How to Break Through a Lifting Plateau

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If you start lifting, those first few weeks are a godsend. Sure, you may be in pain at times and confused about how to do each new exercise, but every week, maybe every workout, you may add more weight to the bar and you will feel unstoppable. However, no pull for weight gain goes on forever. So what to do when the weights stop climbing?

This is the phenomenon often referred to as the “plateau,” and while it seems hopeless, there are innumerable ways to break through. Unless you’re an advanced strength athlete nearing the end of your athletic career (in which case, don’t read this article because you now know how it works), there is always a way forward. Here are some options to consider.

Do more instead of taking a break

While people sometimes suggest taking a break to see a temporary spike in your numbers, this is it just a short term illusion (we all raise a little more when we’ve just taken time off) and not investing in your long-term profits. We usually have to do more to get better.

More what? Well, if you’ve stuck with the same light weights for too long, just take the next heavier dumbbell. If you’re working out at home with bodyweight movements that are too easy to do, you’ll need to find more challenging moves, buy some weights, or actually get your butt off to a gym. Any exercise is better than none, and that might be the ethos you started with. But whoever wants to improve has to ask (as running coach Jason Fitzgerald wisely worded) what is the next logical step.

If you’ve already challenged yourself adequately, you probably need more volume. Think of this in terms of sentences per week. If you bench press for three sets of 10 reps once a week, that’s not a lot of volume. Do five sets of bench presses twice a week, and now you have up to 10 sets for the week in total. Even if you are already in the range of 10-15 sets per week (a typical recommendation), more is probably even better. When preparing for a powerlifting meeting, I had to bench six times a week in my program, or a variation of bench presses for at least five sets each. If you didn’t know, my bank shot up.

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Choose your technique

If you want to improve yourself in a particular lift, correcting your technique can go a long way in getting gains back on track. Hire a coach if you can, or ask a trusted, knowledgeable friend for a form check. (Don’t just ask in an old internet forum; be selective about where your advice comes from.)

You can also watch videos of trainers or experienced lifters going through the intricacies of the tech of your chosen lift. Moloch has one Series “Pillars of …” on squat, bench, and deadlift techniques; Catalyst has a lot Articles and Videos on technique for snapping and clean and wank.

Get more variety in your training

Have you been doing the same lifts over and over and not much else? Maybe you specialize too. Coaches of all sports will talk about dividing your training down into things specific to your sport or focus, as opposed to building a base with GPP, which is general physical preparation.

For a runner, GPP can include strength training and mobility training. For a strength athlete, you may need (and I’m so sorry for that) to do cardio, conditioning, mobility, and exercise with a variety of rep ranges.

So, if you’ve only done a handful of exercises and they are always done in sets of five, doing some or all of the following will greatly improve your fitness:

  • Some work harder (heavy singles or triples)
  • Some work easier (sets of 10 or even 20)
  • Various exercises (not just squats, but also leg presses and lunges)
  • Cardio (like workouts on the exercise bike)
  • Conditioning (workouts where you do weightlifting exercises or body weight movements at a pace that makes you breathe heavily – Crossfit WODs are an example)
  • Exercises that you usually skip (e.g. core work)
  • Mobility (including, but not limited to, Strain)

These may not increase your numbers right away, but they will definitely make you a more versatile athlete. Think of this stuff as an investment in your future no matter what happens to your numbers this week.

Get a new exercise program

Are you following an up-to-date program? It’s a major cause of plateaus (I’m just making this up, but I’m also sure it’s true). Instead of training what you feel like doing every day, choose a pre-built program or pay a coach or trainer to write one for you.

A program is a roadmap to get you to a goal. It shows what exercises to do, how hard, what rep ranges, and what else to do (that GPP stuff) to improve. You also need to hold on to it long enough to see results. If you’ve skipped a lot of workouts or “accidentally” “forgot” certain exercises, all you may need to do is follow the program that you are supposed to be doing.

If you’ve been working on one program for a while but it doesn’t work for you, you may need another. Here, too, a coach or experienced friend can be at your side with advice and action.

eat more

If your fitness goals have been a mix of strength and looks – for example, when you’ve been trying to lose weight or get leaner – you may need to take some time to prioritize one over the other.

Your body needs fuel (calories) to exercise hard and protein to build muscle. If you are dieting at the same time, you are not giving your body a lot of energy. If your diet is a priority, you have to accept that your results at the gym may not be ideal. But when you’re ready to get stronger, experiment with eating more food, and especially more protein, and see where that takes you.

While you’re at it, make sure you sleep well as often as possible. Eating and sleeping are the two biggest things you can adjust to help you recover from exercising.

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