Why Can't Johnny Grow?
Things started out great for Johnny. After just a few weeks of training in his garage with an old set of cement-filled weights, he noticed changes in his body. His arms got bigger, his pecs popped out, and his legs started to look like something other than the bottom half of an anorexic chicken. This was going to be a snap, Johnny thinks. Why, in a few months, he'll look like a fitness magazine cover model and in a year or two he'll look like a circa-1975 Arnold. No problemo. Bodybuilding, he decided, was easy.
Bu then something bad starts to happen: the gains slow down. In fact, after several years of hard training, gains not only slow, they appear to stop! Is this it? Johnny thinks. Do I now have to bust my butt just to maintain? Damn, I'm not even close to being satisfied with my physique yet!
Johnny thinks about using steroids. He thinks about throwing in the towel and giving up. Both thoughts are unfortunate because most likely Johnny is overlooking something in his overall plan. In fact, there's very likely something simple holding him back, but it's these simple things that are often overlooked, even by experienced lifters.
So this article is for Johnny or anyone else who's asked the question, "Why have I stopped making progress in the gym?" I'll list a few of the most common problems and provide some options on how to fix them.
Sticking Point #1: Your Diet is Poor or Incomplete
In many ways, "newbie gains" are a double-edged sword. On one side, it's very cool seeing how quickly the body can change. On the other side, those rapid gains (often achieved despite lack of training knowledge and an inadequate diet) can spoil you. You may think that since you gained quickly as a beginner, your progress should always be so fast and easy. As everyone soon figures out, that just ain't so. So ironically, the more experienced lifter has to work harder than the newbie to keep the gains coming. The main thing the experienced lifter must learn about is diet.
As I've written before, I think most people are looking in the wrong direction when trying to get themselves out of a rut. They focus on training when it's really their diet holding them back. Newbies can make some progress with a poor diet, but more experienced guys can't. If your progress has stalled, the first thing you need to do is examine what you're eating.
So what is a poor or insufficient diet? That depends on your goals, but the most common problems are:
Not enough calories. (Or too many if your main goal is fat loss.)
Not enough protein. The bare minimum you should get while trying to add mass is 1 gram per pound of bodyweight.
Poor food choices. Some people follow a diet plan correctly in terms of macronutrients (protein, carbs and fat), but choose very poor sources for those macros. For example, instead of chicken breasts and oatmeal, they choose chemical-laden lunch meats and sugary cereals. Hey, a carb is a carb right? Wrong, Captain Self-Deception! It's not just about getting the number of grams of protein and carbs right, but getting them from good food sources. It does make a difference. See our Foods That Make You Look Good Nekid and Lean Eatin' articles for lists of good food choices.
Choosing the wrong diet to fit your goals. You may be following the Fat Fast diet to a "T," but if your goal is to gain muscle, it ain't gonna happen on an extremely low-carb diet. T-mag has a ton of diets available for you to choose from, but it's up to you to match the diet to your goals. It's also a very good idea to choose either fat loss or muscle gain as your main goal. Most people just can't pull off both at the same time and need to focus their energies on one or the other. If you want to lose fat and gain muscle, it's usually best to drop the fat first. Why? So you won't end up being a fat guy with great forearms at the end of your bulking cycle!
Most of these diet-related problems can be solved by keeping some type of food log for a few weeks. Read T-mag's article here for more info on that.
Sticking Point #2: Your Training Program has Stagnated
What's the best training program out there? Simple: the one you're not doing. What the heck is that supposed to mean? Well, it means that all training programs work for a while, at least until your body adapts to them. If your progress has come to a halt, it's past time to switch training programs.
You probably already know that it's a good idea to change your training program every six weeks or so. That means to change around your training split, change exercises, switch the order in which you perform exercises, or add weight or otherwise alter the load.
Here are a few simple examples:
If you train chest and back together on the same day, you probably start with chest. Try starting with back and doing the exercise you hate the most first instead of last.
Start the training week with your weakest body part and weakest lift for that body part.
Use an unusual split. For example, for calves, most people hit them on leg day at the end of the workout, usually with standing calf raises. Try this instead: train the calves on a day other than leg day, say, arm and shoulder day. And instead of doing standing raises at the end of the workout, do one set of seated calf raises at the beginning of the workout, another set sometime during the arm and shoulder workout, and then do another final set at the end.
Stop doing squats and hamstring curls for a full month. Instead do stiff-leg deadlifts and barbell hack squats. Dump bench pressing and do nothing but dips and incline flyes for six weeks. Replace back squats with front squats. You may be surprised at the results. For more exercise ideas, read our continuing Exercises You've Never Tried series.
Do you use mostly free weights in your workouts? That's good, but for a week or two do nothing but machines just for variety and shock value.
Replace all barbell exercises with dumbbells for a month. Do dumbbell squats, dumbbell deadlifts, dumbbell bench presses, dumbbell rows, dumbbell overhead presses etc. If you already use a lot of dumbbells, switch to bars.
Specialize. In other words, instead of trying to bring up all your muscle groups at once, focus on one body part and just maintain the others. Let's say you want to bring your arms up. Train them hard twice per week and every other muscle group only once using low volume (not many sets). This is not only a nice change of pace, but may be the real secret to making gains once you have several years of experience under your belt and are well past your "newbie gains" stage. Not sure how to set up a specialized program? Ian King has written one for just about every muscle group.
One problem I see with stagnated trainees is that many aren't willing to make big changes in their programs. Sure, they'll do barbell curls instead of dumbbell curls for a few weeks, but will they totally abandon their previous ways of thinking and adopt whole new programs? Not likely, and that's too bad because the gains could be waiting just around the corner.
Want something totally new? Look at your current program and then choose a new plan from the T-mag archives that's the most opposite, even if it seems a little odd to you. Been using long rest periods and low reps in your powerlifting style program? Drop it and try EDT training. Been blowing away every muscle group with twenty sets a workout on a five day split? HST training.
No matter how you do it, change is one of the keys to your continued progress. And hey, it can be fun too!
Sticking Point #3: You're Overtraining
You're hitting the weights five times a week and things just aren't progressing like you'd expect them to be. It's the most natural thing in the world to think that more training sessions or longer workouts are the answer, but that's usually just not the case. More is very rarely better (unless you're training only once a month on some sort of bastardized super HIT program.)
Your problem could be that you're doing too much already. Believe it or not, many hardcore six-day-a-week trainers have made drastic jumps in progress when backing down to a three-day-per-week program. Some have also backed down from twenty-one sets per workout to twelve and saw their gains take off again.
Now, you've probably heard that there's no such thing as overtraining, only under-eating and under-sleeping. Well, those who say that do have a point (albeit a simplistic one), but there is such a thing as overtraining. Probably the most overlooked factor in overtraining is life stress. Simply put, if you're stressed out, your body isn't going to be in an ideal muscle-building or fat-burning mode. During these times in your life (or any time when you think you've overtrained):
Take more rest days per week.
Don't train more than two days in a row without taking an "off" day.
Lower the number of sets per workout.
Avoid training to failure.
Avoid using a super-slow eccentric (negative) rep speed (which take longer to recover from).
Adopt a few recovery accelerators (relaxation techniques, massage, stretching, cool showers, proper post-workout nutrition etc.).
Remember, it's not just about training hard, but training smart. Smart training begins by realizing that recovery is just as important as training in the big picture.
Sticking Point #4: You're in a Mental Stupor
Much like stagnant training programs, a stagnant mental state can hamper your progress. You know your mental state is in need of a kick in the britches when you find yourself dreading going to the gym and bored once you get there. How do you bust out of it? Adopting a new training program is a great start, but here are a few other tips:
If possible, switch training environments, at least for a few weeks. Pretend you're interested in signing up at a new gym and make them give you a two week trial pass. (Hey, they screw us daily, time to make them bend over for once!)
Bring your own music. Tired of boy bands and top 40 puffery? Bring a Walkman or MP3 player into the gym.
Get an exercise gadget. No, not one of those devices made for dumb people advertised on late-night TV, but a serious training tool that received a good review in T-mag's "Stuff We Like" column. Just as with sex, trying a new gadget will bring some spark back into your program and make going to the gym fun again.
Get a motivated training partner or dump the semi-comatose dork you're working out with now.
Try a new supplement. This can be psychologically motivating if it's something you're excited about using. Being on something also makes people stick to their programs because they see missed workouts and cheat meals as wasting the money they spent on supplements.
Set new goals. For example, instead of focusing on adding an inch to your upper arms, focus instead on increasing the number of chin-ups you can get in a weekly test. If your goals have always revolved around bodybuilding or powerlifting, try some Olympic lifting or strongman lifts. You might be surprised when you add that inch to your arms anyway.
Sticking Point #5: You've Reached Your Genetic Ceiling
Yes, there is such a thing as a genetic cap on lean muscular gains. The good news is that most people who train with weights never reach this limit. Oh, they think they do, but as I said before, usually there's something else (like diet) causing the problem. (And if I hear one more 18-year old posting on the T-mag forum that he's "peaked out" I swear I'll track him down and squat him to death!)
After those great newbie gains, most people only put on a few good pounds of muscle per year. This can get frustrating. Luckily there are plateau-busting substances out there to give us a boost. Steroids are an option for some people, but given their legal status as well as potential financial and health risks, there're not an option for most.
Luckily, there are effective and legal options available these days in the form of pro-steroids, myostatin blockers, and other supplements. Just don't make the common mistake of thinking that no legal item can work as well as an illegal one. That was true once, but not today. For more info, see our Supplement Roundup article.
Most importantly, don't use genetic limitations as an excuse for not making progress. Most people that claim to be plateued aren't paying attention to their diets or aren't training smartly. If you haven't been keeping a training log or a food log for at least a year, then you have no right to even utter the words "genetic limitations" or "plateau."
If I had to put these in order, I'd say the first thing you should look at when you find yourself not progressing is your diet. Your training program would come next. The least likely cause for the average lifter to stop making gains is the genetic ceiling, so take care of everything else before you start cussing Mother Nature.
No matter the cause, the solution is the same:
1) Be open-minded and willing to try something new.
2) Be willing to work hard both inside and outside the gym.
If you can do those two things, you'll reach your potential in record time and maybe even blast through that so-called "genetic ceiling" when you get there.