Have you ever worked your butt off in the gym or at home to burn off the weight or gain some muscle, but it seems like nothing you do seems to work, and your body seems to be completely unresponsive to the workouts that you’re doing? Yeah, we’ve all been there – you’ve hit a PLATEAU.
You usually hit a plateau when your body adjusts or acclimates itself to the intensity, progression, and format of your workouts. So how do you break through annoying plateaus to get your body to respond to your workouts again? Throughout my 20+ year workout career, I’ve literally hit dozens of plateaus, and here is my practical advice to smashing through them:
- Use a “Phased” Approach to Muscle Confusion: I’ve found that the most important factor in breaking through a plateau is to confuse my body and muscles through systematic change in my routines via Phased Muscle Confusion. I say “Phased” confusion because you should NOT make “muscle confusion” a recognizable pattern, as your muscles need to genuinely be confused and overloaded. For example, I’ve seen programs out there where they supposedly “confuse” your muscles by performing different types of exercises sporadically throughout the week (e.g. mix in Cardio Boxing or Plyometrics to your routine), but the problem is that these changes come at such regular intervals that people’s bodies come to expect the change and adapt quickly to it. In addition, in many cases a sporadic “mixing up” of exercises don’t yield long-term gains from that particular exercise type/genre because it’s used so sporadically. This is why I recommend employing a PHASED approach, where you stick with a different type of routine for at least 2~4 weeks at a time, so that your body can benefit from the positive effects of the “confusion.” Incidentally, I’ve built Phased Muscle Confusion into the workouts in Alpha Trainer… what you will find is that each phase is a bit different from the prior, which helps to keep your muscles guessing and minimize the effects of plateaus.
- Change the Order, Pairings, and Types of Exercises: Often times, people get so stuck on their “routines” that they rarely deviate from them. This presents many challenges, including the fact that certain body parts don’t get worked as hard as others.
- Change Exercise Pairing: For example, many people hit their Chest and their triceps on the same workout day continuously (almost always chest first, followed by triceps) – this exercise pairing is perfectly fine, but if you never change your exercise pairings or your exercise ordering, chances are good that certain muscles are not getting worked as hard as they could be. In this example, if you are always exhausting your chest first before hitting your triceps, you’re not going to be able to maximize improvements in your triceps because it’s already somewhat fatigued from the chest workout (which also works your triceps). It makes sense to mix up your routines for different periods such that your triceps are worked hard first, followed by another body part, such as biceps, back, or legs.
- Change Exercise Ordering: Another example I want to give is that simply changing the order of the exercises on the same body parts can yield amazing results. For example, I’ve broken through bench press plateaus in the past where my bench press max became stagnant after always doing flat bench press first, followed by incline bench press… when I changed up the ordering and performed incline bench press first, followed by flat bench press for a 2 month period, my body broke through a plateau, and my max bench press went up by ~40 pounds soon thereafter! It’s because my upper chest was not getting maximum stimulation because it was pre-exhausted from the flat bench in the past, but now I was giving it the attention that it needed to get stronger.
- Experiment with Barbells, Dumbbells, Cable, Different Exercises, and more: Go through phases where you focus more heavily on a specific workout apparatus, such as barbells, dumbbells, cables, Hammer Strength machines (excellent “machines” that use free weights), etc. I’ve had much success going through a progressive stage of focusing on barbells, then focusing on dumbbells, then working on Hammer Strength machines, etc. The reason is that each apparatus works your muscles slightly differently because of the angles, positioning, and balance, so they develop your muscles differently. For example, although you can do less absolute weight on the dumbbell bench press as opposed to barbell bench press, dumbbell bench press works your stabilizer muscles far more, and when you develop these muscles, they help you tremendously in gaining overall muscle size and strength.
- Put focus on a specific body part: sometimes what you need to break out of a plateau is to simply focus most of your attention on a specific body part. For example, try getting much stronger on your legs, chest, or shoulders. When you do this for weeks to several months, often times you will find that you naturally break out of a plateau, and all of your weights improve as a result of a stronger individual muscles!
- Take it easier for a short while, Turbo!: Sometimes your body hits a plateau because you are exhausted from OVER-TRAINING. Again, this is why a phased approach to developing your body is necessary. Don’t be afraid to take it down just one notch for a few weeks, as you let your body and muscles recuperate from months of hard work and exercise. Now, I don’t mean you just stop working out (although in some cases it really makes sense to take a week or two completely off), but definitely change it up for a couple of weeks. For example, if you have been working out heavy for months with low reps of 3~6, go through a phase of working out with lighter weights at 8~12 reps. Or try lower intensity circuit training, instead of high-intensity bodybuilding type of workouts. Giving your body a welcome respite is sometimes exactly what your body needs to help it recover from the negative effects of over-training.
- Finally, you can increase the Intensity of Your Workouts by Adjusting the following Factors: Many times, you need to work out more intensely to break out of a stagnant plateau. But remember, after working out super intensely for a few months, be sure to take it down a notch for a couple of weeks to prevent over-training.
- Progressively use heavier weights. Remember to push yourself. You can reduce the number of reps you do, but push yourself to do more weight (while maintaining good form). This is one of the best ways to overload your muscles.
- Perform more reps to failure, more forced reps, more “strip” sets. Perform each set to exhaustion, until your body can’t handle another rep. By pushing yourself to your physical limits (while staying safe), your body will be forced to adapt by becoming stronger and bigger.
- Perform more sets (in some cases, not all). Use this sparingly… but in some cases, some people just don’t do enough sets to get a good workout. Or if your workout stamina has increased, don’t be afraid to add an extra set in your workouts to overload your muscles. Remember, I am not espousing long workouts or high volume workouts – in fact, I prefer shorter but more intense workouts. But in some cases, you will need to add an extra set to your workouts to increase intensity.
- Reduce your Rest Time (unless you are trying to maximize your strength). Unless you’re doing Power Training and primarily trying to increase your strength, reducing your rest times is a good way to increase your workout intensity and get better results.
- Perform bi-sets and tri-sets. There’s magic in performing different exercises one after another with minimal rest… this makes your body work hard, and it also makes you burn more calories during your workouts AND AFTER your workouts, through an effect called EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption), or “Afterburn”. Again, I’ve mixed in many bi-sets and tri-sets into the routines on Alpha Trainer to maximize intensity and EPOC.
By employing these principles in your workouts, you will probably be able to break out of your plateau. Try it out, and let me know how it goes! Good luck.