It happens to the best of us: training plateaus. But where do they come from, what are they actually and how do you best deal with these dreaded plateaus?
What Are Training Plateaus?
Training plateaus are a topic of interest to everyone who has been training long enough to experience them. A lot of times, at least in my dictionary, they indicate a strength plateau, most likely on one exercise, sometimes on more. If you’re a bodybuilder, you might experience a gains plateau, but this is rare, takes time to identify and can be avoided with relative ease by adhering more strictly to rules of proper training, rest and nutrition. We will be discussing several methods of going past plateaus, and I’ll complement each one with a personal example to illustrate the issue more clearly.
The usual bodybuilder way of looking at these things is to pick a training method from the shock technique toolbox. These include drop sets, giant sets, extended sets, rest-pausing, partials (including the 21s technique), implementing static holds, doing superslow or paused reps, etc., and they have two things in common.
The first common trait of shock techniques is that they aren’t regularly used in training. Most of the time, you’ll do straight sets with proper rest in between, using full ROM reps, mostly not going above the count of 15, with a moderate tempo, slowing the negative and having a more powerful positive. Shock techniques violate several, if not all of these practices, by ushering much longer sets with little or no rest in between consisting of faster or slower than usual reps, and not necessarily going through full ROM. In order to progress, your body needs to be given something to adapt to. Most of the time (and this is by far the most efficient technique for sub-advanced trainees) this is accomplished by increasing mechanical load, i.e. progressively adding weight to exercises, session after session. It can also be done by changing your training, and shock techniques find their value in the fact that you can change your training up without switching exercises in or out of it – you just change the way they are performed.
The second thing to note about shock techniques is that most of them, in effect, correspond with practices of cumulative fatigue style of training, also known as volume training. Despite the name, volume training isn’t only about volume, it’s just about doing more. An example of volume training would be the 100 pullups race – you simply complete a 100 reps of pullups in the shortest time possible, using whichever set/rep scheme you wish. Now, even though you aren’t doing them loaded, these 100 pullups will put on a lot more workload than your usual 20-30 reps in a few weighted sets. Note that this amount of work is beyond that which is sustainable over longer periods of time – doing 10 sets of squats week after week is most likely way too much for a regular trainee, but throwing in such a workout every few months might just be the thing needed to switch things up a bit. This is why shock techniques will get you sore – you’ll probably double your volume while having fun and doing something new, which will contribute to more effort being put into the workout itself.
My problem with shock techniques is that they’re usually portrayed as quick and easy solutions to the plateau problem. Some plateaus are quick to go, but, in my experience, most aren’t, and it takes several workouts to bust through them. Shock techniques are fine, but I consider them a short-term solution, and as such inferior to long-term strategies discussed in sections to follow.
Ditching An Exercise
Here is something that you’ll rarely hear – if an exercise repeatedly fails to deliver results, ditch it. It might seem simple, but people seldom decide to take this step. It’s easier with smaller, unimportant exercises – if the French press hurts your elbows, ditch it! Sissy squat makes your knees ache? Gone!
It’s the bigger exercises that give us pause, especially the more outspoken ones. Almost everyone bench presses. In strength training circles, everyone does the back squat. These ideas are on the right trail, but they aren’t definitive answers. You see, there are certain movements that you should have in your training – presses, squats, rows, chins, and hip hinges like the deadlift. Nobody ever said that the main pressing exercise has to the flat barbell bench press, or that wide grip pullups is the only favorable chinning movement. These exercises are vastly productive, but not with the same magnitude in each and every case.
Here’s a personal example: I don’t do flat barbell bench press, at all. It hasn’t been a part of my routines for some time now, and I don’t see it coming back in near future. What happened? I trained the FBBBP for years with fairly disappointing results. This is, of course, a subjective measurement, because, I wasn’t exactly a weak bencher – my max BP has always been around 1.5x BW, which is kind of poor compared to my performance on some other exercises, but still far from being bad. You can say I didn’t like it, but the truth is more in line with the fact that it didn’t feel right. I guess it’s the way I’m built – I’m tall, long arms, wide but flat. On top of this, I’m vastly shoulder/triceps dominant in any pressing movement. Even after trying out the powerlifting style of BP-ing, my ROM was insanely long, and I never felt my chest working properly.
So what did I do? I switched to incline BP as my main prone bench pressing exercise. I have always had a much better feeling on it, both for the movement and muscles being engaged. My progress was much quicker, and I enjoy(ed) doing the exercise week in and out. Bear this in mind: if you’re kicking out a big exercise, you must have a good, similar replacement for it. It’s usually a variation of the exercise, including a slight change of form or equipment used. And, of course, just deciding to ditch a main compound requires a lot of work and experience on it. Nobody is comfortable with an exercise the first time he does it. It takes time to master the form and give enough effort in to be sure that there are better alternatives. After all, any work done in a big exercise always pays off, regardless of how unsuited it might be for your particular use.
Accepting Slow Progression
For most people, chinning exercises are slow to progress on. There are people who are good at them and progress close to a 1.5x BW chin relatively quickly, but I aren’t one of those people.
The issue with exercises that naturally involve a very high percentage of your bodyweight into their total resistance is that you can’t always be sure of the load you’ll use – unless you step on a scale and weigh yourself before the first set. For one, your bodyweight can fluctuate a lot during the day – water weight, being carb loaded or depleted, going to the toilet beforehand or not, or, on a wider scale, returning to the gym after a holiday season during which you ate yourself out like a pig. All of this can have the same effect as putting/removing several kg on the bar for pressing or rowing. The second thing can be evident if you work out at home. For example, my pullup bar is outside the house, in the back yard, so when I go there to do my chins in the winter, I’m sure to have around 5 extra kg of resistance (winter coat, boots, thicker clothing) compared to my summer workouts. Even if you take these variations into account and blame them for poorer performance, chinning progress will most likely still be very slow.
A tip I’d like to give out for those struggling to progress further on weighted chins in the usual 5-12 rep range: don’t forsake high-rep unweighted chins. Out of personal preferences, I do chinups weighted and pullups unweighted. For a long time, I had been doing both weighted, never going above 10 reps. Finally I plateaued, on something like 15 kg added for 3×8. By that time, I had also became fed up with doing these heavy, high-tension chins, so I decided to give myself a small workout vacation and do high-rep sets of pullups (something I have always liked – being able to bang out pullups almost as easily as pushups). The first time I tried, I stopped at 14 reps, mostly due to arm fatigue. I continued the practice for a few workouts, striving to beat the first set rep-wise (I always did 3 sets to kick in enough volume). Within two months, I was (back) at doing 20+ reps on the first set, and, oddly enough, my weighted chinup numbers have finally gone up as well. Since then, I always make sure to include both low-to-moderate rep weighted chinups and high rep unweighted pullups into my training.
Hesitation To Progress
Lots of times, you see people rushing to move a lot of weight in an exercise as soon as possible. Usually these are some mythical numbers associated with equally mythical exercises, such as the 100 kg bench press, which is revered by people who don’t go to the gym and newbies alike. But there’s also the exact opposite case, in which people hold themselves back on an exercise because they are approaching or already have approached a weight they deem as too heavy, or because they’ve seen on the net that a role model of theirs (someone whose physique they want to achieve) is using exactly X pounds on that particular exercise.
In essence, this isn’t a plateau, but it can hold progress back just as a real one. It’s also quite a simple problem to solve, with the difficult part being in identifying its existence in the first place. I had the issue with my calf raises. I’ve read mixed reports on calf strength, from Hugo Rivera saying somewhere that his calf raise machine is always loaded to 1000 lbs, to Stuart McRobert’s writings in Beyond Brawn that claim moving a 60 lbs DB for a set of twenty on unilateral standing calf raise is in the same range as a 385 deadlift for a set of 15. I had always done my calf training in a particular way, emphasizing full ROM and special tempo, and thought this to be more in line with McRobert’s teachings and that a 60 lbs DB would satisfy my desire for a 16+ inch calf. I tried it, basically for years, and it didn’t work, so one day I cracked and decided to start stacking more and more plates onto the DB handle, even at the expense of a bit faster negative. Within a few months I was up to using 55 kg DB for sets of 12, and finally had seen some calf growth again.
So, the lesson is basically this – the old rule of “mind your own weights and not someone else’s” has two sides. The first one says that you shouldn’t try to reach someone’s weights at all costs. The second continues by saying that reaching these weights doesn’t guarantee the same amount of muscular development, and that there’s no reason for you to hold back on your progress (unless you willingly want to, of course).
Fear And Mental Barriers
We all have periods where our motivation is low. You don’t feel like putting hard work at the gym at all, except maybe on your favorite workout day, or, even less, on just your favorite exercise or two. It may, however, come to happen that, despite your motivation levels being normal or even high, a certain workout or an exercise seems to defeat you before you even attempt it. Most of the time, this is because the workout/exercise is brutally hard, and achieving progress on it requires blood and guts regardless of how you structure and periodize your training. This is somewhat a common phenomenon with people who train on all-out, HIT routines. I experienced this fairly recently with the second workout of my microcycle, called B1.
B1 is a sort of a legs/back workout, and most of the time I absolutely dread it, especially now in the summertime, when it’s regularly 30+°C in my gym occasionally quite humid as well. Here’s how the workout is outlined – I start with trap bar deadlifts, then do some unilateral leg extensions just to give myself some time to catch my breath and lower my heart rate, proceed onto lunges, rest for 10 min, do chinups and finish with DB rows. The problem here is that my equipment limitations have forced me to become imaginative and make this workout twice as hard as it would’ve been. You may or may not know this, but my trap bar is home made. I tested it on 150 kg, but I dare not test it above it. Of course, I can deadlift that weight whenever I feel like it, so I started doing high reps on it to somewhat compensate for the lack of loading.
On the other hand, this forced me to search for a new “overload” exercise for the lower body, so I turned to doing heavy unilateral movements. At first I did split squats, but then switched to lunges. Now, I’m already exhausted and my grip is weakened from 15+ reps TBDLs, and just seeing the 50 kg DBs prepared for lunges lying there on the floor makes me imagine how I’ll struggle to keep the them in my hands and how winded up I’ll be after doing just six reps because of all the heat and humidity and I end looking at the end of the last set of lunges as some kind of salvation which never seems to come early enough.
This is a kind of mentality you wish to avoid. It’s certainly better than skipping the workout or not giving effort at all, but working out should be enjoyable, if not fun, most of the time. You have to go in the gym thinking of how you’ll smash those weights and have a good time in the process and then go home thinking of all the rewards this effort will give you over time. So, here are a few tricks to preserve that kind of mindset even when confronted with a workout such as my B1:
1) Use your warmup set to convince yourself that the working sets will be easy as well – generate maximum force on your warmups. If you’re squatting, accelerate the bar so much that it’ll nearly leave your shoulders once you stop at the top (plates clinging is a perfectly normal thing here). If deadlifting, rip the bar from the floor, make it seem like the weights are made of plastics. Of course, as the warmups get heavier, you’ll get slower and slower, but if you put in enough force in it (and especially if the working sets are high-rep), it’ll still look and feel fairly easy. Then come your working sets: approach the bar and think how the last warmup set was easy, and how this is just 20 kg more, and how 20 kg is light a weight, and go and rip the set. If you did it properly, the set won’t feel particularly hard or slow until the last third of it, leaving you with enough mental effort in the tank to put that one extra rep you’re striving to achieve.
2) With low-rep, high-load exercise, think of how brief the set will actually be, and convince yourself that you don’t have much time to wuss around and make every rep count – this is a simple two-pronged assault, targeting your need to progress and, at the same time, comforting you by how short the effort will be.
3) Try to wipe out exhaustion and feel strong before a set – stand up, walk around, comfort your breathing and tense your body. Kind of like hitting the most muscular pose, but without that much theatrics. It should help you feel stabile and powerful, but also focused enough to utilize that power where necessary.
I’ll tell right away that I endorse perfect training form for regular training purposes. However, a plateau isn’t a part of regular training, so it calls for some rule bending. Basically, it’s fine to loose the form a bit in order to get more work done by minimizing the interference of sticking points.
This mostly relates to pulling exercises and overhead presses. All pulls (chins, rows) have a sticking point near the top of the ROM. It’s easy to start at the bottom, but nigh impossible for a lot of trainees to bring your chest to the bar. On the other hand, presses tend to be problematic near the end of the first half of the ROM (if doing overhead presses, you’ll easily be able to drive the bar at the bottom, but then it will slow down radically between nose and forehead level). It is fine, in order to bust the plateau, to assist yourself with a slight (and I mean slight) kip at the hip or knees in order to overcome the troublesome part. Again, don’t turn the press into a push press or normal pullups into those kipping pullups monstrosities.
I never recommend loosening form on squats, deadlifts and bench presses, of any sort and variations. You can do it on most isolations, but I don’t see a point there since you shouldn’t measure your progress by weight increases on isolations (save for couple of exceptions, like calf work), and most isolations are dispensable (I wrote extensively on that in this series).
Every post-beginner trainee is bound to experience strength plateaus. Major, systemic ones can and should be avoided by planning your training out (periodizing), but there are instances when progression on an exercise or two decides to play hard to get. There are many techniques and methods to be attempted in such a case, and a handful of those was examined in this article: shock techniques, loosening form, overcoming fear and mental barriers, and also a few different solutions, like completely removing an exercise from your routine. I intended to write a few words on strength goals for an intermediate trainee, but I’ll save it for some other time. Train smart, train well!