effective.
The sweet spot is ending most of your sets one to two reps shy of technical failure, and that goes for both compound and isolation exercises. You can go to technical failure now and then, but it should be the exception, not the rule.
This way, you can ensure you’re exerting enough effort in your workouts to keep getting bigger and stronger, without asking for an injury or symptoms related to overtraining.
Summary: You should end most of your sets one to two reps shy of technical failure, which is the point where you can’t complete another rep with proper form.
3. Is your training properly periodized?
Periodization involves splitting your training into different periods (hence the word) that focus on different aspects of your fitness.
When done correctly, periodization helps you better balance training and recovery by allowing you to push your body to its limits and then back off, before it backfires.
Research shows that periodization improves performance more than non-periodized training in a wide variety of sports, and studies also show that people who periodize their weightlifting programs gain more strength than those who don’t.
As getting stronger is the most reliable way to build muscle, this also means periodized weightlifting programs are better for building muscle than non-periodized ones, too.
That said, you don’t need to use a complex system of periodization, especially if you’re new to weightlifting. If you have less than one year of proper training under your belt, a simple, linear style of periodization will do the trick.
Two good examples of this kind of training are my Bigger Leaner Stronger program for men and Thinner Leaner Stronger program for women, which have you striving to gain reps and add weight to the bar each week for a couple of months before deloading and repeating.
After your first year or two of proper lifting, however, it makes sense to upgrade your method of periodization to something better suited to your needs as an intermediate weightlifter (like what you’ll find in Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger).
Regardless of what program you follow, the three foundational principles of periodization are as follows:
1. Your training involves progressive overload in the form of more weight, sets, or reps (in the case of weightlifting), or faster pacing, longer distances, more complex movements, less rest, or some other method in other sports.
2. Your training shifts from less specific to more specific as you progress through the plan.
In the case of weightlifting, as competitions involve lifting very heavy weights for single reps, this principle generally means progressing from lighter weights and higher reps (less specific to the sport) to heavier weights and lower reps (more specific).
3. Your training includes planned breaks to allow for additional rest and recovery.
Many periodization plans for weightlifting also involve periodically and strategically swapping out exercises for similar variations.
For instance, swapping out low-bar back squats for high-bar back squats, or barbell bench press for dumbbell bench press, or standing military press for seated military press.
There are a number of reasons this is a good idea:
1. It reduces your risk of getting a repetitive strain injury (RSI), which results from doing the same motion over and over until your joints cry uncle.
By doing very similar but slightly different exercises, you continue to strengthen the same muscle groups while reducing your risk of developing nagging pains.
2. It makes your workouts more interesting. As you know, progress as an intermediate to advanced weightlifter is going to be slow and hard-won. You might spend six months on an exercise only to add 10 pounds to your 1RM or a few reps to your previous year’s working weights.
By periodically focusing on different exercises, however, you give yourself a new challenge to look forward to. While your strength will still only improve in small increments, it’s much more enjoyable to focus on your back squat for 3 months and then your front squat for 3 months than to grind away at one or the other for 6 months straight.
3. It’s probably better for strength and muscle gain.
Research shows that training a muscle group with multiple exercises may be more effective for gaining muscle and strength, likely because it better stimulates every portion of the muscles.
The evidence is light, but it’s also supported by the fact that most successful bodybuilders and powerlifters have been doing this for decades now.
The key to effective exercise substitution is to approach it strategically, not willy-nilly based on how you feel or what you see other people doing in the gym. A good rule of thumb is switching only to exercises that directly train the same muscles and swapping every 8 to 12 weeks.
This way, you give yourself enough time to become proficient at the exercises you’re doing and make progress before replacing them.
All of these reasons are why I include a variety of exercise variations in my Year One Challenge for Men and Year One Challenge for Women, which include a year’s worth of workouts from my Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger programs, respectively.
If you want to learn more about this, including which types of periodization are best, what kind of results you can expect from periodization, and how to periodize your workouts, check out this article:
⇨ Should You Periodize Your Workouts? The Definitive Answer, According to 28 Studies
Summary: Periodizing your workouts is an effective way to break through training plateaus. A simple, straightforward periodization plan that has you increasing weight, reps, or sets for a few weeks, deloading, and repeating is usually sufficient.
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2. Are you sleeping enough?
If you don’t sleep enough, your body can never fire on all cylinders.
This is true regardless of whether you exercise, and if you do, good sleep hygiene is even more important. The more intense your training is, the more you need adequate rest to perform well.
An insightful example of this is a study conducted by scientists at Liverpool John Moores University that explored how sleep affects resistance training.
The researchers recruited eight men aged 18 to 24 and on four consecutive days, had them complete a one-rep max test for the biceps curl, bench press, leg press, and deadlift after a full night’s rest.
On each test, the scientists recorded how much weight the men could lift, as well as their mood and subjective level of sleepiness. Then, the men had to do the same one-rep max tests on only three hours of sleep per night.
After the first night of restricted sleep, sleepiness rose and mood worsened, but strength was unaffected.
On the second evening, though, strength, mood, and alertness were significantly worse.
By day four, all parameters fell off a cliff.
While this is a rather extreme example of the effects of sleep deprivation, other research shows even mild sleep insufficiency can compromise performance and post-workout recovery.
What’s more, while sleeping too little reduces performance, getting extra sleep can enhance it.
For example, a study conducted by scientists at Stanford University found that extending the sleep of basketball players from a range of six to nine hours to a minimum of ten hours in bed each night helped them feel fresher, more prepared and focused when playing, run faster, shoot more accurately, and train longer without fatigue.
Keep in mind, however, these were young, high-level athletes in the thick of their season, so it’s unlikely all of us need to rest this much for our purposes.
That said, we should give our body as much slumber as it needs, and according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society, that number is seven to nine hours per night for most people. A small percentage of people do fine with less, and some need more, but most of us fall in the middle.
Since genetics and age affect how much sleep your body needs, a simple way to determine what’s optimal for you is to pick a two-week period such as a vacation and go to bed at the same time each night without an alarm set.
Chances are, you’ll sleep longer than usual at first if you have “sleep debt” to cancel, but toward the end of the second week, your body will establish a pattern of sleeping for about the same amount every night.
That’s how much sleep your body needs. Make that the norm and you’ll never battle with the effects of inadequate sleep.
Summary: Try to sleep at least 7 to 9 hours per night, and adjust up or down based on how you feel and perform inside and outside the gym.
3. Are you eating enough?
We recall that our body’s muscle-building machinery works best when energy is abundant (and is markedly impaired by a calorie deficit).
Thus, if we’re not consistently eating slightly more calories than we’re burning, we’re almost certainly going to grind to a halt in our training.
Recall that for most people, 16 to 18 calories per pound of body weight is enough to keep the wheels turning, but sometimes, more food is needed.
For example, I often email with guys weighing 170 to 180 pounds who need to eat upward of 3,000 to 4,000 calories per day just to gain about 1 pound per week. Often, this is because they move around a lot throughout the day and don’t realize how many calories they’re burning.
Even more common, however, are guys who think they’re eating several thousand calories per day, but aren’t. In reality, they just track their intake poorly and don’t have much of an appetite.
Regardless of how high or low your metabolism or appetite is, as you get bigger and stronger, the amount of food you must eat to continue getting bigger and stronger will go up. Just as your calorie expenditure slows when cutting, it rises when lean bulking.
Thus, to maintain a large enough calorie surplus to keep gaining weight, you need to keep eating more. This is why it’s not uncommon for people to finish a lean bulking phase eating several hundred calories more per day than when they started.
If you’re stuck in the gym and your body weight also hasn’t budged in several weeks, chances are you’re just not eating enough. To find out, increase your daily intake by about 100 calories (I prefer increasing my pre-workout or post-workout carbs by about 25 grams) and reassess after a couple of weeks.
If that unsticks you, then keep your calories there for the next few weeks and see how your body responds.
If you’re progressing again, great—continue until you’re not, and then increase intake again. And don’t be surprised if you need to increase your calories like this every few weeks as you get deeper into a lean bulk.
If, however, your lifts are stalled but your body weight has been moving upward, eating more food will not solve the problem.
Summary: Your body builds muscle most efficiently when you’re in a calorie surplus, and 16 to 18 calories per pound of body weight is a good baseline for most people. If that’s not enough for you, increase your daily calorie intake by 100 calories for a couple weeks, reassess, and repeat until you’re gaining weight.
4. Are you deloading enough?
Symptoms related to overtraining can be insidious, particularly during the onset, when they’re mild and hard to recognize.
For instance, one of the first signs you’re pushing your body too far is that your strength and muscle endurance start to sag. Suddenly, your workouts feel much harder than usual.
This is nothing more than a buildup of physical fatigue. To fix it, you need more rest and less training, and that’s what deloading is for.
You can also take up to a week off training altogether, but I prefer deloading unless I’m feeling beaten up. Either way, this is one of the simplest ways to stave off stagnation.
So, if you’re not deloading, you need to start, and if you are deloading but very seldom, it’s time to make it a consistent aspect of your workout routine.
This is particularly true for intermediate and advanced weightlifters.
Contrary to what many people believe, deloading becomes more important the more experience you have, because the weights get heavier and volumes larger. Train harder, rest more, basically.
That’s why beginners rarely need to deload more than every eight to twelve weeks, and sometimes even less routinely than that. Intermediate lifters, however, should plan on deloading every six to eight weeks, and advanced ones every four to six weeks.
Summary: If you fall behind in recovery, you’ll plateau, and deloading every 4 to 12 weeks (more frequently the more advanced you are) is an effective way to prevent this.
5. Are you using good form?
Poor form can not only increase the risk of injury, but it can kill progress too, especially on the big, important lifts like the squat, deadlift, and bench press.
Why? Well, there are two levers you can pull to get stronger on an exercise:
- Build more muscle
- Get better at the exercise
Building muscle gives you the physiological “horsepower” to push, pull, and squat heavy weights, but achieving its full expression requires burnishing your technique.
At bottom, good form is all about moving the weight with as little wasted effort as possible—getting the barbell or dumbbell from point A to point B smoothly and efficiently. Thus, sloppy form wastes energy, and this impairs performance.
For example, when many people squat, they let their upper back muscles relax during the descent. This is undesirable, because it causes the bar to tip forward, throwing them off balance and preventing them from driving upward. What’s more, by relaxing one muscle group (their back), they’ll also relax other muscle groups (their core, glutes, or quads), which will also make finishing the rep much more difficult.
They also often allow their butt to rise faster than the barbell during the ascent, which forces the lower back to work harder than it should and fatigue quicker than usual. This also lets the barbell drift forward during the squat, which requires working to center it over the feet again (where it should be) before they can complete the rep.
Such subtleties won’t slow down a newbie, but as the weights get heavier, the energy cost of these imperfections and on-the-fly corrections becomes enough to hinder progress. When I get stuck on an exercise, I audit my technique by having someone take a video of me while I do it. Then, I review the footage to look for faults, and I often find something that pays off.
For instance, several months ago, I found that as I approached technical failure on the squat, I leaned too far forward on the way up. This was limiting my progress by putting too much stress on my hip flexors and lower back.
To correct this, I cut down on the weight to give my body a break and then worked on improving my form. Within a month, I had engrained the proper movement pattern and was shooting up in weight again, without undue hip-flexor or lower back strain.
If you’d like to assess your technique on the key lifts, check out these articles on how to squat, deadlift, and bench and military press properly:
⇨ How to Squat: The Definitive Guide (Plus 12 Proven Ways to Improve Your Squat!)
⇨ This Is the Definitive Guide to Proper Deadlift Form
⇨ The Definitive Guide on How to Bench Press (and the 8 Best Variations!)
⇨ The Ultimate Guide to the Military Press: The Key to Great Shoulders
Sometimes, you can’t fix a poor movement pattern easily due to mobility problems that are preventing you from freely and smoothly moving through a full range of motion.
The mobility exercises found here, if done regularly, should be enough to handle the most common mobility issues that get in the way of proper weightlifting.
Summary: Poor technique on key lifts can lead to a plateau. To find and fix technical faults, carefully review video footage of your training and address your form accordingly.
6. Are you doing too much cardio?
Cardio is a double-edged sword that can both help and hurt muscle growth.
It aids muscle growth by . . .
- Improving insulin sensitivity, which refers to how responsive your cells are to insulin’s signals and impacts your body’s ability to use nutrients to recover and build muscle
- Enhancing blood flow, which may help with recovery by improving the delivery of nutrients to muscles and the removal of waste products responsible for fatigue and soreness
- Increasing aerobic endurance, which may help you recover faster between sets
However, cardio can also hinder muscle growth by . . .
- Causing muscular fatigue and soreness that can interfere with your workouts and whole-body fatigue that can blunt your motivation to train
- Changing the expression of certain genes in a way that may inhibit muscle and strength gain
- Burning calories that you must replace to maintain a sufficient energy surplus for building muscle
So, how do you get the benefits of cardio without suffering the negative consequences?
Simple: don’t do too much.
Research shows that cardio’s downsides only become significant when you do large amounts, whereas low and moderate amounts are probably net positives.
How much cardio are we talking about?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but to maximize muscle and strength gain, limit your weekly cardio time to no more than 50% of your weekly weightlifting time. That is, if you spend four hours lifting weights per week, don’t do over two hours of cardio.
And remember that “cardio” doesn’t refer only to trotting on the treadmill—it also includes physically intensive hobbies like basketball, running, or cycling.
While there’s nothing wrong with combining such activities with weightlifting from the standpoint of your general health and well-being, it can interfere with strength and muscle gain if overdone.
If you’re plateaued and doing more than a couple of hours of cardio per week, rein it in and see how your body responds. Some people need to cut cardio out altogether to get unstuck.
Here are a few more tips for further reducing any negative effects of cardio on your strength training:
- Keep each cardio workout under 30 to 45 minutes, and definitely no more than an hour. This applies to cardio at a moderate to high intensity—not walking or other easygoing activities.
- Do your cardio and lifting on separate days if possible, and if you have to do them on the same day, try to separate each workout by at least six hours. Research shows that this will minimize cardio’s “interference effect” on your weightlifting workouts.
- Prioritize low-impact types of cardio such as cycling (my favorite), rowing, and swimming over high-impact options like running or plyometrics. This will reduce muscle damage and soreness from your cardio workouts.
- Keep high-intensity interval training (HIIT) to a minimum and stick mostly to steady-state cardio. HIIT burns more calories per minute than low-intensity cardio, but it also causes more fatigue, muscle damage, and wear and tear on the body.
Summary: Doing too much cardio can lead to a plateau. To avoid this, limit cardio to no more than 2 to 3 hours per week, keep each cardio workout under 30 to 45 minutes, try to do your cardio and weightlifting on separate days or at least six hours apart, and stick mostly to low-to-moderate intensity, steady-state cardio.
Breaking Through a Weightlifting Plateau, Step by Step
We’ve covered a lot in this article, so I want to wrap up with a simple, flowchart summary of what to do when stuck.
- First, make sure you’re training hard enough. Are you bringing your “A” game to your workouts? If so, are you achieving progressive overload—using enough volume and adding weight over time? Are you ending most sets close to technical failure? Is your training properly periodized?
- Next, make sure you’re using good form. Have someone take a video of you doing your compound exercises with heavy weights, and compare your technique to experienced powerlifters and bodybuilders. Is there anything you can improve?
- If poor form isn’t the problem, make sure you’re eating enough calories or protein. If you aren’t gaining weight, chances are you’re undereating and need to raise your calories to at least 16 to 18 calories per pound of body weight per day. If you’re eating sufficient calories, make sure you’re also eating at least 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day.
- If that doesn’t fix things, make sure you’re deloading enough. As a beginner you should be deloading every eight to twelve weeks, and as an intermediate to advanced weightlifter you should be deloading every four to eight weeks. This ensures you don’t fall behind in recovery, get injured, or burnt out.
- If deloading doesn’t turn the situation, make sure you’re sleeping enough. You should get seven to nine hours of sleep per night, but you may need to adjust that amount up or down based on how you feel inside and outside the gym.
- If you’re still stalled, make sure you aren’t doing too much cardio. Limit cardio to no more than two to three hours per week, keep each cardio workout under 30 to 45 minutes, try to do your cardio and weightlifting on separate days or at least six hours apart, and stick to low-to-moderate intensity, steady-state cardio.
In most cases, people don’t need to go beyond step three to resolve the problem, and if it isn’t tackled by step six, it’s probably time to come to grips with the fact that there just isn’t much left to gain.
As you know, we all have a genetic limit to how big and strong we can get, and once we hit it, there’s no way to advance short of steroids.
It may take a while to reach this point—about five years of proper training for muscle growth and possibly longer for strength—but it’s important to understand that with every ounce of muscle and strength we gain, we’re a little closer to the finish line.
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The Bottom Line on Breaking Through Weightlifting Plateaus
A weightlifting plateau is where the key (usually compound) exercises for a major muscle group are stuck at a certain weight for a certain number of reps for at least three weeks.
That is, if you haven’t been able to add weight or reps to any of the compound exercises for your chest or back, legs, shoulders, and so forth, for at least three weeks in a row, you’re stuck.
Most of the time, this is caused by an imbalance between training and recovery.
Sometimes it’s the opposite, though—too little training and too much recovery—and other times it’s something else altogether, including poor workout programming, nutrition, exercise form, or motivation to train.
Whatever the case, you can pinpoint what has you stuck by taking the following actions:
- First, make sure you’re training hard enough.
- If that’s not the problem, make sure you’re using good form.
- If that’s not the problem, make sure you’re eating enough.
- If that’s not it, either, deload.
- If that doesn’t fix things, make sure you’re sleeping enough.
- If you’re still stalled, make sure you aren’t doing too much cardio.
That’s all it should take to find and fix the problem so you can start making progress again.
This article is from the second edition of my bestselling fitness book for experienced weightlifters, Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger, which is now live everywhere you can buy books online. Click here to learn more.
What’s your take on weightlifting plateaus? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
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