5 Ways to break through a lifting Plateau
If you’ve been lifting for any serious amount of time you have likely encountered a lifting plateau. This is not characterized by one bad session, or an off week, but rather a series of sessions where you are unable to progress your lifting as your program would suggest.
Now, there are a variety of factors at play, and humans are not robots (yet) so adding weight or reps every session isn’t practical or possible or else we would all end up with 700kg deadlifts. There will be natural limitations and ceilings you may reach, however, you should be able to continue to progress your lifting for a very long time if you approach your training in a smart way.
Everything else aside we must also remember stress, lifestyle, big events, injury, illness, cut/bulk cycle, body weight and a whole host of other factors can impact your lifting and cause setbacks or stalls. It goes without saying that when something more important than the gym (is there such a thing) springs up you may need to look at maintenance being the best course of action temporarily.
If though life is going well, no injuries, no issues, no additional stressors, but you are still struggling to get more weight on the bar; Here are 5 things I always consider with myself and clients when working to break a plateau.
1. Rest and Recovery
Rest and Recovery will have a HUGE impact on your ability to consistently progress your training. It is paramount that you approach your recovery schedule with the same diligence as you do your lifting schedule. In my experience this is often not the case.
If you are training in a periodised fashion and looking to progress a little each session you will be accumulating fatigue. What you do daily, weekly and monthly to manage this fatigue will be incredibly important.
Lets look at what you can do short, mid and longer term to help manage fatigue and make sure that its not holding you back from new PRs.
Daily – Make sure you get adequate sleep – about 6-8 hours for the average person or 8-10 for those considered athletes. Sleep is the best thing we can do each day to repair and recover the body. Alongside this, a well thought out approach to your nutrition will have a very positive impact on both your performance and your recovery – making sure you have adequate calories and a decent macro profile.
Weekly – Taking rest days away from the gym to allow a more full recovery will be a great idea here. Training hard every single day with no end in sight is daunting to say the least and will for sure hold you back from the best progress you could be making.
Monthly – Monthly up to bi-monthly I would recommend regular deloads – periods of time where you purposefully reduce training volume in order to manage fatigue and essentially come back stronger. These work great at the end of a training block and if you’ve been training hard even serve as a reward – you get to relax, feel better and get a little time back in your schedule for other activities.
2. Lifting Frequency
A big factor holding a lot of lifters back from new PRs and breaking through plateaus is the frequency of training for a specific movement. For example if a client is struggling to add weight to their Squat I would ask them how frequently they are squatting. If the answer is once per week then I would highly recommend upping the frequency.
This doesn’t mean you should jump into some insane Smolov Squat routine, but simply adding one more day to start with can yield great results; after all, you’ve just doubled your squatting frequency.
3. Alternating sets & reps.
You have your recovery sorted, and you’re squatting multiple times per week, but you’re still having trouble adding weight to the bar. – it’s time to look at your Sets and Reps.
Let say you’re trying to up your 1RM Bench, don’t come in every ‘chest day’ and try and lift a new max – that should go without saying. That aside if you always come to the gym and train 3 sets of 12 reps you’re going to encounter a wall quickly.
Make sure to train in different rep ranges and set ranges over meso and macrocycles. If you’ve spent some time lifting heavy for low reps and you seem to have hit a wall with progress then consider a higher reps approach next cycle. If you’re lifting multiple times per week on a compound movement, say squats, you could even have a higher and lower rep day to allow you to achieve this point over the course of the week.
A final word here is that sets don’t peak at 3 J – often the idea of 4,5,8 sets haven’t been pursued or attempted so this is another great way to add more volume and push through that plateau.
4. Technique, Form and Range of Movement
Often one of the main factors holding someone back from breaking through a plateau and reaching the next level in their lifting is quite simply their form.
Good lifting form will optimize your ability to lift maximum weight as well as maximum reps. I highly recommend videoing yourself lifting for analysis, getting honest feedback from a lifting partner or employing a coach to help you with this.
YOU MAY HAVE TO SCALE BACK YOUR WEIGHT – phew did you get that? You may need to take a step back to make sure your form is correct (then you can rebuild back up and even through your current lifting best).
Building on a solid foundation is essential to maximize your potential, and should be at the center of your training. Be proud of your form and skill with a lift first and what number you can lift as a second consideration. Over time this will lead to more significant and safe progress as well as more training longevity.
There is a wealth of online information available the issue is in looking through it with a critical eye. My suggestion would be look at coaches you trust as well as the best practitioners within their given sport with a good track record of success.
5. Exercise Selection
We can often get narrow minded when it comes to exercise selection and stick to our ‘favs’. We start thinking the conventional deadlift is the only way to hinge and the back Squat the only way to squat.
A great way to approach a lifting plateau is to change the style of exercise, perhaps switching from Conventional to Sumo Deadlifting or taking time off from a Barbell Squat and trying a Hack Squat. I have found exercise selection and alteration a great tool for breaking through sticking points as well as offering a client new goal, targets and a fresh challenge. This can be rewarding in a frustrating process and have a nice side effect of a reinvigoration of motivation.
Caveat – Don’t change too frequently or else you run the risk of not developing significant skill within a given movement. I would suggest a minimum of 12-16 weeks to stick with a similar big compound movement whereas smaller isolation or accessory movements could be altered more frequently.
Plateaus are frustrating and can have a negative impact on your training and mindset, next time you hit a speed bump in your progress, consider this list and work through it. If you genuinely implement the above I am sure you will be pleased with the results. They have worked for clients and myself countless times and allowed good plateau busting progression.
NB I haven’t discussed the usage of equipment as a means to break plateaus as this will often be a later consideration and one I will discuss in a future post.