Novice Lifters: What to Do About Your First Plateau
So you started lifting a few months ago on one of the crowd favorites. Names like Starting Strength, StrongLifts 5x5, and 5/3/1 come to mind. These are great training programs that provide much of the stimulus needed by someone first starting out in their training. They teach you how to get used to being under a heavy bar. How to grind out a tough rep. How to focus on progression week-to-week. And when you first started out, it was glorious. You showed up to the gym each and every session knowing that you were going to absolutely crush whatever needed crushing, and return home feeling like a champ.
But recently, things have started to change. The bar moves a little slower, even on your first few sets. Instead of feeling like a stud at the end of every workout, you go back home beat to hell and in desperate need of lying down for a while. And then it happens. You go in to hit your prescribed weight for the day, and miss it. So you reset your weight, as most linear periodization programs stipulate, and keep trudging forward like the trooper you are. But then it happens again. And again. Until your progress has completely stalled, and you are nowhere near the goals you set for yourself, and that the programs promised to provide.
Some people (the genetically gifted) reach the numbers they were looking for within their first few months of training. The rest of us—myself included—are forced to up the ante a little bit to continue making progress.
What Happened to My Gains?
In those first few months of training, even though the weight on the bar is going up, most of the increases in strength you experience are simply your nervous system getting used to these new movement patterns. This is why anecdotally you’ll find that more untrained trainees will have a rapid initial gain in strength, compared to those with somewhat of an athletic background. The latter group already have a baseline level of kinesthetic awareness that a sedentary individual would not, and therefore benefits less from this neural adaptation.
Now don’t get me wrong. You sure as hell do grow a decent amount of muscle in those first few months. But it would be physiologically impossible to grow muscle in proportion to how much your strength increases during this stage. But when those neurological adaptations start to reach a point of diminishing returns, muscle growth becomes the greatest determinant of future progress. Therein lies the crux of the matter.
Remember those freaks who keep making awesome progress for years on end with a linear periodization program? They are likely blessed with genetics that allow them to continue adapting to the same stimuli over a long period of time. The same rule doesn’t apply to most folks. Due to something called the repeated bouts effect, the more you are exposed to a certain stimulus, the less effect said stimulus will have on your body over time. And there is nothing more similar than a program that has you doing the same movements, in the same set and rep scheme, in the same order, in the same session-to-session frequency, day, after day, after day.
This effect applies to everything from the movements you choose, to the way your program is periodized. But it is usually the most observable with training volume. If you do the same volume over a long period of time, eventually that same volume goes from being enough to spur growth, to being just enough to maintain your current level, to being so low in relation to your strength that you regress.
Turn Up the Volume
Increasing training volume over time is the single common denominator in the transition from a novice, to intermediate, to advanced athlete. The more experienced you get, the slower progress comes, the more volume you need to employ to progress (or even maintain), and the easier it is to regress. The practical considerations of this are that you will have to:
- Make week-to-week jumps in weight instead of session-to-session
- Incorporate certain training sessions which have a slightly different stimulus to others in your repertoire (more on this later)
- Pay more diligent attention to your recovery outside of the gym
The week-to-week jumps are needed because eventually you reach a level of strength that simply does not allow you to recover enough by your next session to present a significant overload. These numbers do not look like some arbitrary strength standards you might see floating around the interwebs, but are individual to you and your body.
Introducing variance in your programming can be as complicated as hopping on a full-on Westside Conjugate routine, with rotating movements week-to-week along with high-frequency, max-effort attempts (not recommended). Or you could just switch up the set and rep schemes on some of your normal scheduled training days. Below is a simple example of how to modify your average 5x5 routine to introduce a little more variety:
Normal “Starting Strength” style template:
Monday, Wednesday, and Friday
- Squat: 5x5
- Bench press: 5x5
- Deadlift 1x5
Monday (high-volume day)
- Squat: 5x8
- Bench press: 5x8
- Deadlift: 2x8
Wednesday (speed day)
- Pause squat: 3x5
- Overhead press: 3x5
- Power clean: 1x5
- Work up to 5RM Squat
- Work up to 5RM Bench Press
- Work up to 5RM Deadlift
The latter of the two, if conducted properly and over an extended period of time, has the potential to carry you well into your advanced phases of training. It can also be easily adapted to different goals:
- Want to put a little emphasis on size? Raise the prescribed rep ranges by 2-3 reps in every instance, and feel free to add some isolation movements after you’ve completed your main strength work each day.
- Want to peak for a powerlifting meet? Starting about 12 weeks out, drop prescribed rep-ranges by 2-3 reps in every instance, and implement a quick taper the week before the meet.
- Want to be a better CrossFitter? Replace the deadlift and bench press with the snatch and clean and jerk, respectively. For the Olympic lifts, decrease the rep-ranges by 2-3 for both, and increase the set recommendations by 2-3 as well.
With that, I hope I have armed you with the knowledge and insights needed to finally stop leaving the gym dejected, and get back to crushing PRs!
Got to build that motor, too: