How to Easily Break Through a Strength Training Plateau
Guest post by Radu Antoniu of Think Eat Lift:
There is no universal formula for fixing strength training plateaus because they can be caused by many things. Strength progression is the natural consequence of:
- Training with the right volume, intensity and frequency
- Having Good Nutrition
- Using effective exercises
- Using a good progression system
- Allowing proper recovery (usually not the issue)
If you are stalling it means one of these things is done wrong and that is preventing your body from adapting and getting stronger. To identify what the problem is in your case, you must compare what you’re currently doing to that which is known to work. If you identify major differences you know that is what you need to change.
Let’s get started.
1. Train with the Right Volume, Intensity and Frequency
Volume = the total number of reps you do per week
Intensity = how heavy those reps are (the rep range you’re working in)
Frequency = how often you train a certain muscle group
If you’re training with a good combination of volume, intensity and frequency, muscle and strength gains are almost a given. So if you are plateaued this is the first place you should check.
Most people look at training programs as “things”. They don’t try to understand what makes them effective, they just take them for granted. But if you study the best training programs in the world you’ll see they’re all based on the same fundamentals. And the most important is how they combine volume, intensity and frequency.
You can have high intensity, low volume, high frequency routines. You can have high volume, low frequency, medium intensity routines. Or medium intensity, medium frequency, medium volume routines. And many other variations.
But the common theme is that there’s always good balance between them. These need to be set in a way that complement each other and together create an adaptive stimulus. The best researchers and coaches in the world agree that a good default formula for muscle growth would be this:
40-100 heavy reps per muscle group per week
40-100 easier reps per muscle group per week
70% of those reps should be on big compound exercises
Each muscle group should be trained twice per week or once every 4-5 days
If you are a beginner or intermediate and you are stalling for no apparent reason, check if your training program fits this formula.
If you’ve been doing a classic high volume routine, adjusting it down to these recommendations and using mainly compound movements will almost always lead to strength gains. On the other hand if you’ve been doing a high intensity program, increasing volume to this range will recreate an adaptive stimulus.
Now, if your routine already fits the formula above, use this flowchart:
Are you recovered?
If not, take it easy for a week to allow your body to recover.
If you are recovered it means the current training stimulus is no longer sufficient to produce adaptation. To fix this you probably need to increase volume slightly. Not by much, usually by just one or two sets.
2. Check your Nutrition
Unless you’re a beginner, in order to gain muscle and strength properly you need to be in a slight calorie surplus or at least maintenance.
The role of nutrition in building muscle is permissive. Training is the stimulus and nutrition permits the adaptation to occur. If your body gets the signal to build muscle but it doesn’t have any raw materials (excess nutrients) it won’t be able to.
If you’re currently cutting and you’re not a beginner, very slow strength progression or stagnation is part of the game because your nutrition doesn’t permit the adaptation. But if you’re not cutting and you’re stalling, chances are you’re eating too little. Most guys that fail to gain muscle do so because they don’t allow their bodyweight to go up.
You don’t necessarily need to bulk but you do need to have periods of the year where your bodyweight is increasing.
Not eating enough was the mistake I did in my first year of training. My biggest frustration was not being able to get past 145 lbs on incline bench press…145 lbs. That’s so pathetic I’m ashamed to even call that a plateau.
As soon as I allowed myself to eat more and gain some bodyweight my strength increased rapidly. That was without making any changes to my routine.
3. Use a Good Progression System
A lot of people overlook this part of their program. We tend to think that progress will happen automatically and we give no thought to how we’re going to load the bar.
But you can only afford to do that as a beginner because our body improves less and less between workouts as we become more advanced. Some coaches believe the rate of improvement between workouts is less than 1% in intermediate lifters.
There are many good progression models out there. I’m not going to talk about all of them here but I’ll go into detail for the one I found best for myself: the linear periodization model.
Let’s take a routine example:
Monday – Upper Body Back Emphasis
- Weighted Pulls – 3 sets of 4-6 reps
- Seated DB Shoulder Press – 3 sets of 4-6 reps
- Machine Rows – 3 sets of 6-8 reps
- Incline DB Bench Press – 3 sets of 8-12 reps
- Machine Lateral Raises – 3 sets of 12 reps
Wednesday – Lower Body
- Barbell Front Squats – 3 sets of 4-6 reps
- Sumo Deadlifts – 3 sets of 4-6 reps
- Single Leg Press – 3 sets of 8-12 reps
- Barbell Lunges – 3 sets of 10 reps
- Standing Calf Raises – 3 sets of 12 reps
Friday – Upper Body Chest Emphasis
- Flat Bench Press – 4 sets of 4-6 reps
- Cable Rows with a different handle – 3 sets of 8-12 reps
- Weighted Dips – 3 sets of 6-8 reps
- Standing DB Curls – 3 sets of 10 reps
- Seated DB Triceps Extensions – 3 sets of 10 reps
- Bent over Flyes – 2 sets of 15 reps
A good way to set up your progression is to increase the weight slightly every workout while decreasing the reps by one. The 4th week of the month is a deload week where you allow your body to recover from the 3 weeks of progressive overload.
For example, here’s how you progress doing 3 sets of 4-6 reps:
- For your first workout you choose a weight that allows you to complete 3 sets of 6, without needing a spot and without hitting failure on the last set.
- Next time you perform that exercise you will increase the load and reduce the number of reps by one.
- The 4th workout is a deload day where you intentionally reduce both the load and reps.
- On the 5th workout, you go back to 3 x 6 and increase the load to slightly more than what you used the prior time you used 6 repetitions.
Here’s how that would look like in a table:
No matter what progression model you use, the basic idea is this: match the rate of weight increase with your rate of improvement. If your body can only improve by 1% between workouts, only increase the weight by 1% or less. Otherwise you will lose reps and it will become harder and harder to add those reps back.
4. Use Effective Exercises
Studies and observations have shown that big compound exercises (multi-joint movements) build strength and muscle faster and better than isolation exercises. Research has also shown that free weights are more effective than machines for gaining strength and muscle.
The reasons this is true are still unclear. A good explanation would be that our body is designed to function as a whole, not in parts. When we push a car for example, we don’t push only with our chest. We plant our feet firmly in the ground, brace our core, tighten our back and using our chest, delts and triceps we push the car.
This may be the main reason compound exercises are the best muscle builders: they work our muscles the way nature intended.
If your routine consists mainly of isolation exercises such as chest flyes, curls, triceps extensions, one arm rows, leg extensions, etc and you’re plateaued try going back to the basic free weight movements: bench press, chin-ups, rows, shoulder press, squats and deadlifts.
This simple change often solves the plateau.
5. Allow Proper Recovery
Proper recovery does not mean just getting enough good sleep, being relaxed, and eating well.
Recovery means being able to cope with all stressors and improve above the baseline performance. For this to be possible the stressors must not surpass your body’s maximum recovery ability.
So part of proper recovery is actually managing stress:
- Make sure your training volume, intensity and frequency are well balanced. If one of them is too high and the other two don’t compensate for it you’ll eventually end up in an overreaching or overtraining state.
- After 3-5 weeks of progressive overload, do a deload to reduce the stress put on your system.
- Do only low amounts of cardio (1-3 hours per week) if your training volume is high or moderate
- Eliminate as much stress as you can from your daily life. The reason for that is because all stressors (including mental and emotional stress) sap into the same “recovery reserve”.