Workout Plateau: What to do When Your Strength Stops

A workout plateau (also known as a strength plateau or exercise 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 even for you to get weaker.

What you need to do to get past the plateau is provide a new, fresh stimulus. This blog post will detail the 3 most effective methods for doing this.

How Do You Know If You’ve Hit A Plateau?

Don’t sweat it too much if you have, it’s a normal part of everyone’s fitness journey. When you’ve not made any progress in the gym (even adding one rep is progress) for a week or more and you’re sure you’re;

  • You’re getting enough sleep

  • You’re eating the right amount

  • You’re not mistaking slow progress for no progress

  • You’re applying progressive overload

  • You’re training consistently

Then chances are you’ve hit a workout plateau.

What To Do When You Hit A Plateau

At this point it’s important you don’t do the following things:

  • Increase your cardio

  • Decrease your calories

  • Cut your carbohydrate intake

  • Freak out and give up

Instead, it’s very important you do one of the following things:

  1. Use exercise rotation

  2. Manipulate your rep ranges

  3. Use micro loading

Let’s look at each strategy in detail.


Use Exercise Rotation

Exercise 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.

For example, if you hit a plateau on your barbell flat bench press, you would switch the flat barbell press with the flat dumbbell press. This allows you to continue working the same movement pattern and muscles whilst providing enough new stimulus to get you progressing again.

It’s a simple as that.

You see, a small change is enough.

This is what’s so fantastic about exercise rotation, it allows to keep training the same muscle group without taking a break. You don’t have to change your whole workout plan, join a new gym or change the days you work out on.

The small change from barbells to dumbbells (flat to incline, standing to seated) is all you need. Just rotate the exercise you are having problems with for a suitable equivalent and you'll be on your way again.

When To Use Exercise Rotation

Depending on your training experience you’ll find that you’ll need to rotate one or two of your exercises every 6 – 8 weeks.

Examples of suitable exercise rotations include;

  • 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.


Manipulate Your Rep Ranges

Another way to get your progress moving again is to manipulate your rep ranges. This is particularly helpful if your gym doesn’t have 1.25kg plates or the difference between dumbbells is larger than 2 – 2.5kgs.

Depending on whether you are using a;

  • Fixed rep range i.e. 3 sets of 8 reps

  • 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.

Using A 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 3 sets of 10 reps with 30 kg dumbbells and the jump up to 32.5kg (maybe the next step up is 32kg, 34kg or 35kg depending on your gym) is too difficult. This is when you would manipulate (or stretch) you rep range to continue progressing and over time increase the weight lifted.

You do this by creating brackets for your rep ranges.

For example;

  • Original rep range = 3 sets of 10

  • New rep range = 3 sets of 8 - 12

This allows you to do 2 things;

  1. Work up to 3 sets of 12 with 30 kg before moving up to the next weight

  2. Perform 3 sets of 8 with the next weight up (i.e. 32 kg, 32.5 kg, etc)

For example; if you goal is to continue increasing the weight lifted on the flat dumbbell bench press*

  • 3 sets of 12 with 30kg

  • 3 sets of 8 with 32.5kg

  • 3 sets of 10 with 32.5kg

  • 3 sets of 12 with 32.5kg

  • 3 sets of 8 with 35kg

  • And on and on

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

Using A Mixed Rep Range

When it comes to using a mixed rep range i.e. reverse pyramid training, the best way to increase the load lifted is to use a dependent progression system. (all credit goes to Martin Berkham and his blog for introducing me to this system(1))

A dependent progression system sees you manipulating your rep ranges to continue building strength and only increasing the weight when you hit your goal reps in your heaviest set.

For example, if you’re doing 3 sets of squats you’d only increase the weight in set 2 and set 3 when you hit your set 1 goal.

  • 1 set of 6 @ 100kg – you get 4 reps

  • 1 set of 8 @ 90kg – you get 8 reps

  • 1 set of 10 @ 80kg – you get 10 reps

In this example, you would not increase the weight on any set as you did not hit you set 1 goal, BUT you would increase the number of reps in sets 2 and 3 as you hit your rep goals for those sets.

For example; your next work could look like this;

  • 1 set of 6 @ 100kg – you get 5 reps

  • 1 set of 8 @ 90kg – you get 9 reps

  • 1 set of 10 @ 80kg – you get 11 reps

It’s only when you hit your first set goal then you increase the weight in all sets. However, because you’re also manipulating your reps you continue building strength and it’s won’t be long until your first set can move up.

  • 1 set of 6 @ 100kg – you get 6 reps

  • 1 set of 8 @ 90kg – you get 10 reps

  • 1 set of 10 @ 80kg – you get 12 reps

You would increase the weight lifted in each set, which means your next workout would like look this;

  • 1 set of 6 @ 102.5kg

  • 1 set of 8 @ 92.5kg

  • 1 set of 10 @ 82.5kg

This is important as your first set will always be the most difficult and as you progress it’ll take longer to move up in weight. Using a dependent progression system allows you to continue progressing by adding reps until you’re strong enough to increase the weight.


Use 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 of 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. Instead of adding 2.5 kg each time you might add 1 kg, 0.75 kg or even 0.5 kg 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.

Takeaway Point

Workout plateaus are an expected occurrence on your fitness journey.

When this happens, you have 3 ways to overcome the plateau and start building strength and muscle again;

  1. Use exercise rotation

  2. Manipulate your rep ranges

  3. Use micro loading

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