Have you ever gotten that feeling that you aren’t progressing in your workouts, like you’re stuck in a rut? Has the weight on the bar stayed stagnant for 2 weeks or more? Maybe you aren’t getting that same pump that you used to achieve after a serious workout… If these descriptions are ringing true for you, it’s very possible you have hit a plateau in your fitness life.
What is a Workout Plateau?
A workout, or fitness plateau occurs when your body has adapted to the stimuli and stressors you are placing on it. Basically, it has gotten used to the workouts you are performing and growth and progress has slowed or stopped.
Remember, just because you haven’t been lifting more weight after a few days does not necessarily mean you have hit a plateau. I get lots of people who have moved past the beginner stage, where you are making progress seemingly everyday – to the intermediate stage, where strength gains are harder to come by, and they are freaked out when they haven’t added weight to the bar for one or two workouts.
Let’s be real here – if you aren’t a beginner you aren’t going to be adding 5 lbs to your lifts every single week. But if it’s been more than a few weeks and you haven’t added any weight or reps, or maybe even feel weaker, you may just have hit a wall in your training.
Why Do Strength Training Plateaus Occur?
Workout plateaus occur when your body has adapted to the stimuli you are putting it under and the regimen you’ve been following. Our bodies always want to return to homeostasis, and progression requires that you change the stimuli to continue seeing growth.
In strength training, the main way that we change the stimuli is by adding weight to the bar, in a process known as progressive overload. While this is usually extremely effective, sometimes you need to switch up other aspects of your training or lifestyle to continue seeing progress and add more weight.
As we’ve already stated, one of the main reasons that plateaus occur is a lack of changes in either your workout regimen or possibly your diet and lifestyle plan. You need to provide your body with a new and fresh stimulus and switch things up! This is the fun part, where you get to experiment and modify things in your routine, and see what gives you the best results.
Also, a quick note: Don’t freak out about hitting an exercise plateau! It is very common and most people who workout for an extended period of time will experience one. It is but one test on your journey to become a warrior.
So let’s face this obstacle head on and get down to the nitty-gritty of this problem.
Signs Of Workout Plateau
Here are some signs that you might have hit a plateau and it is time to make some modifications:
- Loss in strength
- No progress in at least 2 – 3 workouts
- Feeling unmotivated to workout
- Failing to achieve a pump after workout
The main sign of a plateau is no progress in your resistance training regimen. We gain muscle through progressive overload, so if you aren’t putting more weight on the bar you aren’t getting stronger.
How To Get Through a Training Plateau
So, you’ve identified that you have hit a plateau and wondering what to do next – Now let’s get into the really good stuff, how to bust through a plateau and send your strength gains through the roof.
Get The Basics Right First
Before you jump into the specific actions you can take to break through a plateau, take some time and make sure you have the foundational concepts down pat . What do I mean when I say foundational concepts? I’m talking about getting enough sleep, proper technique and a healthy diet.
Catch Your Zzz’s: Keep Up On Sleep
It seems like we have to do more and more each day, and many of us sacrifice sleep to get it done. The Better Sleep Council estimates that 70 percent of Americans aren’t getting enough sleep. As you probably have heard, lack of sleep is related to all kinds of negative effects, like memory loss and increased risk for cancer. It should come as no surprise then that lack of sleep has been connected to decreased fitness performance.
Eating To Meet Your Goals: Track Your Diet
As we all know, diet plays a huge role in your progression for your training regimen. If you eating a bunch of crap and not getting enough protein in your diet, you will never see real progress no matter how much you work out.
Alternatively, if you are in a caloric deficit it will much harder to make any kind of strength gains. Your body simply does not have enough materials to build quality muscle!
It is possible to make some gains while in a caloric deficit as it all depends on what you are eating and how large the deficit is, but just usually logic alone it’s clear that you won’t be making the kinds of gains you would be if you were eating large amounts of protein.
Make Sure To Keep A Log
There’s an old adage in business that you can’t fix what you don’t measure – the same holds true in resistance training. It’s important that you keep a log of your exercises so you can see if you are struggling on certain exercises or struggle working out at certain times.
For resistance training you should be keeping track of weight, reps, sets and the rest between.
Many people already do this, but here’s another tip that could help you figure you what is causing your plateau: The American College of Sports Medicine suggests listing how you feel right after a workout to help you find possible obstacles in your training regimen.
Constantly improving and monitoring your technique is a good habit to start, to prevent yourself from picking up bad habits. Having bad technique can lead to injury and could slow down your progress. Exercises are designed to target specific muscle groups, and improper technique will cause your muscles to be used at awkward angles and put strain on other muscle groups.
Fully focus on each movement and activate all your muscle fibers. Strengthen your core when doing pushups or squat. Try not to just get through your workout, really get into it and see what you can do today. You may surprise yourself how fast you can grow when you are fully focused on every movement!
Get Yourself a Quality Workout Routine
Make sure you are following a good workout routine. Reddit is an amazing source for all kinds of information, and they don’t disappoint when it comes to routines either. On their fitness Reddit you can find a huge list of workout routines and find one that suits your needs.
Quick Tip: If you are doing too much cardio or endurance exercises it will be more difficult to put on mass and get stronger. Limit your cardio to once or twice a week if your goal is to put on muscle mass and strength. When you transition to your cutting phase, you can perform more cardio to burn off fat.
Strategies For Breaking Out of A Plateau
Take a Well-Deserved Rest
Here’s some advice that you might not want to hear (or maybe you are completely tuckered out, and this suggestion is a god-send), but in order to progress you might have to actually stop working out.
You have probably heard that muscle isn’t created in the gym, it’s actually created while you rest. We all try to get that precious 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night, but in the reality of life getting even this basic necessity can be difficult. Stress at home and work, long hours and extra appointments can all make getting the proper amount of rest nearly impossible.
One technique you can use if you have been working out for 2 + months and haven’t really rested in awhile, is to take a nice break from working out and rest your body. 5 – 7 days of rest has been the perfect amount in my experience.
This lets your central nervous system rest, and your body to heal any damaged muscle fibers that may need attention. Resting also helps with the mental aspect of fitness – you will come back to the gym feeling refreshed and more motivated than ever before.
Drop Sets are a great way to ensure that you are fatiguing the muscle’s enough to initiate muscle hypertrophy. The main idea behind drop sets is that you perform a normal set, then reduce the weight and continue with the same exercise.
By lowering the weight after each set, you recruit different muscle fibers that normally are not used when the weight stays the same. Here is an example drop set:
Set 1: 120lbs for 8 reps
Dropset 1: 80lbs fpr 6 reps
Dropset 2: 45lbs for 5 reps
Dropset 3: 30lbs for 5 reps
The general rule of thumb is reduce the weight by 1/3 each time you go into a new set. You can experiment with these numbers though, and the number of reps is definitely not concrete. See what works best for you.
Two other types of drop sets modifications you can use are running the rack and plate stripping.
From Men’s Health, here is what a sample Running the Rack workout would look like:
Set 1: – chose a weight you’d fail at 4-6 reps
Set 2: – reduce weight by 5lbs. 8-10 reps
Set 3: – reduce weight by 5lbs. 10-12 reps
Set 4: – reduce weight by 5lbs. 12-15 reps
Set 5: – reduce weight by 5/10lbs. 15-20 reps
Rules: 1st set should be heaviest. No rest in between drops sets. “Walk down the rack” selecting weights.
Plate stripping is utilized when you are using a barbell to workout, and plates are removed from each side until you can no longer perform the reps with the given weight.
You will need a training partner for this workout, and when done properly they will quickly strip the weights from the sides of the barbell while you are working out. This way, you can very quickly reach a point of complete muscular exhaustion.
Again from Men’s Health, here is a sample workout
Set 1: – chose a weight you’d fail at 4-6 reps
Set 2: – strip weight by 10lbs: 8-10 reps
Set 3: – strip weight by 10lbs 10-12 reps
Set 4: – strip weight by 10lbs 12-15 reps
Set 5: – strip weight by 20lbs 15-20 reps
Rules: 1st set should be heaviest. No rest in between drops. Ensure training partner strips weights for you.
Exercise Substitutions to Bust Training Plateaus
Here’s a simple method to start making progress again on your lifts, it’s called exercise rotation or exercise substitution and it works by switching one exercise that you are stuck on for an exercise with a similar movement pattern.
The basic premise of this is that your body has gotten used to the same old movements you’ve been making over and over, and it is time to switch it up with a similar, but mechanically different movement.
For example, if you have been working yourself tired doing the front squat, you could switch it up with a back squat to challenge your nervous system and slightly different muscle groups.
Here are some other exercise substitutions you can make to help you bust through an arm or leg plateau.
- Deadlift <——> Trap Bar Deadlift ( Or Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift)
- Bench Press <——> Dumbbell Press (Or Bench Press With Chains)
- Pull Up <—–> Parallel Bar Pull Up ( Or Chin Up)
Put A Little Extra In
Here’s a method to ensure you are fully wearing yourself out in each set. The basic premise of putting a little extra in is this: you complete your set or go until fatigue, wait 30 seconds, then bust out as many reps as you can until you are completely wiped.
This ensures your muscles are getting a real workout and you are going to full fatigue each time.
Here’s an example: let’s say you normally do 180 lbs x 6 on the incline bench press, and you’ve been unable to break past the 180 lbs mark for 2 weeks now.
You might try this technique to help you take things to the next level: after you’ve finished the 6th rep, wait 30 seconds and then put in as many more reps as you can, even if it’s just one! But make sure you struggle to do the second one to fatigue your muscles fully.
Making Small Changes to Your Workout
These modifications are definitely my favorite way to mix up my workouts, I use them occasionally even if I’m not currently in a plateau, just to make subtle differences in the muscles I’m working out. They keep things fresh and keep you challenged. Being constantly challenged is how you grow, muscle fibers or any skill!
Some examples of exercise modifications you can try are:
- Changing your grip on exercises, even just moving your hands a few inches closer or further apart can give you a new challenge.
- Try using dumbbells on exercises such as the bench press or incline bench press, different muscles are required to stabilize the dumbbell while it is being lifted, small differences such as this can spark big changes throughout your body.
- An unconventional method is to use lower weights and add an unstable surface BOSU ball to challenge your muscles in entirely different ways. You don’t have to do these modifications for long, a few workouts using these changes can lead to differences in your routine.
- You can also try adding a pulse or a squeeze at the end of each rep to increase the burn you are feeling. Doing this helps to activate your fast-twitch muscle fibers.
Using These Plateau Breakers Correctly
Here are some basic rules to using these plateau breakers correctly:
- Start with small changes. Do not change everything at once.
- Remember that gaining strength takes time even when you aren’t in a plateau
- Don’t switch things up to soon, try a change and give it at least 2 weeks to see results
- Trying exercise modifications means you might not be using the same weight you are used to – lighter weight is OK for these changes
Make sure you have your basics down pat before you try anything more complicated – these are the most important and you will never be able to progress far without getting these base concepts correct first.
Don’t Forget To Switch Back To Normal
Don’t forget, these plateau busters aren’t meant to be used for long periods of time – these creative alternatives are meant to stimulate your muscles and trigger new muscles gains and increase strength. Eventually, the plan is to return to your normal workout routine and begin progressing again.
Generally, you should use these plateau busters for 2 – 3 weeks, or 3 to 4 workouts. The goal is to eventually return to your old workout routine with renewed vigor and zeal. You’ll be able to progress normally after the plateau busters have worked their magic.
Quick Note: Overtraining and needed rest is the most common cause of training plateaus, so make sure to take a good 5 – 7 day rest to make sure your body is healed and ready to go.
Thanks for reading this guide on how to get over and bust through the walls that are holding you back in your fitness regimen.
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Hey! My name is Stephen and I’m the owner of Ultimate Core Health. Since we started, we’ve grown into a trusted resource for unbiased, science-based articles and reviews on fitness, nutrition and supplements. Check me out on social media, feel free to add me if you want to talk health!