When it comes to working out, nothing is more frustrating than hitting a seemingly unbreakable weightlifting plateau.
If you’ve been lifting for any period of time, you know the rub: every day, you hit the gym hopped up on pre- workout drink and attitude, determined to push more weight than your last workout.
You load the plates, turn your music up loud, convince yourself it’s light weight, and hit the set with everything you’ve got… and it quickly humbles you. It feels damn heavy, and you end up doing exactly what you’ve been doing every week (or worse).
What gives? And what can you do to finally make progress again? Let’s find out.
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The human body is incredibly good at adapting to stimuli, and regardless of whether we’re talking metabolism or muscle mass, its goal is to maintain a normalized state wherein things more or less stay the same (homeostasis).
This is great for survival but not so great for building muscle and strength. As time goes on, the body gets better and better at adapting to training, and this is why many people fall into a rut: they simply don’t exert enough effort to progress.
The bottom line is once your newbie gains are behind you, you have to work damn hard to force your muscles to continue growing larger and stronger.
Physiologically speaking, what you’re going for is known as supercompensation. This is the process whereby the body augments existing muscle fibers, tendons, and ligaments to become bigger and stronger.
As you may know, the primary factor driving supercompensation is progressive overload—lifting more weight for a given rep range over time.
This is why a plateau in size is always accompanied by a plateau in strength. Rest assured that people who look the same month after month are lifting more or less the same weights month after month as well.
And this is why you want to avoid plateaus at all costs. If each week’s workouts are exact duplicates of each other—if you’re doing the same exercises with the same weights and for the same number of reps—you will be able to maintain your current physique and performance levels, but you won’t progress toward better a better state.
Now, a properly designed program and dietary regimen go far toward preventing plateaus. Nevertheless, plateaus are just part of the game–they happen to everyone, even if infrequently, and even on the best of programs.
So don’t despair when it happens to you. Patiently use the strategies in this article to break through these sticking points, and you’ll never fall into a real rut.
Now, before we get to strategies for overcoming plateaus, let’s first define what a plateau actually is.
Whenever people tell me they’re stuck on a program, I always ask for the details first. What do they mean, exactly?
Often, it turns out they are making progress; they just aren’t making the type of progress they want to see: they aren’t adding weight as quickly as they once were, or they aren’t improving on all exercises they perform in each workout, or aren’t living up to some other criterion.
I then explain what I want to explain to you here, which has to do with expectations and benchmarks.
Unless you’re new to weightlifting, you will not be able to add weight to the bar every week and maintain proper form and rep ranges. Instead, your weekly goal for each workout should be to increase at least one of your lifts by 1 or 2 reps, and it will usually be your first exercise.
For example, if you deadlifted 455 pounds last week for 2 reps, your goal is to get 3 to 4 reps this week (and you probably won’t get 4). If you do that and the rest of your workout is exactly the same as last week’s (same weight and reps for each subsequent exercise), that’s a successful workout.
I know that might sound odd, but just increasing 1 or 2 reps on one exercise is enough to induce supercompensation, and you should be happy.
Based on my experience in my own training and working with thousands of people, if your body is ready to progress, you’ll probably see an improvement in more than just one exercise of your workout, but sometimes it’s just that first big compound lift that improves, and the rest stays the same. Other times it’s the first set or two of the second exercise. Less often, the improvement could come in one of your Sarcoplasmic Sets. Regardless of how you improve, any progress means you’re not stuck in a plateau.
A true plateau is the situation where every lift in a workout is stuck at a certain weight for a certain number of reps for at least 3 weeks.
That is, lifting the same amount of weight for each exercise for the same number of reps for at least 3 weeks in a row. If that happens, it’s time to address it with one or more of the strategies below.
Improper form can kill progress, especially on the big, important lifts like the Squat, Deadlift, and Bench Press. If your setup or execution is off, you will plateau at some point, and if you try to power through it, you may get hurt.
If I’m stuck (and from time to time even when things are going well), I like to have someone video me while I’m performing each exercise so I can review my form. I’ll put the videos on my computer and blow them up big so I can see what’s going on. And more than once I’ve discovered something obviously wrong in my form that, when corrected, enabled me to progress again.
For example, several months ago, I found I tended to lean too far forward in my squats when the weight got heavy, which was putting too much stress on my hip flexors. This was preventing me from moving up in weight.
To correct this, I backed down on the weight to give my hip flexors a break and work on my form. Within a month or so, I was rapidly moving up again, this time with proper form and no hip flexor pains.
Sometimes correcting technique is trickier, though. And it almost always is due to mobility problems.
Fortunately, this too is fairly simple to correct. The mobility exercises found here, if done regularly, are enough to handle most problems.
If you don’t sleep enough, your body just won’t be able to perform at its best. And when you’re demanding a lot from it in the gym, getting adequate rest every night is especially important for both recovery and performance.
People have known this anecdotally for some time, but research backs it up. One study restricted the sleep of eight males aged 18 to 24 to three hours per night for three successive nights and found that their strength on the Bench Press, Leg Press, and Deadlift was significantly compromised and the workouts were much more fatiguing than usual.
While that’s a rather extreme example of sleep deprivation, other research has shown that milder amounts of sleep restriction also compromise performance and the body’s ability to recover from exercise.
Research has also shown that extending sleep to a minimum of 10 hours in bed each night increases physical performance (subjects felt better mentally, ran faster, shot basketballs more accurately, and were able to exercise longer before feeling fatigued).
Now, that doesn’t mean we should all sleep 10 hours or more each night.
In fact, studies have shown that only a small percentage of people actually need that much sleep. But we should give our body as much sleep as it needs, and according to the National Sleep Foundation, adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to avoid the negative effects of sleep deprivation. A small percentage of people do fine with less, and a small percentage need more.
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 out, but toward the end of the second week, your body will establish a pattern of sleeping about the same amount every night. And it’s trying to tell you something: that’s exactly how much sleep it needs. Stick to that, and you’ll never battle with the effects of sleep deprivation.
Overtraining can be insidious, especially in its beginning phases, when its symptoms are mild and hard to recognize.
When overtraining begins to set in, the first things to falter will be your strength and muscle endurance. Your workouts just start feeling hard, no matter what you do. This is nothing more than an accumulation of central nervous system fatigue, and it’s easy to handle (a Rest or Deload Week).
If you’re a week or two away from your planned Rest or Deload Week and you’re stuck and everything feels unusually heavy, it’s very likely that you just need to rest or deload a little early, and you’ll come back ready to progress again.
However, if you come back from your rest or deloading and remain stuck, it’s probably not an overtraining issue unless you’ve seriously abused your body over the course of the last 6 to 12 months.
Following a program like Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger doesn’t just require physical toughness; it requires mental toughness as well. Squatting, deadlifting, and pressing hundreds of pounds over and over isn’t for the lazy or weak willed.
Sometimes people fall into a rut simply because they don’t hit their workouts with everything they’ve got. Their minds are elsewhere, and they’re just going through the motions. We’ve all experienced this before, and it doesn’t take much to snap out of it once we recognize the problem.
Sometimes external factors are working against us. You know, the overly chatty or lazy workout partner, the tranquilizing gym music, the time of day (some people are noticeably stronger and more energetic later in the afternoon than early in the morning), or the nursing of an injury, even if mild.
The solutions to such problems are simple, of course. Let the Chatty Cathy know that while you have nothing against socializing, too much of it detracts from your workouts. Get an iPod and fire up music that gets your heart racing. Work out when you feel strongest and most energetic. Be patient with injuries and make sure they’re fully healed before you go full bore again.
There are often inner obstacles to overcome as well. Sometimes we psych ourselves out when trying to hit heavier weights, sometimes we’re too critical of ourselves, and sometimes we’re just in a bad mood or don’t want to be in the gym.
These problems can be easily brushed aside as well. Psyching yourself up for a lift or workout is just as easy as psyching yourself out: you can create your emotions at will.
Get fired up. Get ready to give it everything you’ve got. Visualize yourself hitting the lift perfectly. You don’t have to stomp around the gym like a raging bull, but don’t worry if you look a little “too into it.” You’re there to get results, not to impress others with your cool, calm demeanor.
When you’re in the gym, allow yourself the luxury of temporarily letting go of whatever other problems you’re dealing with in life.
Nothing is going to fall apart in the hour you spend moving heavy stuff. Keep your mind on the muscles being trained, the next rep, and the next set. Think of it as your meditation time.
In many cases, a plateau in weight, size, and strength is caused by nothing more than not eating enough. And for some people, “enough” is quite a lot.
For example, I regularly e-mail with guys weighing 170 to 180 pounds who need to eat upward of 4,000 to even 5,000 calories per day just to gain about 1 pound per week. In most cases, these guys are new to weightlifting, which makes that even more unusual.
As you get bigger and stronger, the amount of food that you’ll need to eat to continue getting bigger and stronger will likely go up. Just as you slowly reduce calorie intake when cutting, you often need to slowly increase calorie intake while trying to maximize muscle growth.
So increasing calorie intake is an easy way to get your numbers, both weight and strength, moving up. All you have to do is increase your daily intake by about 100 calories (I prefer increasing my pre- 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.
I’ve known quite a few people who would start to bulk around 3,000 calories per day and end at over 4,000 calories per day due to gradual increases necessary to continue making progress.
This is a good thing. It means your metabolism is healthy, and when you start cutting to strip away the fat you’ve gained, you’ll be able to eat quite a bit of food as you can gradually work your calories downward from that pinnacle.
It helps by improving insulin sensitivity (which refers to how responsive your cells are to insulin’s signals) which in turn improves your body’s ability to use nutrients to build muscle, and by improving muscle recovery via increased blood flow.
However, it can get in the way of muscle growth in several ways.
First, it burns calories that you will need to replace if you are to maintain a small energy surplus, and second, it places additional stress on the body, which can contribute to overtraining.
This is why research has shown that the more cardio you do and the more intense that cardio is, the more your strength and growth will be negatively affected. This is especially true for the “hardgainer” types who have trouble gaining size.
This is why I recommend that you do no more than 2 to 3 cardio sessions per week when you’re focusing on building muscle and that you keep each session shorter than 30 minutes.
And if you hit a plateau, don’t be afraid to drop cardio altogether for a few weeks while you unstick yourself. You can then add it back in once you’re moving again.
Sometimes you’ll hit the top of a given rep range, increase the weight a standard amount (10 pounds, whether by moving up 5 pounds in dumbbells or adding 5 pounds to each side of the bar), and fail to hit the bottom of the range on the next set.
For instance, you might Military Press 185 pounds for 6 reps, then move up to 195 pounds for your next set and only get 2 to 3 reps.
You have two options when this happens: you can work with the original weight until you can do a couple of additional reps over the top of the rep range (which should give you what you need to successfully move up), or you can increase the weight in smaller increments using smaller plates. Both work well, and it’s a matter of personal preference. I would rather add a little bit of weight than reps, but that’s me.
For example, you can drop back to 185 pounds and work with that until you can get 8 reps, or you can use smaller plates to move up to 190 pounds, or even less.
If you also prefer adding smaller amounts of weight (“microloading,” as it’s called), then you’ll like the products produced by a company called PlateMates. It offers small, magnetic plates ranging from 5/8 of a pound to 5 pounds, and you can attach them to dumbbells, Olympic bars, larger plates, and even stack-weight machines.
If you’re stuck one rep short of the top of a rep range you’re working in and you’re struggling to hit it so you can move up, sometimes it’s worth just giving it a shot.
You’ll get a rep or two less than you should on your next set, but you can give your body another week or two with that new, heavier weight to see whether it will adapt.
For example, let’s say you’re working in the 4 to 6 rep range on Squats and you’re stuck at 375 pounds for 5 reps. You can move up to 380 pounds, which will probably drop you to 3 reps for your next set (one short of where you’d like to be). The next week, however, you load up 380 again and see whether you can now get 4 reps, and the next week 5 reps, and so forth.
If, after trying this new weight for 2 to 3 weeks, you’re still stuck a rep or two short of the bottom of your rep range, then you should move back to the previous weight and use the other strategies in this article.
If you’re familiar with my work, you know I’m not a fan of fancy set schemes like supersets, drop sets, and giant sets, nor am I a fan of nontraditional training protocols like super-slow training, super-fast training, negatives, and the like.
Many have been scientifically proven to be no more effective than traditional set schemes and rep rhythms, and my experience is in line with the research (I used to do all kinds of fancy stuff and made poor progress with it).
That said, there is one “special” type of training that has both anecdotal and scientific evidence on its side, and that’s the Rest-Pause Set.
This is an old school powerlifting method for breaking through plateaus, and researchers from the University of Western Sydney recently studied it. They found it to be an effective way to increase strength via greater muscle fiber recruitment.
The Rest-Pause Set is very simple: You perform an exercise to failure (the point where you can’t get another rep without help) and then rest for a short period before performing the exercise to failure again, followed by a short rest, and another set to failure, and so forth.
If you’ve hit a plateau or just want to try this method of training, turn each of your sets into Rest-Pause Sets for one or two workouts, and then go back to your normal training and see whether that has unstuck you.
When I hit a plateau, I move through the above strategies in the order given.
- First, I make sure that my technique and mobility aren’t holding me back, that I’m getting enough sleep, and that I’m not overtrained.
- If those things aren’t the problem, I make sure that my mind is in the game and that I’m giving my workouts everything I’ve got.
- If that doesn’t resolve it, I assess my diet and may or may not increase my calorie intake (by now I have a very good feel for my body and when more food will or won’t do it).
- If diet isn’t the issue, I’ll cut back on my cardio for a couple of weeks and see whether that unsticks me.
- If it doesn’t, I’ll try stretching the rep ranges and/or increasing the weight in smaller increments.
- If I’m still stuck after a few weeks of that, I’ll do a couple of weeks of Rest-Pause training. I put this last on the list because, in most cases, it’s unnecessary. I view it as a last resort, and you’ll almost always fix it before getting there.
Once you’ve hit and broken through a few plateaus, you’ll get a good feel for what works best for your body. For me, it’s usually related to not sleeping or eating enough or to overtraining. And if it’s none of those things, stretching rep ranges and increasing by smaller increments fixes it.
Other bodies are different, however, and you’ll learn the best way to overcome plateaus through experience.