For weeks, you seemed to be in the zone. Everything was clicking, the weight felt effortless, and you were the master of your destiny. You rode the wave. Then your training utopia fell apart, as if Justin Bieber just moved in next door with twenty of his rented friends, and you need to get up early the next morning.
You, my friend, have hit a plateau. The joyride is over. Simple things now feel complex; you have to drag yourself to the gym, and the roaring fire that was your progress has been reduced to a pilot light.
What to do? You have gone through your handy checklist of usual suspects, including reevaluating intensity levels, diet adherence, and regulating volume of work. But your detective work has come up with no obvious culprit. None of your usual tricks to break out of your rut seem cut it this time. You need something different, something unique.
The next time you smash face-first into a training plateau, look to the following intensifiers to breathe new life and flow into your program and progress.
The Stretch Reflex
This technique involves taking advantage of the body’s protective mechanism. The more a muscle stretches, the more it will contract. That’s a good thing when your goal is to increase muscle mass. The stretch reflex takes things one step further and puts a sudden and intense stretch on the muscle so that it may recruit even more muscle fibers than normal.
How It Works: On any exercise where there is a stretch component involved such as pec flys, incline bench biceps curls or overhead triceps extensions simply perform the set as you would normally however, in the stretched position “release” the tension on the muscle and allow it to relax into the stretch even more than normal. As soon as you achieve maximal stretch reverse the direction and forcefully contract. This should be a quick “twitch” at the stretch.
Spike Your Load
Gaining strength has always been linked, in some fashion, to adding muscle. In general, a larger muscle is a stronger muscle. There are some caveats to that, but one thing holds true: Most of us want to not only look strong, but be strong as well. Simply adding more weight on the bar each week will only work for so long. Over time, you may burn out, or get injured, or both.
Overload sets allow you to coax (not force) your body into lifting heavier. This is a sneaky way of letting your body feel a heavier weight without ditching your normal training plan.
How It Works: After your normal sets, load the bar, machine, or rack with a heavier than normal amount of weight and perform three to five slow and controlled reps with perfect form and without going to failure. This way your troubled area will be able to feel a brand-new load without too much work added.
Empty the Tank
We often think of pre-exhaustion as the technique of choice when it comes to training weak points. Why not reverse your thinking? Simply switch your isolation and compound moves for an intense workout that will still get you out of the gym in minimum time.
How It Works: Pair up a compound and isolation lift for the same area, such as bench press and dumbbell flys, or squats and leg extensions. Once you’ve completed your set of the compound movement, immediately go to the isolation lift and rep to failure. After the entire set is completed, rest for one minute before going again.
Performing holds is another sneaky way to handle more than normal loads without overtaxing your nervous system. As stated before, sometimes you can’t seem to effectively increase weight during your normal training program, and need something a bit different to make progress again. Holds will make your entire body strong, when used the right way.
How It Works: After your normal work sets are in the books, choose a big, compound lift and load the bar with more weight than you can effectively lift for several reps. It can be as high or even a bit higher than your one-rep max. Next, lift the weight into the starting position and simply feel the weight for a specific count. Using squats as an example, load up the bar, get it on your back, and step back with slightly bent knees so your legs feel the massive amount of weight. Then actively hold the weight in this static but tense positon for a count of 20 or 30 seconds before returning the bar to the rack. This will provide additional time under tension, and teach your body what significantly heavy weight feels like.
Get Fatigued Early
Pre-exhaustion isn’t anything new, but most people perform it with one of two flaws: They either don’t go to failure with an isolation exercise, or they tend to go too heavy and stay in the low rep ranges. High-rep, pre-exhaustion sets to failure are a whole new world. The added bonus of higher rep sets is that they will put you more in touch with the area you are trying to improve.
How It Works: As an example, perform pec flys on a machine or with dumbbells. Make sure the load isn’t too heavy, as you will want to achieve reps in the 20-plus range. During your isolation set, perform each rep slowly and with textbook form—don’t simply rush through the set. Next, swallow your pride and perform a set of a compound movements. In the current example, you could use barbell bench press. You should feel every muscle fiber in your chest fire with every inch of the move.
Pause for One
With the recent resurgence of powerlifting and weightlifting, more people are seeking methods from the past to boost performance. Pause training is one such technique. Those who have tried it generally stick to traditional cluster sets of three, four or five reps. Applying singles to your pause arsenal is a good way to bring a little shock and awe to the table.
How It Works: Instead of the usual three to five reps with pauses, shoot for a heavy single for more overall sets. So instead of three sets of four, go with 8-10 singles. Just be sure that each rep is controlled and within your capability to perform safely.
Pair Up Your Compounds
Performing compound supersets for the same body part is oftentimes reserved for arm or deltoid work. These smaller areas react quite well to this type of training, which requires you to perform sets back-to-back for the same body part. However, many can get even greater reward applying it to the larger, multi-joint areas such as chest, back, and legs.
How It Works: Every so often, spice up your bench press, rows, and squats. Pair up incline presses with flat or decline presses, rows with chin-ups, and squats with leg presses or lunges. Take a few minutes of rest between each set, as these are rather taxing and deserve a bit more recovery.
Pulses to Finish
If you’re thinking I mean partial reps, you’re right—partially. Pulses can be considered a specialized type of partial rep designed to squeeze every last ounce of effort from the muscle fiber in the targeted area. They are meant to be used at or near the peak contraction of a body part, when you are no longer capable of performing full-range reps properly.
How It Works: Choose an exercise that achieves a peak contraction such as a preacher curl, triceps press-down, or hamstring machine curl. After you’ve completed all of the full-range reps you are able to do, end the set with pulses until you can’t move. For example, for preacher bench curls, once you’ve reached failure, raise the bar to the top position. Begin performing pulses by lowering the weight only a couple of inches, then curl back up to the contracted position. Rep out until you can no longer move the bar.
Break the Routine, Bust the Plateau
Adopting intensity techniques during a plateau doesn’t have to be as exciting as eating dry chicken breast. Break out of your normal routine and try a few tools you’ve never tried before. Get brutal, intense, and apply a little shock and awe to your program. You’ll only have new muscle to gain.
Looking for variety in your weightlifting routine?