5 Strategies to Break Through a Strength Plateau

February 3, 2021

Guest Post by Keith Oelschlaeger, MS, CSCS

So, you’ve been strength training for a while now — maybe even a year or two.

You’ve increased your strength significantly, and your technique with the compound movements have improved as well (this piece is under the assumption that lifting technique is beyond a beginner level). Then, it appears your progress ceases to continue and you are in the dreaded strength plateau. Not worry; I’m here to introduce five simple strategies to help you re-think your training routine to continue to see progress.

Let’s start with acknowledging what people may think of strength development. Most people think that strength develops in a linear fashion and when they hit a strength plateau it levels off. If I were to illustrate this with a crude drawing it would look something like this:

This phenomenon happens to everyone at least once in their lifting career and can be difficult to move forward from. In order for the strategies outlined in this piece to be effective it is imperative to understand the basic reasoning as to why this happens in the first place. The truth is that strength progression takes a LONG time and strength does not develop in a linear fashion. If I were to truly illustrate strength development in another crude drawing it would look something like this:

There is no such thing as a constant linear progression of strength but rather a series of peaks and valleys that trend upward over a long period of time (if it is trending downward, then skip straight to number 5 on this list!). This is representative of other factors that affect your performance such as sleep, diet, stress, injuries, fatigue and psychosocial factors. This is also part of the reason why you have your “good” days and your “bad” days in the gym. That is just how the body works! 

Strength is specific; meaning whatever stress you put on your body, your body will adapt to it. If you do the same training for a long enough period of time, then your body will cease to adapt because the stress is no longer stimulating enough to elicit an adaptation. That is also known as your body accommodating for the constant level of stress being put on the body.

It makes sense when you consider the body was designed to operate in the most efficient manner possible. So, if the body does not undergo a new variety of stimulus then it will remain relatively the same because the body knows that it’s current state is working (putting it in simple terms here). This is amazing if you think about it, but can also be frustrating!

If you are someone who has been doing the same routine for months or even years and are frustrated why you are not getting the results that you want then you need to change something. The cliche definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Basically, if your strength is not going up then that means you are not doing enough to stimulate your body to grow stronger (so stop being insane and do something different!).

Now, let’s go over five simple strategies to break through that strength plateau and put a proper stress on the body.

 

1. Go through a bulking phase

First and foremost, strength requires energy! If you’re not eating enough to sustain heavy strength training, then your body will not get stronger. In fact, it may actually get weaker, or in the worst case your lack of calories may be one of many factors that lead to an injury (assuming you are training hard). So, if your goal is to increase strength and you cannot progress any further, that could be a sign that your body is craving more muscle to continue to adapt to become stronger, but does not have the energy or building blocks to do so. 

The more muscle mass your body has, the greater the potential is for your capacity of strength. So this strategy can be boiled down to simply eating more on a daily basis until you gain a certain amount of weight. If this is your first time intentionally bulking up for strength gaining purposes, then I would recommend a small jump in weight. An example would include a time frame of 8-10 weeks, and try to gain a total of 3-4% of your overall body weight. That is a very gradual increase!

When you are doing this, it would be best to do a daily weigh-in so that you have an accurate representation of your weight status. When you weigh-in, do so in the morning when you wake up and wear only your underwear (the weight of your clothing can be 2-4 lbs. depending on what you wear). Make sure your stomach is empty and you have used the bathroom; in other words, make sure your system is empty for an accurate constant measurement process each day.

As far as how much to eat and what to eat, you can consult with a nutritionist about that, but it’s important to understand that when your body changes, the nutritional needs will change with it. Note that this piece is not observing nutrition in detail (that is another Pandora’s box of information). While you are bulking continue to strength train and see if your strength goes up with your normal training routine. If it does, then you now know that you are simply not eating enough to get stronger. Let’s look at another strategy.

 

2. Change the tempo of your movements

Changing the tempo of your lifts can change the time the body is under stress, improve technique development and recognize/address weak points in your movements. Or, it can include slowing down the movements, pausing the movements at specific points or speeding up the movements. 

If you are going to slow down the movements, you are increasing the time muscle is under stress and can enhance muscle stimulus while decreasing joint stress. Slowing down a lift will require you to do less reps. 

For example, if you were doing the classic 3×10 on bench press with 60% of your training max, try using the same weight you would normally use (or a little lighter) and do 3×5 with each individual rep totaling six seconds (three seconds down followed by three seconds up). While slowing down the movement, you may become more cognizant of where you feel the strongest and where you feel the weakest throughout the movement. You may also fine tune your technique with slowing everything down by giving yourself a chance to really reinforce any technical points of the movement. If you were to add pauses to your reps, you would want a different approach.

Using the same example as before with bench press, let’s say after a period of slow tempo benching you realize you are weak in the bottom half of your bench press (from your chest to half way up). You would then perform normal tempo bench pressing but stopping for a few seconds at the weak point of your lift each rep and then finishing through the rest of the movement. Going off of our original example (3×10 at 60%) you could instead do 3×5 at 60%, but with a three-second pause at the bottom for each rep. This will teach you to become more comfortable in your weakest point and to power through it. This method is directly addressing your weak point and you may work on the “weak link in the chain” so to speak.

Let’s move on to going fast. Doing a lift for speed requires very good technique so make sure you address that before trying this. Sometimes adding more explosive power to a movement can target muscle fibers that you may not normally utilize for regular tempo (same could be said for going slow). Adding speed to a lift may also provide an opportunity to practice high-paced coordination with this movement while exerting maximal force. Working for power is typically more demanding on your central nervous system than regular tempo and would call for less volume. 

Going off of the same example, you would go from 3×10 at 60% on your bench press to 5×3 at 55% on your bench press. Each rep is a maximum exertion of force with a relatively lighter weight. So, the velocity of the bar is going to be quite high hence the high-paced coordination. 

As stated before (I cannot stress this enough), going fast requires your technique to be great, so I would recommend going slow or doing paused reps for weeks or even months on end before going fast on any movement. Also the examples of sets and reps at certain percentages mentioned in this piece are exactly that…examples…this piece is not prescribing a specific routine. That is addressing the tempo of the movements; now, let’s look at the next strategy.  

 

3. Change your main movements

This strategy is quite simple really….just do something else! If your strength with a particular movement is leveling off then you may need to simply get away from that movement for a while and come back to it later. You can change your main movement to another derivative of that movement. 

For example, let’s say your main movement was a barbell back squat and you hit a strength plateau. You could change your main movement to a barbell front squat instead. In this particular case, the front squat is a more difficult variation of the squat than the back squat where you can achieve the same relative intensity but with a lighter load. This movement would provide a different stimulus on the body and would require slightly different coordination to execute. You may realize that your weak points on the front squat are different from the back squat. Congratulations, now you have a different weak point to work on! Ultimately, this means you’re improving your overall strength by finding new things to improve upon. Also, you would be recovering mentally and physically from the lift that was giving you trouble before. Then when you come back to the back squat you may notice that after getting reacclimated to it you are stronger than you were before. All in all it can be boiled down to just simply doing something else. 

 

4. Change the frequency of your training

This strategy is probably the most simple…….lift more often! If your body is now accustomed to a certain amount of stress, then it may be time to add another lifting day to your routine. Your body may just be ready for a greater amount of workload. The only thing is to make sure you are still getting adequate recovery from the added stress.

An example would be changing from lifting two days per week to three days per week. If before you were lifting Tuesdays and Thursdays, you could try lifting Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays instead. You can then accumulate more fatigue the same length of time as your previous routine and potentially yield greater adaptation. That is pretty much adding frequency in a nutshell. This leads to the next and final strategy. 

5. Get professional help!

Sometimes you just need to accept that you need help! A trainer or a strength coach will get you through that plateau faster than you would on your own. Remember, strength development takes a LONG time and the last thing you want to do is waste your time. Enlisting the help of someone who studies this subject for a living will set you on the right path so that you don’t end up in another strength plateau later on. When selecting a trainer or a strength coach, ask them questions and see what background they’re coming from.

Challenge their knowledge! Listen to what their training philosophy is or even what principles they use to train and you can tell if they are the right fit for you. If your goal is strength development, then you want someone who has been there and done that (for lack of a better term). What I mean by that is someone who has gone through a strength plateau and actually overcame it. Books, classrooms and articles are valuable, but they can only teach a person so much compared to empirical experience.

You want someone who is a good fit for you and is willing to not only help you with what you want, but will help you with what you need. If they have a good eye for technique and are knowledgeable with program design, then they may spot something that you never even realized was wrong with you or your routine as far as strength training and movement. 

The relationship that you can build with them can be an extremely rewarding experience. You may realize that accepting their help was probably the best decision of your whole strength training journey second to deciding that you actually want to strength train. 

Thank you for reading! I hope this has helped you at least think about how to make simple and effective changes in your strength training to continue to see progress.  

 

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