Hit a Training Plateau? How to Break Through and Keep Making Progress

Remember when Rocky Balboa chases Apollo Creed down the beach in the movie Rocky III?

 

Balboa is supposed to be training to take down the infamous fighter Clubber Lang, but he can’t seem to keep up. And he finally slows to a walk.


Even after all the training in the gym, sparring matches, and fights, Balboa hits a plateau and can’t seem to get any better, faster or stronger.

 

It’s a pretty frustrating feeling, especially when you’re honestly trying to follow your training plan and stick to your diet.


But it happens.

 

  • Have you hit a plateau?
  • Are you having a hard time increasing the weight on your lifts from week to week?
  • Do you feel like your strength gains have stalled?

 

If you think you’ve hit a plateau and feel like you’re not making progress, it’s time to change things up. Here’s what you need to know:

The SAID Principle


Whether you’re new to lifting and training, or you’ve been exercising for a long time, you can’t escape the body’s Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands, aka the SAID Principle. [1]


It means your body learns to adapt, change, and improve efficiency every time you follow the same lifting program or perform the same cardio workouts.

 

Over time, the exact same workouts are going to produce less results in terms of muscle growth and strength gains.

 

Study: Change Things Up to Make Gains

 

In a recent study, researchers wanted to find out if different training strategies to build stronger quads would make a difference during a six-week training program. [2]

 

Exercises that were part of the quad-training program included Smith Machine Squats and Leg Extensions.

 

But not everybody followed the same rep-set scheme, lifting tempo, or rest periods between sets.


Researchers found that those who changed elements of their leg training plan from week to week, achieved greater gains in strength and muscle than those who didn’t change their quad-training program as often.

 

How to Break Through a Training Plateau

 

If you’re feeling like you’ve hit a plateau, can’t seem to set any new PRs, get stronger, or increase muscle mass, you’re not alone.


If you’re totally new to lifting, you might be able to make gains for months by following a basic periodized training program.

 

But as you gain experience in the gym, and your body gets used to lifting, training, and dieting, you have to make small changes to keep making progress.

 

Here are five ways to break through a plateau:

 

1. Switch exercises

 

If you’ve been focused on the bench press to build a bigger, stronger chest, switch to dumbbells, for example. Replace your sets on the squat rack with the leg press. Or perform cable bicep curls instead of barbell curls.

 

Changing the exercises you’re using to train a specific muscle group periodically will force your body to keep adapting.

 

2. Adjust sets, reps, intensity, rest periods

 

Hit the gym to build muscle, and the recommended rep range per set is 8 to 12 reps, for 3 to 5 sets, with a steady lifting tempo (two seconds up, two seconds down). But if those variables never change from week to week, your body is going to adapt. For example:

 

  • Drop the weight on a set and try to get 12-20 reps.
  • Go heavier and aim for 1-5 reps.
  • Shorten or lengthen rest period between sets. (20-30 seconds to burn more fat, up to 3 minutes for strength gains)

 

3. Try circuit training

 

If you’re following a traditional lifting program, you’re probably doing full-body workouts a couple days a week, or using a split-training program to train specific body parts per workout.

 

But it’s not the only way to build muscle, burn calories, and increase strength. Here’s another way to change things up:


Complete every exercise in your workout as a single set. Complete one set, and move on to the next exercise without resting. Alternate upper body exercises with lower body exercises. Rest one to 3 minutes after you’ve completed a circuit and repeat.

 

4. Add supersets to your workout

 

Here’s another way to stimulate muscle growth and strength gains to help you break through a plateau. Add supersets to your workout.[3]

 

For example, after completing a chest day workout, finish off with as many reps as possible of elevated push-ups, then a set of standard push-ups.

 

Or simply drop the weight on the bench press after your last set. Without resting, complete as many reps as possible. Drop the weight again, and repeat.

 

5. Take a deload week

 

If you’ve been hitting every workout hard, your body eventually needs a break. Most periodized programs include a deload week. Either take a week off of lifting all together, or plan a week of training where you won’t be lifting heavy or training to failure.

 

Change one training variable and measure the results

 

There’s more than one way to break through a plateau and keep making gains. But in most cases, making a simple change to one element of your training plan is all it takes.

 

If you’re feeling stuck, take a look at your program and use one of these strategies and measure your progress. Simple tweaks to your training plan can often help you break through.


Need help breaking through a plateau? Let me know.

 

-Ryan Spiteri

Creator of the 12 Week Shred Program

 


 

References

 

  1. Penny, S. (2015). Bust through training plateaus (and boredom) with these programming swaps. National Academy of Sports Medicine. From: http://blog.nasm.org/fitness/bust-through-training-plateaus-and-boredom-with-these-programming-swaps/

 

  1. Souza, E., et al. (2014). Early adaptations to six weeks of non-periodized and periodized strength training regimens in recreational males. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. From: http://www.jssm.org/research.php?id=jssm-13-604.xml.

 

  1. Brentano, M., et al. (2017). Muscle damage and muscle activity induced by strength training super-sets in physically active men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. From: http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Citation/2017/07000/Muscle_Damage_and_Muscle_Activity_Induced_by.12.aspx