While setting a new personal record can be unbelievably uplifting, missing the mark after weeks and months of preparation can be even more deflating. Exercise plateaus and setbacks can be extremely frustrating, and can derail even the most ambitious workout plans. To make matters worse, there are a variety of reasons plateaus and setbacks can occur — making it hard to pinpoint the exact cause. To eliminate the guesswork and get you back on track to your fitness goals, we’ve compiled expert-approved strategies for overcoming the most common strength training plateaus.
1. Modify your reps.
Doing the same amount of reps week after week is a quick way to suffer from stagnant results, not to mention boredom. After only a few weeks, the body adapts to acute workout variables like sets, reps and rest time. The result is fewer stimuli for new gains in strength. To keep your workout fresh, experiment with different set and rep schemes. For instance, while a few weeks might focus on strength with sets of three to five reps, increase the rep ranges during the subsequent weeks to five to eight reps to change up the workout and spur new muscle growth.
2. Change up the tempo.
Not all reps are created equal. There are several strategies within the actual repetition itself that can drastically change the intensity of a workout. When suffering from lack of progress, try slowing down each rep, especially during the lowering portion of the exercise. The slow tempo will boost the amount of time the muscle is under tension, while increasing the overall difficulty of the exercise.
3. Experiment with different exercises.
Performing the same exercises week after week can lead to lack of results and a drop off in motivation. Varying your routine is crucial for encouraging progress. Fortunately, lifters don’t have to completely change up their routine to get the benefits of variety. To prevent plateauing, pick one or two exercises in each workout to modify. Here are some quick and easy modifications:
- Platform: Move from two legs to one on a bodyweight squat to increase the difficulty of the movement while incorporating balance, coordination and core work.
- Equipment: Instead of using a barbell for deadlifts, grab a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells to add variety and change how the body is loaded during the motion.
- Complexity: Combine two exercises into one like a squat and a shoulder press to greatly boost the difficulty of an exercise.
4. Do more soft tissue work.
Lack of results often causes individuals to work harder in the gym. In reality, they might need to take it easier. Without proper recovery in between workouts, the body can’t rebuild muscle that has been broken down. This can result in subpar performance and lingering soreness that just won’t go away.
Foam rolling and massage therapy are two great interventions to speed recovery and help relieve soreness. Joe Vennare, co-founder of Hybrid Athlete, encourages his clients to perform self-massage, aka self-myofascial release (SMR), every day. “Regular tissue work increases circulation, enhances recovery and reduces scar tissue,” Vennare says. So make friends with that foam roller (particularly before and after workouts) and consider scheduling trips to see a skilled massage therapist every few weeks to work on deeper knots.
5. Experiment with variable resistance.
The traditional method of loading exercises with barbells and dumbbells provides a constant amount of resistance throughout the movement. By contrast, variable resistance, using bands or chains to change the resistance throughout the movement, is becoming increasingly popular as a way to spice up a routine.
For a barbell back squat, for example, a set of bands can be hooked to the floor and then attached to each end of the barbell. As the lifter descends into the squat, the bands shorten, lessening the tension on the bar and thus the difficulty. However, as the lifter stands up, the bands lengthen, increasing the difficulty of the exercise towards the top of the motion where the lifter is strongest. Try using variable resistance on one or two exercises during your routine to challenge your muscles in a new way.
6. Try partial ranges of motion.
In most cases, full range of motion takes the cake for getting the biggest benefit with exercise. In some cases, however, partial ranges of motion can provide a well-needed boost for strength development. Working a specific range of motion affords lifters the ability to get comfortable working with heavier weights and practice a certain part of a lift.
Although this strategy can be extremely useful to boost strength, Rob Sulaver, trainer at Peak Performance and founder of Bandana Training, cautions lifters not to use partials too often. According to Sulaver, “Partial reps can be exceptionally valuable for acclimating the nervous system to heavier weights, but I would incorporate them sparingly [since] over-training a partial range of motion leads to a partial range of strength.”
7. Eat more.
Think restricting calories is a quick fix for shedding pounds? In reality, this may be preventing gym-goers from seeing results. According to Sulaver, “Poor nutrition tends to be a silent assassin in the gym. When we don’t exactly know why performance is dropping, the first place to look is nutrition.”
To recover from hard workouts, athletes and weekend warriors alike need to be sure they’re taking in enough calories to help their body recover. Determining how many calories are enough can be tricky, but start by tracking intake and taking note of performance and energy levels. If speed of recovery seems to dip along with motivation and energy levels, it might be time for more fuel.
8. Take some time off.
First one in, last one out at the gym? In some cases, lack of progress might mean the body needs more time to recharge. Many trainers and coaches often incorporate deload weeks into a workout program to boost recovery in their clients. These weeks are exactly what they sound like — a decrease in workout intensity for a short period of time. But rather than zoning out in front of the TV, focus on quality rest alongside easy movement. Vennare recommends soft tissue work in addition to core training and mobility work. “Thus, the deloading becomes more active rest than complete rest,” Vennare says.
Plateaus can happen for a variety of reasons, both positive and negative. On the plus side, they can be a good indicator of hard, consistent training in the gym. They can also signal poor nutrition or inadequate recovery. Although fitness plateaus can be frustrating, they shouldn’t be a death sentence for progress in the gym. Use the tips mentioned above to bust out of a rut and continue to see success in the weight room, on the field or court, or wherever else you get your sweat on!