There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.
Training and dieting plateaus are normal to an extent, but they can cripple your results if they are too frequent.
Being able to assess your training in an objective manner and to identify why you’ve plateaued, is going to be essential to chart a path out of your current funk and to create a preventative strategy for the future.
This article breaks down the following common reasons for a plateau and the troubleshooting approach to each one:
Start with the reason that seems most likely, apply the suggestions for that alone, then wait at least four to six weeks before re-evaluating whether you’re still “stuck”.
Why not try all of these solutions at once?
Though it might seem slower to produce results, this trial-and-error approach is the most effective in the long run. Altering too many variables at once will make it challenging, if not impossible, to figure out which change was the most helpful.
Now, let’s tackle the first reason:
1. You’re not training with the right volume, frequency, or intensity of effort.
These are three fundamental components of a training program for either strength or hypertrophy (muscle growth), so, if you’re not progressing, they’re a great first port of call for assessment.
There are general evidence-based guidelines and recommendations for each of them, so, as a starting point, consider how your own training stacks up against these.
First of all, volume is the total amount of work per muscle group that you perform each week.
You can quantify volume as the total amount of sets you complete for a muscle group across all the exercises you’re using to target it, without including your warm-up sets, which shouldn’t be hard enough to elicit gains (otherwise they wouldn’t be a warm-up). For instance, if you’re doing three sets each of cable curls, preacher curls, and dumbbell spider curls for your biceps, you’ll count total volume for the biceps as nine weekly sets.
Volume is important because it’s proven to have a dose-response relationship with both strength and hypertrophy, meaning that, to a point, more volume tends to yield more gains, although the “optimal” amount of volume for strength is likely to be different than that for hypertrophy. (I’ve written about some of the differences between training for either in more depth here.)
In general, when you hit a plateau and can’t increase load or reps, you may need to add volume to continue progressing.
On the other hand, you may be trying to do too much, overshooting your ability to recover. As a result, your performance stagnates. Dialling back your volume to a more sustainable amount may be necessary to overcome this.
The general recommendations are to perform 10 to 20 sets per muscle group per week to optimise muscle and strength gains.
As a rule of thumb, you’ll want your own volume to fall somewhere along this spectrum, but you don’t need to be dogmatic about it. You don’t make zero gains if you do nine sets per week, and you’re not overtraining if you do 21. Each individual has a different “volume tolerance” for different muscle groups, so you’ll need to experiment to find what works best for you.
Once you’ve decided upon an appropriate amount of volume, the ideal approach would be to spread it out across your training sessions so that you’re hitting each muscle group for a minimum of twice per week, which has been shown to promote hypertrophy and strength gains more than once per week.
Finally, for a set to count towards your weekly volume, it needs to be performed close enough to failure to elicit strength adaptations and muscle growth.
Proximity to failure can be defined as intensity of effort and can be measured using either the RPE scale (Rating of Perceived Exertion) or the RIR scale (Reps in Reserve).
The general recommendation for muscle mass and strength is to reach a minimum RPE of 6 or RIR of 4 (leaving four reps “in the tank” before failure) and a maximum RPE of 10 or RIR of 0 (no reps left before failure).
So, if you’ve got your volume and frequency down, but you’re leaving 10 reps in the tank in every set, the solution is to train harder.
2. You’re changing your program too often.
Here’s why a lot people hop from program to program every few weeks:
This cycle repeats itself over and over, but these people don’t look any different or get any stronger. The problem is, they’re chasing short-term gratification over long-term progress.
For one, new exercises tend to create more muscle damage and soreness, and to stimulate more of a pump, because the body has yet to adapt to them. However, adaptation isn’t a bad thing. In fact, the primary goal of an effective training program is to generate these adaptations, which over a long period of time enable us to make what we colloquially term “gains”.
Furthermore, lifting weights requires a certain degree of ability. When you aren’t very skilled with a movement, the body will prioritise skill acquisition over strength gains and muscle growth. This doesn’t mean you won’t make any gains at all, but you may not make the best gains that you could if your form was solid thanks to months of practice.
Lastly, you can only see progress if you collect data on your performance – such as the sets, reps, and load used – over weeks, months, and years of training. If you switch up your program every other week, you’ll have ever-changing and therefore unreliable data, so ultimately you’ll be hard-pressed to even correctly identify whether you’re progressing or not.
So, if your strength and muscle mass aren’t getting any better despite the vicious cycle of program-hopping you’re caught up in, thinking that constant variation is going to fix it eventually… The truth is, it probably isn’t, and you’re more likely to bust this plateau by sticking to the same training program for longer.
3. You’re not changing your program often enough.
Although you don’t need to shock your muscles every two weeks, you can follow the same routine for months and still plateau. Both approaches are extremes, and the solution lies somewhere in the middle.
If you were making great gains on your current program six months ago, but your performance has been stalling for multiple weeks, it’s likely that the program has become stale.
Building a degree of variation within your training not only helps avoid or overcome plateaus, but also ensure long-term progress. The systematic planning of changes to a long-term training program is called periodization, and it’s employed by coaches in the context of training professional athletes.
What can you change and how often should you do it?
Week to week, you could change your intensity of effort. Using the RPE scale, you could start a four-week training program leaving four reps in the tank (RPE 6), then you could increase your RPE by 1 every week, until you hit your last rep before failure (RPE 10) in your final week. Finally, you deload and begin the cycle all over again.
Mesocycle to mesocycle, you can change your rep ranges. As a result, you’ll also have to alter how much weight you lift, because you’ll need lighter loads to complete more reps per set, and vice versa.
You can also vary your rep ranges within the same week or the same session, starting with lower rep ranges (5-10) for your compound lifts and ending the week or session at a higher range (15-20) for your isolation lifts.
Macrocycle to macrocycle, you can change your exercise selection to replace any lifts that might feel like they’re not progressing anymore.
Thank you for reading. If you want to share your own experience with busting plateaus, you’re welcome to do so in a comment.
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