Breaking Through a Strength Training Plateau


When we hit a strength training plateau, it can be really frustrating. In this article, we’ll break down the problem, starting with what causes plateaus, then moving on to how to assess your current routine, strategies for breaking through plateaus, and finally, the mental side to long-term success in the gym.

Breaking Through a Strength Training Plateau

Understanding Plateaus

A plateau is “a state of little or no change after a time of activity or progress.” In lifting, a plateau is considered a time when we cannot see any change in body composition or weight lifted. Plateaus will occur to anyone who trains long enough, and this article aims to teach you how to address them when they come up. 

The most common causes of plateaus when strength training are:

  1. Poor designed programming/overtraining
  2. Poor external factors i.e: nutrition, sleep, or stress management
  3. Lack of intensity
  4. Unrealistic goals and expectations (inability to zoom out and see the bigger picture)

1. Poorly Designed Programming/Overtraining

These are lumped together as they often go hand in hand. If you are plateaued in your training, feeling burnt out, or even struggling to get into the gym, chances are that you are following a poorly designed training plan that needs more room for recovery. Training is stress for the body, and stress is not always a bad thing. Stress is what forces adaptation, growth, progression, and strength training. For trainees to progress, they need adequate rest and recovery built into the program. This is typically done by deload weeks or planned periods in the training program where intensity and/or volume are lowered so that you can adequately recover. After a deload week, you will find that you can build back up and progress further than you did the last time you ran that training block. 

Another thing to look at with your program is ensuring adequate volume per muscle group to see adaptations, which is about 10- 20 sets per week per muscle group. This is because there is insufficient stress or stimulus to continue progress. You can remedy this by following a well-designed program built for you by an experienced coach or a tried and true one that can be found on the internet.

Another factor to investigate when looking at your program is novelty. As a general rule of thumb, you can run the same training program for a lot longer than you think, often years, when you consider the above principles of deloading frequently enough to ensure adequate volume. If you cannot progress your training, it may be time to adjust your overall plan. This often doesn’t have to be a significant overhaul and can be as simple as changing a couple of exercises to add some novelty to your program.

The last factor to consider here is changing your training too frequently. Some people get bored with their training or feel they need much more novelty than they do to make progress. Generally, you want to run the same training program long enough to see weekly progressions driving those adaptations.  I don’t recommend changing training to any shorter than 6-week cycles because it takes time to drive the benefits of that training program. In the short end, changes should be small enough to add some new stimulus if needed.

2. Poor External Factors i.e: Nutrition, Sleep, or Stress Management

As established above, training stresses the body, so we must manage our external factors appropriately to progress our strength training. If you plateaued, you will want to look at some lifestyle factors to see if any improvements can be made.

With nutrition, if you’re in a calorie deficit, that can inhibit your ability to progress in strength training. New trainees likely find that they can progress in strength training when in a calorie deficit, but the more experience you have, the more challenging that becomes. This may mean you need to adjust your expectations when in a calorie deficit. Instead of thinking about gaining strength, the goal can become to maintain strength until you move to maintenance or a surplus, where strength gain is more likely because you have the proper energy intake to recover and grow. 

Sleep is critical for progressing in strength training for muscle growth and gain. Sleep can help with your energy level to push your training and maximize your recovery from training, allowing you to push harder in the next session. If you’re not sleeping 7 to 9 hours a night, this is a factor you want to consider if you’re struggling with a strength training plateau. Strength training and exercise, in general, are excellent stress management tools, but if life is more stressful than normal, you may see an impact on your training. Higher stress levels may make it harder to recover, impacting sleep.

3. Lack of Intensity

This one may not apply to you now, but keep reading because it applies to everyone in some season of their training. Lack of intensity is a big reason for a strength training plateau. If you spend too much time on your phone, have too long rest periods, or just not showing up with the same intensity that you used to, you might need to turn that dial up to start seeing results again.  With a lack of intensity, it is essential to identify what caused the drop off in intensity so that you can begin to address it. Sometimes, this ties into the reasons above your nutrition is off, your sleep is off, or you’ve been running the same training program for a while, and you’re getting bored. If so, it is time to look at those factors and address them individually. 

For example, if you’re finding that you are not eating enough, so you cannot bring the same intensity to your training, start putting a small meal of primarily carbohydrates before you go into the gym to see if that helps give you the energy that you need. If you feel your sleep has been off, take the necessary steps to address that. If you have been bored with your training, that can be a great reason to mix up your training. Not all training changes need to be physically warranted; sometimes, they are psychologically justified to give you the novelty of feeling excited about going to the gym again. There’s nothing wrong with changing your training program for some psychological stimulation, as long as it’s not happening too frequently.

4. Unrealistic Goals and Expectations (Inability to zoom out and see the bigger picture)

We’ve all been here; we focus on progressive overload and feel we should be able to add 5 lbs to every exercise for the rest of our lives. If that were the case, we would all be bicep curling 1,000 lbs, which is not likely. Progression looks different for each person, for each exercise, and for each season of training. New trainees might find they can progress quickly, while experienced trainees may find they can only put five pounds on an exercise yearly. All of those instances are okay if we follow a well-designed program that allows for some progression over the year. Progression does not always have to wait; it can be additional reps, additional sets, slower Tempo, or even better form. All of those will help drive adaptation in a well-designed training program. 

Look at your training data for the last year. Zooming out gives us a better perspective of those progressions. Progress is not always linear, and it doesn’t have to happen week to week. Make sure you’re taking a look at your progress over the month and over the year.

Final Words of Advice

Keep going. If you have plateaued in your strength training, keep going. Run through this list, identify the bottlenecks in your training, make the necessary adjustments, and then keep pushing. This could mean it’s time to find a good coach to examine your training and lifestyle factors to see what needs to change.

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