Plateaus are a frustrating aspect of strength training. If you stick with training long enough, you’ll reach a point where you stop making strength gains. This is especially demoralizing for a beginner who made rapid gains in the beginning and suddenly stops seeing results. On the other hand, even weight lifting veterans have to deal with this issue. Strength plateaus are an inevitable part of strength training.
Why do strength plateaus happen? Over time, your body adapts to the stress you put on it and becomes stronger and better able to handle the load. That’s good and bad. It’s good because that’s what allows you to become stronger and more defined. It’s bad because you’re working hard and not seeing results. Fortunately, there are ways to break through a strength training plateau and start getting results again.
Do You Need to Increase Training Intensity?
For most people, the way to break through a strength plateau is to increase training intensity, but this isn’t always true. If you’re training at the gym almost every day and maxing out every time you work out, you may be overtraining. This can cause muscles to stop growing. Instead of increasing your training intensity, maintain the same intensity, and add a day or two of rest between workouts to see if this restarts the growth process.
If you are allowing adequate time to rest and recover between workouts and are still in a plateau, you’ll need to increase training intensity to start making strength gains again. You can do this by increasing the amount of weight you lift, by increasing the number of repetitions or by adding more sets to your normal routine.
Another technique that works well for busting through a plateau is “super slow training.” To do this, slow down the rate at which you lift and lower the weight – 10 seconds for lifting and 4 seconds for lowering to complete 4 to 6 repetitions. This breaks down more muscle fibers, and you’ll feel the effects a day or two later, so don’t do slow train more than once a week. The additional challenge slow training places on muscles “shocks” them and restarts the growth process.
Other ways to challenge your muscles differently is to add supersets, drop sets, partial reps or negatives using a spotter to assist you. These weight training techniques are also effective for waking up slumbering muscles that have stopped making strength gains.
Take a Break from the Weights
If you’ve reached a plateau, spend a day each week doing training with resistance bands or your body weight instead. If you usually work out on machines, switch to dumbbells one day a week. This will recruit new muscle fibers and help to revamp a workout that’s become stale.
Pay Attention to Nutrition
If you’re not making gains, it could be a nutritional issue. Make sure you’re getting enough protein and calories. Exercise is only one part of a successful strength building program. You need to feed your muscles too to make gains and to keep your metabolism from slowing down. If you’re eating a low-carbohydrate or low-calorie diet and doing long workouts, you may be breaking down muscle and thwarting any gains you’ll get from lifting weights. Make sure you’re getting adequate protein and calories to fuel growth.
The Bottom Line?
Strength plateaus happen to everyone, and they usually respond to a change in routine. For most people, this involves an increase in training intensity, although some people need to reduce their training and get more rest between workouts and concentrate more on nutrition.
Exercise Physiology. Fifth Edition. McArdle, Katch and Katch. 2001.