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How to Break Through a Strength Training Plateau

Every now and then we stop seeing results from hitting the gym. (What gives?!) Luckily, we have some tips to make sure that hard work keeps paying off.
How to Break Through a Strength Training Plateau
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Chugging down protein shakes, regularly hitting the gym, and still not getting stronger? Welcome to the infamous fitness plateau. But don’t be alarmed: There are ways to stop feeling stagnant and move forward on that fitness quest. The key? Varying workouts!

Stale Strength — The Need-to-Know

Hit those dumbbells for the first time, and the results may be pretty immediate. But as people gain strength in a specific movement, the body requires new stimulus to grow. Research suggests that after anywhere from one to six weeks, the body will adapt to a typical fitness routine [1].

There’s no one reason why gym rats may stop seeing progress, but both beginners and vets alike may see their strength gains start to wane. One answer is to change things up, and we have some tips to keep making progress  (and keep things fresh!) on the gym room floor.

Peace Out, Plateau — Your Action Plan

  • Change the moves. Been sticking to the bench press? Try a push-up instead. Stuck on conventional deadlifts? Switch to sumo! This will target the same muscles in a different way. [4]. (Sneaky, sneaky!)
  • Cross train. Mixing in a variety of training styles will target different muscles (and challenge the mind!). Cross training might even reduce the risk of injury as well, so hop off the elliptical and use the bike instead.
  • Switch the order. Try changing up the order of strength training exercises to tire muscles at different times. (Those push ups will be a lot harder at the end of a workout.) Just remember, bigger muscle groups should almost always be worked first, and avoid saving explosive-based training for the end, advises Greatist Expert and trainer Jordan Syatt.
  • Vary repetitions. No need to stick to the same number of reps and sets for every move. Switch up the number of squats and superman’s to surprise and challenge the body. Going heavier for fewer reps? Just be sure to increase weight gradually. Higher weight will stimulate hormones that aid in muscle growth, but adding too much weight at once could lead to injury.
  • Change rest between sets. There’s a big difference between resting for 60 seconds, and the time it takes to fill out your tax return. To mix things up in the weight room, shorten or lengthen rest time to affect muscle endurance [5]. Or, skip the rest altogether and head into a superset or circuit. (The rest comes after each series is through!)
  • Pinpoint the problem. Here’s some tough love. Hating squats doesn’t mean leaving them out. Identify the exercise that causes some trouble, and in the words of Nike, Just Do It. It’ll only make the body stronger!
  • Rest. On those days off, muscles rebuild in stronger formations. So don’t forget to take it easy every now and then (the amount of rest depends on the person) to really see that strength develop.
  • Keep on keepin’ on. Don’t get frustrated by a lack of progress, and never ever give up! Need some reinforcement? Try using a workout journal or app (like Fitocracy) to keep track of workouts — and watch those new PRs stack up!

Just a little change will keep the body challenged, and that hard work will continue to pay off. And don’t forget about the importance of diet, too; what happens in the kitchen affects performance at the gym [6]. Make sure to get enough protein, fruits, and veggies — and steering clear of too much sugar and simple carbs [7] [8]. (Save the glazed donuts for special occasions!) With some hard work, patience, and a solid game plan, that fitness plateau should be old news.

This article has been read and approved by Greatist Experts Jordan Syatt and Robynn Europe.

Have you ever been stuck in a strength training rut? What worked best to break through it? Tell us in the comments below! 

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Works Cited +

  1. Exercise-induced muscle damage and adaptation. Ebbeling, C.B., Clarkson, P.M. Sports Medicine, 1989 Apr;7(4):207-34.
  2. Exercise intensity matters for both young and old muscles. Moore, D.R., Burd, N.A. Exercise Metabolism Research Group, Department of Kinesiology, McMaster University, Hamilton, ON, Canada. Journal of Physiology, 2009 February 1; 587(Pt 3): 511–512.
  3. Two weeks of high-intensity aerobic interval training increases the capacity for fat oxidation during exercise in women. Talanian, J.L., Galloway, S.D., Heigenhauser, G.J., et al. Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Journal of Applied Physiology, 2007 Apr;102(4):1439-47. Epub 2006 Dec 14.
  4. Electromyographic activity of the pectoralis major and anterior deltoid muscles during three upper-body lifts. Welsch, E.A., Bird, M., Mayhew, J.L. Exercise Science Program, Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2005 May;19(2):449-52.
  5. Rest interval between sets in strength training. De Salles, B.F., Simao, R., Miranda, F., et al. Laboratory for Clinical and Experimental Research in Vascular Biology (BioVasc), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Sports Medicine, 2009;39(9):765-77.
  6. Exercise, protein metabolism, and muscle growth. Tipton, K.D., Wolfe, R.R. Metabolism Division, University of Texas Medial Branch-Galveston, Galveston, TX. The International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 2001 Mar;11(1):109-32.
  7. Maximizing muscle protein anabolism: the role of protein quality. Tang, J.E., Phillips, S.M. Exercise Metabolism Research Group, McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.  Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care, 2009 Jan;12(1):66-71.
  8. Very-low-carbohydrate diets and preservation of muscle mass. Manninen, A.H., Advanced Research Press, Inc, Setauket, NY. Nutrition & Metabolism, 2006 Jan 31;3:9.

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