Here's what you need to know...
- Before you get deep into specifics, run a basic checklist: How's your diet, sleep, and stress levels? Have you clearly defined your goal?
- If gains have stopped, check your mobility, stability and symmetry. Then look at your program. Is it fancy yet ignoring the basics, like big lifts where you're trying to add weight regularly?
- One of the most effective plateau-busting strategies is to simply do the opposite of what you're currently doing. If you've been doing a split routine, try doing a whole body routine. If you normally do 3 sets of 10, try 10 sets of 3.
- Use accessory movements to strengthen the weakest link in your big movements. For instance, use hip thrusts to train the glutes, or use paused front squats to help with weak deadlifts off the floor.
You were doing great for a while, but then you weren't. Your muscles were growing, and then they stopped. If those grim descriptions fit you, then it's time to take a step back, ask yourself a few hard questions, and practice a little physiological detective work. Following are 10 strategies you absolutely have to consider to get yourself back on track.
1 – Run the basics checklist
Success in training is about relentless application of the basics. Before you look for a complex solution to your training frustrations, honestly reflect on the following questions:
- Do I have a clearly defined goal?
- Is my training truly focused on that goal or am I distracting myself with cool but non-essential exercises or techniques?
- Do I have unrealistic expectations? (Am I trying to be ripped by Tuesday? Am I expecting to gain 40 pounds of muscle in a month?)
- Am I utilizing the big, hard, uncomfortable, result-producing exercises?
- Am I keeping a training journal?
- Am I getting better at these exercises by regularly adding weight?
- Am I training consistently?
- Am I following a program for an appropriate amount of time or am I guilty of program-hopping?
- Am I consistently monitoring goal-relevant assessments (e.g., girth measurements)?
Also, be sure that your out-of-gym factors are taken care of by reflecting on these questions:
- Is my nutrition on track? Am I keeping a food log?
- Am I consistently using the right supplements for my goals?
- Do I get enough sleep?
- Am I getting sufficient rest? (Is that two-hour post-training game of pick-up basketball killing my muscle gains?)
- Am I managing my stress effectively and proactively avoiding unnecessary stress?
You've heard this stuff before, but are you consistently doing it? Print off this list and put a check or "X" beside each item that might need some improvement. Then, actively address the X's. Many people mistakenly look for a programming solution when they aren't practicing basic training, nutrition, or lifestyle habits.
2 – Check your mobility, stability and symmetry
While this makes more sense if your goal is athletic performance, don't skip by this one even if you just want to look good naked.
Sometimes the body stops progressing out of fear of injury. It doesn't want to keep adding more pressing power to an unstable shoulder or squatting power to an unstable hip or low back. Sometimes plateaus are your body's way of telling you to stop and address an issue. Here are few practical things you can do:
- Get a functional movement screen or some other type of evaluation from a qualified coach to see if you have issues. The fastest way to find and fix these is with professional help. However, if you're a do-it-yourself guy or gal, the following points will provide practical ways to help with this.
- Stand normal and have someone take a picture of you from the front, back, and side. Are you a posture poster boy/girl? Do you have noticeable left-to-right differences in your alignment or muscular development?
- Look at your lifts. For example, what weights can you do for a low-incline dumbbell bench press? Can you flip over and do similar weight and reps with a prone dumbbell row? Unless you're specializing in powerlifting, they should be pretty close. Both Ronnie Coleman and Dorian Yates could do bent-over rows with their bench press weight and they owned two of the best backs in bodybuilding history.
- Move different joints on your left and right side of your body and note any differences in mobility or ease of movement.
- Try out different stretches and see if you feel a certain stretch way more on one side of the body than the other.
- Get on a foam roller and lacrosse ball and go over each of the major muscle of your body. Note how painful each area is and prioritize the painful spots. These are the ones you want to be hitting at least once a day.
- Test some unilateral lifts such as the single-leg deadlift (dumbbell or kettlebell held in opposite hand), one-arm dumbbell bench press, one-arm half-kneeling shoulder press, single-leg squat, half-kneeling cross-body chop and the Turkish get-up. Note right-to-left differences in mobility, strength, and stability.
- Have someone film you doing a bilateral lift such as a squat. Watch the video to see if you notice any shifting or twisting of your hips.
If you identify issues, deal with them, or even better, get assistance from appropriate professionals. Once you give your body symmetrical mobility, stability, and strength, it'll be able to take you to the next level of performance.
3 – Simplify
The internet provides endless access to exercises and training programs. While it provides a lot of information, it can also cause a lot of confusion and distraction. The two most important things in training are:
- Pick awesome exercises (that are appropriate for you and your goals).
- Get better at these exercises by progressively adding weight.
The more complex you make training, the more you'll tend to stray from these two vital components. Simplifying your training will help you get better results today, but it also sets you up for better results in the future. Save those specialized training methods for down the road when you're really stuck.
4 – Add some strength work
Strength can be a limiting factor in reaching almost any goal. Want to get bigger? Getting stronger allows you to move more weight, even when you're doing the higher-rep sets, because it creates a greater growth stimulus.
Want to burn fat? Getting stronger allows you to run faster and lift heavier and thus burn more calories than a weaker person can burn in the same amount of time. Also, unlike endurance training, it teaches you to harness and expend energy rather than conserving it. Want to run faster or jump higher? Power is a combination of strength and speed so getting stronger is critical here as well.
Regardless of your goal, be sure that you're devoting some time each week to getting stronger. The cool thing about getting stronger is that it doesn't take a lot of time or complex programming. This can be practiced on a specific day where you take 2-4 big movements and do lower reps for a moderate volume (3-5 sets of 3-5 reps works great here).
Or you could do some strength training at the start of your training session with 1-2 heavy, low-rep compound movements and then move onto hypertrophy work, metabolic circuits, or other goal-specific forms of training. Strive to progressively add 2.5 to 5 pounds per session, depending on the lift.
Don't get greedy here. Trying to make massive weight jumps on a weekly basis is a sure-fire way to get yourself into a training plateau. Of course you won't be able to add weight indefinitely, but too many people have training program ADD and abandon this simple progression long before it stops working.
5 – Cycle back and re-gain momentum
If you hit a roadblock, drop the weight back about 10-20% and build back up from there. The lighter weights will allow you to tighten up your technique and give you momentum that sets you up for a future PR. While the thought of going backwards sounds horrifying, this effective strategy is basically taking one step back to take three steps forward.
Simple progressive overload will work for a long time, and when you add some simple cycling into the mix, it'll work even longer. Another great thing about cycling is that you can just use it for the exercises that you need to. If you're making great progress with most of your exercises but have stalled on a few lifts, you can cycle those exercises back while continuing with the others.
6 – Do the opposite
From a programming standpoint, one of the most effective plateau-busting strategies is to simply approach your goal differently. In other words, do the opposite of what you're currently doing.
Consider the following training variables:
- Periodization style (linear, non-linear, vs. conjugate)
- Weekly layout (whole body vs. split routines)
- Volume (high vs. low)
- Loads (high vs. low)
- Number or reps (high or medium vs. low reps)
- Training method (endless options here)
- Frequency per muscle group/movement pattern (high vs. low)
Reflect on your training history and consider trying the opposite for the above training variables. For example, if you normally do linear periodization, try non-linear. If you've been doing a split routine, try doing a whole body routine.
If you normally take a low-volume, high-intensity approach, try a higher volume, lower-intensity approach. If you normally do 3 sets of 10, try Chad Waterbury's famous 10 sets of 3. If you normally use a particular training method, try a different training method.
7 – Temporarily switch to a complimentary training focus
Sometimes, the best way to reach your goal is to leave it for a while, do something that compliments your goal, and then come back to your original training focus.
For muscle gain plateaus switch to:
- Strength training: The stronger you are, the more weight you can lift. Many top bodybuilders had a solid strength background.
- Fat loss training: Losing fat not only helps you see the muscle you have, but it can also improve insulin sensitivity and make the body more anabolic. Just talk to bodybuilders about how easy it is to gain weight and size after a competition.
For fat loss plateaus switch to:
- Strength training: The stronger you are, the faster you can sprint and the more weight you can use when you return to your metabolic training. The stronger you are, the more energy you can expend in training.
- Hypertrophy training: Gaining lean muscle cranks up your metabolism.
For strength plateaus switch to:
- Power training: Learning to express your strength more explosively is a great way to get stronger.
- Hypertrophy training: A larger cross-section to your muscle fibers means a greater potential for strength gains. This also gives your joints and tendons a nice break from the pounding of heavier training loads.
For athletic performance plateaus switch to:
- Strength training: Getting stronger helps improve your overall power and ability to put more force into the ground. This is the game-changer for athletic performance. Then, when you come back to more speed and power training, you'll have more raw strength to convert to power.
- Fat loss training: When athletes get lean, everything (speed, agility, vertical jump, conditioning, etc.) improves.
The trick with this method is to keep regular assessments. While you might lose a little ground in reaching your original goal when you switch focus, it should be minimal, and you can do some maintenance work here to prevent this. However, when you get back to your primary training focus, you'll enjoy some fresh new gains.
8 – Use "same but different" exercises
While there are countless exercises, there are a relatively small number of amazing exercises. However, for the handful of great exercises, there are many minor variations you can use.
While some people are constantly flipping around to different lifts and never getting good at any of them, others never make any variation. If you find yourself getting stale with a certain lift, switch to a similar variation. For example, with deadlifts you have these same-but-different alternatives:
- Trap bar
- Snatch grip
You can also modify grip width, grip diameter (thick bar), hand and wrist position (pronated, neutral, supinated), or stance. This will not only spark new growth, but give you some psychological freshness and prevent overuse injuries.
9 – Strengthen the weak link
This method was popularized by Westside Barbell's Louis Simmons. The idea here is the old clich&eactue;, "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link." With weak link training, you use accessory movements to strengthen the weakest link in your big movements. Here are a few examples:
- Use hip thrusts to train the glutes.
- Use safety squat bar good mornings to train the spinal erectors.
- Use ring fallouts or ab wheel rollouts to strengthen the abs.
- Use paused front squats to help with weak deadlifts off the floor.
- Use board or floor presses to build triceps strength for bigger pressing.
- Use farmer's walks to strengthen, well, pretty much everything.
An important point about this method is to only use it when it's appropriate. While this is a great method for more advanced lifters, it's not as helpful or necessary for newbies (though newbies may still benefit from exercises such as hip thrusts and farmer's walks).
For example, if I have a male athlete who's new to lifting and I notice his back rounding when he's deadlifting with weights under 315 pounds, I'm not going to accessorize his training with safety-squat bar good-mornings to strengthen his erectors.
Instead, I'm going to take some weight off the bar, provide him with extra coaching on how to get tight, and stop his sets at the first sign of technique breakdown. This will not only force him to use and strengthen his erectors, but it'll teach him how to use his whole body together on a big movement. If we find the same problem happening down the road when he's doing over 400 pounds, then I might consider the safety-squat bar good-mornings.
10 – Properly-timed deloads or active rest
Take a week off of training? Go to the gym and lift light weights? Are you crazy?
For many people, deloads and active rest happen naturally as they inevitably get them with their inconsistent training schedules. However, for many of us T Nation readers, we have the opposite problem. Our passion for training and burning desire to reach our goals leaves us never wanting to take time off.
Personally, I hate deloads. There's nothing I would rather not do than take time away from my barbell or go to the gym, lift weenie warm-up weights, and go home. However, there's one good thing about a deload or short rest from the gym – you return to the gym fresh and hungry for hard training!
I've taken three different approaches to deloads:
- Never do them.
- Do them every fourth week, regardless.
- Do them as needed.
The first approach can lead to burnout and plateaus. The second approach worked well, but it seemed like I was always stopping just when I had some good training momentum going. Currently, I take deloads or active rest on an as-needed basis. I've found that if I'm careful not to over-do training to the point of always needing a deload, and carefully monitor my performance and how my body is doing, I can go longer without deloads and make more steady gains.
Then, when my body tells me it needs a break, I give it a break. If you're in-tune with your body, then this third approach can work. Otherwise, consider a regularly scheduled deload every 4, 6, 8, or 12 weeks (depending on level, type of training and what you need).
While they're not fun, properly-timed deloads and the occasional time away from the gym can be just what you need to break through a frustrating training plateau.