When you first start lifting, just about anything works. But when you hit a plateau, it’s time to bust out these methods to build muscle.
Few things are as frustrating as hitting a training plateau. With even the slightest whiff of stagnation, most lifters scour the internet and hop onto a different program. As a result, they never build muscle or strength. They fail to improve their technique, and they build the self-defeating habit of chasing novelty.
But the intelligent and jacked lifters? They analyze their training for gaps. Sometimes those gaps are diet-related, but the issue is often workout design or a lack of intensity.
Here are three proven plateau-busting methods to help you get back on the gain train.
A cluster set breaks down a set into several mini-sets with short rests between them. There’s a pre-determined number of reps you’ll perform. For example, to do a set of 5 reps cluster-style, you’d perform 1 rep, rest 20 seconds, perform another rep, rest 20 seconds, etc., until you hit 5 reps. The secret? You’ll use more weight than you would with a straight set of 5 continuous reps.
The mini-breaks between reps can be 15 to 30 seconds long. Those brief rest periods allow your phosphocreatine (PCr) system to recover partially. Your PCr system is primarily responsible for high-intensity muscular contractions like sprinting and heavy lifting.
The short, partial recovery allows you to lift a heavier weight for more reps. You’ll maximally train and fatigue high-threshold motor units: the ones best suited for strength and muscular development.
Heavier weight for more reps creates more progressive overload – a primary driver for building strength and size.
Here’s how it looks:
Use a load between 85-95% of your 1 RM (a weight you lift 3-5 times) and do 4-6 reps.
Here’s a comparison of straight sets versus cluster sets:
- Straight Sets: 5x5 at 225 pounds
- Cluster Sets: 5x1-1-1-1-1 at 275 pounds
There’s a clear difference in the amount of work completed in that example. Compared to straight sets (5x5), the breaks in cluster sets allow for optimal training focus and improved technique to build strength. The increase in work will help you build muscle.
Cluster training works best with compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, rows, overhead presses, and bench presses. Your goal is to optimize rep execution rather than chase fatigue. Using a heavier weight with more focus for more total reps is a recipe for gains.
Note: Check out this complete 12-week plan: The Ultimate Cluster Training Program
Rest-pause training uses activation sets followed by one all-out rest-pause set where you break a set into multiple mini-sets using an abbreviated rest period.
The result? You’ll perform more reps at a particular weight than you would with a straight set, increasing total work.
Here’s what rest-pause training might look like with a dumbbell bench press:
- Perform 3 sets of 6-10 reps as you normally would. These first three sets accumulate some fatigue and ramp up the nervous system. On the last set, put the weight down and rest for 15-20 seconds.
- Now do your three rest-pauses. It might look like this:
- Do 70 pounds x 5 reps.
- Rest for 15-20 seconds.
- Do 70 pounds x 4 reps.
- Rest for 15-20 seconds.
- Do 70 pounds x 3 reps.
Do one rest-pause set on 1-2 exercises per workout and 2-3 total “micro” sets as part of the rest-pause.
With rest-pause training, you’re lifting a heavier weight for more reps, creating more progressive overload to trigger muscle growth. The short breaks between sets allow a short yet incomplete recovery period to maximally fatigue muscle fibers and stimulate growth.
Rest-pause sets can be used on major multi-joint lifts and isolation work. Emphasize optimal technique, but don’t be afraid to hit muscular failure.
Rest-pause training is similar to cluster training, and some people use the terms interchangeably, but there are subtle differences between the two:
- Cluster training is more strength-performance focused. Rest-pause is more muscular fatigue-focused.
- In cluster training, fatigue and failure are generally avoided. With rest-pause training, metabolic stress and fatigue are delayed but still a goal.
- Cluster training is best done with heavy loads and a barbell. Rest-pause training can be used with various training tools and loads.
- Cluster training uses a set load and pre-determined volume. Rest-pause training uses a set load and variable volume.
- Cluster training focuses on hitting a certain number of reps. Rest-pause training focuses on accumulating fatigue and doing as many reps as you can at a given weight.
PAP is an advanced training method that combines heavy, compound lifting in a superset with an explosive, lighter exercise. For example, do a set of heavy bench presses, rest 30 seconds, then do a set of explosive clap push-ups.
PAP describes the immediate enhancement of muscle force during explosive movements after a heavy resistance exercise. (1). You bridge the gap between strength and explosive athleticism by working opposing sides of the force-velocity curve (heavy strength, low-speed movement) with high velocity (low strength, high-speed movement).
Think of your car. Now, think of your car with a nitrous oxide booster. Post-activation potentiation gives you a hit of N.O. to boost strength, athleticism, and muscle fiber recruitment.
The caveat? To properly use post-activation potentiation, you need a significant base level of strength and skill in performing your big lifts. Otherwise, PAP will backfire in the form of…
- Extreme neurological fatigue, leaving you feeling lethargic.
- Increased risk of injury due to fatigue and technical breakdown.
- Looking like an ass-hat.
To optimize performance, pair biomechanically similar exercises together. This allows you to “grease the groove” on the movement pattern.
More importantly, you’ll improve both intermuscular and intramuscular coordination. Intermuscular coordination occurs between muscles – you synchronize movements together more efficiently.
Intramuscular coordination happens inside the muscle in the form of improved:
- Rate Coding: The capacity to increase firing rate (motor unit discharge rate) to express more strength.
- Recruitment: Recruiting more motor units simultaneously when performing a muscular action.
- Synchronization: The ability of muscle units to contract nearly simultaneously, with very minimal delay.
The takeaway? Pairing exercises of similar biomechanical requirements and varying the load in a superset helps you generate more power and activate more muscle fibers to improve strength and make subsequent training more effective.
The first exercise is a heavy compound movement, which is then paired with an explosive movement.
This training method is best done with high training loads (80-95%) on your compound exercise for 1-6 reps. The explosive exercise should be unweighted or lightly weighted but performed with maximum explosive intent.
A sample PAP setup would look like this:
- A1. Squat 5x5, rest 30 seconds
- A2. Jump Squat 5x5, rest 3-5 minutes
You shouldn’t feel a ton of metabolic stress while using PAP, but you should feel stronger and faster over time. Because of the extreme neurological demands, keep your training blocks to 3-4 weeks. After 3-4 weeks, change to a less intense method (like straight sets) or take a deload.
All three of the methods provide a novel training stimulus to push past strength and size plateaus. But increasing intensity without also improving recovery or increasing caloric intake is pointless. Adding more stress only serves to dig a deeper hole from which your body must recover.
Implement only one of these training methods at a time and increase calorie intake by 5-10 percent, primarily from carbohydrates and protein (on Amazon). Ensure you’re getting ample sleep: 7 hours should be the minimum. Otherwise, endlessly piling on more stress won’t lead to a breakthrough – it’ll lead to a prolonged plateau.
Train hard. Adjust your programming to amplify intensity. Double down on your recovery. With these protocols dialed in, there’s no plateau you can’t overcome.
- Robbins DW. **Post activation potentiation and its practical applicability: a brief review.**J Strength Cond Res. 2005;19(2):453-458. PubMed.