10 Tips to Smash Through a Training Plateau
It doesn't matter how good or experienced you are - at some point you're going to be faced with a training plateau.
For one reason or another, your workouts will eventually take a hit. Rather than seeing that slow but satisfying improvement you're used to, you'll start posting the same times and weights over and over again. It's motivational suicide to even the most dedicated of lifters.
If you can push through your plateaus, they'll end up making you a better athlete. (Photo Credit: Pixabay)
There is light at the end of the tunnel. I've put together the ultimate plateau-smashing guide below to add in and around your workouts to get you back in the good books of the God of Gains.
Let’s get started.
1. Start Logging Your Workouts
The main problem people have when they think they've hit a plateau is simply that they don't log their workouts. How do you expect to see improvements to your lifts if you don't even know how much you've lifted each session? With modern technology nowadays, there's no excuse. Everyone has a smartphone, and they all have note-making software.
Finish your workout and log it. It takes a matter of seconds. By making notes of each workout, you can see exactly what you're up against and make sure you see improvement every time you’re in the gym.
2. Take a Deload Week
Everyone hates taking time off the gym. But you should hate not making progress more.
People like to talk about over-training, but they don't speculate that they might be suffering from it themselves. If you've been hitting the gym religiously for a while now and see a grinding halt in your progress, you're probably pushing too hard. A recovery week might be just what you need.
You don't even need to stop training altogether. A study from Gibala et al. found athletes who simply dialled down their strength routine’s volume for a week after three weeks of hard training returned to the gym with a significant boost in strength.1
3. Cut Out Stress
Mentally and physically, too much stress will destroy your workouts.
Stress isn't a state of mind or mood - it's a very real issue. Stress is so real, in fact, that it materializes as cortisol, a hormone that can seriously tank your performance in workouts. Studies have shown that too much cortisol can lower your testosterone levels and negatively affect your training.2
A simple way to combat this is to try more effective relaxation strategies. Studies have shown meditation is a good way to lower cortisol levels3 and get your lifts back on track.
4. Revisit Your Form
Everyone knows form is key, but ego lifting is just so much more gratifying. If you think your form is perfect, chances are it isn't anymore.
As people get more and more concerned with beating their targets, they sacrifice their form to get there. In the meantime, certain parts of the muscle aren't getting the full attention they need to make them stronger. This is when people hit plateaus. You may not like it, but the best course of action is to lower the weight, reassess your form, and take the lift nice and slow.
Form slips happen to everyone. Don't worry about it, give yourself a few weeks to get back on track, and you'll be beating your PBs again before you know it.
5. Up Your Calories
It doesn’t matter that your current caloric intake has worked for increasing your strength before. It may have been enough back then, but it's likely not enough now. Up your food intake to see more progress.
There’s more to it than making sure you've eaten more food than you usually would at the end of the day. The type of food is crucial too. Sugary carbohydrates have a lot of calories, but they’re not going to get you better results, just a bigger gut. Up your food intake, but balance your macros and don't get greedy with junk food.
6. Lower Your Protein Intake
Contrary to what's said between bros in the gym, too much protein can actually hinder your progress rather than help it. If you're in a mindset of the more protein, the better, you're doing it wrong.
The reason for this leads back to what we were saying in the third point about cortisol. Protein is a difficult macronutrient for the body to process, and having an excess of it puts additional stress on your body and by extension, your hormones. The resultant release of cortisol from overconsumption of protein-dense food has been seen in studies to lower testosterone levels, which is bad news for any kind of strength training.4
7. Consume Enough Healthy Fats
Most people believe the secret to success when trying to pack on muscle and increase size is a high protein, low carb, and low fat diet. This couldn't be further from the truth.
Fats aren't just good for you, they’re closely linked to hormonal health and are essential for optimal testosterone levels. A good source of fats supplies your body with the resources and nutrients it needs to make further progress in the gym. Good options for healthy fats include avocados, macadamia nuts, and eggs.
8. Use a Carefully Chosen Supplement Stack
Supplement stacks aren't the key to results: hard work is. However, a well-researched supplement stack can support your work in the gym and give your body the extra edge it needs to see results sooner rather than later. If you already feel like you're doing everything right in the gym, adding excellent supplements can take you that one step further.
The smart way to choose supplements is to choose nutrients that you don't get a lot of in your existing diet. A great example of this is vitamin D3. Vitamin D3 is closely linked to improving testosterone levels and joint health, but there's a reported one billion people in the world who are D3 deficient. So it’s likely your levels are low, and very likely you’ll benefit from taking a vitamin D3 supplement.
9. Chase the Pump for a Change
If your lack of progress is really getting to you, it can seriously affect your mood and how you feel about going to the gym. You should always enjoy your sessions. If a workout feels like it's dragging, the chances are you're not going to be giving it your all.
You need to let yourself fall back in love with the gym, and a good way to do that is to concentrate on pump work. High-rep, low-weight exercises will definitely make a change from your current routine of trying to hit that new PB - and they just feel so good.
Enjoyment aside, chasing a pump requires a lot of muscle fibre stimulation, giving your muscle the overall development it's been missing from lifting heavy all the time. The change of pace will be good for you, and will get you raring to go when you do decide to return to lifting heavy.
10. Change Up Your Bar
When some people face a personal best attempt, they can psych themselves out and fail the lift before they even start it. The most common place I personally see this is when guys have been powerlifting for a while and think they're ready to bench two plates way too soon.
I find the best way to overcome a weight phobia is to rearrange the bar. Instead of simply stacking two plates on either side, I try something new. Instead of two 20kg plates, I try a 20kg, a 10kg, a 5kg and two 2.5kg plates. More often than not, I convince myself that it’s a different weight altogether and approach the lift with much less fear than I had before.
You Either Win Or You Learn
Although a plateau may seem like a bad thing, it's a great experience to test your dedication and help you grow as an athlete. You either win, or you learn. If lifting the big weights and smashing the fastest times were easy, everyone would be doing it.
Give these methods a try. Keep your head up, and add any additional tips you may have in the comments section below.
This article was originally published on Breaking Muscle UK.
1. Gibala M.J., MacDougall J.D., Sale D.G. (1994) The effects of tapering on strength performance in trained athletes. International Journal of Sports Medicine 15(8), 492-497
2. KT Francis (1981): The relationship between high and low trait psychological stress, serum testosterone, and serum cortisol, Experientia. 1981 Dec 15;37(12):1296-7
3. MacLean CR, Walton KG, Wenneberg SR, Levitsky DK, Mandarino JV, Waziri R, Hillis SL, Schneider RH. Effects of the Transcendental Meditation program on adaptive mechanisms: changes in hormone levels and responses to stress after 4 months of practice. Psychoneuroendocrinology.1997;22:277–295.
4. Jeff S. Volek, William J. Kraemer, Jill A. Bush, Thomas Incledon, Mark Boetes, Testosterone and cortisol in relationship to dietary nutrients and resistance exercise, Journal of Applied Physiology Jan 1997, 82 (1) 49-54