Break through the Plateau
If you are consistently in the gym working out week after week, and you’re trying to improve your strength, endurance, hypertrophy, or just about any goal related fitness variable, you will inevitably encounter the most frustrating thing working out has to offer: the plateau.
The plateau usually occurs after a few months of working out, and it normally comes on the heels of the excitement you experience with the initial progress that normally accompanies the new routine. This is generally referred to in the business as “newbie” gains. There are then several things that happen at this point; the person continues on for a few months of consistent frustration before throwing their hands in the air and saying working out isn’t for them, or they continue to grind it out on a weekly basis without really seeing a lot of progress, but can check the exercise box at the end of the day. Neither one of these options is what we are looking for, yet the majority of us are living somewhere between these two. Not to throw a heaping pile of unasked for advice on you, but we should all be striving to make continual improvements in the strength area of our lives, because not only does strength lead to more defined muscles and thus looking better naked, but having more muscle flat out makes us live longer.
I’d like to have my cake and eat it too, but how? How can I continue to increase strength when I’m always lifting the same weight and doing the same reps, and increasing the intensity seems about as possible as a vertical climb up an ice building barefoot?
I’ll keep it simple, there are numerous techniques to try and avoid the dreaded plateau, but I am going to give you a few simple things to try that have proven to be successful.
1. Periodization: This is an expansive topic, but in a nutshell we shouldn’t be doing the same reps and sets every time we come into the gym. As in life, doing the same thing over and over again without variation will not allow for the continued growth of muscle. So, your standard three sets of 10 performed until the cows come home are part of your problem. With periodization, each week’s sets and reps should be different. For example:
Week 1: 1-2 sets x 17-20 reps (2-1-2-1 tempo)
Week 2: 2-3 sets x 12-15 reps (3-1-2-1 tempo)
Week 3: 3 sets x 8-12 reps (4-1-3-2 tempo)
Week 4: 3-4 sets x 3-5 reps (5-1-3-2 tempo)
Week 5-8 repeat weeks 1-4.
It should be noted that there are many different ways to do periodization. The above is just an example, but it’s a practical one. Each week the sets increase, and the reps decrease, denoting that the intensity is getting greater and greater. This allows us to progressively challenge our muscles over a period of weeks with greater and greater intensity before we start over again, with the goal of starting over from a higher point than we previously started with. This progression will allow you to continue to develop more and more strength without the plateau. You want to find a weight that allows you to fail somewhere in the desired rep range, so if you are doing 8-12 reps, and you have a weight that allows you to do 15 reps, then the weight is too light, and if it allows you to do only 6 reps, then it’s too heavy for that day.
2. Tempo: This is the most ignored aspect of resistance training that there could possibly be with a huge ability to make great changes. To couple your weekly periodization, there should also be a weekly tempo change to match your reps and sets goals. For example, if I’m doing a bicep curl, and I lower the weight for 2 seconds, hold for a second, then lift it for 2 seconds, hold for a second and then repeat my tempo would be 2-1-2-1 (denoted in parentheses above). This exercise with the same weight is exponentially harder performed with a lowering of 4 seconds, pausing for a second, raising the weight for 3 seconds and pausing for a second at the top (4-1-3-1). The slower tempos as the weight increases also allows you to drastically increase intensity without necessarily taking the weight up. Give tempo structure a try; you’ll be amazed.
3. Routine: Each 8 week routine should have a set group of exercises for each time you come in. They shouldn’t change weekly, or you won’t be able to tell if you are making progress or not. For example if you worked out 3 times per week, I would recommend having 3 different routines with a variety of different exercises including squats, presses, and pulls at different angles so that you could challenge the body in a lot of different positions. These three routines would then be performed each week. This allows you to have variety and structure at the same time.
4. Chart your progress: If you truly want to break plateaus and build muscle and strength, then you have to keep track of what you’re doing. Each week mark down the weight and reps that you did so that you know what your totals are from week to week. This allows you to accurately assess where you are progressing and where you are struggling. Keep in mind that progress is determined a lot of different ways, from a gradual increase in weight lifted, to an increase in reps performed, or the same reps performed at a slower tempo. These are all signs of strength improvement, so workout, and write it down.
By following this model we challenge our muscles to work different energy systems at varying intensities, and provide a consistent stimulus for growth, which is what we are really attempting to deliver to our bodies. So try it out! Take your existing routine, apply this structure to it, and hopefully the dreaded plateau will be left behind.
Lead Ortho-Kinetics® Trainer