You put in the work, day in and day out, diligently following your training program.
This is easy enough to do on the good days when you feel boss and the bar moves like a hot knife through butter, but we all know that’s not the whole story.
You also lift on the days when you’re tired and sick; you lift on the days when you just do not feel like lifting. On these days, you renew your commitment to your craft by reminding yourself what, exactly, you are training for: glory, gains, and platform PRs.
But what happens when the gains stall-out? What do you do to see those numbers once again start climbing so you know that all your hard work has not been in vain?
I know the frustration that accompanies a plateau – believe me. I’ve been there. I feel you.
When I get stuck, I start by asking myself these five questions:
1. Are you eating enough food?
Seriously – are you?
Accessing the force required to perform the work of moving massive amounts of weight requires adequate fuel; and if you’re not getting enough, then chances are your body is not as strong as it could be. In order to expend the energy demanded of heavy lifting, the body requires an appropriate energy intake.
Simply stated: you need to eat big if you want to lift big.
I’m not suggesting you consume anything and everything willy-nilly; to the contrary, I’m a big fan of mindfully planning meals.
The two meals any lifter should be most concerned with are their pre- and post-workout meals.
Your pre-workout meal should occur roughly 2-3 hours before your scheduled training session, and include a combination of complex carbohydrates and protein.
Your post-workout meal should similarly include a combination of carbs, protein, and fat. This should be your largest meal of the day, and will ideally be consumed within 30 minutes of completing your strength workout.
While I can’t speak for every individual or specific body type, a lot of folks have success starting with a daily macro break-down of 50% Carbohydrates, 30% Fat, and 20% Protein. This may or may not work for you – it is your job to assess how you feel and alter your diet accordingly. I generally recommend making one change at a time and holding steady for at least a week.
If you’re not already, start tracking your macros through an app like MyMacros or MyFitnessPal. This will give you a baseline of what you are consuming during a typical day, as well as provide recommendations for what you should be consuming based on your goals and activity level. After tracking this information, you may decide to up your caloric intake on heavy days to assist with fueling and recovery.
(Side note: I’m not providing specific calorie recommendations because I don’t know how much you weigh and how many calories you’re currently consuming daily. I’m also not a nutritionist or registered dietician, and as such cannot make specific recommendations about your diet.)
2. Is your training program appropriately periodized?
Are you new to powerlifting or are you a more experienced lifter? Maybe you fall somewhere in the middle?
My point is that not all programs are created equal, and not all programs are for everyone.
If you are new to powerlifting and following a 5/3/1-style program, you might be stalling because you’re not correctly calculating your lifts. In fact, you might be better served following a more standard 5×5 strength program until you get your training legs about you.
If you’ve been training for two or more years, then you may be stalling because you’ve been following the same program for too long. Maybe you’re spending too much/not enough time in the various phases of said program. Maybe you’re following a linear program when you should be undulating. Maybe you need a deload week.
Perhaps you need to spend more time building muscle and all you’ve been focused on is strength. In this case, allow yourself at least four weeks of hypertrophy training with volume being the focus.
This could look like:
- Week 1: 3×12
- Week 2: 4×8
- Week 3: 5×6
- Week 4: 6×4
Give it a shot and then go into another four week strength block – see what happens. And, for the love of all that is holy… Do not forget to deload.
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If you don’t already work with a coach, then I strongly recommend hiring one. Even if you only work with them for a few weeks, it would be well-worth the investment to discuss programming with a trained professional who can get eyes on your lifts and make adjustments accordingly. Nobody’s saying you can’t follow a box program you found online – Just make sure it is actually helping (vs. hindering) you.
3. Are you overtraining?
Strength training places stress on the body. Lifting is a catabolic activity – you are actually tearing your muscle fibers in the pursuit of future strength and building muscle.
However, the strength gains occur during your anabolic recovery time between sessions. If you aren’t getting an appropriate amount of rest between training sessions, then your body cannot repair itself, and thus you simply won’t be lifting as heavy as your potential may allow.
If you’re lifting 5+ days per week, then cut back to four.
Try: Monday/Tuesday: Training; Wednesday: Rest; Thursday/Friday: Training; Saturday/Sunday: Rest.
4. Are there lifestyle variables that could be interfering with your training?
Namely – Sleep and Stress.
As physical stress was discussed above, mental or emotional stressors can also affect the body’s ability to recover. This has an affect on our Autonomic Nervous System – specifically, the functioning of the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems.
The Sympathetic Nervous System is the branch of the Autonomic Nervous System frequently referred to as our “flight or fight response” – when the body perceives there may be danger (even if that “danger” finds us in the form of mental or emotional stress), then the Sympathetic Nervous System kicks into action to protect us.
If the Sympathetic Nervous System becomes over-activated, then the body will have difficulty relaxing. This has physical implications in the form of elevated heart and respiration rates. Adrenaline will be present in the system – heightening the senses, and hindering one’s ability to sleep. Digestion halts as the body’s resources are pooled to address the perceived threat.
The Parasympathetic Nervous System is frequently referred to as the “rest and digest” function. This system supports rest, relaxation and recovery. This is also the system responsible for sexual arousal. When the Parasympathetic System is activated, heart rate and respiratory rates are slowed, and one is capable of achieving a fully rested state (sleep).
The Sympathetic and Parasympathetic systems are two sides of the same coin – If one is overactive, then the other is under-active. The goal is to support these systems in managing the body’s tasks of daily living.
When the stresses of daily life are impacting your ability to sleep (and thus your ability to anabolically recover from the physical stress you’ve imposed on your body from lifting heavy), then try breathing and stretching. Simple as that. Take several deep breaths. The intention here is to slow your rate of respiration; as your respiratory rate slows, so too will your heart rate. Stretching is also recommended, as this will release low levels of endorphins that will support your body’s ability to manage stress.
RELATED ARTICLE: How To Keep Lifting Heavy When Life Stress Gets High
5. How much unilateral movement are you incorporating into your training?
Bilateral movement is great, and obviously the Big Three are all compound movements. However, consistently training this way can hide imbalances. Everyone has muscular imbalances – once you discover yours and work to overcome them, your overall strength will improve.
Not to mention the core strength benefits that accompany unilateral training; and we all know how pivotal core strength is for, well… literally every movement. By forcing you to resist your body’s natural tendency toward compensation and rotation, while keeping a good position and remaining stable, your core gets stronger. And that is very very good in terms of building physical strength necessary in powerlifting.
When one of your Big Three is particularly week, these accessories can help.
- Pistol Squats (weighted or unweighted; can also use a suspension trainer such as TRX for minimal support, or tap to a bench/box.)
- Single Leg Glute Bridges
- Single Arm Dumbbell Chest Press (either on a flat bench or swiss ball)
- Single Arm Push-ups (Perform these against a wall if you can’t do them from the floor)
- Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts (with either dumbbells or barbell)
- Single Leg Bend (with Kettlebell)
Incorporate at least one unilateral movement into each training session – in fact, you can just tack it on at the end and perform in addition to your other movements. The goal here is not to go super heavy, but to focus on form and maintaining stability. Perform these movements in the 8-15 rep range for optimal results.
RELATED ARTICLE: Here’s Exactly What To Do When One Of Your Lifts Sucks
Rather than getting frustrated at yourself for simply not being stronger or “better” at lifting weights, take the time to ask yourself these questions the next time you plateau. I have a hunch you’ll once again get those gains that make you remember why you fell in love with this sport in the first place.