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A strength plateau is a levelling off of your progress… and something you’ll probably experience at some point.
From seeing great early gains and progression in your strength training, it can be demotivating to suddenly stop seeing any progress. Strength training plateaus are common but there are some simple techniques that can help boost your workouts and get your muscles growing again.
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How to Break Through a Strength Training Plateau
It doesn’t matter if you’re following CrossFit workouts, or more traditional hypertrophy training plan, plateaus are somewhat inevitable at some point… but breaking through them sometimes just needs a change of mindset and approach.
Before you know it, you’ll be back to hitting your fitness goals.
Sleep, Rest and Diet
One of the simplest ways to break through a strength plateau is focusing on things outside of your training that can impact muscle and strength development… namely your sleep, rest and diet.
If you’re not getting enough sleep and rest… or your diet is slipping, this is undoubtedly going to influence your strength training.
When addressing any levelling off of progress in any sort of fitness plan, sleep, rest and diet are often easy fixes that can make a big difference.
(If we’re specifically talking about strength training and building muscle, ensuring you’re getting enough lean protein is going to be important).
Track Your Workouts
If you think you’re hitting a strength plateau, it’s often useful to track your workouts and record the exact reps/sets and weight (total volume) you’re doing during the workouts.
This may suggest if your plateau is across the board or only related to one specific exercise/muscle group.
This data can be incredibly important and suggest what the next best step is.
Apps like Fitbod really make this very easy to do (you can grab a lifetime 25% discount on Fitbod here). It will create graphs and reports to show you your progress and help make automatic recommendations based on your workout performance.
Heavy Eccentrics (Negative Movements)
An eccentric contraction is the movement of a muscle group while it is lengthening under load. For example, during a bench press, the action of lowering the barbell back down from the lift is the eccentric phase of that exercise.
It is this part of the exercise which can be optimized to help grow muscle mass and strength.
Firstly, “heavy eccentrics” allow you to actually lift more weight (i.e. you’ll be able to lower heavier weight than you can lift). So this can shock the muscles into growth due to the increase in load.
Secondly, eccentric slow reps (using the same weight as normal) will increase the time under tension your muscles are working. This means the muscles have to be engaged and activated for longer… stimulating more muscle growth.
Ultimately, doing 10 reps over 30 seconds is going to be much harder than doing 10 reps over 15 seconds… so including this slower tempo into your workouts simply means you’re training more efficiently.
Change Up Your Workouts
If you’ve been doing the same workout for years… you may find just doing something different for a while creates the challenge your muscles need.
Even if you’ve done more traditional weightlifting, spending a month doing CrossFit/functional style workouts or even calisthenics, that require more muscular endurance, may help in the long-term when you return back to weightlifting workouts.
Equally, just changing up the equipment can be useful. Using dumbbells instead of barbells for all your exercises will challenge your muscles in different ways and can stimulate more muscle growth as they adapt to the requirements.
There are lots of workout styles to choose from you… whether you’re thinking about the Arnold split Vs PPL split, following German Volume Training, or a 5×5 workout… try a different approach based on what you want to achieve.
You may also find just introducing new exercises within your normal workouts is enough to ignite new motivation and progress too.
It’s worth pointing out though, if you’re just 2 weeks into a new strength training program, it’s best to stick with it as opposed to keep changing because you didn’t see instant improvements. These things need a long-term mindset.
Focus on your goals
Although “lifting weights” and “strength training” often just gets seen as one single form of exercise… there are lots of nuances and approaches to strength training that influence the outcome. Are you focused on absolute strength? Muscle development? Athletic performance? These questions will impact what type of workout is best suited to you (e.g. reps, sets, weight, workout structure, etc).
Reps, Sets and Order
As opposed to completely changing up your workout structure, you may find success in just adapting your reps, sets and the order of exercises.
If you’ve been training for your 1RM for a long time, trying to train for your 10RM will test your muscles in a completely different way… and vice versa.
Even if this isn’t part of your long-term training plan, it could be enough to spark new muscle growth as your body adapts to the new challenge.
Changing the order of the exercises in your workout will also help to change how muscle groups fatigue during the workout.
Sometimes it’s the little things that can make the difference…. and including effective warm ups before your workouts is one of those things.
Jumping out of the car and straight into your 1RM squat is not a good idea… and not only could it lead to injury, but you’ll find your body simply isn’t able to perform as well as if you had spent time warming up properly.
Warming up before any weightlifting should go beyond just jogging for 2 minutes… you want to stretch out your muscles to increase your range of motion during your workout. Tight hips, for example, will certainly be a limiting factor in lifts like squats and deadlifts.
Unilateral training is a great way to test each side of your body individually, and address any muscular imbalances that could be holding you back.
Single leg Romanian deadlifts, B stance hip trusts, and other unilateral movements can be eye-opening when it comes to discovering if one side is noticeably stronger than the other. Focusing on resolving this imbalance could be a key factor in overcoming your strength plateau.
Variable Resistance Training (VRT)
Variable Resistance Training involves changing how resistance is applied to a movement, namely using heavy chains or resistance bands, to increase the difficulty.
For example, when you perform a bench press, as well as a weighted barbell, you could attach resistance bands to the barbell too. This will increase the tension at the top of the movement in particular, forcing the muscles to work overdrive.
This is quite an advanced method and probably isn’t worth doing if you’re a beginner.
Try not to see a strength plateau as frustrating but rather an opportunity to re-evaluate your workouts and optimize them for long-term success.
By taking more time to analyze your workouts and fitness plan, you can avoid strength plateaus from occurring, as you proactively change up your workouts to keep your muscles continuously challenged.
Try these tips and see how you get on.
Ultimately, when discussing any sort of fitness plateau, it’s important to address your overall goals too, as this may suggest how best you should adapt your workout.