When you start lifting, those first few weeks are bliss. Sure, maybe you’re sore sometimes and get confused about how to do each new exercise, but you can add weight to the bar every week, maybe every workout, and you feel unstoppable. No gain train goes on forever though, so what do you do when the weights stop going up?
This is the phenomenon often called a “plateau,” and while it seems hopeless, there are tons of ways to bust through. Unless you’re an advanced lifter nearing the end of your athletic career (in which case you’re not reading this article, because by now you know how this works), there is always a way forward. Here are some possibilities to consider.
Do more instead of taking a break
While sometimes people will suggest taking a break to see a temporary bump in your numbers, this is only a short-term illusion (we all lift a little more when we’ve just taken some time off) and not an investment in your long-term gains. To get better, we usually have to do more.
More what? Well, if you’ve been sticking to the same easy weights for too long, just pick up the next heavier dumbbell. If you’ve been doing home workouts with bodyweight moves that have become too easy, you’ll need to find more challenging moves, buy some weights, or actually get your butt to a gym. Any exercise is better than none, and that might be the ethos that got you started. But when you want to improve, you have to ask yourself (as running coach Jason Fitzgerald wisely put it) what is the next logical step.
If you’ve already been challenging yourself appropriately, what you probably need is more volume. Think of this in terms of sets per week. If you bench press once a week for three sets of 10 reps, that’s not a lot of volume. Do five sets of bench twice a week, and now you’re up to 10 total sets for the week. Even if you’re already in the range of 10-15 sets per week (a typical recommendation), more is still probably better. When I was preparing for a powerlifting meet, my program had me doing bench press or a variation of bench six times a week for at least five sets each time. Wouldn’t you know it, my bench shot up.
Dial in your technique
If you want to improve in a specific lift, fixing your technique can go a long way to getting the gains going again. Hire a coach if you can, or ask a trusted, experienced friend for a form check. (Don’t just ask any old internet forum; be choosy about where your advice is coming from.)
You can also watch videos where coaches or experienced lifters go through the finer points of technique on your chosen lift. Juggernaut has a “Pillars of…” series on squat, bench, and deadlift technique; Catalyst has a ton of articles and videos on technique for the snatch and clean and jerk.
Get more variety in your training
Have you been doing the same lifts over and over, and not much else? You may have gotten too specialised. Coaches in all sports will talk about splitting your training between things that are specific to your sport or its main focus, versus building a base with GPP, which stands for general physical preparedness.
For a runner, GPP might include weight training and mobility work. For a lifter, you may have to do (and I’m so sorry about this) cardio, conditioning, mobility, and lifts in different rep ranges.
So if you’ve been doing just a handful of lifts and they’re always in sets of five, you’ll vastly improve your fitness if you do some or all of the following:
- Some work heavier (heavy singles or triples)
- Some work lighter (sets of 10 or even 20)
- Different lifts (not just squats, but also leg press and lunges)
- Cardio (like sessions on the exercise bike)
- Conditioning (workouts where you do lifts or bodyweight movements at a pace where you’re breathing heavy — Crossfit WODs are one example)
- Exercises you usually skip (for example, core work)
- Mobility (including, but not limited to, stretching)
These might not make your numbers go up right away, but they’ll definitely make you a more well-rounded athlete. Think of this stuff as an investment in your future no matter what happens with your numbers this week.
Get a new training program
Are you following an actual program? Winging it is one of the leading causes of plateaus (I’m just making that up, but I’m also sure it’s true). Instead of just lifting whatever you feel like each day, choose a pre-written program, or pay a coach or trainer to write you one.
A program is a roadmap to get you to a goal. It lays out which exercises to do, how heavy, what rep ranges, and what else you need to do (that GPP stuff) to improve. You also have to stick to it long enough to see results. If you’ve been skipping tons of workouts or “accidentally” “forgetting” to do certain exercises, all you may need is to actually follow the program you’re supposedly on.
If you’ve been on a program for a while but it’s not working for you, maybe you need a different one. Again, a coach or experienced friend can help advise you here.
If your fitness goals have been a mix of strength and appearance — like if you’ve been trying to lose weight or get leaner — you might need to take some time to prioritise one over the other.
Your body needs fuel (calories) to train hard, and protein to build muscles. When you’re dieting at the same time, you’re not giving your body much fuel. If your diet is the priority, you’ll need to accept that your results in the gym might not be ideal. But if you’re ready to get stronger, experiment with eating more food and especially more protein, and see where that gets you.
While you’re at it, make sure you’re getting a good night’s sleep as often as possible. Food and sleep are the two biggest things you can adjust to help yourself recover better from lifting.