A Billion Ways To Bust Through A Muscle Plateau
Think for a minute about your training and progress — does it feel like your muscle growth has slowed, or even stopped altogether?
If so, you’re stuck in the belly of a big, black, fitness abyss known as a plateau. You might be thinking: “I’ve busted my butt in the gym day-in and day-out, but the results just aren’t coming — what’s going on!?” Plateaus are unbelievably discouraging and frustrating, and for a lot of people they cause a complete drop off from fitness altogether.
What exactly is a muscle plateau? It’s the body adapting to a given stimulus — in this case a workout routine — becoming proficient, and ultimately resisting future progress. Muscle growth is all about challenging the body and pushing it beyond what it’s used to. If you’re not pushing yourself, well, then you’re not growing.
It’s the same theory for education, any career, life. Challenge = new growth.
Luckily I’ve got about billion potential solutions for the problem — reinvigorated muscle growth awaits on the other side.
Techniques to Bust Through a Muscle Growth Plateau
1. Vary training schedule.
Most people follow a set workout schedule, for example:
- Monday – Chest/Triceps
- Tuesday – Back/Biceps
- Wednesday – Legs
- Thursday – Shoulders/Abs
- Friday – Cardio
- Saturday – Off
- Sunday- Off
Switch up your workout routine once every two months. It’s important to change the order of workouts in your routine, the body parts that you group together, and even the days of the week in which you work a given body part. The body will adapt if you work chest & triceps every single Monday for a year straight.
A new schedule could look like (there are a bazillion potential variations):
- Monday - Quads/Hamstrings
- Tuesday - Abs/Cardio
- Wednesday - Shoulders/Calves
- Thursday - Back/Biceps
- Friday – Off
- Saturday – Chest/Triceps/Abs
- Sunday – Off
2. Vary exercise types.
Varying exercises in a routine is the single easiest way to prevent a muscle plateau. It’s smart to choose a few compound exercises for each body part as staples (i.e. squats, deadlifts, pull-ups), and switch the supporting exercises you do every workout. Instead of doing lat pulldowns, try pull-ups. Instead of bent-over barbell rows, try one-arm dumbbell rows. Do the same for every body part.
|Different triceps exercises
3. Change the order of exercises.
If your chest routine looks something like this: barbell bench press –> incline dumbbell bench press –> dumbbell flies, switch it up to: incline dumbbell bench press > barbell bench press > dumbbell flies. The exercises at the beginning of your workout are ALWAYS the strongest because your body has the most stored-up energy.
4. Use different equipment.
Look around the gym, there are a TON of different types of equipment. Get creative and use it all. Different types include:
- Medicine Balls, Exercise Balls
- Body weight
- Balance boards
Switch up the equipment you use for particular exercises. If you typically bench with a barbell, try using dumbbells. If you typically do dumbbell chest flies, instead do cable crossovers or use the chest fly machine.
5. Work in different rep ranges.
Different rep schemes build different aspects of muscular fitness:
- The 2-6 rep range is best for building muscle strength
- The 8-12 rep range is optimal for building muscle size (hypertrophy)
- The 12-20 rep range is best for developing muscular endurance and stamina
Regardless of your goal, it’s smart to vary rep ranges on major lifts once every month. I recommend spending one month in the 8-12 rep range, the next month in the 2-6 rep range, and then the third month in the 12-20 rep range. This cycling of rep schemes is known as periodization.
Besides preventing adaptation, it’ll allow your muscles muscles to develop a nice balance of size, strength, and endurance. Additionally, the 8-12 rep range tends to give muscles a larger, puffier look, while the 3-6 rep range creates a denser, saran-wrapped look (it’s also called density training).
Build up some size by doing 8-12 reps, and then wrap it up with 3-6 reps. Ripppppppppppppped!
**Important - Low rep ranges ALWAYS means using heavier weights.
6. Switch-up the number of sets.
If you typically do 3 sets of 12 reps per exercise, try doing 5 sets of 5 reps at a heavier weight, or do 2 sets per exercise and add in extra exercises.
7. Alter rest periods.
For an intense, fast-paced workout keep rest periods down to 30 seconds between sets. If you’re focusing on larger, compound lifts, rest periods should be anywhere from 1 – 5 minutes.
8. Vary tempo.
Tempo refers to the speed at which you:
- lift the weight & contract your muscles (the concentric phase)
- lower the weight (the eccentric phase).
Vary the concentric phase by switching between explosive contractions and slow, controlled lifts.
Vary the eccentric phase by lowering the weight at different rates — the longer the eccentric phase the harder your muscles have to work. Try doing a pull up and lowering yourself over a 30-second span. It’s a tough, killer workout that’ll shock your muscle into new growth.
9. Spice up your routine with different types of sets.
Don’t constrain yourself to the typical 3 sets of 12 reps, 1 minute between sets for all eternity. Turn up the intensity by adding in the following techniques:
- Supersets – Perform two different exercises one after another with no rest. For instance, do 1 set of lateral raises and immediately after do 1 set of dumbbell shoulder presses. Not only is this much more intense, but it strategically isolates the smaller muscle group during the first exercise (the medial head of the deltoid during lateral raises), and then pushes it past failure during the larger, second exercise (dumbbell shoulder presses work all three heads of the shoulder, and subsequently pushes the medial head past failure). This allows you to target smaller muscle groups.
- Drop sets - Do 1 full set at a heavy weight and immediately after grab a weight that’s about 75% of the first and bang out a second set. Crazy pumps…
- e.g. Set 1: 100 pounds, and then do…
- Set 2: 75 pounds, and then do…
- Set 3: 50 pounds, and then rest
- Strip sets – This works best on machines that have a weight stack. Start with a light weight that’s easy to handle and do a set of 10. Without any rest, continuously do sets of 10 — increasing the weight by one plate every set — until your muscles are completely fatigued. I love strip sets to blast the calves on a calf raise machine.
10. Change the type of training.
Don’t confine your training to weight-lifting; there are a TON of other ways to build muscle and strength — take advantage of different avenues.
If you’ve squatted yourself to death, try plyometrics or jump training. Try resistance bands, body weight exercises, TRX, exercise balls, kettlebells, etc. to stimulate new growth.
Do pilates and yoga in lieu of traditional ab exercises. Box or become a Brazilian Jujitsu expert instead of running on the treadmill. Get creative!
11. Up your protein & BCAA intake.
Consuming more protein and BCAAs constantly throughout the day is critical to building and maintaining a lean, muscular physique. If you’re slacking on your protein/BCAA intake your muscle growth is probably slacking too.
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