Everyone, at one point or another, reaches a plateau in his or her training. Hitting a weightlifting plateau is extremely frustrating. The same goes for weight-loss plateau too. When this happens, gains are very hard to come by. Even with the variety that is part of a periodized program, it is still possible to reach a sticking point in your training. If you find yourself feeling unmotivated because your training program has become stale, then you must do something to mix things up. In this post, we’ll try to explain what a weightlifting plateau really is, what are the reasons for its occurrence, and, most importantly, how to get past a weightlifting plateau.
What Is a Weightlifting Plateau?
A plateau is when your gains stop, and you don’t see any changes in your physique or performance. A plateau is hit when your muscles are no longer challenged by a certain exercise or type of training.
If you are new to weight training, most probably you will get stronger and increase muscle mass relatively quickly. However, after six months or so, your body will adapt to the volume and intensity of your workout. In short, you will no longer be challenged by the routine and will consider it your “new normal.” At this point, you may have hit a weightlifting plateau.
Why Weightlifting Plateaus Occur
Bodies are intelligent, responsive things. Too much of the same, and they adapt. This line best explains plateaus with weight training, “Once your central nervous system has learned to recruit all the muscle fibers it needs to complete a given number of reps, it stops adding new muscle because it can do the job you’ve asked of it with what it has.”
The very fact that you have reached a plateau isn’t something negative, because it means you’ve already made progress. However, for future progress and new results, you will have to implement certain adjustments to your training.
Plateaus can occur because you haven’t been providing enough challenge to your muscles, you aren’t performing the exercises with the correct form, or you aren’t properly recovering from your previous workout sessions.
Another reason could be that you are not pushing yourself enough. But it’s important to know the difference between not working hard enough and needing to recover instead.
Ways to avoid/overcome a weightlifting plateau
Overcoming a weightlifting plateau shouldn’t be that difficult. Employ muscle confusion. Muscle confusion is the need to change your workout routine periodically to keep the body stimulated and growing. If you follow the same routine for several weeks your body will adapt to it. You need to confuse the muscles, so they do not anticipate what your next workout will be. Using the same routine over and over results in maintaining your current condition but not growing. Human Growth Hormone secretion will decrease. Further, this can be a boring experience at best, and if it occurs before you have achieved your goals it can be quite frustrating.
Here are 6 proven ways to break through weight training plateaus
- Change the Way You Perform an Exercise
- Try New Exercises
- Vary the Exercise Order
- Vary the Number of Sets Performed
- Vary the Resistance-Repetition Relationship
- Avoid Overtraining
- Review Your Nutrition and Hydration
#1 Change the Way You Perform an Exercise
The first way to get past a plateau and force further gains is to continue to perform an exercise, but use different equipment. For example, if you have been performing front shoulder raises using dumbbells, try using a barbell to perform the same exercise. Still, another option is to perform this exercise using the low pulley on a cable system.
In the case of the barbell bench press, dumbbells may be substituted, or a weight stack machine may be used to work the chest muscles. These are great ways to add variety to an exercise you enjoy doing while keeping your muscles “guessing,” forcing them to continue making gains.
#2 Try New Exercises
The human neuromuscular system adapts to specific movement patterns. This can work for you, but it can also work against you. Adaptation to movement patterns ensures proper form in lifting patterns, which is a good thing. However, as Selye’s GAS theory states, if the training stimulus remains the same, improvement stabilizes and may even drop off. To prevent this from happening, it is advisable to change your training exercises occasionally.
For example, if progress comes to a halt in the bench press, then the incline bench press, flies, or dips can serve as excellent substitutes to “shock” your muscles and promote further progress. Although all of these exercises target the chest muscles, the different movements require different muscle-fiber recruitment patterns that will stimulate further strength and development.
#3 Vary the Exercise Order
The way you organize your weightlifting program should also be varied from time to time to keep you fresh. Try changing the order of exercises within a muscle group to create some variety. For example, if in your chest routine, you usually do the bench press first, then the incline bench press, followed by dips or flies, try changing the order—start with the incline bench press, then move on to dips, then bench press.
If you always do the flat bench press first, your upper chest muscles will never have the opportunity to be trained when they are fresh. They will always be somewhat fatigued from being indirectly trained on the bench press. Simply changing the order of exercise by muscle group will add variety to your workout and force new results.
#4 Vary the Number of Sets Performed
Another method to use when strength and muscle development reaches a plateau is to vary the number of sets performed for each exercise. If you have been training with multiple sets for each exercise, you may benefit from switching to a single- or 2-set program for a few sessions. Conversely, if you have been doing only 1 set per exercise, you might want to try doing 2 or 3 sets for a workout or two.
#5 Vary the Resistance-Repetition Relationship
Just as the neuromuscular system adapts to specific movement patterns, it also adapts to training workloads. Thus, another way to overcome training plateaus is to vary the resistance-repetition relationship. For example, if 12 reps with 140 pounds becomes a strength plateau, perhaps 8 reps with 160 pounds will stimulate further muscle development. If 10 repetitions with 80 pounds leaves you stale, then perhaps 12 repetitions with 70 pounds will do the trick for a while.
The main objective is to avoid prolonged periods of training with the same amount of resistance and number of repetitions. Be sure to stay consistent with your training goals by not making drastic changes.
#6 Avoid Overtraining
If you have reached a plateau in your training, and changes in your program do not seem to help, then you may simply be overtrained. Many times plateaus occur because of overtraining. It is important to push yourself as hard as you can in the gym and make the most of your time, but there can be a time when you are doing too much. Training seven days a week is an example of overtraining. We all need rest days so our muscles can recoup, regroup, and rebuild. It is during these days off that your body is able to grow bigger and stronger.
#7 Review your nutrition and hydration
Nutrition plays a critical role in supporting optimal health and well-being, which means it is crucial to your performance in the weight room. Address your diet – working out properly needs to be fueled with a proper diet. Therefore, review what you are putting into your body. There may be a particular vitamin or mineral you might be deficient in. Add a recovery snack with a 3:1 carbohydrate-to-protein ratio within 30 minutes post-workout, such as 8 oz. chocolate milk or a PBJ sandwich (peanut butter and jelly sandwich). Drink more water during the day.
A Word From BodybuildingWizard
There comes a time in almost everyone’s fitness journey when our results flatline—a line so straight we could do chin-ups on it. And no matter what we do to get fitter or leaner, it doesn’t seem to work. The weight stays the same, the fitness levels stay the same, we look the same and our progress “plateaus”. Your body is letting you know you’ve reached your potential under the current training conditions and it’s time for a change.
We like to call a plateau the glass ceiling of fitness, where your goal seems within reach, but something is preventing you from getting there. To overcome this you just have to bring in the element of surprise and confuse your body and muscles. By introducing new routines and embracing a variety of intensity techniques, you can avoid a major cause of hitting a plateau. Systematically change your routine when needed, including the 7 changes suggested in this article. Besides that, you can also change the equipment used to perform the exercise, the time of day when you work out, rest time between workouts (or between sets), the position of the body (standing, sitting. degree of angle laying down), position of hands (grip) and feet, examine your diet and recovery, etc.