In case you are unfamiliar with it, let me introduce you to the plateau. In the process of adding plates and muscle, at various points you will inexplicably find yourself bumping against a wall. Your progress will seem to stall and no matter how much you grit your teeth, spit, grunt, or contort your body, you cannot seem to meet your targeted rep count, get a decent contraction with the higher weight, or see any difference in your size or weight from month-to-month.
After spending some time wandering in the badlands of muscle plateaus, you may begin to lose hope in your quest for hypertrophy. I am here to tell you that there is hope, and it only requires a few tweaks to your normal training routine. I stress that these tools are mainly for bodybuilders (not so much for others with different goals) and that you will need to experiment a bit in order to find the best way to integrate these into your training.
1. Strip Sets
If you are used to cranking out three sets of 8-12 reps, then adding a strip set to your repertoire can be a magic bullet. The performance is thus: on your final set for any given exercise, load a bar with the same weights that you use for your normal work sets or grab your usual dumbbells, work to failure, then strip off some weight (10-20 pounds) and immediately work to failure again, then strip off more weight (another 20 pounds), etc.
The key is to rest as little as possible while you are performing a strip set so that it seems to be one continuous set, thus allowing you to work beyond proximate failure on your final set. Keep going until you reach your targeted rep count (20-25 reps).
Since the idea of the strip set is to work continuously, you should have a training partner whose job it is to remove the necessary weights upon failure rather than having to get up and do it yourself (on the bench press for instance). Since I train alone, I typically perform strip sets with dumbbells or machines (T-bar rows are an exception).
“Pyramiding” involves adding weight with each successive set. With various plateaus I’ve faced off against in the past, pyramiding has done wonders. It is a micro-representation of the concept of progressive overload (one of the keys to building muscle). Rather than performing three sets of say, dumbbell pullovers with a 60 pound dumbbell and aiming for 15-20 reps each set, instead you could perform a set of 20 with the 50 pound weight, then 15-20 with the 60 pound weight, and finally 8-12 with the 70 pound weight. Increasing the intensity in this way can cause your muscles to adapt by growing bigger and stronger.
Also called “breathing,” this is when momentary breaks are taken in the course of a work set. Depending on the lift, you may hold the weights at the bottom or top, breathe a few times and then continue, or you may put the weight down and take a few breaths, then pick it up and continue. The extra reps will be taxing but well worth the effort. This is another trick that allows you to push beyond proximate failure.
Due to the tremendous amount of strain that these place on your body, they are typically used sparingly and during the last set of any particular exercise (the same goes for strip sets). I’ll admit that there are a few exercises for which I employ this technique on every working set, but that’s unconventional; you’ll need to experiment for yourself in order to find which method works best for you.
4. Volume I
By increasing volume, I do not mean doing ten sets of bench presses, although that is a viable option if you are experimenting with Cumulative Fatigue Training. No, I recommend adding variations of similar exercises at a variety of different angles.
For the bench press for instance, you might consider performing dips or incline presses on the same day, or variations of the fly, decline press, or dumbbell presses. If your only chest exercise is the bench press, as mine was for some time, then you may begin to adopt a certain desperation with regard to the size and strength of your pectoral muscles.
Try adding dumbbell pullovers. Add dips. Rotate between incline and decline presses each session so that you can supplement and balance the upper and lower pectorals. If you’ve been feeling pretty spry after your workouts, try incrementally adding some volume and don’t be afraid to work your way up to 30 total sets per workout.
5. Volume II
You are aching in all the wrong places, all the time. You are always tired, never feel rested enough to go full-bore, and you feel like a sack of cow dung every time you come home from the gym. I believe that you are exhibiting the symptoms of underrecovery.
If you do not allow your body to recover properly by eating enough calories, sleeping enough, or taking enough rest days, then underrecovery can lead to plateaus, regression, or worse yet—injuries.
The quickest cure for underrecovery is to take a week or so to deload. Deloading can occur by avoiding the gym entirely for some period of time (three days to a week); a moderate approach might incorporate light exercises (50% of your usual weights) so as to minimize the loss of familiarity with the movements while also making sure that you are pumping vital blood into the muscles.
Deloading is an opportunity to recover and catch up on much-needed rest. It can become a regular part of your routine at set times (every 6-8 weeks), or it can be used at the end of a cycle in order to prepare your body for a new program that you are about to undertake. If you’re not already doing it, then you should consider incorporating some form of a deload into your programming.
In order to increase frequency, you don’t necessarily need to increase the frequency with which you work an entire muscle group (if you can handle this, then don’t let me discourage you). Increasing frequency is a great idea, but if you are already working with a high-volume routine, then this may not be a viable option depending on what your body can handle.
Instead I recommend identifying any particular muscle(s) that you hope to build up as a special project within your routine. You should first identify a muscle or a head of the muscle that is lagging (say, the long head of the tricep, soleus, or brachioradialis) and then incorporate an exercise for that muscle into one or all of your workouts that cover different muscle groups.
I successfully employed this method in order to bring my glutes and brachioradialis up to speed and to reinvigorate my chest and back routines.
7. Check Your Form
Spend some time diagnosing any possible corruptions of good technique that have worked their way into your lifts due to an obsessive passion for adding weight to the bar. Slow down your reps and focus on the fluid movement of the weights; make sure that you can pause at any given time during a repetition and hold the weight in place for a second. If you cannot, then you are probably relying upon leverage and momentum rather than the targeted muscles.
Make sure that you are contracting the appropriate muscles during your lifts—actually think about the muscles that you are contracting the next time you perform the lift and focus on getting it right.
Warm-up sets are always a good idea since you can habituate certain muscles to contract and then carry that focus into your working sets.
8. Check your Diet
I’ll quote Rich Piana: “You gotta eat big to get big.” He admittedly uses steroids, but the advice still stands. Don’t expect to be breaking through too many plateaus if you’re not willing to gain a few pounds in the process. If you’re not gaining weight, then you’re not eating enough. If you’re on a cut, then ignore this advice and do your thing.
With all of these tools at your disposal, and a few that I did not mention (partial reps, forced reps, cheats, negatives, feeder workouts, occlusion training), you should be well on your way to combating any current or future plateaus. Aside from the possibility of injury or some other physical hindrance, there should be no excuse except a lack of will.
The dreaded plateau seems to exist at the limits of your ability, but it is really just a milestone to be blazed on your path to self-improvement. Enjoy the challenge, adapt, and overcome.
Read More: A Little Known Mass Building Technique