Muscle mass and strength are almost perfectly correlated, so to gain more muscle mass, you need to get stronger. The easiest way to do this is by adding more weight to the bar, but eventually, there will come a time when you can’t add more weight to the bar, and you’ll hit a plateau, and you may be wondering why. Let’s take a look:
What is a weightlifting plateau?
A weight lifting plateau is when you can no longer lift more than you could the week before. Maybe you can no longer add weight to the bar. Maybe you can no longer add more reps. And you can no longer get stronger, which means that your muscle gains have stopped. This is what we call a plateau.
What causes plateaus in weight lifting?
Muscle mass is very expensive to your body because it requires lots of energy to maintain and lots of protein to maintain. Muscle mass increases your daily metabolism, which could put you at risk of starvation in a scenario where there’s a little food to eat, such as during a drought or a famine or even during the winter when there wouldn’t be a lot of options for food.
Your body adapts to what you need it to do, and so if you want to look big and strong, you need to be strong. To be strong, you need to push yourself by lifting very heavy things, and then your body will adapt to it if it has the nutrition to do so.
So if you have a plateau, there are two possible reasons for this plateau.
Reason #1—Your body has fully adapted
If you do the same exercises day after day and with the same intensity and with the same weights and with the same amount of total sets, your body won’t need to adapt so, you won’t get stronger until you won’t get bigger. Maybe you aren’t pushing yourself to failure. Maybe you are lifting when you’re tired. Maybe you need to try a new training plan to cause a new adaptation.
Reason #2—Your body wants to adapt, but it doesn’t have what it needs to recover
This would be your body is getting a stimulus to adapt from lifting, but your nutrition or your recovery isn’t on point. Maybe you’re not eating enough protein or you’re not eating enough calories, or your hormones like testosterone are low because of some nutritional deficiency, or if you’re not getting enough sleep.
How do you get out of a workout plateau?
Your job is to figure out if it is your training workout that needs to change because your body is adapted or if your diet and lifestyle, such as sleep, are not up to code for you to adapt.
The easiest way to figure this out is to consider if you have a local plateau or a systemic plateau.
A local plateau is when one area of your body stops growing, but the other areas are still growing. For example, let’s say that you are doing a bench press and your bench press has plateaued, but your deadlifts continue to come along just fine. That would be an example of a local plateau because your body has no problem growing and adapting with the other exercises, such as the deadlift. So that would point to your nutrition and recovery is okay and that you need to focus more on the bench press. You might be undertraining your chest in terms of what it needs to grow.
Some options to defeat a local plateau
- Adding more weekly sets (volume.) Try adding another set or two to your stubborn lifts and see how it goes.
- Adding more variety in rep ranges. So if you are only lifting heavy with five reps, you should try lifting 10-rep maxes and 15-rep Maxes and 20-rep maxes.
- Switching out the main plateaued exercise for an alternative exercise. For example, if you are doing the classic bench press, maybe you switch to doing an incline bench press or a dumbbell bench press and rebuild for a few weeks.
- You can add in assistance exercises. These are exercises that also work the same muscles. So let’s say that you don’t want to switch out the bench press. You could add in other exercises that hit your chest/front delts/triceps. Incline dumbbell bench press, weighted push-ups, chest fly’s, the pullover, skull crushers—anything to hit the exact same muscles as the lift that is stuck.
- Experiment with rest. Many people are waiting long enough between sets to fully recover. So waiting longer between sets such as 5 minutes could help unlock your strength. Another technique to try is called cluster reps, which is where you rest in between each rep. For example, if you were benching two plates and you can only do three reps with it, you can do cluster sets to do five reps to progressively overload. So what you would do is do one rep, rack the weight, wait 30 seconds, then do another rep, rack the weight, do another rep, rack the weight, wait 30 seconds to another rep, etc. to get up to 5 reps. Your workouts will take longer, but you’ll push your body to adapt.
But if all of your lifts are starting to slow and plateau then you’ve likely got systemic plateau.
Some option to defeat a systemic plateau
- eating more meat and protein.
- eating a wider variety of types of meats and protein.
- eating more calories, especially in the meal leading up to your workout and a couple of meals following your workout.
- increasing your testosterone through diet such as correcting nutritional deficiencies.
- getting at least 7.25 hours of sleep per night, ideally up to 8 to 9 hours of sleep.
- improving your work capacity by having a good vo2max. If you don’t do any cardio, you may want to reconsider that.
- if you’ve been lifting heavy for a long, long time, you may need a deload and to take a week or two right off of training. But most people that we;’re coaching aren’t running into overtraining issues but rather have a hole in their diet or their training.
Can a cheat day break a plateau?
A cheat day is when you eat foods that are “dirty,” and it’s way easier to get into a calorie surplus when eating cheat foods. So if you are experiencing a systemic plateau and you need to eat more calories, then a cheat day might work because you would be eating a surplus of calories. But junk food is often full of garbage oils like vegetable oils and other metabolic destroying ingredients like fortified free iron, and might make you gain a ton of unnecessary fat by overdoing the surplus.
So I would personally find another way to get into a calorie surplus through real food that’s just easier to eat. Removing chewing such as smoothies, removing water such as dried fruits and oven-baked homemade fries, calorie dense foods like nuts, and honey-sweetened foods like granola, etc. There are a million other different ways to do this with real, whole food.
If you’d like help busting through your plateau, join our True Gains program. Our guys are regularly hitting new personal records even after lifting for years, and even while being in a calorie deficit like Jason and Abiel. We’d love to see you in the community.