Busting Through Plateaus
Unless you just started weight lifting yesterday, you have all experienced hitting a plateau. Whether it’s in regards to your maxes, the amount of reps you can bust out, or no longer seeing the muscle growth you desire, hitting that wall is no fun. If there is one good thing to say about hitting a plateau, it’s in the fact that at least your body is making physiological adaptations to the physical stress you are imparting on the muscles. Our goal is to completely avoid these roadblocks though and continue getting bigger, stronger, faster. Let’s quickly discuss why we hit these plateaus in our workout regimens.
Put quite simply, it’s because the human body is great at adapting to stimuli; it’s the key to our survival as a species. In this case, as we complete an exercise, breaking down our muscle fibers, our body repairs them and makes them larger and stronger so that this “stress” doesn’t happen again and so that next time we can more easily lift that weight so it doesn't stress our muscles as much. As our bodies try to maintain this normalcy or homeostasis, it becomes much harder for us to maintain our intensity levels in the gym. Eventually, you’re going to experience one of these dreaded plateaus if you lift long enough, but let’s go over some techniques to minimize their length and hopefully avoid them altogether.
First we’ll talk about some changes you can make outside of the gym; the amount of sleep you’re getting and how much you’re eating. Obviously the body needs sleep to make its repairs and do its growing so you are ready for the next gym session. The bulk of that muscle repair is done during your sleep cycle so getting an adequate amount is important. There are many studies out there which recommend an ideal number of hours an adult should get. Each person is different and through your many years of living I’m sure you have a pretty good idea of how many hours you need to have enough energy to get through the day and have a good workout. With that being said, 7-9 hours is a good number to shoot for. Not only is sleep important for the physical healing of your muscles, but even more important for the neurological rest and healing. This is especially important for those of you who enjoy heavy 1RM-type lifting as it can be mentally exhausting and the bulk of that work is done via the neurological connections from brain to muscle groups. Secondly, you may not be eating enough to sustain a more intense workout and this is why you have hit a rut. This is not a post where I’ll get in to the types of food you should be eating, hopefully they are healthy meals. As your workouts increase in intensity, you need to fuel that workout with increased calorie intake (but not just any calories).
Now let’s move on to the good stuff, the actual workout changes you can make. The first easy change you can make is changing up your program. A benefit to having a consistent program and schedule, is when you hit a plateau, it’s easier to elicit a change in your body by making very simple tweaks to the workout. You can change out some exercises for some new ones, keep all the lifts the same but do them in reverse order or change your reps and sets. If you have a very strict regimen you follow, a small change like this may be all you need to kick the plateau. If you are more of a go in the gym and “do what you’re feeling that day” kind of person, it can be a little trickier. One of the most common faults that leads to plateaus is poor technique. This is especially true on your big, compound lifts. If your form is bad, you can only progress so far until you reach physical limit based on technique; trying to “muscle through” a plateau with bad form will eventually result in injury. Find a spotter you trust (and with knowledge on form), and have them tell you how your form looks. An even better way to accomplish this is by filming yourself and then analyzing it. If you find yourself performing lifts incorrectly, back off on the weight and correct the form. You should then be able to continue your progression successfully.
Rest-pause sets are another great way to bust through your plateau. After completing an exercise until failure, you rest for a very short period of time and rep out that weight until failure again. This repeats 2-4 times at the end of your sets or you can just incorporate this in place of your typical sets for a week or two and then see how easy that new max will come. If that doesn’t interest you, another favorite of mine is 1 1/4 sets. These can be done for almost any lift but for ease of explaining them, I’ll use squats as an example. If you haven’t done these before, a good starting weight is 50-60% of your one rep max. In the upright squat position, squat down to parallel pausing momentarily, then squat upwards 1/4 of the way pausing momentarily, then it’s back down to parallel with a pause there, and then fully ascend to complete the first rep. A good rep range is 8-12 to really work the muscles and get them out of the normal workout routine they are used to.
Hopefully these tips and tricks will be helpful in keeping the gains coming quickly and avoiding a rut. These were a few of my favorite techniques but certainly not all that are out there, so share some of yours with us to help everyone out. Until next time, stay jacked!
This article was written by Marcel Blood with input from Joseph Peery, former Strength and Conditioning Coach