6 Ways to Keep Progressing When You’re No Longer a Training Novice

WRITTEN BY Calvin Huynh

What’s the only thing more frustrating than the protein scoop being at the bottom of the tub?

What seems to happen to every lifter the moment they seem to really get addicted to lifting?

What seems like a myth until it happens to you?

Yep, you guessed it, the frustrating plateau….

When we first start lifting, we make progress like no other. We begin our novice lifting journey with a bottle of protein and our first steps in the squat rack. Our bench press looks better each week and our deadlifts seem to increase consistently as long as we don’t skip any leg days. We then quickly realize our gainz comes with diminishing returns. We try to lie to ourselves that it’s not that big of a deal until the day our deadlift stays glued to the ground. We’ve hit the dreaded plateau.

When you’re a novice, it’s easy for your body to make progress because of your central nervous system is finally activated, your muscles can easily adapt to new stress, and there’s a lot of room for error. But as you graduate from gym newbie, it becomes increasingly difficult to make progress with old methods especially now that your body has easily adapted to heavy lifting.

Here are six ways to keep progressing when you’re no longer a training novice, you can finally say goodbye to the blasphemy that is a plateau.

6 ways to keep progressing

1. Ramping sets are your new best friend

Rep schemes like 5×5 and 6×3 are great for beginners in which you use the same weight for every working set, but these methods become less effective once you get stronger. It’s easy to squat 5 sets of 5 with 185lbs, but 5×5 becomes difficult when you start squatting 335. This means more stress on your nervous system and your joints.

As you get stronger, your recovery becomes more efficient, but often times there comes a point in which strength will progress faster than recovery. This occurs when you’re lifting more weight, but for some reason are huffing and puffing way more than usual between sets. Part of this reason is because you got a lot of heavy working sets. We got to advance our rep scheme if we want to break a plateau.

This is why ramping sets are your new best friend. Instead of doing 5+ working sets, you’ll start lighter, lifting more explosively and work your way up gradually to 1-3 heavy top end sets. This is beneficial for 5 reasons.

  • You can work at a higher 1RM percentage because you’re doing less top end sets.
  • You don’t need as many warm up sets because your early lighter working sets act as an extended warm up.
  • You’ll prime your central nervous system (CNS). As you start lighter, working your way up, you will increase force production by preparing your CNS for heavier loads.
  • You learn to lift explosively, which might be a missing component in your training. Explosive work at a lower weight is highly useful for advanced lifters who have already built a base of strength.
  • You’ll still get the volume and intensity needed to stimulate muscle growth with less top end working sets meaning less stress on your joints.

Here’s a sample Ramping work set using the infamous bench press.

Mr. Gainz’s 1-rep max is 300lbs and today he wants his working sets to be at 90% which is 270lbs.

His warm up sets are at 135 and 185.

His working sets are

  • 225 x 8
  • 245 x 8
  • 255 x 6
  • 265 x 5
  • 270 x 4

As you graduate from being a novice, your rep schemes will need to be more calculated and slightly more advanced to keep progressing. The old 5×5 type of methods are great for beginners, but will need to take a backseat when getting more advanced in your lifting journey. When you’re a novice, many methods will work, but as your body adapts, there is less room for error, so a a more calculated rep scheme is what you need. Ramping sets will fix common issues and ignite new progress.

2. Make small changes for big new results

As a novice we get accustomed to a certain variation or a specific grip. Making a small change in variation, grip, or stance might be all you need to shatter a training plateau. It prevents overuse of movement and puts you in slightly new muscle recruitment pattern in order to stimulate growth that your body had not previously been accustomed to.

  • Try switching from low bar to high bar
  • Try switching to a closer grip in the bench press
  • Try switching from conventional to sumo
  • Try switching from back squats to front squats
  • Try adding a pause at the bottom of each rep
  • Try adding 2 pauses, 1 at the bottom and 1 right before finishing a rep (this is brutal and is almost guaranteed to stimulate new growth!)

3. Try adding an exercise you’ve never done before

6 ways to keep progressingAs you add more weight to the bar, your body transforms and your strength adapts. When this adaptation becomes more difficult, it also becomes more difficult to transform your body.

Instead of trying to add more weight to the bar, have your body adapt to a new exercise you could barely do. In this case it’s also a good idea to choose exercises that require more mobility as mobility issues could be stalling your progress.

Don’t know what to do? Here are some exercises that many lifters avoid because we know they’re the ones we NEED to be working on.

For your upper body try working your way up to 8 1-arm push ups, 15 ring dips, or barbell row the same weight as your bench press.

For your lower body try working your way up to 5 weighted pistol squats each leg or 6 bulgarian split squats with triple digit load.

For extra credit try holding a perfect L-sit for 15 seconds.

These exercises will test your current mobility, fix some likely muscle imbalances, and shatter plateaus as you learn to adapt in new ways besides just adding weight.

4. Go for a calculated cut

Remember adding more weight to the bar is a great way to progress, but when that stalls, you got to get creative. Novices get frustrated with a lack of progress. Veterans find creative ways to make new progress.

If you’re someone who is having a difficult time progressing, you’re likely not a novice anymore, so it’s time to get creative.

One of the most underrated ways to keep making progress is not to increase performance at your current bodyweight, but rather to maintain your current performance at a lower bodyweight.

If you want to move heavy weights at an impressive bodyweight and have a physique that makes mirrors blush, lose some bodyfat.

Do this by eating at a slight calorie deficit and strength train to maintain all your lifting numbers. Stay calculated and even losing as little as 5lbs is great progress as long as you keep your strength the same.

Here’s an example of this underrated process:

  • Spongebob’s current weight: 200lbs
  • Current bench 1-rm: 255 (1.27x bodyweight)
  • Current squat 1-rm: 325 (1.62x bodyweight)
  • Current deadlift 1-rm: 405 (2.02x bodyweight)

Spongebob then decides to go on a cut where he focuses on keeping his strength while stripping a little bodyfat away. Over the course of a month he loses 5lbs of fat.

  • Spongebob’s new weight: 195lbs
  • New bench 1-rm: 255 (1.3x bodyweight)
  • New squat 1-rm: 325 (1.66x bodyweight)
  • New deadlift 1-rm: 405 (2.07x bodyweight)

Even though Spongebob didn’t add weight to his lifts, he maintained his performance at a lower bodyweight making him a stronger creature in just one month. Spongebob has lost some fat, continued to make progress, and is now better at leveraging muscle with less fat on him. Did I mention he’ll look a lot sexier in the mirror too?

5. Switch to a high rep hypertrophy program

6 ways to keep progressingSomething extremely common in novice progress is a rapidly fast improvement in neural factors. This is just a fancy way of saying a novice’s central nervous system got way more efficient at recruiting muscle fibers.

The central nervous system is like the electricity to a light bulb which are your muscles. It’s the power to everything, but when it becomes difficult to get better electricity what could you do?

Get a bigger light bulb!

Try switching to a hypertrophy program designed with higher reps.

Building bigger muscles increases the potential for strength, so you might be long overdue for a short hypertrophy program in your life. Get into the bro mindset and start chasing the pump. Try training in a higher rep range, try doing drop sets at the end of your workouts, or try one of those gnarly 20-rep squat programs.

Getting stronger in new rep ranges and building bigger muscles will definitely help when you start to plateau. And who knows, more curls might even get you more girls.

6. Mature lifters deload

As a novice you probably won’t need a deload because you’re not placing huge amounts of stress on your body. When you start to lift heavy weights, it becomes more difficult to recover. A deload is one of the best recovery solutions and might just be what you need to keep progress coming. A 7 day investment in your training program can greatly spark new progress thanks to additional recovery.

Learn to take a deload week by reducing volume and/or intensity. You can cut your sets by about half, use only 40-60% of your 1RM, or do a combination of both.

There’s no hard absolute rule on whether you should drop volume or intensity nor is there a hard rule for how much. By now you should no longer be a novice and know your body pretty well. Test different styles of deloads and find what works best for your body. Deloading is also a great time to stretch more, get a deep tissue massage, or work on you mobility.

Try deloading every 4-16 weeks.

Generally speaking, a lifter will need to deload more often if he/she

  • Is more experienced
  • Trains in lower rep ranges
  • Trains very frequently
  • Competes often
  • Is surrounded by a lot of stress in life
  • Is in need of a mental break
  • Has a lot of joint issues

Slap that Plateau in the face

Start adding ramping sets to your arsenal because you need to be more methodical with your rep scheme. Switch your grip or stance for a change. Learn to adapt to new exercises that you’ve been avoiding. If you’ve got some long overdue fat to lose, go for a calculated cut. If you’re only training with low reps, give your body a new reason to lift more by building bigger muscles. And lastly don’t forget to deload because mature lifters know when to deload.

No longer being a novice, you might not have those rapid fast progression, you once had, but that doesn’t mean progress needs to stop. Never worry about a plateau. They’re not that scary. The protein scoop being at the bottom of the tub is honestly worse.

All you need is a little bit of patience and 1 of these methods to slap any training plateau in the face.

I wish you the best as you continue to progress. Until next time peace!

Author: Calvin Huynh
Calvin is a personal trainer, online coach, lover of food, and content creator who makes videos on all things health, nutrition, and fitness.
You can find Calvin Huynh at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCf9PU62oDNYqNm7puyIRinA

Get your hands on my cheat sheet for setting up training programs that took a 132lbs. skinny weakling from not being able to bench the bar to deadlifting 3x his own body weight and winning silver at the nationals.