How to Overcome a Workout Plateau – 3 Strategies for Continued Strength Gains

How To Overcome A Workout Plateau

Sitting on the bench watching your timer work its way down to zero you can’t help but think that your warm up sets felt harder than normal. Unsure exactly what this will mean for your working sets you try to stay focused on the task at hand and not let this psyche you out.

As if no time has passed at all, the sound of your timer brings you back down to earth. You lie back and un-rack the bar, “shit this feels heavy”. You wonder what the hell is happening as you struggle to hit your reps, check your notes and count the plates to make sure you haven’t miscalculated the weight.

Nope, everything is as it should be. Apart from your strength that is.

Weirdly, after struggling through the first exercise the rest of your session passes without too much incident, nothing changes but it doesn’t feel as hard as the first exercise and you begin to think that maybe it was just a one off. After all, you’ve been sticking to your training plan and diet and you’ve been sleeping well.

You realise any glimmer of hope is gone when the same thing happens in your next session.

You load up the bar, lie back and “damn that’s heavy” is all you can think. Again, you check your notes to see if you’re using the right weight, even going as far as recalculating the plates on the bar. Yep, all is as it should be. So why does it feel so damn heavy? You can’t even squeeze out any progress on the rest of your exercises either, what gives?

Things continue like this for another couple of weeks before feeling fed up and demotivated you decide to do some research. After looking around on Google you determine that you’ve hit what’s called a workout plateau.

What Is A Workout Plateau?

@@A workout plateau is what happens when your body adapts to the current stimulus you’ve put it under.@@ When this happens your strength gains stall, sometimes causing your lifts to regress and for you to get weaker.

What you need to do to get past the plateau is provide a new, fresh stimulus and there are 3 popular and proven methods for doing this. However, before we dive into the strategies there are also a number of factors that can give the appearance of reaching a workout plateau without you actually reaching one.

Let’s look at these first.

Sleep

You know that sleep is important but did you know it can and will affect the quality of your workouts? Studies (1) shows that participants who were sleep deprived and restricted to 3 hours of sleep a night saw a significant impact on their performance in the bench press, leg press, and deadlift. Ok, sure pretty extreme but another study (2) found that even a small amount of sleep restriction can negatively affect performance (3).

Diet

What you eat can directly influence your performance in the gym, but you already know this which is why you track your calories and macros closely. Even increasing your calories by as little as 100 kcal can kick-start your progress again if you’re undereating. Additionally, when training in a calorie deficit you can expect your strength to stall after maintaining a deficit for a prolonged period.

Training

You already know that as you get further through your workout journey you’re not going to progress on all your exercises all of the time, you’ll reach a point where even adding a single rep on one exercise with everything else staying the same is still progress. If this is still happening you haven’t hit a workout plateau.

Technique

Bad technique leads to sub-optimal movement patterns and therefore sub-optimal performance, all of which results in you in lifting less weight than perhaps you can. So, before you declare yourself in a workout plateau it pays to spend some time working on your mobility and technique to ensure that it’s not your lifting form that’s holding you back.

Having tried and excluded all of these factors you can use on of the following strategies to get your strength back on track.

3 Strategies To Overcome A Workout Plateau

What follows are 3 tried and tested strategies for breaking your way through a workout plateau and making continued strength gains.

#1

Exercise Rotation

@@Exercise rotation is a simple solution to reset your strength building potential.@@

With exercise rotation, you continue working the same movement pattern and therefore the same muscles whilst allowing yourself to continue building strength and surpass your sticking point.

So how does this work?

Say you were to hit a strength plateau on your incline barbell bench press you would then switch out the barbell press for the dumbbell press which would allow you to continue training the same muscles but give you enough of a change in stimulus to kick-start your gains again.

A small change is enough.

You see it doesn’t have to be a huge change to allow your body to move forward and this is what’s so fantastic about exercise rotation, it allows to keep training the same muscle group without taking a break. That small change from incline barbell press to incline dumbbell press is really all you need.

All you need to do is rotate out the exercise you are having problems with for a suitable equivalent and just like magic you'll be on your way again. You'll feel more energised mentally and physically and will make consistent progress again. Depending on your training experience you’ll find that you’ll need to rotate one or two of your exercises every 6 – 8 weeks.

It couldn’t be simpler.

Examples of suitable exercise rotations:

  • Incline barbell press <----> Incline dumbbell press
  • Pull-ups <----> Chin-ups
  • Barbell shoulder press <----> Seated dumbbell shoulder press
  • Weighted dips <----> Close-grip flat bench press
  • Squats <----> Front squats
  • Deadlift <----> Sumo deadlift
Useful tip: You may find there is an initial re-learning curve whenever you switch from dumbbells to barbells and back again, where your body has to readjust to the movement pattern associated with the particular lift. If you want to avoid this then try warming up with the barbell for your dumbbell sets and vice versa. Give it a try, it doesn’t work for everybody but can work well for some.

#2

Rep Range Manipulation

You know to apply progressive overload and drive continual strength gains you have to manipulate one aspect of your workout to continue increasing the stimulus on your body and force it to adapt.

One way to do that is to manipulate your rep ranges.

Depending on whether you are using a fixed rep range i.e. 3 sets of 8 reps or a mixed rep range i.e. 1 set of 4 reps, 1 set of 6 reps and 1 set of 8 reps the method of progressive will vary a little.

Fixed Rep Range

When it comes to using a fixed rep scheme you won’t always be able to increase the weight in every session. For example, if you were doing 4 sets of 12 reps for bicep curls starting with 5 kg dumbbells you might be able to progress steadily up to using 8 kg dumbbells but at some point, it will too difficult to keep increasing the weight. 

At this point, you want to manipulate or stretch your rep ranges to allow you to continue progressing and increase the weight lifted. You can do this by creating brackets for your rep ranges. For example, instead of being 4 sets of 12 reps, you would open the rep range to 4 sets of 10 – 12 reps or even 4 sets of 8 – 12 reps.

This not only encourages you to use good form throughout as you know you don’t have to get 12 reps if you can’t but it also allows for continual, steady progression. In addition, the stretched rep range also works as a buffer whilst you adjust to the new load before hitting the required sets and reps to progress again.

See below for an example*

Session 1

1 set of 12 reps using 8kg — you get 12 rep

1 set of 12 reps using 8kg — you get 12 reps

1 set of 12 reps using 8kg — you get 10 reps

1 set of 12 reps using 8kg — you get 9 reps

Session 2

1 set of 12 reps using 8kg — you get 12 reps 

1 set of 12 reps using 8kg — you get 12 reps

1 set of 12 reps using 8kg — you get 11 reps

1 set of 12 reps using 8kg — you get 10 reps

Session 3

1 set of 12 reps using 8kg — you get 12 reps

1 set of 12 reps using 8kg — you get 12 reps

1 set of 12 reps using 8kg — you get 12 reps

1 set of 12 reps using 8kg — you get 12 reps

Session 4

In this session, you would increase the weight lifted and start the process again as in session 3 you hit your sets and reps goal.

Session 4 would consist of 4 sets of 12 reps using 9kg.

*Your speed of progression may vary but this is an example to illustrate the system to you.

Mixed Rep Range

When it comes to using a mixed rep range the best way to increase the load lifted is to do it one set at a time starting from the bottom up. The reason this works so well is that you are increasing from the bottom up which means your top set will not be affected by the increase in weight.

It also means by the time you’re ready to increase your top set you will have adjusted to the new weight for the bottom and middle set. Essentially, you are building strength from the bottom up and only increasing the weight once you’ve have completed 3 sessions at that weight successfully. This method works particularly well with reverse pyramid training where the top set is the most challenging and each subsequent set gets easier.

See below for an example*

Session 1

1 set of 6 reps using 24kg you get 6 reps

1 set of 8 reps using 20kg you get 8 reps

1 set of 10 reps using 16kg you get 10 reps

Session 2

1 set of 6 reps using 24kg you get 6 reps 

1 set of 8 reps using 20kg you get 8 reps

1 set of 10 reps using 16kg you get 10 reps

(including the previous session you’ve hit your set and rep goal twice now on all rep ranges)

Session 3

1 set of 6 reps using 24kg you get 6 reps

1 set of 8 reps using 20kg you get 8 reps

1 set of 10 reps using 16kg you get 10 reps

(including the previous session you’ve hit your set and rep goal three times now on all rep ranges)

Session 4

Now that you’ve successfully hit your set and rep goal 3 times you will increase the weight lifted in your bottom set.

1 set of 6 reps using 24kg you get 6 reps

1 set of 8 reps using 20kg you get 8 reps

1 set of 10 reps using 18kg

If things continued to progress this way session 5 would see you increase the weight in your middle set and session 6 your top set. By session 7 you’ll be ready to increase your bottom set again.

Continue in this fashion until you stop hitting your set and rep goal, at which point you’ll using the straight sets strategy to slowly build your strength in order to continue increasing the load lifted.

 *Your speed of progression may vary but this is an example to illustrate the system to you.

#3

Micro Loading

One of the most common methods of building strength and applying progressive overload is by increasing the weight lifted over time. To begin with, you’ll find you can do this in most sessions and comfortably increase the weight on the bar by 2.5 kg or 5 lbs. Even as you begin to get stronger you’ll still find that you can maintain this level on progressive on a regular basis. However, there will come a point where an increase of 2.5 kg is just too much to handle and will result in missed reps, bad form and a stall in strength.

It’s at this point you would look to micro-loading for continued strength gains. Micro-loading works on exactly the same basis as when you were adding 2.5 kg to the bar, except you’ll be using smaller weight increments. So instead of adding 2.5 kg each time you might add 1kg, 0.75kg or even 0.5kg to the bar. Doing this allows for a much smoother level of progression as the change is not so drastic that you cannot deal with it but is still enough to apply progressive overload and stimulate strength and muscle gains.

Summing Up

Armed with this new knowledge you’re looking forward to your next session, excited to put what you’ve learnt into action and break through this strength plateau you’re experiencing. You use these strategies for a couple of weeks and you’re not disappointed.

Things are moving again and you find yourself in the gym checking your phone for what feels like the 100th time in the last 2 minutes. You just want to be sure, you know you’re not mistaken but for some reason it feels like you are. So, you check again just to be sure…yep, still not mistaken.

You’re aware that when you’re not checking your phone, you’re staring at your hands like they’re somehow imbued with super powers that you’ve only just become aware of. Suddenly a shrill sound invades your thoughts and pulls you back to the present moment, you look around and realise it’s the timer on your phone. Lying back to do your next set you hope that these ‘powers’ remain, desperate to keep riding this wave.

They do.

You next set goes as well as the first and so do all your other sets, you’re making progress again and it feels great. An hour passes and you leave the free weights room. As you make your way to the changing room you think about the difference that knowing about workout plateaus can make to the quality of your workouts and your progress towards your goal.


 
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