Plateaus are natural. Don’t get frustrated. Instead, adopt one or two of these strategies to reignite muscle and strength gains.
The dreaded plateau: muscle growth crawls to a stop and strength gains stagnate. Train hard enough for long enough and it happens. When it does, you need a strategic approach. Here are six proven strategies to get you back on track.
Drop sets are where you perform a heavy, near-failure set, decrease the weight, and continue until you reach technical or muscular failure.
The last few reps of a set have the highest metabolic stress, a key driver for muscle growth. Combining heavy, high-tension lifting with skin-splitting metabolic stress is the perfect recipe for rapid growth. As a bonus, drop sets save you time.
This is also called the “halving method.” Use this particular drop set after a low-rep, heavy-load exercise:
- After your final working set, strip off 50% of the weight. Give yourself 15 seconds of rest and hit as many reps as possible before failing.
- Rest 15 seconds and once again remove 50% of the weight. Do another set.
By halving the weight twice, your last drop set will be a weight you probably haven’t put on the bar since you were a newbie, but it’ll be challenging since you’re going to failure. It’s high-tension lifting along with a big pump.
Example: Complete your final rep using 325 pounds on the bench, then…
- Drop Set 1: 165 pounds (rounded up from 162.5) x failure
- Drop Set 2: 85 pounds (rounded up from 82.5) x failure
Rest-pause training breaks one heavy set into several short sets. In the video, I’m doing it pull-ups. This method allows you to select a weight you typically lift for 4-6 reps before failure and get as many as 10 reps with that same weight. You can do more total work with the same load by leveraging partial recovery, especially for your creatine-pCR system.
This method is exceptionally powerful if you’re struggling with a plateau on a compound barbell lift. Let’s say your final set of squats is supposed to be 365 x 5:
- When you complete the 5 reps of 365, rack the barbell, rest for 15-30 seconds, then do 1-2 reps of 365.
- Rack the weight again. Wait 15-30 seconds and do a single rep of 365.
- Repeat until you hit 10 reps with your 5-rep max.
With every rep, you’re increasing your daily workout load, forcing your muscles to adapt and respond to that increase. Using this example, you’ve increased your training volume significantly.
Stick to rest-pause training for only 3-4 weeks. It’s exceptionally stressful on your body if you’re strong.
Progressive overload is at the core of muscle growth. But most lifters stop tracking their lifts and taking notes, then wonder why they’re not making progress. Remember, data eliminates drama and directs intelligent decisions. Get serious about tracking and improving your numbers.
Progressing your weights (going heavier) is the most basic measure, but you can also overload your body by making other adjustments, like tweaking the training tempo.
Keep the weight the same but adjust the lifting tempo to create more time under tension:
- Week 1: 2-1-1-0 tempo
- Week 2: 3-1-1-0 tempo
- Week 3: 3-1-1-0 tempo
- Week 4: 4-1-1-0 tempo
Here’s how to read that:
- 1st number: the eccentric (lowering/negative)
- 2nd number: the transition time
- 3rd number: the concentric (lifting)
- 4th number: the break between reps
In this example, you’re doubling the time under tension with the slower negative, creating more mechanical tension and metabolic stress to bust through your plateau.
Approach training using clear, thought-out segments, especially as you get more advanced. In a word, periodization. Here’s a quick example:
A 4 to 12-week strength phase improves your strength foundation, central nervous system efficiency, and ability to recruit muscle fibers. If you follow that strength phase with a power phase, you take advantage of having a bigger engine. Or, follow a strength phase with a muscle-building phase. The improved muscle fiber recruitment and enhanced work capacity allow you to lift heavier weights for more reps.
Most lifters focus on two types of periodization:
- Concurrent Loading: Train various physiological variables at once. Picture a workout where you focus on enhancing power, strength, and hypertrophy within the same training block. It’s an efficient way to address multiple facets of fitness in a single routine. Call it the “jack of all trades” approach.
- Conjugate Loading: Train multiple physical qualities concurrently using a dynamic rotation of exercises. The goal is to achieve well-rounded development by constantly challenging the body through diverse movements. This maximizes motor development.
While both concurrent and conjugate loading are effective, a lesser-known technique could smash through the barriers holding your progress hostage:
- Concentrated Loading: This strategy allows you to elevate a specific physiological variable at an accelerated pace. Concentrated loading shines by directing your efforts toward a singular purpose: increasing strength, power, speed, or hypertrophy. This approach gives you much more tangible results than the previous methods.
- Phase 1: Power
- Phase 2: Strength
- Phase 3: Hypertrophy with mechanical tension emphasis
- Phase 4: Hypertrophy with metabolic stress emphasis
Specialization like this might cause a temporary decline in another physical quality, but such is the nature of training. Becoming a great lifter requires mastering one aspect at a time. The beauty lies in the refinement of your approach – a calculated decision to prioritize a particular attribute in pursuit of your goals.
Many people train hard but don’t recover worth a shit. You need more and better quality sleep. You need more consistency with your training, nutrition, and recovery. Many lifters do the right things 75% of the time – a C for grading purposes while expecting A-level results.
Take a quick check:
- Are you getting 7-8 hours of quality sleep?
- Are you nailing your diet day in and day out?
- Are you proactively reducing stress and emphasizing recovery?
Your most significant breakthroughs often come from the activities you do outside the gym.