Updated: Mar 9, 2022
I think we can all agree on that.
Whether they cause us to stay on the same strength level for months on end, or cause us to see literally no changes in the mirror, even when we're sure we're working hard, plateaus are extremely annoying to deal with.
And while most, if not everybody that lifts consistently will experience a plateau at least once during their lifting career, the majority of lifters and trainees do not actually know what to do, or how to go about dealing with a plateau.
This is a problem, as they can happen unexpectedly and be pretty detrimental to our motivation and drive if we can't resolve it.
That's why in this post, I'll be going over what exactly a plateau is and the 7 best strategies you can use to break through your training plateau, and get back on your feet towards your fitness goals. Let's get into it!
NOTE: While some of these steps are specific only to people that lift in the gym, many of them can be directly applied to competitive athletes and those that take part in cardiovascular exercises such as runners and cyclists as well.
The 7 Steps to Breaking Through Your Plateau Are...
First of All: What is a Plateau?
Many people (often beginners) are quick to confuse training plateaus with slower progress. You see, we all experience a phenomenon known as 'newbie gains' when we first start lifting.
This is where our bodies are placed under this kind of stress consistently for the first time, and give us some of the best responses in terms of strength and muscle gain during this period.
Newbie gains typically last 6-12 months, and you'll notice when they run out, as your progress slows down very suddenly. All of a sudden, you're not getting stronger every session, and you're not rapidly seeing results in the mirror anymore.
Many people often confuse this with hitting a plateau, when in reality, it just means that they need to reevaluate their expectations. There's nothing that you can do to get your newbie gains back.
As you continue to progress through your fitness journey, the rate at which you make progress will continue to slow down.
Once you reach the intermediate lifting level, you can expect to get stronger about once every 2-3 weeks. Even if your bench press strength for 3 sets of 5 reps increases by 2.5kg or 5lb over the course of a month, you're making progress.
You haven't hit a plateau. A plateau is the point where you're making no progress at all.
Hitting a plateau means reaching a point where your main exercises aren't progressing at all, even after several (at least 3-4) weeks of hard work.
If this applies to you, and you're sure that you're putting enough effort in, then you can probably assume you've hit a plateau.
If this sounds like you, then read on for the 7 best strategies you can use to break through it!
Ensure That You're Getting Enough Sleep
I see far too many people overlooking this.
Sleep and recovery is one of the most important aspects of weightlifting and fitness in general. The more intense your training is, the more sleep and rest you should be getting.
Let's take a look at this study conducted by T Reilly and M Piercy. They tested men on their one-rep maxes on four consecutive days, testing the bicep curl, barbell bench press, leg press and barbell deadlift. The first time, they were given a full night's sleep between each day and were fully well rested.
Aside from just the one-rep max, the moods and levels of sleepiness in these men were also recorded down after each day.
Then, the men had to do the exact same as before, but were given only 3 hours of sleep each night.
After the first night, mood and sleepiness was found to have worsened, but the strength levels remained the same.
However on day two of the restricted sleep, strength levels, sleepiness and mood had all significantly worsened. And the same happened for days three and four, each day getting worse and worse.
This is a pretty extreme example, but it just goes to show how sleep deprivation can cause not only your performance in the gym, but also mood to drop significantly.
If you're currently not getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep a night, you could be leaving gains on the table. Gains that could mean the difference between breaking through your plateau and remaining stuck where you are.
Simply put, not getting enough sleep can limit your workout capacity severely and could be the reason you get stuck.
Check That You're Eating Well
Proper nutrition is crucial if you want your body to take advantage of the hard work that you're putting in at the gym.
Not only do you need food to fuel your workouts, but you also need it to help your body recover and grow, after you're done in the gym.
You need to ensure that you're eating enough carbs, fats, proteins, fiber and other important nutrients if you want to make the most out of your training.
First of all, you need to make sure you're getting more protein.
Protein is one of the most important nutrients that you need for building strength and muscle.
Protein provides the building blocks of your muscles, and is absolutely necessary if you want to maintain your lean muscle mass, and continue to build more.
If you're not getting enough protein in, no matter how hard you train, you're going to be leaving gains on the table. ASCM recommends 1.2-1.7g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, or 0.5-0.8 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight.
Many people think that not eating carbs is the best way to go about losing weight, or staying lean.
However this is simply not the case. Carbs are the body's main source of energy, and it simply does not make sense to cut down on them too much if you're looking to perform as best as possible in your workouts.
You're limiting your workout capacity by not putting enough fuel in the tank.
So check that you're eating the right foods, and make adjustments if necessary. You can speak to a qualified nutritionist if you're unsure and want expert or more professional advice.
The next step that you can take to ensure you get through this plateau of yours is quickly as possible is to eat more.
We already covered that our bodies build muscle at the most optimal rate when we give it the right fuel and nutrients.
It makes sense that if we're always eating in a caloric deficit, we're eventually going to reach a plateau and stop making gains.
For the average person, eating approximately 37.5 calories per kilogram of bodyweight is sufficient to keep moving efficiently. This equates to about 17 calories per pound of bodyweight.
However if you're an extremely active person, say an athlete that trains twice or even three times a day, you're likely going to need a little more.
It's hard to know exactly how many calories you're burning without the right equipment, but it's important that you try and eat more than you burn.
And if you find that you're hitting plateaus and not able to keep progressing, you may need to start eating more.
It doesn't matter how high or fast you think your metabolism is, it doesn't matter where you started in terms of your fitness, as you get bigger and stronger, your body is going to need more and more fuel to keep running effectively.
We recommend increasing your daily calories by a little bit to start with, and seeing if you notice progress again.
This could simply mean eating an extra snack throughout the day, or getting a little more liquid calories in through your favorites shakes.
Continue to do this for at least 2 weeks, and reevaluate how you're doing.
If you start to see progress again, that's great! Stay there, and look to increase your calories again once you feel that you need to.
If you don't see progress after a couple of weeks, and you're sure that you've increased your calories by at least 100 per day, check your bodyweight.
If that's gone up, but your strength levels haven't, then you might need to try something else instead of eating more and more.
Improve Your Form
This likely won't apply to advanced lifters, but I see many people lifting with suboptimal form, and then wondering why their lifts haven't progressed in a while.
If you want to get the most out of your lifting, you need to ensure that you're lifting with proper form.
You need to ensure that you're going through a full range of motion, and are lifting with real technique and purpose, instead of just going through the movements.
Several studies have shown that going through a full range of motion is better for muscle growth (most of the time).
For example, doing half reps on the barbell back squat is going to do very little for your lower body, no matter how much weight that you're using.
Likewise, you don't want to be cheating your reps either. If you're swinging your entire torso during a bicep curl, or are jerking and using your legs during a barbell row, you're not giving your target muscles a chance to do their work.
Instead, you're allowing other muscles to each contribute a little the movement, reducing the work your target muscles are doing by a significant amount.
Lifting with bad form can also lead to injury, which can severely limit your ability to train efficiently for a long time.
Constant lower back pain and shoulder pain is extremely annoying, and will cause not only our lifts to suffer, but our overall training experience as well.
This will undoubtedly have an effect on our ability to make gains and see progress.
A good way that you can look to make improvements on your form is to record yourself during your hard working sets and look for any points that you could improve on.
Many people will experience a little bit of form breakdown when they struggle on the last few reps, which is normal.
However it should still be reduced as much as possible, as those last couple of reps are where the gains primarily come from. We want them to be as good as possible.
Increase Workout Volume/Intensity
Perhaps the next step for you to get through this plateau of yours is to simply work harder. Often times, it's hard to gauge how hard we're really working in the gym.
Many people struggle to know when they've actually reach muscular failure. I see many beginners and even intermediate lifters stopping 'at failure' after 8 reps, and then grind out three more once they're pushed and encouraged by their mates.
The only real way to get good at knowing how close you are to failure is to simply take a set to real failure, as in your cannot do another rep at all.
If you're doing something like the bench press or the squat, make sure you've got a person with you to ensure you're safe and give you the confidence to push for as many reps as possible.
You might surprise yourself!
If you do test this, and you find that you're actually able to do much more than you thought you were capable of, it might be an indication that you need to work harder, to continue seeing those results you used to.
If you're an intermediate or advanced lifter and are sure that you are working hard enough (all working sets taken close to failure), it might be time to increase your weekly workout volume by a little.
This might mean simply adding an extra set onto some of your primary exercises, or adding an extra exercise at the end of your workouts to boost your gains that much more.
Science has shown that there seems to be a positive relationship between workout volume and muscle growth, where the more volume you do, the more gains you'll see.
At least up to a point.
This point lies somewhere around 20 (maybe a couple more) hard working sets per muscle per week.
So if you're currently doing less than this, and you're not seeing the results that you'd like to be seeing, it might be time to increase volume a little.
Change Up Your Exercises
An effective way of getting through your plateaus is actually changing up some of the exercises that you're performing in the gym.
You don't have to be working any harder than you already are, or doing anything extra at all.
Our bodies will grow and adapt to the stress that we place it under, and we'll often need to switch up some of the exercises that we do every 8-12 weeks, to continue to provide the body with new challenges and stimuluses for growth.
If you've been sticking to the same workout routine(s) for 10 or more weeks, and you're no longer seeing the results that you want to see, then this may serve as a sign that you need to switch up some of the exercises you're doing.
There will usually be a couple of fundamental lifts that you do to keep getting strong at. For example, the bench press, squat and deadlift. These aren't necessary, but give you huge bang for your buck and are great choices.
However you can still look to switch things up here. For example, you could switch to a dumbbell bench press instead of a barbell bench press.
Maybe you give the weighted dip a try if you haven't already.
Maybe it means sticking to machine chest presses if your main and only goal is muscular hypertrophy.
Doing this will allow your body to experience a new kind of stimulus, drive new gains and break through your training plateau.
If you want to keep the same exercises that you're currently doing, you could also look to switch up the order at which you do your exercises.
For example, instead of doing the bench press first on your 'push' day workout, do a couple sets of heavy military presses instead.
Doing this will also help to change up the stimulus you place on your muscles and hopefully help you break the plateau.
Take a Deload
Last but not least, you can look to take a deload. Training hard and consistently for 8-10 weeks straight at a time can be pretty draining on the body and mind. It can leave us exhausted and unmotivated, which will definitely have an effect on our ability to make progress.
The longer you train for, the more often you will need deloads to keep up wit your increasing workout volume and intensity.
However, for most people deloads will be beneficial to take every 8-12 weeks.
More advanced lifters will need them more often, and the opposite goes for newer trainees.
A deload often lasts for a week, and is basically a period of time where you lift with the exact same sets, reps and exercises, but with 50-60% of the weight that you normally would use.
This keeps the body moving, without taxing it any further. It's essentially a week of active recovery after several weeks of hard work.
Taking a deload week allows the body to fully recover, and helps you get back into a state where you're able to make the absolute most out of your training.
You'll come back into the gym feeling great after the deload, and many seasoned lifters/influencers will tell you just how effective a deload can be if you do it correctly.
It might sound counterintuitive, but it's true. Taking a step back can really be the key to taking 5 steps forwards.
All in all, hitting a plateau is one of the most annoying experiences that a trainee can face.
However, it's more than likely to happen at some point during your training career, and therefore it's important that you know these steps towards working around it and getting back on track.
I hope you've enjoyed reading through this post, and have learnt something from it! As always, share it with your friends if you found it useful so that we can reach more people!