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How to Break Through Plateaus When Your Training Stagnates

Updated on August 12, 2016

Lack of consistent and reasonable progress is one of the top reasons people will walk away and throw in the towel on weightlifting.

Have you ever been at this point? You start working out and see growth that comes sometimes by the week. One week you are squatting 185, the next week 200, the week after that 210. Your beginning to see more fullness and size to muscles on your frame. People are commenting on these changes, and your confidence slowly inflates like a bicycle tire hooked to a pump. With changes and progress like this, you might just challenge Arnold Schwarzenegger's records in five years, right? As with every good relationship, there is a honeymoon phase, and then a fall back to reality. This doesn't mean it gets any worse, just different. This is no exceptions with lifting. Then come the weeks where your squat doesn't change week after week, after week. You might think, "I'm still working hard in each workout, pushing myself to failure most sets, and waking up sore in the morning. Why are my am I not seeing any progress?" This is a reasonable question to ask, and there are a few good answers.

You have hit what many seasoned athletes and gym goers call a "plateau". This is where your progress comes to a screeching halt and your body no longer reacts the way it used to to your lifting and sometimes eating regimens. This can be an incredibly frustrating period and causes some lifters to make rash decisions, sometimes even giving up and walking away. The truth is that this is not the end! It is a new beginning. How do you define a new beginning? Change. Here we will explore what sorts of changes can get you back on track and boost your lifts to new heights once again.

Reordering your workouts or adding new exercises can shock your body and force new kinds of growth.
Reordering your workouts or adding new exercises can shock your body and force new kinds of growth.

Order, Order!

Do you come into the gym only to jump right on the bench press, then proceed to go right to dumbbell shoulder press, and finish with cable flies? Could the front desk worker tell me what your normal routine is?

If so, here is your first problem. Not only do you not want the front desk worker to know your routine, you don't even want your body to know your routine. Your body will adapt to changes you make where it will eventually no longer be challenged by what it is put through. Once your body is no longer challenged, it will no longer grow. I know way too many people who I can predict right where they are going to next after they finish those seated rows. Do not allow yourself to become comfortable. You do not come here to feel sweet, you come here to sweat.

Try adding some new exercises to your routine. If you look on a website such as bodybuilding.com, you can find hundreds of variations to workout each muscle group. I personally love new exercises, and am usually the sorest right after adding one or two to my routine. This can be a great way to explore. Who knows, you may find your new favourite exercise!

If you have certain exercises that you really like to include in your routine, this does not mean you must neglect it one week and pick it up the next. Switching the order of your exercises can make the world of a difference. Lets say you like to do bench press, squats, shoulder press, and dumbbell flies. Trying reorganizing these lifts differently each week. Maybe one week you start with squats while another you jump to the bench press. Even switching two of those lifts is likely to make a difference. If you like to superset your exercises, trying switching it by the set. If you start with biceps curls and go to skull crushers, start with skull crushers for the next set and then do biceps curls. If your body never has time to adapt to the changes you are making, it will always be challenged and forced to grow.

Using a variety or rep ranges, or at least using different ones to supplement your preferred style of training can help promote new growth.
Using a variety or rep ranges, or at least using different ones to supplement your preferred style of training can help promote new growth.

Home of the Range

Many people are committed to a certain type of training. Some want to be body builders, some want to be power lifters, some just want to stay healthy and continue to remain functional. This sometimes locks us into performing a set number of reps for each exercise each time we workout. For example, if you are training for power lifting, you will most likely be doing six or less reps on every set. When your body hits a plateau though, sometimes switching to a different type of training for a short period of time, even if you are naturally a certain type of lifter or prefer only one type, can be incredibly beneficial.

I would categorize myself as a power builder (trains with a fairly equal emphasis on strength and aesthetics), but about 60% of the time, I prefer to train heavy (4-8 reps). When my strength hits a plateau, I do two or three weeks of more of a body building and higher rep range for my training. Though this is not my initial favourite, here I shock my body with a different type of training that helps it break past that plateau and gets the ball rolling again in terms of progress.

If you are indifferent to a certain rep range or type of training, I would recommend trying all the rep ranges and see which one you like best or best fits your strengths and gifts. The key is not to become locked into a certain rep range for too long. Usually about three or four weeks with a certain rep range is sufficient, and sometimes, but not always, this is where you might see some of your plateaus. Higher reps pumps up your muscles and recruits more muscle fibres to have greater strength potential later, and low rep training puts stress on your central nervous system and will allow you to lift more weight for longer durations (Time under Tension, TUT), so as you can see, even if you are committed to a certain type of training, different training styles can sometimes supplement one and other if done correctly.

Switching up the way your pair your muscle groups or the order in which you lift each group can help eliminate frustrating plateaus.
Switching up the way your pair your muscle groups or the order in which you lift each group can help eliminate frustrating plateaus.

Muscles of a Feather, Don't Always Flock Together

You've heard the cliché pairing. Chest and Triceps, Back and Biceps, Legs and Shoulders.

There is nothing wrong with this split, but have your ever considered pairing antagonistic muscles together? Antagonistic means when one muscle is contracted, the other is relaxing. For example, triceps and biceps. When you flex your biceps, your triceps are elongated and relaxed. This works vice versa too. This type of training can be a nice change from the pushing muscles one day, and pulling muscles the other day routine. Some experts argue that this is a superior type of training because when one muscle is being worked, the other is being relaxed and stretched, so when you go to lift the next muscle that was relaxing and stretching, it is not fatigued at all and you can do much more than if your pair together for example back and biceps where even after switching exercises, you are still using similar/ the same muscles.

This is personally my favourite type of training and I am currently engaged in a chest and biceps, back and triceps, legs and shoulders routine, which I do six a days a week, working each pairing twice. There are many different types of training beyond this even. There are full body workouts where you train every muscle a little bit each day, all the way to specific training where you only train one muscle group a day. Everyone has their preferences, but again, I highly encourage you to try different muscle pairings or orderings and see how your body responds to it.

Another thing you can do is switch up the days on which you work each muscle group. You might have heard that Monday is international chest day around the world, but throwing in a good leg day to start the week with a challenge is never a bad idea! Maybe if you normally train back and biceps on Monday, do them on Wednesday instead and start with Shoulders for the week.

Remember, the key is to keep your body guessing!

People often underestimate how long they rest in between sets. Shortening your rest periods can make for a better workout.
People often underestimate how long they rest in between sets. Shortening your rest periods can make for a better workout.

Rest Less to be Best of the Rest

Another factor that many people do not consider when looking to see what they can change about their regimen are their rest periods. A lot of individuals perceive their rest periods to be way shorter than they actually are. You have a quick chat with the guy next to you, grab a drink, pick up the weights again, and it has already been three or four minutes. If your a committed power lifter, this may not be so bad, but for most people this is way too long. Having an appropriate amount of rest can really ramp up the intensity and can change a lackadaisical workout, into a real gasser.

I always fell victim to this, and envisioned myself getting no longer than two minutes of rest in between each set. When I started a program that told me to remain religious to only taking a one minute rest, I brought a stopwatch with me to day one. I was so tired, burned out, and felt more inflated than a hot air balloon afterwards. The weight I was lifting had to be dropped down a little from what I usually did, but it was a way better workout than what I was used to. I have never regretted tracking my rest periods, and always feel like I have a much better workout when I shorten my rest periods.

Of course, your rest period should correlate to the type of training you are doing, but if you time yourself, I think you will be surprised at what even two or three minutes really feels like. Your tempo and your rest periods will dictate your workout, and good intensity is key to a good workout.

How do you first respond to plateaus?

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How will you respond when you face challenges and adversity? It's up to you!
How will you respond when you face challenges and adversity? It's up to you!

No Excuses!

Reaching a plateau can be physically and mentally frustrating, but this is no excuse for quitting or throwing in the towel!

All sorts of different obstacles will confront you throughout life and it is how you respond to them that makes all the difference. Having a quitters mentality will seep into other areas of your life and can infect them. Finding the will power and fight to move forward can also affect other areas of your life. If you want something bad enough, you will do what it takes to get it.

How will you respond? The choice is yours.

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