Overcoming the Strength Plateau
By: Mickey Marotti, MS.MA.,C.S.C.S.
One of the most frequent questions that a strength coach, trainer, or specialist will get is, “My Bench Press is stuck. It won’t go anywhere. What can I do to help it?” or “What can I do differently to promote strength gains at a faster rate?” or “I’m tired of the same old workout, what can I do?” These questions are all common throughout weight rooms and gyms around the country.
Many techniques can be used to alter your workouts and stove-off plateaus. These techniques can be easily manipulated to fit into every workout or philosophy of training. If a strength stalemate has occurred in your workout, or change is evident, assess the entire situation. Outside influences could affect training such as, lack of proper nutrition, lack of rest, lack of or loss of interest, emotional or social distress, injury or sickness. Also, an increase in a job or school workload, increase in participation in running or conditioning workouts, time-off from training, or overtraining could cause these plateaus. All these outside influences could be reasons for the plateau of strength. The following is a suggested agenda that could potentially help reduce the dreaded standstill of strength.
Some workout regiments call for three days per week sessions. This protocol is training the entire body all three days. A different type of workout regiment is a split routine having the first day training- upper body, second day-lower body, and the third day-total body. Changing training days or frequency of training is a good practice to compensate for the “staleness.” Force the body to adapt to different stimulus. Thus, changing from a three-day total body workout to a split routine can help psychologically become better prepared to lift. Mentally, one can focus on the specifics of an intense workout.
The same holds true if training is done on a 4-day split routine. Altering the frequency of the workout days can alleviate some of the monotony experienced throughout a training program. Switching from a three day to a four-day program can be very beneficial. Even alternating upper and lower body regiments can diminish the plateau.
Order of exercise is a very important component of the strength progression. By using the same exercises in the same order can affect the outcome of work production. Some people enjoy doing the same workout over and over. These people may not see great strength results. The body learns to adapt to certain stresses placed upon it, hence, change is a great manipulator and gives the body a whole new wardrobe of stimuli thus to adapt. In typical programs large muscle groups are performed first, then smaller muscle groups. Some programs have the “core” exercises or the power exercises at the beginning of the workout. However, your preference dictates your training regime. One method of change is to utilize smaller muscle group exercises or single joint exercises earlier in the workout, progressing to the larger muscle groups or multi-joint exercises. For example, instead of doing bench press first, perform a chest fly exercise, then proceed to the bench press. Obviously the load will not be as heavy, but put your ego aside, and remember that the end result is what counts. Some programs call for performing the squat exercise first, followed by another multi-joint exercise. Again, whatever your preference, change the order of execution. You will be surprised. Pre-exhaust the muscle with a single joint and then “blast” it with a multi-joint exercise. Try this technique for a few weeks, then go back to your regular routine. You probably will see some improvement in all exercises.
Other programs call for a “push-pull” routine, where one executes a pushing movement immediately followed by a pulling movement, or vice versa. Change to where you perform all the pushing movements of the day in any order, then perform all the pulling movements. Again do not be concerned with the decrease in weight on some exercises, look at the big picture. Once you go back to the original routine, you will have noticed a positive adaptation from the change in order.
Changing the type of equipment could also be a great manipulation technique. If your routine calls for all free weight exercises, primarily with the use of barbells, try adding some strength training machines like plate loaded apparatus or a selectorized piece. The machines could be a great substitute for any free weight exercise. By changing the strength curve of a particular movement, this could ultimately provide a different stimulus to the muscle. A barbell exercise is limited to the weakest point in the full range of motion. Exercises done properly cannot overcome this point, so the weight or resistance of the bar will be limited; whereas, some isotonic machines have compensated for these changes in the strength curve, so the limitations during the range have been adjusted. The same principle applies if your program consists of machines only. Add some barbell or dumbbell exercises to your routine. Muscles will respond to different stimuli, so maintain variety.
A good non-traditional type exercise is sand bag training. These sand bags can vary in size from 20 lbs. to 200 lbs. They can be manufactured or self made. Sand bag exercises require a great deal of grip strength. Many exercises can be performed using the sand bags, ranging from a simple bicep curl to a military or push press. Most exercises that are performed with a barbell or dumbbell can be performed with a sand bag or bags. For example, two smaller sand bags can be substituted for dumbbell work, such as a shoulder press. This non-traditional tool will give your workout a whole new outlook. Squats, lunges, step-ups, dead lifts are great sand bag exercises. These are performed by “bear hugging” the sand bags then performing each particular movement. A popular exercise among the football population is neck flexion, where you place a 35-75 lb. sand bag on your forehead, while laying on your back and proceed to pump out a set while holding the bag with your hands.
The use of Fat bars or unorthodox bars can provide variation in the workout. Fat or big bars can range from 1 1/4" to 2 ½ “ in diameter. Substitute a big bar in place of an Olympic barbell. Flat barbell benching is a great exercise to use the big bar. Military and standing biceps curls are other outstanding exercises.
The use of manual resistance is another great alternative to more conventional forms of training. Resistance is provided by the spotter or partner, and the lifter executes any exercise done with the use of a barbell or dumbbell. Manual resistance exercises have a few downfalls. For instance, it takes an experienced spotter to perform the exercises properly and there is no way to quantity or qualify each exercise. Probably the best use of MR is as a post exhaustion activity. Post exhaustion activities should be performed after an exercise has been completed on a machine or by barbell, then the lifter immediately is taken through the manual resistance until muscular fatigue. For example, the lifter executes three sets of 5-8 reps on the bench press, with the last rep on the last set being almost impossible to complete. Immediately the lifter is taken through a MR chest fly exercise to exhaustion. Use of towels, sticks, pipes, chains, etc. can also be instituted, having the lifter hold one of these apparatuses and is taken through the particular range of motion, as in towel upright rowing or chain pulling.
Another lost technique is the body weight exercises. The simple dips, chins, pull-ups, pushups, and the favorite “wall sit” are great choices for providing an extra zap of intensity when trying to fight through the sticking points of training. A great example is performing sets of 8-10 reps of barbell squats where the last set was extremely hard, not having enough strength and power to get one more rep. Then upon racking the weight, the lifter would find the nearest wall, concrete of course, and then sit up against it with a flat back and knees bent at 90 degrees, holding this position for as long as possible. If the lifter was tough enough, a slew of 45 lb. plates could potentially be added to his or her lap for further resistance. The goal is to hold this static position for a given time, or hold until exhaustion or mental anguish whichever comes first.
Remember all these suggested adjustments need only to be performed for a small amount of time. However, some adjustments may turn into permanent changes for you. Changing of grip placement can also be a good technique when variation is in order. For example, wide grip to close grip hand placement when performing a chin up or pull up exercise. This variation drastically alters the exercise. Also widening or tightening the grip when using any barbell exercise is advised. For example, use a close grip bench rather than a wide grip bench, change to a high bar squat, where the bar sits high up on the traps, rather than a low bar or power position squat. Any pushing movement could be slightly altered by changing the grip position. Ultimately this “new” exercise will provide a new stimulus to the muscle. Positioning of the body during ground-based activities can also be a positive stimulus to the muscles. By narrowing the stance during a squat exercise or by changing the grip placement or body placement while performing a barbell, dumbbell, isotonic machine or manual resistance exercise, alteration of the range of motion will occur. The angle of push or pull, and movement plane will be affected, ultimately completely changing the exercise.
Volume Sets / Reps
Another easy training variable to manipulate for the purpose of avoiding that dreading strength plateau is the volume. This is probably one of the most controversial areas of strength training. Which rep scheme is the best? Common questions fielded are, “I do not want to bulk up so I probably need to lift with high reps, do I not?” or “I want mass, so how heavy should I go?’ or “I want to increase my bench press, so how many or what cycle program is the best for me?” All these questions have been asked daily in a gym or strength facility. Every situation is different. But every rep/set scheme can be beneficial as long as the scheme is designed to be progressive and provide an overload. Be progressive from the standpoint of more added resistance in the training period using the same reps or using the same weight and increasing the rep load. For a program to be successful not only does it need to be progressive in terms of intensity, but also there needs to be an overload on the muscle on a consistent basis.
The other important characteristic is the program needs to be systematic or have some sort of system in place. Some programs call for the per iodization model of training. Some programs call for the basic three sets of 8, 10 reps or period modules, or some calls for the low number of sets done with a high intense effort. All three protocols are effective. This volume ordeal depends on each situation or preference. Some people like to train for a long period of time. Some do not have time. Therefore, some are forced to train to fit their own circumstances.
If a workout plateau has occurred, change the rep scheme. An excellent change in a scheme is the high rep protocol: 20 rep squats or 20 rep leg press are an excellent choice for increase intensity. This blasted set is performed with a weight that can be performed with a 10-rep max load or close too. If an individual can successfully exert 3×10 with 315lbs. just barely performing the 10th rep of the third set, you have your weight for the 20 rep squat days. The next squat workout perform 2-3 warm-up sets working up to 315lbs. Now perform 20 reps with 315 without racking the weight and taking big breaths between reps. The objective of the routine is to squat 315 lbs. 20 times without racking the weight. To your amazement if the mental readiness is high, and the training environment is ripe, and the motivation of the training partner or coach is maximal, an individual will perform 315 x 20 reps. This technique will truly help avoid any plateaus. Use the 20 rep scheme for 4-6 weeks adding 10-20 lbs. to the work set and then change back to the old scheme. Strength gains will have occurred.
Pick five exercises each involving multi-joint and different muscle groups. Warm-up to a work load that you can successfully perform between 10-15 reps with maximal effort. After the first set take 2:00 rest. For the second set use the same load and attempt to lift it for maximum reps. Keep using this system until 50 reps have been achieved. Use the same system with each of the next four exercises. This protocol will shock the system. You may need to take 2-3 days to recover.
Use a work load that is heavy enough to maximally exert five reps. Take 2-3 minutes between sets and attempt the same weight for five reps. Continue this procedure until 3×5 has been done. If only four reps were achieved on the 3rd set use the same weight on the next workout until 3×5 is performed. Once you have achieved 3 x 5 then add 2-5% of the weight for the next workout day.
Multiple Work Set Training
Three different set rep schemes are classified under the multiple work set training protocol. This scheme offers challenging goals and intense “work” sets. Under this protocol, “work” sets are determined by those that are performed with intense exertion and promote strength gains. The following table explains the three different rep schemes on how they are executed. These rep schemes are ideal for multi-joint exercises such as bench press, squat, leg press, and dead lifts.
|15, 10, 5-10||Start at 65% of estimated 1 rep maximum. Use the same weight on all sets. Once 15-10-10 can be completed, increase the resistance 5-15 lbs on all 3 work sets. A rest interval should be approximately 2 minutes. Once you have used this scheme for a few workouts, you may be able to increase the weight on each subsequent set.|
|12,8,5||Start at 70% of estimated max. Use the same weight on all sets, once 12-8-5 can be completed, increase the resistance 5-15 lbs. on all work sets. Take approximately 2 minutes between sets.|
|10,7,4-7||Start at 70% of estimated 1 rep max. Use the same weight on all sets, once 10-7-7 can be completed, increase the resistance 5-15 lbs. on all 3 work sets. Take 2 minutes in between each set. Once you have used this scheme for a few workouts, you may be able to increase the weight on each subsequent set.|
Remember it is not so much the rep/set scheme that is important as the intensity of the effort. It is a good idea periodically to shock the system with a new protocol. To really change one must be diverse. Going from a 3 set of 8 to a 3×10 scheme really is not enough. Completely change the system for a period. If you’re a low rep multiple set enthusiast, change it to a high rep intense effort scheme. If you believe in the high rep 15-20 or moderate 8-15 rep scheme, change to the low rep 3-7 scheme and give it your best shot. There is no wrong way or only way. Be open-minded in designing a program. The body will adapt to each stimulus. Change the stimulus and promote strength gain.
USE OF/DISUSE OF ADVANCED TECHNIQUES
Negative training involves the emphasis of the eccentric muscle contraction during an exercise. The lowering phase or return to the beginning point of the exercise. Post exhaustion negatives is a great technique to use at the end of a hard “work” set. At the completion of the last groveling rep, perform another rep with assistance, then concentrate on the lowering portion of the exercise. This phase should take 3-5 seconds. Perform 2-3 reps of this type of negatives. The spotter can even apply a little more resistance.
Another aspect of negative training is the negative only. The spotters will assist the lifter with the weight, while then the lifter concentrates on lowering of the bar or machine. The lifter can handle on a regular set. For example, if the lifter could bench press 300, then the lifter could handle approximately 420 with negatives.
Forced reps are performed when the lifter can no longer properly perform a lift. The spotter then assists with the exercise, helping them with 3-5 additional reps. This technique is great for increasing the intensity of effort. Be sure to make the lifter work extremely hard through both phases of the exercise.
Breakdown Sets or Burn-Outs
A breakdown set is used post fatigue of an exercise when the weight is decreased by 20-30% then an immediate set is performed. This breakdown can be done 2-3 times. For example, if a lifter squats 400lbs. for 10 reps, then the lift could rack the weight decrease it to around 280 lbs. and perform another set.
Although these advanced techniques are beneficial, they need to be used sparingly and changed up on a consistent basis. The techniques can offer an added stress to the body that will help progressive strength training.
You may also be overtraining or overusing this technique. Decreasing the amount of advanced techniques could also be a reason for “strength gain stalemate.”
Speed of Movement
Many lifters have different beliefs when it comes to speed of movement of the exercise. Most perform exercise in a slow controlled, and strict manner with more emphasis put on the negative or lowering phase of the exercise. Another philosophy is the super slow training where more emphasis is put on the concentric or lifting portion of the exercise. Some lift in a ballistic manner, stressing speed of the bar.
Adjusting the speed of movement either a little faster or little slower could be a great change. Be sure to perform all exercises with good form and technique. Slowing the speed of movement can be the thing the doctor ordered. Intensity will be increased when the speed is slowed. By slowing the speed of the bar or lifting tool, you are ultimately asking the muscle to work even harder. More recruitment of muscle fibers would be needed to move a resistance slow, strict and hard.
Length of Workouts
Length of the workout could be a variable that needs to be manipulated. This variable is probably determined by the type of training that one is doing. If power lifting or olympic lifting is the emphasis, then the time spent in the weight room is probably maximal. If a basic strength training program is incorporated, the length of workouts is probably minimal. At points during training periods, it is a good idea to cut back or add to depending upon the type of training.
If a lifter is on the verge of overtraining, then if it is extremely important to cut back. More is not always better. One needs to recuperate during heavy training. Rest is just as important as strength training. Though make sure that the work comes first, rather than later.
Rest and Recovery
As in all types of physical training the success of the plan is usually dictated by effort and consistency, diet and rest. Needed energy to train at a high level is as important as the task at hand. If an individual wants to get maximum strength gains, then the diet needs to be good enough to elicit these results. On the other hand, if the body is not properly rested, it is going to be difficult to sustain a level of intensity. The other point is the recovery and rebuilding. The main two points in recovery are diet and rest. Food helps the healing process from heavy training. Rest is needed to help recover physically as well as mentally. Mental rest is a very important variable. The main factor in the equation is hard, consistent, work first, then rest and recover later. Too many people have this equation mixed up. Rest and recover first, then train.
Rest Between Sets/Exercise
Manipulation of rest time can change the entire makeup of the workout. Changing rest time periods alters the intensity of each exercise. When you increase the amount of rest time between sets, you probably can handle a little more weight; however if you take less rest, then you cannot handle as much weight and the intensity is increased. A good rule of thumb is to take as much rest needed to perform each exercise with maximum effort, without taking away from the intensity of the workout. Rest time between exercises should be enough to get a drink, set the weight, take a deep breath and proceed. Manipulation of the rest time can add variety, without changing the exercises.
Avoiding the strength plateau is a learned art. As a coach, trainer or lifter there should be signs of a plateau, then adapt change and variety to withstand and overcome it. Try to use as many examples on how to manipulate the training variable as possible. When staleness or plateaus occur, look at your training regime and manipulate one or two variables. Change is a warranted aspect of strength training. After a few weeks of the new workout and changed regime, go back to the old workout. There is a great chance that you are going to see great results and notice a difference in strength. Variety is the part of setting up strength training programs that is enjoyable. Adding a new wrinkle into your workouts is like getting a new toy when you were a kid. It is as fun as that.
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