Today we’re talking about plateaus. And I’m going to outline step-by-step everything you need to know to plow through them as quickly as possible. It’s going to happen, there’s no arguing that. How long it lasts, though, has to do with how you approach it.
Many factors can lead to a plateau; stress, program stagnation, busy lifestyle/less gym time, dip in intensity, lack of accountability – the list can go on and on.
Mindset may be the biggest factor when it comes to plateaus. Some coaches believe they are mental and all in your head while the other coaches believe that plateaus are almost physical in nature and can’t be avoided whatsoever. It’s almost like they have a canned pep talk ready to go that talks about “weathering the (plateau) storm”.
The point is, something changes (or hasn’t changed in a long time so the training adaptations just aren’t there anymore).
Try one (or a few) of these methods to bust through your plateau:
- Mindset Matters. What is your mindset about the gym and your progress? What is your mindset when you’re walking into the gym? Is negative self-talk piling on to the fact you are already frustrated about lack of progress? What you believe and think about your situation directly correlates with what happens when it’s put into practice. It all starts between your ears. If you believe it, it’s going to affect your training.
Own your mind and own your actions to get back on track.
A plateau isn’t a bad thing. Progress in the gym slows as you gain more training experience. If you’re past the “newb” gains, I’m sorry, but you are not going to add 10lbs to your lifts every week.
Training is a grind. Even though results may come at a slower pace or seemingly aren’t happening at all, if you’re working your tail off in the gym, I promise you good things are happening. Perseverance is key in times like this, there’s always light at the end of the “plateau tunnel”.
Fight until you get to it.
- Switch it up. It’s easy to fall into the trap of doing the same program over and over. There are a couple of reasons for this; you are familiar with it and it keeps you inside your comfort zone or you’re not sure how to create a new program or where to look for one that works for you.
Changing things up can bring excitement back to your gym sessions. It’s always fun to start a new program and try different things. There may be a lot of good things going for the program you’ve been using for the last year, but, adaptations and strength gains only happen for so long when using the same stimulus.
You might mess up thinking that you must completely change your program to make it different than before. While this is okay, and will work, it is not necessary to change your entire lifting style.
You may have been doing a standard incline dumbbell bench press as one of your primary chest moves. Say you want to keep with the incline, okay fine. But, change it enough to create a different training effect, there are a ton of different variations you can throw in to achieve that.
For example: you could change how you press (regular or neutral grip), change the rep scheme, change the angle of the bench (higher incline or lower incline – I prefer lower to keep the movement chest dominant), rep tempo, increase or decrease rest periods, perform ½ reps or ¾ reps. As you can see you can stick with the same basic movement at its core but change it just enough so your body must adapt to a new training stimulus.
That’s the name of the game.
- Take some time off. I wrote an article last year about taking some time off from the gym and how that can help you get stronger and come back better than ever.
Here’s what I said;
“Taking some time off will do a lot more good than it will bad for your body and mind. Exceptions would be “beginners” who are still in the habit building stage. We don’t want to stop and that lead to a full out forever break.
Depending on the intensity of your training, I think it is completely ok to take 4-7 days off every 8-12 weeks. After an 8-12 week workout program it’s quite possible your nervous system will be shot, joints may be achy, strength may start to plateau or decline all of which can lead to being discouraged and losing motivation to hit the gym.
Long term lack of motivation and discouragement will lead to a possibility of quitting all together because you may be thinking “working out just doesn’t work for me anymore”.
The week off doesn’t sound near as bad now does it? When you compare the 7 days off to possibly stopping forever and losing what all you’ve worked for, the rest sounds like an awesome idea.
Here’s the thing: No matter how much you feel like you’re losing the muscle you’ve put on or gaining all of the fat back that you lost during that week it is not happening that fast. In fact it’s physically impossible to derail all of your progress in that amount of time.
Assuming nutrition is in check, it is possible to not only keep muscle mass but to gain a little, too. This happens because if you have been lacking recovery time your body never has the right amount of time to actually heal and regenerate the muscles you have broken down during your workouts.
Letting your body and mind hit reset and just relaxing for a couple of days to a week can be one of the best decisions you can make for your training.
- Keep a workout log. Almost nothing impedes fitness progress more than aimlessly wandering around the gym with no plan. This can lead to a lack of intensity, loss of focus and loss of the all-important mind muscle connection.
Whether you start a new program or stick with the old one, having that program written down and available is key. You can use it to take notes on the amount of weight lifted, how you felt that day or if a previous weight that was tough or not doable you hit with easy can go a long way towards your success. We are bombarded with so many things on a daily basis, it is asinine to expect ourselves to remember how much weight we used on our last set of dumbbell rows a week or more ago.
Start out tracking weights and exercises performed but eventually you can start logging how long your rest periods were, the tempo you used or whether you felt like you had more etc.
It can be done with just plain old pen and paper, notes on your phone or an exercise tracking app. The options are endless here — just takes effort on your part to commit to it.
Data isn’t everything, I’m not saying that by any stretch, but, having something to refer to and shoot for when you walk into the gym is empowering.
- Put in a De-Load/Un-Load Week. If you have issues with taking time off from the gym, try instituting a week of lighter weights/or cut the volume of your training in half or more. Having a week like this still allows you to get work done and not feel like a sloth, but, at the same time it isn’t putting the stress on your body that a lift at full volume (or weight if that’s what you adjust) and intensity will.
Schedule “active rest”. Maybe you don’t hit the gym but you go for a trail run, play some pickup ball (insert sport here), take a swim, get a massage or self-massage with a foam roller – lacrosse ball – massage stick etc. Those are just examples; you can plug any activity you like that would not be considered a strict structured workout.
There is at least one (or more) of the methods listed that you can try out to help you bust through that plateau and come back better than ever. Figure out what works for you and get back to crushing it.