Anyone who has worked out or trained for a reasonable amount of time will have been dealt the cruel plateau blow. For those yet to suffer, the story goes a bit like this: you’ve been at the gym for about six months and seen some incredible progress — we call these beginner’s gains. It seems like every time you go to the gym you’re able to lift heavier, train for longer and come out feeling freshly pumped.
It’s an addictive feeling and you start to go in every day, eager to chase that daily endorphin hit. But then it all starts to deflate. You hit a point where any marginal gain seems like an impossible task, and start skipping sessions, fearing another disappointing bench press as you struggle to best your PB. You’re in plateau territory, and it tends to triumph over the best of us. How on earth do you beat it though?
“To understand what’s a plateau, let’s first remind ourselves of the muscle growth process,” says trainer and wellness advisor, Roland Khounlivong. “During training, you force your body to respond to the stimulus of the exercise. As a result, the body will adapt by enhancing your nervous system to become more efficient, and strengthening tendons, ligaments and muscles.
When the above is overly done without enough recovery, in other words overtraining, the athlete will hit a plateau. In order to progress over a long period of time and ensure long term successful ‘gains’ you need to train hard enough to trigger change, recover hard enough to achieve super-compensation, and train frequently enough to continually increase your fitness levels.”
So basically train harder, and train smarter. Now the training harder bit we can’t do for you. But we can guide you to train a little smarter.
Following these five PT-approved tips then, could well be the key to breaking through your plateau and unlocking the next stage of your gym-going development.
Switch It Up And Shock The System
“There are so many different types of exercises out there,” says personal trainer Shannon Gibbons. “Don’t be afraid to challenge your body, whether it be with heavier weights, more reps, functional movements that incorporate more mind-muscle connection, or more high-intensity movements like plyometrics. Your body needs variety and a shock to the system to make progression. The possibilities of movement are vast, don’t be afraid to explore them.”
Find Your Sticking Point And Work On It
While beginners will usually power through early doors when it comes to strength, technique is often lacking. Working specifically on this area, and not just concentrating on striving for a heavier dumbbell could actually be the key for you to lift those heftier weights.
“When squatting, for example, if the weakness is spotted at the top of the movement, this could indicate a weakness from the quadriceps,” explains Khounlivong. “In this case working on a single leg and focusing more on quads will help to mitigate the weakness.”
Alternatively, looking at the bench press, if you’re missing the bottom of your lift, working from one board press height — a wooden plank that you rest on your chest when lying down on a bench — can help you to offset the weakness at the lower end of your press, and work on your range of motion.
Correct Your Technique With A Trainer
“Make sure that the foundations are nailed and basics are delivered properly,” says Khounlivong. “Indeed, performing the lift effectively is what is going to determine the success of your training.”
As with most sporting pursuits, be it your golf swing or your deadlift, getting a second opinion is often the best route for correction, and perfection.
“In a world where information is overwhelming you, it is tempting to look for advanced programs when basics are poorly delivered. Investing in a coach to correct your technique is not a luxury.”
Focus On The Lengthening Part Of The Movement
If you take a dumbbell curl, for example, often times beginners and intermediates will focus on the curl, and speed through the lengthening. Practising the reverse of your regular training here, and undertaking something called accentuated eccentric loading training could help you break through a plateau.
In accentuated eccentric loading training the emphasis is on the eccentric, or lengthening, phase of the exercise, not the concentric, or shortening, phase of the exercise. Traditionally the eccentric phase is used to give your muscles a break between exertions, but focusing your attention on your muscles during this stage could help you find some untapped strength.
Need proof? Well, how about a 2016 study which found that athletes who scheduled accentuated eccentric loading training for five weeks, significantly improved work capacity, resistance, muscle activation, and force production, when compared to athletes that persevered with their old workout plan.
Introduce Some Speed Work Into Your Routine
If you haven’t heard of speed work in lifting it basically is based on the idea that moving weights that weigh less than your maximum, at speeds beyond your maximum, will then help you to lift heavier weights when you switch back. In general, you’ll be lifting many sets of low reps, with short rest periods in between, and as such it can be very helpful for refining technique and recovery from heavier gym days.
“It is interesting to see that varying the way you are working around your 1 Rep Max (RM) will definitely improve your overall lifting success,” says Khounlivong. “Working from 30 percent of 1RM to 100 percent 1RM will allow the athlete to explore the full spectrum of speed to absolute strength.”