How Do You Break A Lifting Plateau?

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.

But if all of your lifts are starting to slow and plateau then you’ve likely got systemic plateau.

Break 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 times. 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.

Break 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 naturally through diet such as correcting nutritional deficiencies and lifestyle (getting more sunshine, etc.)
  • 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.

How I Beat A Plateau By Removing Volume & Changing The Order

There was a time when my legs were exploding. I was buying jeans from Levi’s that were 3″ larger on the waist just to fit my quads. (I had a great seamstress who would take out the extra material at the waist.) I was double-overhand deadlifting over three plates for the first time in my life.

There was only one problem.

I was becoming a T-Rex. Huge legs and a small upper body. This imbalance was getting worse as I continued to deadlift.

Like a good friend, my business partner Shane Duquette aptly teased me by calling me J-Rex.

My upper body wouldn’t budge, despite:

  • benching
  • weighted push-ups
  • weighted chin-ups
  • landmine presses
  • curls
  • skullcrushers/pushdowns

For years, I observed the law: “never skip leg day.”

I was explaining my t-rex plight to my two business partners, Shane and Marco, who were much larger and stronger than me. Marco and Shane drafted up this experimental program which I tried out.

Surely, there must be something wrong here.

  • 4 sets of upper chest
  • 8 sets of chest
  • 8 sets of shoulders
  • 8 sets of triceps

This workout totally annihilated the front side of my upper body.

A couple of days later, the workouts hit the other side—12 sets of back, 9 sets of curls, and finished with some abs. (There was a day of leg work in between, but it was lighter, and some heavier work was swapped out for bike sprints.)

My chest, back, shoulders, and arms were sore for days.

And guess what? They finally started growing.

My stubborn upper body wasn’t due to not eating enough meat or calories. It wasn’t because I wasn’t getting enough sleep.

What had happened to me was that I would start my workouts by squatting or deadlifting.

These heavy leg exercises took *all* of my energy. My upper body got the scraps thrown from the table.

Because my legs were hogging all of my gains, a vicious cycle was set into play.

As I deadlifted 225 pounds, that totally wiped me out. This left nothing for bench.

Then I deadlifted 255, wiping me out. Leaving nothing for bench.

Then I deadlifted 275, wiping me out. Leaving nothing for bench.

Then I deadlifted 315, wiping me out. Leaving nothing for bench.

Jared Polowick Deadlift

Each week I was getting bigger and stronger—but only in the legs/butt/traps.

I wasn’t able to do enough productive training on bench or overhead pressing to cause growth. This is despite doing enough sets (technically) and putting in all my effort.

The problem is that 100% poured out from an empty cup is not enough.

When I stopped training my legs, it freed up all this energy that I could now spend on pushing my upper body to grow.

There was a period of my life where I was doing next to no leg training and tons of upper body training. (I don’t really recommend this, even if you’ve got big legs and a small upper body like I did. You can still do some heavy leg training once in a while to keep your strength.)

The order of how you lift matters. I model the Outlive workouts based on something I learned from understanding Steve Reeves programming, one of the best bodybuilders of all time.

Steve Reeves

He always starts with the shoulders, then the chest, arms, back, and then the legs at the end. Otherwise, if you train legs first, they’ll hog everything. (Which makes sense, given that the legs are the largest muscles in the body.)

This lesson can be applied to any stubborn muscle, whether that be a stubborn chest if your frame is limb-dominant. Or for stubborn arms if you’re torso-dominant. Or, if you’re a woman, a lot of my female clients are looking to add more mass specifically to their hips without gaining a lot of size elsewhere. In that case, you’d put those hip exercises first and with a lot of volume and frequency throughout the week.

If you’d like help busting through your plateau, check out our programs. 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.

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