What to Do When You Hit Your Weight-Lifting Plateau
If you lift heavy weights, you’ll get stronger. That’s the principle of progressive overload in a nutshell. As you get stronger, you need to lift heavier weights to keep getting stronger. The numbers go up and up forever, like Milo of Croton carrying a calf every day until he was able to carry a full-grown bull. Or do they?
While the basic idea is true—you’ll get stronger if you keep challenging yourself—this doesn’t mean that you’ll always be able to lift more weight than last time. So let’s look at some of the reasons why, and what to do instead.
Linear gains are for beginners
If you can add 5 pounds to your squat every time you hit the gym, that’s not normal. Experienced lifters don’t pile on the pounds like that—not for months on end, anyway—but beginners can.
Think of it as a honeymoon phase that occurs when your body first starts learning to lift weights. It also happens when you come back from a break. It also applies if you’ve made a little bit of progress but haven’t been training consistently. Some people call this phase “newbie gains,” which has led to a myth that a clock is ticking from the first moment you touch a barbell and you better take advantage. In truth, you get linear gains (being able to add weight every time or every week) simply because you are relatively weak.
So it’s not a matter of if you’ll someday be unable to add more weight, but when. After a few months of consistent training—maybe more, maybe less, it varies—there will come a day when you walk into the gym and can’t lift five pounds more than last time.
Fatigue masks gains
The stimulus you get from a workout has a long-term effect of making you stronger, and a short-term effect of making you more fatigued. Stack a bunch of workouts together, and you’ll end up getting stronger and stronger over time, but you’ll always be just a little bit fatigued.
This isn’t a bad thing, and you don’t have to worry about whether you’re “recovered” enough to hit the gym. If you waited to fully recover between workouts, you’d never make progress.
But you do need to be aware that it’s normal for fatigue to hide your true strength. If you want to perform your best on a specific day—like if you plan to compete at a powerlifting meet—you’ll strategically time your workouts so that you get some rest before the big day.
As a result, it’s normal to not be at peak performance every day in the gym. If you did 10 pullups once, but most days you top out at a set of eight, that’s normal. You’re still capable of doing 10+ on a day that you’re fresh, but a normal training day is simply not that day.
Other stressors also affect this. If you didn’t get enough sleep, haven’t been eating well, you’ve got period cramps, you might be coming down with a cold, and you had a crappy day at work, you probably aren’t going to hit a PR today no matter how you’ve been training. This is all normal. Nobody is stress-free all the time.
Focus on what you’re doing, not how you’re performing
Training days are about putting in the work, so as long as you show up and do something challenging, you are making progress whether the weights are going up or not.
It has to be the right kind of work, though. If you’re using the same weight all the time and it’s not challenging, you’re not lifting heavy enough to make gains. Just go put your 5-pound dumbbell on the rack and use the 10 instead. But if you’ve tried heavier weights and you’re sure that you can’t add more, here are some approaches to try:
Less frequent increases
Even if you’re able to add weight pretty regularly, that doesn’t mean you’ll always be able to go up every workout. If you’re lifting 10-pound dumbbells, upgrading to 15-pound dumbbells would be a huge jump in strength—50 percent! So stick with the 10’s for a while longer.
For barbell lifts, micro plates are often recommended. If you can’t add five or 10 pounds to the bar, you could use little bitty weights to add two pounds. But the increase in weight isn’t what drives your progress, so these are truly optional. Instead of lifting 65 pounds, then 67.5, then 70, you could just lift 65 pounds two weeks in a row before jumping to 70.
This is where a good program comes in. Instead of coming into the gym every day intending to lift the most you can, you just do whatever your program says. It may not be a top-level effort every time, and that’s by design. You can make huge gains with most of your training at, say, an 8-out-of-10 effort. You’ll also probably enjoy your workouts more and not feel as beat up afterward.
A lot of beginner programs are minimalist, just a few sets of a few exercises and you’re done. This works OK in the newbie gains stage, but to build toward future gains, it really helps to do more work. Instead of three sets of five reps, why not six sets? Why not 10 reps? Remember, if they’re submaximal (not taking every set to failure) your body will be able to handle it without getting too fatigued.
It’s OK to have favorite lifts, and if you’re training for a competition, you’ll need to keep the competition lifts in the rotation. But a broader range of exercises can help you to become a more well-rounded athlete. If you do a lot of bench press, why not add overhead press? If you do a lot of dumbbell rows, have you considered barbell or cable rows? Different exercises emphasize different muscles, and variety is good for your brain, as well.
As a bonus, you’ll get a little bit of that “newbie gains” fast track when you start working on a new exercise, just because your body and brain haven’t mastered the new lift yet.
I know, this is the hardest one! But once you’re past the newbie stage, progress is less predictable. You might not make any progress for a while, and then hit a bunch of personal records all of a sudden.
Periodized programming really helps here. You’ll do a block of training (several weeks or months) with a specific focus, and then switch gears and do a different type of work. If you compete, your training may be general for a while as you build a base, and then it will get more specific as you “peak” for competition.
If you just train for fun and health, you can still use this approach. You might spend time on a block of training that is meant to grow your muscles and build your general fitness, and then do a block that allows you to do more intense work with more opportunities to test yourself and see what you built. The patience part comes in when you realize you don’t get to test your one-rep-max often—if at all—during that base phase.
That doesn’t mean you’re without any measures of progress. You’ll set rep PRs (the most weight you’ve ever done for 10 reps, let’s say) or you might notice yourself learning better technique or improving your conditioning so that you can take less time resting between sets. These are all signs that you’re getting stronger and fitter, even if you aren’t constantly adding weight to the bar.
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