Plateaus in weight-training suck.
Plateaus in fat-loss suck, too.
Plateaus in our strength and performance? You got it
— they suck!
No longer do we need to fall victim to the plateau; throughout
this article, I'm going to give you 5 GUARANTEED ways to
analyze and break through your lifting plateaus.
Interested? I thought so!
In our article series Overcoming Lousy Leverages Eric Cressey and I detailed how lifters of different body types
could overcome specific plateaus in the powerlifts. While
this was great, it got me thinking: How can I make this more
general? More universally applicable? How can I take
this information and boil it down to common principles versus
As the saying goes, "Give a man a fish, feed him for a
day. Teach a man to fish and feed him forever." I
want to teach you how to fish!
Mike doesn't really want to teach you how to
fish — ya' see, it's a metaphor.
Before we get into all the answers, though, we need to be clear
on one thing — if you aren't training intelligently, it
doesn't matter what training program you're on or what
exercises you choose, you're probably not going to see
Let's briefly examine the ways you can screw up your
training before we get into the solutions.
The Fine Print
Just like all guarantees, there's got to be some fine
print. When you buy a TV, the manufacturer gives you a
guarantee that they'll replace it in the first year if it goes
kaput. I guarantee that if you follow the ideas I outline in
this article, they'll help you make progress towards your
But what if you take a golf club to your TV? I'd put
cash money on the fact that your TV manufacturer isn't going
to replace it. Hence the need for fine print and
stipulations. The above ideas will work assuming you
choose the correct path and train intelligently.
Before we discuss the stipulations, let's quickly look at
the physiological principles behind training and recovery so you
understand where I'm going with all this.
The Physiological Basis of Training
Your body likes homeostasis; the less adapting it has to do, the
better. Homeostasis on the graph below is called
When you train, you force your body to respond to the stimulus
by adapting; this could involve improving nervous system
efficiency, strengthening tendons, ligaments, and muscles,
increasing muscle size/cross sectional area, or a combination of
all these factors.
Now if you were to continue training the same body part day
after day, or kept training day after day intensely without a
break, eventually you reach the "exhaustion"
stage." Whether you want to call it chronic
overreaching, overtraining, or anything in-between is
irrelevant. You must give your body adequate time to
recover to ensure long-term success.
As your body builds resistance, it slowly becomes a bigger,
stronger and more efficient version of its previous self.
This is what we're all aiming for:
Supercompensation. However, it doesn't stay this way
forever! If you train hard you'll achieve
supercompensation a few days or even a week or two later (depending
on how much fatigue you have accumulated), but you can't wait
a month or two before training again and hope to keep those
gains! If you wait too long after the initial session(s),
your gains eventually trail off and the training effect is
Granted this is a long-winded answer but these principles are
critical if you really want to smash current
But enough with explanations; let's get on to the
Stipulation #1 — You Train Hard Enough to Elicit
This should be simple: I could give you the best
information in the world, but if you don't train hard enough
to force your body to adapt, you're not going to make
In training terms, we have to induce a certain stimulus to force
our body to adapt. In the graph below, this is called the
"alarm" stage; you train your body hard enough and it
says, "Hey, I need to do something about
This stipulation is simple — once you understand WHAT you
need to do training wise, you need to go out and do
Stipulation #2 — You recover well enough to achieve
Let's assume you trained hard and forced your body into
some level of the "alarm" stage. The next goal is
to actually recover and get into the "supercompensation"
area of the graph. Simple enough, right?
Let's say you have a great squat workout and induce the
right amount of fatigue to see a training response. But
instead of going home and resting up, you go out and booze until 6
a.m., sleep two hours, and then go out and train again the next
day. Do you expect to achieve results? If you do,
you're a dumbass!
Just like we need to train hard enough to elicit a positive
change, we need to recover hard enough to achieve
supercompensation. Entire articles have been written on the
topic of recovery so I won't bother getting into the details
here, but you must achieve supercompensation if you want to see
progress over the long term. Recovery is an integral part of
Stipulation #3 — You train frequently enough to
continue the cycle
You've trained hard and supercompensation has
commenced. You've won the battle right?
Yep — but that's only a small part of the war.
The goal is to continue taking advantage of the supercompensation
effect; to continue building, driving your fitness levels to
As you can see in the above graph with intelligent training your
new "baseline" keeps going up — you're getting
stronger, losing body fat, or developing bigger muscles. Just
like you wouldn't make one deposit into a bank account and
expect the balance to go up (without interest, of course), you
can't train once or twice a month and expect to see continual
Here's a quick recap of our stipulations:
You must train hard enough to elicit change
You must recover hard enough to achieve
You must train frequently enough to continually increase your
I only mention these stipulations because I have to; far too
many trainees aren't heeding to the basic, core principles of
training. These same people would say, "I used that
information from Robertson's article and it didn't do
squat for me!" If you aren't following the basic
physiological principles of progression, you aren't going to
see progress, PERIOD.
With that out of the way, let's jump right into this
— 5 GUARANTEED ways to smash your plateaus
Plateau Buster #1 — The Set-up
Many of the lifts you make or miss are determined before you
actually move the bar. If your set-up sucks or is
inefficient, it's going to affect the rest of the
movement. This concept was solidified in my brain in the
winter of 2004.
As a coach of the USA World Bench Press team, I got to spend
three days watching the world's best do what they do —
BENCH! How technical can a bench press be, though? You
just plop down on the bench and lift the weight,
These lifters were extremely efficient with their technique,
sure. But what really stood out was their efficiency when
setting up. These lifters used everything from their feet, to
their legs and hips, to their upper back and arms to stay
tight. This tension led to rock-solid set-ups and absolutely
ridiculous poundages being hoisted.
(If you'd like a thorough recap on how to set-up properly
for the bench, be sure to check out Yo, How Much ya Bench? In the T-Nation
I couldn't possibly go through all the exercises out there
and detail how to set-up. But if you continue treading water
on one exercise, go back to the beginning and figure out if your
set-up is the cause. Leaning too far forward on squats at the
beginning? Not on the heels at the beginning of your
deadlift? Did you just plop down on the bench and expect to
move big-boy weight?
A rock-solid set-up is the first key to making plateaus a thing
of the past. Don't discount the importance of this
"Clown don't know the first thing about setting up for
the bench press."
Plateau Buster #2 — Technical Perfection
In this day and age, the average trainee is bombarded with
training information from a variety of sources. While
I'm sure all of them mean well, the "average"
trainee often falls victim to overanalyzing their body and/or
training program. Worse yet, quite a few suffer from
paralysis by over-analysis where they do absolutely
Here's a great example: I took on a new trainee a
while back who wanted to focus on improving his squat and
deadlift. When I arrived, he had several ideas as to what was
holding him back from a performance and injury prevention
perspective. Was it his hip mobility? Ankle
mobility? I was immediately impressed because he'd
obviously been doing his homework and talked the
So we approach the bar and had him squat. It was
atrocious! All the things you DON'T want to do, he was
doing: He was too upright, feet too close together,
didn't sit back, the works. It wasn't that he had
some sort of biomechanical limitation, he just couldn't
squat! After a few minutes of technical cueing we immediately
had him squatting more efficiently.
When we're talking training, the first thing you should
focus on is technical perfection with all your lifts. Problem
is, everyone wants to get into the gym and immediately focus on
gunning their lats or blasting the bi's. There's no
focus on the performance of the lifts
Can you front squat and power clean? If not, don't even
bother following an intermediate or advanced program until you
can. After all, performing the lifts well is what's
going to determine your success; not training poorly and following
the most advanced program you can find.
Now I know what many of you will say, "Where can I find
articles on weight training technique?" So I've
compiled a ton of resources right here.
10 Tips for Flawless Squattin'
6 Tricks for a Sexy Squat
Taking it one step further, knowing and understanding proper
technique is great. However, I've talked with many
trainees who can talk shop with the best of them, but once they get
under the iron they're lost! If this sounds like you,
seek out a qualified trainer or gym where they understand how to
lift. There's nothing better than having someone
consistently coaching and critiquing your technique.
Plateau Buster #3 — The Body Part
Once you have your set-up and technique down pat, at some point
you're going to encounter a plateau. The key is to have
multiple ways of addressing the weak links and bringing them up to
par. This first method is viewing things from a body part
The bodypart perspective is quite simple; figure out which
muscle group(s) are weak, strengthen them, and then watch the
primary lift go up! Zatsiorsky defines this as delayed
transmutation; strengthening a specific muscle group with a
non-specific exercise. So while a lunge may not transfer
directly to an improvement in your squat, it could.
Here's an example:
You miss your squats towards the top, indicating a weakness in
the quadriceps. To combat this, you insert short-stroke
lunges into your accessory work to strengthen the quads. Once
you've increased the strength and size in the quadriceps, your
body will learn to translate this increased quadriceps strength
into your squat motor program, and thus obliterate your sticking
Now I understand everyone here doesn't have a Ph.D. in
biomechanics or anatomy, so I've given you some basic ideas
with regards to sticking points and specific muscle groups.
However, with the release of the Building the Efficient Athlete DVD
there's no reason you shouldn't be able to understand
functional anatomy and how it correlates to your
Quads, Glutes, Hams
Chest, Shoulders, Triceps
Plateau #4 — The Sticking Point
The sticking point perspective is very similar to the body part
perspective, except this time you'll be training a specific range of motion versus a specific muscle group.
The problem with the body part perspective is this: What if
you don't understand functional anatomy? And therefore
what muscles groups are lagging behind? In my estimation, the
sticking point perspective is more easily applicable to beginners
or those who don't have a firm grasp of biomechanics and
To use the sticking point perspective, simply train your
sticking point and the positions above and below it. The
research on functional isometrics by O'Shea determined that
isometrics not only increased strength at the joint angle you
trained, but also 15 degrees above and below that position.
So don't worry if you miss a squat at 85 degrees of knee
flexion and you're training at 79; the carryover will still be
The key here is to utilize exercises that specifically train the range of motion where you miss. Pretty simple,
eh? If you miss a bench press right off your chest, a 1-board
press should be a good exercise to train. If you miss a
deadlift at the top, use heavy rack pulls. When in doubt, use
the grid below to give you a starting point.
High Box Squats
1 1/4 Squats
Rack Pulls (Mid-shin)
Snatch Grip Deadlift
Plateau #5 — The Speed-Strength
"Train what's weak and you shall become
strong." But what if strength isn't the issue at
That's right, forcing the strength issue could be akin to
beating your head against the door when you could simply open the
door and walk through it!
Once you achieve an intermediate level of strength, you need to
have an understanding of what kind of lifter you are.
I've detailed the speed-strength continuum below. On the
left side of the continuum we have our true speed freaks; these
people are very explosive. On the right side of the continuum
we have our brute strength guys; these people have that slow, grind
it out strength like a mack truck.
Countermovement jump, sprinting
Jump squats at 30% 1RM
Speed squats at 60% 1RM
Now think about where you are on this continuum. Are you
more of a strength guy? If so, you typically rely more on
brute strength to move lifts. As well, heavier lifts for you
may take an inordinate amount of time as you "grind" the
lift to the top. If you fall more towards this side of the
continuum, chances are you'll respond favorably to speed
Louie Simmons and Dave Tate have discussed this topic ad nauseum
in their articles. They spent so much time developing an
amazing strength base, it wasn't until they took a step back
and focused on improving speed that they saw big jumps in their
On the other hand, are you more of an explosive lifter?
Explosive or speed based lifters are very fast and like to utilize
the stretch shortening cycle in their lifts. These lifters
natural propensity towards the "speed" side of the
continuum dictates that they'll see the greatest benefits
while training with heavier weights and consistently focus on
adding pounds to the bar.
I'm a great example of someone on the "speed"
side of the continuum. When I focus on adding pounds to the
bar from week-to-week, I see the greatest benefits. In
contrast speed-work does very little for me from a training
perspective; in fact, I think the greatest benefit of speed work
for me is the increased focus on training the competitive lifts and
dialing in my set-up and technique, NOT the actual speed training
Chances are you already understand whether you're more of a
"speed" guy or more of a "strength" guy —
with that in mind train the opposite and see what it does for your
Do you ever wonder what the difference is between the guy who
continually makes gains and the guy who looks the same
year-after-year? While we can't discount the
psychological differences between these two lifters, understanding
how to choose appropriate lifts to bring up weaknesses is something
every lifter should know and understand. The better you
understand the body and how to choose appropriate exercises, the
less likely you are to suffer from plateaus and poor overall
Start applying these principles today and see what intelligent
training can do for your progress!