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8 proven ways to break through plateaus Part 2

8 bewährte Wege Plateaus zu durchbrechen Teil 2

After defining what training plateaus are in the first part of this article and taking a look at possible causes and solutions, in this second part of this article I will look at other strategies that have proven to be very effective in overcoming training plateaus.

Give your training sessions everything you've got

Following an intense training program doesn't just require physical toughness - it also requires a good dose of mental toughness. Doing squats, deadlifts and bench presses over and over again for well over 100 kilos is not for the lazy or weak-willed.

Sometimes exercisers fall into a rut simply because they don't give their all in their training sessions. Their mind is elsewhere and they just go through the motions. We've all experienced this and it doesn't take much to change this once you recognize the problem.

Sometimes external factors work against us. Things like an overly talkative or lazy training partner, the soporific music in the gym, the time of day (some people are significantly stronger and more energetic later in the afternoon than in the morning) or an impending injury.

The solutions to such problems are, of course, simple. Let the chatterbox know that even if you don't mind a nice chat, she's distracting you too much from your workouts. Get an mp3 player and listen to the music that spurs you on. Train at the times when you feel strongest and most energized. Be patient with injuries and make sure they are fully healed before you train at full strength again.

Often there are also internal obstacles that you need to overcome.

Sometimes we beat ourselves up psychologically when we try to move extremely heavy weights, sometimes we are too self-critical and sometimes we are simply in a bad mood or don't really want to be in the gym.

These problems are also easy to overcome. It's just as easy to psych yourself up for a heavy exercise or a tough training session as it is to beat yourself up psychologically: You can control your emotions willy-nilly.

Spur yourself on. Prepare yourself to give it everything you've got. Visualize yourself performing the exercise perfectly. You don't have to run amok like a wild bull in the gym, but don't worry if it looks like you're taking everything a little too seriously. You're here to get results, not to impress others with your cool and calm demeanor.

In the gym, allow yourself the luxury of temporarily leaving out all the other problems you have to deal with in real life

During the hour you spend moving heavy things, your world won't fall apart. Focus on the muscles you're training, the next repetition and the next set. Think of your time in the gym as your meditation time.

Use your diet to break through plateaus

In many cases, the cause of a plateau in weight, muscle mass or strength is simply because you're not eating enough - and for some people, 'enough' can be a large amount of food.

For example, I know a lot of exercisers weighing in the 80 to 85 kilo range who need more than 4,000 to 5,000 kcal per day to gain about 1 pound per week. In most cases, these people are just starting to train, which makes it even more unusual.

As you get more muscular and stronger, the amount of food you need to eat to continue to get more muscular and stronger will likely increase. And just as you need to slowly reduce your calorie intake if you want to define, you often need to slowly increase your calorie intake if you are trying to maintain maximum muscle growth.

Increasing your calorie intake is therefore an easy way to increase both your weight and your strength. All you need to do is increase your daily calorie intake by 100 kcal (I prefer to increase my carbohydrate intake by 25 grams before or after training) and review your calorie intake after a few weeks.

If this helps you to overcome your plateau, then keep your calorie intake in this range for the next few weeks and see how your body responds. If you are making progress again then continue until this is no longer the case, if not then increase your calorie intake again.

I know a lot of people who started their bulking phase at around 3,000 kcal a day and ended up at over 4,000 kcal a day due to the large increases in calorie intake required to continue making progress.

This is a good thing. It means you have a healthy metabolism and when you start the definition phase to lose the fat you've built up, you'll be able to eat quite a bit as you gradually reduce your calorie intake from this maximum amount.

Reduce your cardio training

Cardio training can both hinder and help your muscle growth. It helps to improve your insulin sensitivity (6) (which refers to how well your cells respond to the signals that insulin gives them), which in turn improves your body's ability to use nutrients to build muscle (7). In addition to this, it supports your muscle recovery by increasing blood flow.

However, cardio training can also hinder your muscle growth in different ways. Firstly, it burns calories that you need to replace when trying to maintain a small calorie surplus and secondly, it puts additional stress on your body, which can contribute to overtraining.

This is the reason why studies have shown that the more cardio training you do and the more intense this cardio training is, the more your strength and muscle growth are negatively affected (8). This applies in particular to so-called "hardgainers", who find it difficult to build muscle from the outset.

For this reason, I recommend doing no more than 2 to 3 cardio workouts per week if your goal is to build muscle, keeping each of these workouts shorter than 30 minutes.

And if you reach a plateau, don't be afraid to cut out cardio completely for a few weeks while you try to overcome it. You can resume cardio training as soon as you start making progress again.

Extend your repetition ranges or increase your weights in smaller increments

Sometimes you will reach the upper limit of a given repetition range, increase the weight by a standard amount (5 kilos, be it 2.5 kilos on dumbbells or 2.5 kilos on each side of the barbell) and fail to reach the lower limit of your repetition range with the new weight.

For example, you might do 6 reps of barbell shoulder presses with 85 kilos, increase the weight to 90 kilos for the next set and then only do 2 or 3 reps with the new weight.

If this happens, you have two options:

  • You can continue working with the original weight until you can do a few reps over the top of your rep range (which should give you what you need to successfully increase the weight).
  • You can increase the weight in smaller increments using smaller weight plates.

Both will work well and it's a matter of personal preference which option you choose. I would prefer to increase the weight in smaller increments rather than doing more reps, but that's just my preference.

For example, you could go back to 85 kilos and continue training with that weight until you can do 8 reps, or you can use lighter weight plates and increase the weight to 87.5 or less.

If you prefer smaller increases in weight (also known as "microloading", then a product called PlateMates may be helpful. This system includes small magnetic weight plates that start at 250 grams and go up to 2.5 kilos in weight and can be attached to dumbbells, barbell plates or even weight stacks from machines through the magnetic effect.

Increase the weight and see if you can go further with it

If you are stuck one repetition before reaching the top of your repetition range and just can't manage to perform another repetition to be able to increase the weight, then sometimes it's worth trying to increase the weight anyway.

You'll probably do one or two reps less than planned with the new weight on the next set, but you can give your body a week or two with the new, heavier weight to see if it will adapt to it.

For example, if you are training squats in a repetition range of 4 to 6 reps and are stuck at 170 kilos with 5 reps, then you could increase the weight to 172.5 kilos. With this weight, you might be able to do 3 repetitions in the next set - one repetition less than planned. The next week, use 172.5 kilos again and see if you can do 4 reps now and 5 reps the following week, and so on.

If you have tried this new weight for 2 or 3 weeks and are still stuck one or two reps below the lower limit of your repetition range, then you should go back to your previous weight and use the other strategies from this article.

Incorporate rest-pause training into your program

If you're familiar with my training programs, then you'll know that I'm not a fan of fancy set schemes like supersets, descending sets and mega sets, nor am I a fan of non-traditional training protocols like super slow training, super fast training, negative reps or the like.

Many of these training strategies have been scientifically proven to be no more effective than traditional set and repetition schemes and my personal experience is consistent with these studies (I have tried all sorts of variations of these training strategies and have only made unsatisfactory progress with them).

However, there is one advanced training strategy that is supported by both scientific research and anecdotal reports and that is rest-pause sets.

Rest-pause sets are an old-school, powerlifting method for breaking plateaus that has been studied by researchers at the University of Sydney (9). The scientists found that this strategy is an effective way to increase strength through greater recruitment of muscle fibers.

When you reach a plateau, you can use this training method and turn each of your sets into rest-pause sets for one or two training sessions before returning to your normal training to see if you have been able to overcome your plateau.

Choosing the right strategy for overcoming plateaus

When I reach a plateau, I go through the strategies above in the order given.

  • First, I make sure that neither my technique nor my mobility is holding me back, that I'm getting enough sleep and that I'm not overtrained.
  • If this is not the problem, then I make sure that I am concentrating on my training to the best of my ability and giving my training sessions everything I have.
  • If this doesn't solve the problem either, then I look at my diet and assess whether I should increase my calorie intake (by now I have a pretty good feel for my body and when more food won't help).
  • If diet isn't the problem, I reduce my cardio for a few weeks and see if that gets me any further.
  • If it doesn't, I increase my repetition ranges and/or increase the weight in smaller increments.
  • If I'm still not making any progress after a few weeks, then I use a few weeks of rest-pause training. I put this last on the list as it is not necessary in most cases. I see this type of training as a last resort and in almost all cases you will solve the problem before you get to this point.

After you have reached and overcome a few plateaus, you will get a pretty good feel for what works best for your body. For me, the problem is usually related to not sleeping or eating enough or getting into a state of overtraining. And if it's none of the above, then increasing the repetition ranges and increasing the weights in smaller increments usually solves the problem.

However, other bodies may react differently and you will find the best way to overcome plateaus through experience.




By Michael Mathews

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