We all experience it at one point or another. Everyone goes through this regardless of what they do. No matter how much we try to avoid it, how hard we work, how many hours we put in, we all eventually fall into this trap.
Not that we intentionally fall into it, nor is it that we can see it coming.
I’m talking about plateaus.
Plateaus can spring up in any areas of our lives. They can come up in our relationships, our jobs, our various goals, etc. But plateaus are commonly associated with physical training.
Stuck on the 315 lb squat? Looking to pass that 3 plate curse for months now? Or that 405 lb deadlift feels just as heavy as it did 3 months ago? But what about the tougher (for some of us) plateaus like the last 5 pounds, or the love handles we’re trying to lose?
These are all plateaus that everyone, and I mean EVERYONE that trains seriously will encounter. It’s almost a fact of life for athletes and fitness enthusiasts everywhere.
To break through these plateaus, there’s no shortage of methods out there proposed by different fitness experts and coaches. Stabilization exercises, alternate equipment, eating more, etc., there are way more “solutions” out there than any of us would care to know.
So to help you get out of these training plateaus without having to go through endless information and hordes of ideas and anecdotes, here are the few ways that I found to work the best.
Busting Through Them Plateaus
Before we get into the specific methods, let’s go over some of the more obvious things we should be doing before we even categorize ourselves as “stuck in a plateau”.
The first and foremost is making sure that you’re resting and recovering enough. Staying up late and getting up early on a regular basis is a recipe for disaster.
Even if you don’t feel the soreness in your muscles, you may be under-recovered. That’s because recovery is more about the recuperation of the central nervous system than the muscles themselves.
Nothing ensures adequate recovery than plenty of (restful) sleep and proper nutrition. It’s not difficult to get the right amount of nutrition, especially if we’re training hard. Our bodies tend to crave the foods we need (not the pop tart and cheesecake cravings) to satisfy our nutritional needs.
But sleep is one of the most overlooked aspects of not just recovering from training, but life in general. That’s one of the reasons I tried out polyphasic sleeping, so I lower the quantity of sleep while improving the quality. That allows for more time awake to do what I need and I still get my sleep in.
If we are doing hard physical training however, it’s better to start off making sure we’re getting all the sleep we need to feel fully rested both physically and mentally.
Another important prerequisite before thinking about busting through plateaus is our training consistency.
In weight training, progressive overloading is the name of the game. We have to put our bodies under load to induce a certain amount of stress. Our bodies responds/adapts to that stress by getting stronger so we can better deal with it.
But that adaptation ONLY happens if we’re inducing enough stress that warrants our bodies to change.
If we’re training sporadically, our bodies won’t feel the need to adapt to the sporadic stress because it is just that, sporadic. The stress comes and goes and if we can deal with it in our current condition, why make any changes?
Only by being consistent will our bodies feel the need to get stronger. If we do so, the stress we’re putting on is there on a regular basis, to which our bodies will respond with: “Oh snap! I’m getting beat up on a regular basis. I better toughen up to handle this load better cuz it just keeps coming!”
So if you’re sure that you’re recovering and resting enough, and you’re training consistently, yet you’re still stuck, then we can consider some of the following methods to reach new heights.
Tempo training is somewhat popular in the fitness industry. For those of us that never heard of it, it’s basically doing our exercises with a certain tempo (duh) for each portion of the exercise.
For example, if we’re tempo training the barbell back squat, we might have a tempo scheme along these lines: 3-2-1-1.
Each of those numbers represent the number of seconds we take for each phase of the lift. In the example I just gave, we’d take 3 seconds to descend, pause for 2 seconds at the bottom, take 1 second to ascend back to standing, then pause for 1 second at the top. Repeat.
We can do any variation we want for almost any exercise. Mixing it up not only taxes your body in different ways, but it’s a good way to have variety in our workouts too.
I’ve tried this myself and it has worked wonderfully for me. I purposely extend the time for the portion of the exercise that I’m weaker in, and I start to see my lifts go up.
Varying the time in each phase also has different effects too.
Going back to the example with the squat, if I shorten the amount of time in the concentric phase (getting up with the weight) to the least possible, I’m learning to explode out from the bottom of the squat. This trains the vertical jump and our reactive ability of the jump somewhat.
On the other hand, if we extend the amount of time in this phase of the lift (or any phase of the lift in that matter), we’re increasing our time under tension. This induces hypertrophy to a much greater extent since we’re tensing our muscles for longer.
Tempo training can be used to explain HIIT as well. We’re basically decreasing the amount of time we’re resting and keeping or increasing the amount of time we’re working.
We’re not necessarily changing the phases of the exercises themselves, but it’s the same principle. Changing the duration of each phase, in the case of HIIT, the work and rest phases, to cause new adaptations from our bodies.
This in turn results in gains for strength, hypertrophy, fat loss, and whatever other goals you applied the tempo training to.
Free Weights/Body Weight
If we’re not seeing results from tempo training, then we might want to explore other options for our training. A lot of us tend to stick to one form of training, and if you’ve been following along, you know why it’s better to incorporate both weight training and calisthenic exercises into our routines.
If haven’t been doing that, this could be exactly what you need to break out of your rut. As explained in the article I just mentioned, our bodies responds differently to weight training than to calisthenics.
We might’ve heard before that our bodies don’t know the difference between free weights and our body weight, it only knows how much weight it’s lifting. So by adding on more and more weight onto our lifts, we can get stronger than we ever can with calisthenics.
This logic is often used by free weight enthusiasts to promote weightlifting over calisthenics.
But as we had went over in that article, this logic is technically true, but it can lead to a lot of misconceptions about how our body responds to each type of training.
Most body weight exercises are compound exercises in general as oppose to most weightlifting exercises. This is true even in the case of “muscle-specific” body weight exercises like pushups and pullups.
Although we might not be able to get as much hypertrophy from calisthenics as we can from weightlifting, the strength gains, muscle definition, and fat loss is by no means inferior to weightlifting.
So with this in mind, we can see how we might be missing out on certain benefits if we only stick to one type of training.
And incorporating the other might be just what we need to overcome those plateaus.
Using the squat example again, maybe we’re stuck on a certain weight. In this case, doing hundreds of body weight squats isn’t going to increase our maximum squat (unless you’re a true beginner). But if you’ve read the article I highlighted, you’d know what to do.
Doing exercises like the pistol squat decreases the leverage you have by putting ALL your body weight onto one foot. When that gets to easy, hold weight in each hand.
Personally, this manner of progression has never failed for me. I don’t do back squats any more actually because I’ve been doing weighted pistol squats and GHRs to work the same muscles as the back squat. I’m quite curious now what my actual back squat is.
And this principle works the other way as well. If we just can’t seem to get the pull up, we can add some supplemental overhead pulling weightlifting exercises like lat pull downs to our routine. We can obviously go the assisted pull up route as well.
But hopefully we see the benefit of doing both types of exercises and what we may potentially miss out on if we only stick to one.
This part is where we can just a tad bit geeky. I won’t bore you guys too much with the sciency stuff but it’s actually a really cool process that anyone can utilize to overcome plateaus.
Basically, when we train, either for physical or mental fitness, our bodies and mind need time to adapt. They sense the stress we place on it, and if it’s consistent as we said earlier, our bodies will make the necessary changes to cope, in most cases by getting stronger.
Training consistency is one of the necessary prerequisites we said should be met before we consider if we’re in a plateau or not. The other is that we’re getting enough rest.
This method works by NOT following that other prerequisite of rest.
Supercompensation works by purposefully not allowing our bodies to fully recover in between workout sessions. Yes, we’re trying to go into our next workout not fully recovered, I know, sounds a bit crazy.
But what about my performance for that workout? What about how I’ll feel until the next workout?
First of all, we’re focusing on the big picture here. This method is to help us break plateaus. So if it works, we can expect it to jack our performance up after it’s implemented.
As far as how we’ll feel, this is a good point to bring up this important piece.
We’re not allowing our bodies to fully recover by training more and/or harder than we can recover from. Keep your recovery strategies the same as it was. Do NOT try to induce this under-recovered state by getting less sleep, eating junk food, and taking on other bad habits.
Now onto how it works.
Over a period of time of doing this, our bodies will go into a state known as overreaching. We’re not overtrained yet. Overtraining is used to describe a state where our regular vital organ function are starting to get affected from training to much (e.g. adrenal glands producing little to no cortisol).
As we mentioned, this overreaching state is achieved slowly, through allowing our bodies to recover somewhat but not all the way, then apply more stress to it.
This eventually puts our bodies in that overreached state because of all the accumulated “unrecovered” stress.
Once we reach that state, we scale back our training BIG time, to even lighter than our typical workout before implementing this process.
And then we go and test our performance after that “rest” period, and voila! We should see a significant jump.
This works because during the stress accumulation phase, we’re allowing our bodies to recover just a bit, but not all the way.
After some time of doing that, the body will get the message to recover faster and do it more efficiently. It’s important that we add on more stress to keep it from fully recovering.
When we reach that critical point where the body is doing ALL it can to recover but still can catch up, that’s the overreached state. And the hard part is over (or for some, it’s just starting).
Scaling back the training then will induce the least amount of stress, while the body is still in the “recover at all cost” mode. So it’s going to rebuild, rebuild, rebuild, like crazy, even though there’s minimal “damage”.
That’s the principle behind supercompensation.
Now to address a few common questions.
How about I don’t train at all? Wouldn’t that give me even more compensation? Well… no.
We need to apply at least SOME stress to the body in order to signal it to recover. If we just sit back and do nothing, we get exactly that, nothing. The body will sense the sudden stoppage of stress and recover normally because this crisis of continual stress is finally over.
But by inducing just a bit of stress on it, it initiates that amped up recover mode because it’s expecting the stress to get worse and in the same consistent fashion we’ve been applying it at.
So that “rest” period or series of light workouts is a critical component of this process.
Another critical part is the consistency of under-recovery through training.
Since our bodies will jack up the recovery mechanisms throughout the stress accumulation process, we need to make sure we’re increasing our training volume and/or intensity along with it to keep in that under-recover mode.
Another question is how long this whole thing will take.
That all depends on our individual fitness level, how we handle the stress, and how much stress we apply during the accumulation phase.
A common protocol used by athletes is 3 weeks for stress accumulation followed by 1 week of low volume/intensity training. The stress apply is increased each week with the 3rd week being the “hardest” week.
But aren’t these gains only temporary? Don’t professional athletes use the same protocol to “peak” for competitions and important events?
While these principles are used by the elite athletes to “peak” for playoffs and championship games, they are typically done on a larger scale and only intermittently. By that I mean their ability to handle the accumulated stress is very high, so they’d have a large period of stress accumulation.
Because of the longer time frames under stress, they would only apply this method sparingly throughout the year.
For those of us not on those levels of fitness yet, we can implement this process much more frequently without overtraining.
That will give us faster, lasting results.
While each of us may need to do some experimenting and tweaking to find the right time span for using this method, this is one of the sure fire ways to bust through any plateaus we may have.
This last method that I’ve found to work goes against the prerequisite of adequate rest also. Matter of fact, to some it feels like there’s almost no rest given with this method.
That’s right, I’m talking about training everyday.
Although this flies in the face of conventional wisdom of training, it produces tremendous results when implemented properly.
The primary evidence backing this up mainly come from anecdotal accounts. Olympic weightlifting coaches like John Broz and others that’s trained under European weightlifters are familiar with what’s called the Bulgarian method.
John explains the concept why it works along these lines. If you’re on your first day as a garbage man, you’ll come home sore and tired from throwing heavy bins full of garbage into the truck all day long. The first week matter of fact may feel like hell.
So do we stop? Do we call the boss and say we can’t do it because we’ll be overtrained? Not if we want a paycheck!
But what happens after the 1st week? 2nd week? 3rd week?
We’re out there doing the same heavy lifting and swinging like there’s nothing to it, coming home not feeling an ounce of soreness.
By training everyday, we’re adapting our bodies to handle consistent stress on a daily basis. This method is brutal as accounts from John Broz himself can tell us.
He ‘d be so sore that he begged his coach to allow him just to rest one day. His coach one time dragged him out of bed to go train on his Olympic lifts. That day, on one of his sorest days he can recall, he set a personal record in the snatch lift.
And the results of his coach Antonio Krastev, a former Bulgarian Olympic weightlifter who still has the record for the heavy snatch lift in competition (tied recently by Behdad Salimi) of 216 kg, or 476 pounds, speaks for themselves.
Obviously, this method needs to be implemented with caution, as not everyone has the capability to handle this all at once. This is basically forcing our bodies and mind to either adapt or die.
And for some of us to avoid the latter, we need to ease into it.
So we might just start increasing our training from 3 times per week to 5 times per week for 3 weeks or so. Depending on how we feel, we might then go all out training everyday. Find what works for you.
Just know that soreness is NOT a good indicator of how recovered you are for training. We said it earlier that it’s actually the central nervous system that needs to be recovered for training. The muscles themselves can handle a lot more than we think.
So it goes without saying that proper sleep and nutrition is paramount using this method. Pulling all-nighters and binging on fast food while on this protocol is the easiest way to wreck our nervous system and our body.
Plenty Of Tools To Choose From
These are the 4 methods that I’ve personally found to work the best for me. They are simple, no fluff, easy to follow, and no special program to buy!
Since only you can know what you can handle, experimentation is needed.
These 4 methods should be enough to help you bust through any plateaus you have, no matter your fitness level and goals.
Keep in mind however, that as our fitness level increases, we’ll improve at a slower rate. So although strategically applying these technique will pretty much guarantee non-stop progress, that progress is not linear.
And even though these method will supercharge our fitness goals, whether it’s muscle definition/hypertrophy, strength building, endurance increase, there is one goal that has another aspect to it that’s just as important as physical training.
If you haven’t already, you should check out the best foods to lose fat article and low carb diet article so you can optimize the other equally, if not even more important part of the weight loss equation, our diet.
With that said, I hope you’ll be putting these methods to good use.
Have you tried these before? What was your own experience with them? I love to hear your thoughts!