Allow me to introduce you to Milo of Croton.
Milo was a 6th century wrestler who, legend has it, once proudly burst a band around his head by simply inflating the veins of his temples. Slightly weird, but impressive nonetheless.
What Milo was most famous for though, was lifting a baby calf onto his shoulders every day, until it eventually became a fully grown bull.
This led to Milo’s muscle mass and strength increasing rapidly, leading the Greek fighter to become a man mountain of all round strength and awesomeness.
While this makes for a great bedtime story, there’s one problem: progress like this is never linear.
As I’m sure you can attest to, there’s only so much progressing you can do before you can’t progress anymore. Your lifts, strength, and muscle mass eventually hit that dreaded plateau. You can’t lift anymore and you just feel like crying.
What can you do to break through this unsolicited and exasperating part of training though?
Well let’s find out.
But Wait! Strength Plateau’s Are A Good Thing. I Promise…
As I’ve alluded to before, strength plateaus shouldn’t always be viewed as a bad thing. While they can be incredibly frustrating, those feelings of discouragement are only amplified when periods of stagnation are viewed negatively.
Your solution is to reframe these moments.
This is your chance to think of any strength plateau as a chance to practice maintaining your lifts.
If you can spend two or three weeks sustaining a specific weight, then you should regard this is as a good thing. You’re not getting weaker, you’re still practicing your technique, and you’re still training hard.
Simply redefining moments of negativity in a more positive fashion can change your outlook on the way you are progressing.
Onwards and Upwards
Let’s get back to Milo. What probably happened to our Greek friend was, one day he went to pick up his companion, the bull, but unlike the day before, he just couldn’t manage it.
He would have kept on trying, but to no avail. Milo had hit a dreaded strength plateau. And probably experienced what Aadam Ali at Physiqonomics likes to call: ‘The Law of Diminishing Gainz’:
“As you keep getting stronger you’ll eventually reach a point where you just can’t keep increasing strength and making progress in a linear fashion as you would have done in your first few months of lifting.”
When you start a new lift, or programme, you can make progress extremely fast, as your body adapts to the new stimulus.
As your body becomes accustomed to that stimulus, just like Milo lifting his bull, your body no longer has to adapt. It becomes a bigger, stronger, and more efficient version of itself. It takes things easy.
So how can we break through the much maligned strength plateau then?
Now I don’t want to call you out straight away, but being the harsh critic I am, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
Are you training hard enough? Like actually?
It’s very easy to claim you’ve hit a plateau, but in order to make real strength gains in the gym you’re going to have to let yourself get to some deep and dark places.
If you’re not training hard enough to force your body to adapt, you’re not going to make progress. The less adapting your body has to do, the more it likes it, after all.
Stage one, before you dive headfirst into some of the strategies below, is to take a step back and ask yourself if you’re really pushing yourself.
Increasing strength requires a large amount of grit, determination, and mettle. If you’re not willing to display these characteristics, brave a new weight, add an extra rep, and work harder than before, you won’t be making any progress.
Add One More Rep
Progress will never come about as easily as when you first started training. You won’t be able to add 5 kilograms onto the bar or knock out six more reps every session like you used to. Most people assume that this will still be the case two years down the line, however.
Progress takes time.
Your training should operate on a long timescale. Just because you can’t crush a new weight every week doesn’t mean you’ve necessarily hit a plateau.
The majority of the time, your aim should be able to complete just one more rep than you managed last time.
If you have to stick with a 100 kilogram bench press, but can add one rep every session, every week for twelve weeks, you’re still getting stronger. You’re still progressing.
Strength Doesn’t Necessarily Mean More Weight
The only way to get stronger and break through a plateau is to put more weight on the bar and put it on Instagram right? Well, no.
The concept of progressive overload simply means doing more over time. And this doesn’t have to correlate to more weight.
It’s possible to elicit the concept of progressive overload by manipulating something called ‘training volume’ (sets x reps x weight) in order to make progress.
Let’s take the example of a squat:
Session 1: 3 Sets x 8 Reps x 100kg = 2400 total workload
Session 2: 4 Sets x 8 Reps x 90kg = 2880 total workload
In session 2 you’ve reduced the amount of weight you’re squatting (from 100kg to 90kg), but by adding in another set (from 3 to 4), you’ve increased the total workload of your session.
This still relates to progress. By controlling this figure you’ll be able to break through plateaus and see progress elsewhere, other than just the number on the bar or dumbbells.
Improve Your Technique
People get lazy. The lure of those sexy 50 kilogram dumbbells get too much and despite knocking out an awkward set of six reps, the sight of their technique makes you want to drop those dumbbells on your face.
Instead of rushing to increase weight, focus on improving your technique.
Improving your form breaks through plateaus twofold. You’ll be able to focus on using the right muscle groups at the right time. And secondly, you’ll be able to increase your range of motion during a specific exercise.
By honing in on simple things like stance, tightness, range of motion, tempo, and exercise setup, you’ll be able to improve, get stronger, and break through any plateaus you’re experiencing.
Modify Your Programme
The majority of people will be able to follow a specific programme for a long time. A really long time. There will be a point, however, when that programme will need changing. And there a few ways we can do this:
Increase Training Frequency – This pertains to the amount of times you’re training a body part per week. If you’re struggling with an idling deadlift, but are only training it once a week, it may be time to increase that to two times per week. Or three if you’re feeling brave.
Increase The Amount of Work You Do In A Specific Amount of Time – This is labelled ‘training density’. If you manage to complete 3 sets of 8 reps in 10 minutes, by simply trying to reduce this total time to 8 minutes for example, you’ll be able to improve your strength over time.
Increase The Number of Sets – Similar to the concept of changing the total workload of your session, by adding in an extra set or two, you’ll be able to move more total weight and therefore continue to improve each session.
Get Fancy – Whilst probably used as a last resort, it’s possible to break through a frustrating plateau by utilising various training techniques and exercises within your programme.
While the details of these methods are beyond the scope of this article, a few worth researching further are: speed training, rest pause training, resistance band training, and partial range of motion training.
Take A Break
Recovery is just as, if not more, important than training when it comes to eliciting a strength response. As you get stronger your body enters a phase called supercompensation. This is what enables you to progress.
Ignoring appropriate recovery – both from a training and nutrition perspective – will lead to quicker and more frustrating plateaus.
If you feel like you’ve hit a period of unproductivity, the solution is to sometimes take a ‘deload’ week.
By reducing the intensity and volume of your training – through dropping one or two sets from each exercise, reducing the amount of times you train each week, or even dropping the amount of weight you’re lifting – you’ll allow your body to recover and give it enough time to progress.
Plateaus are part of the game. When you start a new lift, or programme, you can make progress extremely fast, as your body adapts to the new stimulus.
As your body becomes accustomed to this stimulus your body no longer has to adapt. It becomes a bigger, stronger, and more efficient version of itself. It takes things easy.
There are ways to break through these frustrating plateaus though.
Your first port of call is to take a step back and ask yourself if you’re really pushing yourself. If you’re not training hard enough to force your body to adapt, you’re not going to make progress.
You can then start to manipulate things like training volume, technique, and making adjustments to the intricacies of your programme.
The key is not to try all these methods at once. Try one, be patient for another few weeks and see what happens. Everything will take time.