Saturday, July 4, 2015

Break That Plateau

If you follow the same workout program for too long, you will start to see diminishing results (fewer gains in muscle size and strength) over time as your body adapts to the stimulus placed on it.

You want to grow as fast as possible, right? A gym program is only as good as the strength and size gains it brings you. There might be nothing wrong with your program, but if you’re doing the same thing over and over, your body will have adapted to it and stopped growing to meet the same old physical demands.

Signs that you've hit a plateau

No increase in physical performance for two weeks or more

You aren’t increasing your reps and weights anymore. You are stuck at the same place that you were two weeks ago. It needs to be for two weeks in a row for you to be concerned, because all of us suffer from drops in performance for a day or two every now and then. If your physical performance is not improving, your body won't either.

You aren’t losing fat or building extra muscle: Your body weight isn't changing

This is a classic plateau symptom. Your body has adapted to your exercise routine and has become comfortable. It does not feel the need to change because it feels safe with its physical expectations and output.

Your gym regime seems more like a daily routine, instead a challenge for your body to overcome

This is a psychological symptom of a plateau. If your workout no longer challenges you and if you don't need that much determination to finish your workout, it might be good time for change. I personally change my workout plan whenever I feel like it is getting boring to avoid hitting a plateau. This often also encourages a lack of motivation, since you aren't feeling or seeing any physical changes as a result of your hard work anymore.

The work seems easy, but you still reach failure and can’t push past your previous bench marks

This is a classic, common sign that you've hit a plateau. If you don't feel like your workout is taking a lot out of you, even though your body won't let you go any further, you've most probably hit a plateau. If the maximum volume, time, reps or weight that you can do stays the same; you've hit a plateau. If your maximum output decreases, you might have over trained.

Although over training and plateau’s can often interlink, they are not the same thing. It is possible to over train without hitting a plateau - and it is possible to hit a plateau without over training

A plateau leads to a lack of physical progress. Over training leads to reversed progress (you get weaker instead of stronger), joint pain or injury, and exercise-induced depression.

Signs of over training (if you’ve overtrained then you need to remedy that instead of trying to break a plateau)

Sleep: you suffer from insomnia or oversleeping

Ironically, struggling to get good sleep, sleeping too much or the constant desire for more sleep is all caused by over training. All three symptoms can arise from too much physical stress being placed on your body. For people who struggle to sleep, your body is under so much stress on the central nervous system that it can't calm down to recover properly. Read more about your central nervous system, how over training affects it and how to help it recover here. Sleeping too long is common among others because your body needs more time to recover, but the stimulus placed on it is so high that it never catches up on needed recovery. This will also explain lethargy, fatigue and the desire to sleep all the time.

Lack of motivation (could also be present in a plateau, but not as predominantly)

While a plateau can also sap out your motivation to further your goals, over training attacks your motivation more aggressively. Some people don't lose their motivation when they've hit a plateau. They just fall into the monogamous routine of doing the same thing over and over again - even when they don't see new results anymore. Over training is the most common culprit among athletes who begin to wonder why they are putting so much effort into their sports or exercise efforts in the first place. Many of them start to hate the sport that they do or dread the idea of practicing or exercising. Over training can cause depression, whereas hitting a plateau does not have as a big an impact on your emotional state.

Diet: lack of appetite or constant cravings for high calorie / fast foods

This is a very common sign of over training than usually is not present among individuals who have hit a plateau. Since their bodies are bombarded with physical stress and they are frantically trying to recover, they might not be able to regulate their hunger and satisfaction hormones properly. Again, different people will experience this in different ways. Some people will lose their appetite, since they bodies are starting to break down from too much physical stress. Others crave high calorie and high fat foods as their bodies try to get as much energy from food as possible to compensate for the drastic energy depletion. If you feel like this might refer to you, click the links above to recover from over training.


This is commonly seen in athletes who have over trained. Since the physical stress starts to crush the body from the inside out, the emotional state suffers as well. The brain does not have enough time to recover during sleep, since the body is taking as many resources as possible to recover physically. Also, mood-regulating hormones become out of balance along with the rest of the body's normal mechanisms.

Halted/diminishing physical performance

When you train more than what your body can recover from, your physical performance will not increase but slowly start to decrease. The longer you stay in this overtrained state, the faster the rate at which physical performance declines. The longer you over train, the longer it will take to recover.

Muscle spasms and twitches

This is due to the central nervous system being over stressed and starting to fall apart. Getting this from hitting a plateau is very uncommon.

Lowered immune system: Falling ill more easily and more frequently

Your immune system also takes a big hit when your body suffers from over training. If you are getting sick more often, you might have over trained and your body probably needs a good break.

Constant, unquenchable thirst

This is another common symptom often associated with over training. You might also feel nauseous often as well. In other cases, it also becomes harder to follow your normal daily routine (waking up, working, spending time with friends and family, bed time, etc.)

If you have over trained (nearing or at the point of over exertion), a few rest days might be all that you need to get your body back in its feet. Here are great ways to make your rest day the best recovery you've ever had.

Now that we've distinguished the difference between over training and hitting a plateau, read on if you think that you have hit a plateau

Back to breaking that plateau

These 8 ways to break a plateau will turn your workout routine back into the body-enhancing agent it is meant to be.

1)      Take a rest week

Taking a rest week off might be all that your body needs. Your body adapts between workouts the best it can for the time being, but there is also a long-term recovery that the body can use to maximize your progress. It is recommended to take a rest week off every 10 weeks you spend hitting the iron so that your body can repair itself on a deeper level. Lack of long rest might be causing your plateau as the need for deep recovery starts to accumulate. Avoiding this kind of long rest for too long can lead to over training.

This time will allow your body to re-align muscle fibers, strengthen bones and joints and stock up on inter-muscular nutrients without the stress of quickly recovering as best it can before the next workout. Many people have larger muscle growth rates in their rest weeks than normal training weeks! I am one of these people. They often return to the gym with increased strength, stamina and motivation. I recommend that you spend two days during this week at the gym - only stretching and relaxing in the sauna, which will help maximize your body’s recovery. It’s hard to stay away from the gym when you’re as dedicated and addicted as most of the bodybuilding greats, but the results are worth it.

It can sometimes feel like we shrink a little when we take off. Try this out at least once and see how you feel when you return. In the meantime, use this opportunity to clean your house, spend some extra time with the family or do something fun. A nice, relaxed walk can do wonders for you, both mentally and physically, during these times.

Not sure what do to with your extra time on rest days? Turn awful detention into awesome recovery.

2)      Diet: Add or Subtract Something

You’ll be surprised how often too much or too little of something is the cause of that annoying plateau. Are you consuming enough calories to sustain greater muscle growth? Are your macro (protein, carbohydrate, fat, fruit and vegetable) portions in the right proportion and size, according to your current needs? There are many ways to customize your diet:

1.       Try a simple/fast-acting carbohydrate food straight after your workouts to replenish glycogen stores in your muscles quickly

2.       Increase protein and water intake (throughout your daily meal plan)

3.       Increase the total daily calories you consume

If maximum muscle growth is your goal, try a diet high in calories for maximum muscle gain.

4.       Switch out your protein sources (too much whey, too little fish?)

Try taking protein supplements according to the way the protein enters your body so that your body always has the protein that it needs to rebuild.

5.       Add micro-nutrients like vitamins, minerals or oils

Are you eating enough fruit and vegetables to be getting these important nutrients naturally? Or do you possibly need more minerals or electrolytes?

6.       Check your supplements: Are they really perfect or is it time for a change-up?

I've seen many cases where simply changing supplements increased muscle growth.

7.       What else can you add or subtract to help your body get its growth back?

3)      Go on a creatine cycle

A good pre-workout or creatine cycle will give your body a boost to blast past that wall it can’t climb over. Start with a half dose for 2 weeks, a full dose for 2 weeks, and then another half dose for the following 2 weeks (keeping the same reps and weight numbers you did on the full dose). Sometimes our bodies just need a good push in the right direction to get it growing again.

4)      Change the program

This is the most common way to overcome a plateau. How long have you been following the program that you are currently on? Under 3 months? Go back to the other points. Over 3 months? Then it’s time to change things up! You can do this by either changing the whole program completely (a standard 5-day split to a Push-Pull-Legs (PPL) program) or a few small things within the program if you want to keep at it a little longer. If you are ready for a real challenge (advanced weight lifters only), try the GARRY workout program. You can also check out our research on what the best workout split for muscle growth is.
There are many things you can change in your existing program to bring back your body’s magical adaption mechanism:

1.       Rep range

Many people cycle between a week of higher reps and a week of lower reps to keep the body in its prime adaption phase. Try using heavier weights with fewer reps or lighter weights with more reps.
Changing your rep range can have a great counter-plateau effect. High reps can also build muscle mass.

2.       Rep time

Try increasing your TUT (total time under tension) with each rep. If your reps are usually under a second, take a full second to lift the weight, another second to hold it there and two seconds to lower the weight back to your resting position. The burn you feel in your muscles after doing this will definitely be an indication of greater stimulus being put on the muscle. 

3.       Number of sets

Change the number of sets to a higher or lower number. Would your muscles benefit form a few more sets per exercise or are you doing too many sets for them to recover sufficiently before the next session? You can also add a power set at the end of your session to pump the muscle you want to grow more specifically.

4.       Exercises used

Switch rows with pull-ups, cable presses for bench presses and hack squats with knee extensions. This will help you to instantly bust out of that plateau.

5.       Grip

Reverse the grip on all of your exercises to work the muscles from an angle that they are not used to, and forces them to adapt to a new form of stimuli.

6.       Set style

Swap the standard 8, 8, 8 set for a pyramid style, drop set and super-set to keep forcing your muscles to grow.

7.       Intensity

Try decreasing the amount of time that you rest in between sets. Now muscles will need to get stronger and bigger to be able to cope with less recovery time they have before being recruited to work again. You can also increase your rest time, so that you have more strength with each set.

8.       Order

Change the order of exercises you do, so that different fibers in the muscles are recruited at different exercises. The bench press might be exhausting your triceps before you hit the dips. Now your triceps can do more on the dips and your chest will need to step it up to complete the bench press afterwards.

9.       Rest in between workouts

You might be resting too little in-between sessions that use the same muscles, so that they aren’t at their full potential next time round; or you might be resting too long, meaning that they are over-rested and have started shrinking back to normal before they are stimulated again.
See which rest times between sets work best.

You don't have to implement all of these changes at once. Choose which ones you are going to change and take it from there. The next time you feel a plateau coming on, you can change a few other elements. Sometimes, all it takes is one good change instead of many. If you really thirsty to change everything up at once, go ahead. That's also okay.

5)      Get more sleep

You might feel fine, but perhaps an extra hour or two of shut eye might be all that your body needs to recover to the max for its next session under pressure. Most muscle growth happens when you sleep, so it is important that we get enough of it and have the right nutrients in our bodies when we sleep so that our muscles can do what we want them to – Grow!

6)      Suntan

Exposing the skin to the natural rays of the sun increases our testosterone hormones through the vitamin D that our skin makes during contact with the light. No wonder why our energy levels are lower and we're just plain lazy during winter!

7)      Add a friend

Studies show that people perform better at physical exercises when their friends are with them. Some healthy competition between you and a bud will increase your muscular output. This might sound crazy, but who cares if you're getting stronger?

8)      Add music

My personal top 3:

Everybody hits a plateau (although some plan ahead and make changes before they plateau). My personal, favorite ways to speed up muscle growth are:

A.      Taking a rest week

I like the idea of getting a good, deep recovery every few weeks. I personally feel like it sets my last week’s gain well into my new cycles’ starting point. After a week of rest, my new size and strength gains become my new ‘starting stats' for me to improve on before my next rest week. I take a rest week every 2-3 months.

B.      Going on a creatine cycle

I feel like creatine can be the jumper cables to a body that wants to start slowing down. It's embedded in our bodies to save energy whenever it can, and it will only grow when it feels like it has to in order to survive. A helping hand from mister C never hurts. Read about whether you should take creatine regularly, cycle it or even take it at all

C.      Changing my program

I generally do a rest week, then a creatine cycle once I've maxed out and then a total change in program (different exercises, reps, split or everything). I love the soreness in my muscles when starting a new program because I feel like the muscle is being forced to grow even bigger. If my muscles aren't suffering, why should they grow?

Don't stagnate, be a muscle magnet. Congratulations on reading through this super long post. STAY STRONG!

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