6 ways to break through a plateau When hard work is no longer rewarded

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Every bodybuilder has to deal with it more than once: the plateau. No matter how hard you train and whatever you do, you will not grow. How do you break such an impasse?

Key points:

1.   You can only know if you have reached a training plateau if you keep track of your training results. If there is indeed a plateau or if you are growing much more slowly than your training status allows, make a careful diagnosis of the underlying cause before taking action.

2.   If you have reached a plateau, always first check whether you are eating enough (calories and proteins) and whether your daily lifestyle allows sufficient recovery. If you don’t recover enough from your training for a long time, it can lead to overreaching and eventually to overtraining.

3.   If you do not recover sufficiently despite good nutrition and recovery conditions, give your body a longer training rest, for example a week. This is also known as deloading. Deloads are intended for recovery from cumulative fatigue after a period of training. More advanced bodybuilders should schedule deloads periodically, for example every six weeks, to avoid overreaching.

4.   If your diet and recovery are in order and you are no longer making progress, the cause is probably the programming of your training. The most common problems arise in the areas of training intensity (not training hard enough or too hard) and training volume (doing too few or too many sets).

5.   For the more advanced, there are also more advanced methods of re-igniting muscle growth, such as strategic deconditioning and varying rep range.

WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW IN ADVANCE

By ‘plateau’ we mean both a strength and muscle growth plateau. After all, strength and muscle growth go hand in hand with bodybuilding: because you load a muscle with a certain volume and weight, the muscle grows and you become stronger. Then you can load the muscle with a heavier weight, it grows again and so on.

As a beginner, the results of your workouts go through the roof. Your body is then still hypersensitive to training stimuli, so that you can grow quickly even without a well-thought-out training program. Over time, that growth stagnates and you end up on your first plateau. Something that will happen more often later in your strength sports career.

However, you must first ask yourself whether you have really landed on a plateau. The more advanced you are, the slower you will grow. Slow progression is often confused with a plateau. But you may be growing more slowly than possible. In that case too, this article can help you: remedies for a plateau are in principle also remedies for (too) slow progression.

You can only say something about the status of your progression if you also keep a close eye on that progress. That means you should at least log your weights and reps during each workout. In an app, or simply, on a piece of paper. It always amazes us that we see only a few doing that in our gym.

A plateau can have several causes, sometimes several at the same time. Before you take action, it is therefore important to make the correct diagnosis. Below are the main causes and solutions, assuming you are a natural bodybuilder.

In summary:
You can only know whether you have reached a training plateau if you carefully log your training. If there is indeed a plateau or if you are growing much more slowly than your training status allows, make a careful diagnosis of the underlying cause before taking action.

1. IMPROVE YOUR DIET

For a correct diagnosis, you first look at the least complex possible cause: nutrition. For muscle growth, your diet simply has to meet two conditions:

  • you eat enough calories (you maintain a calorie surplus of 10-15% of your maintenance level);
  • you eat enough protein (about 2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day, spread evenly throughout the day in portions of 20-40 grams).

To check this, you need to use a calorie app for at least a few days.

But haven’t you been able to grow without paying attention to your diet? Yes, as a beginner you are so sensitive to training that you  can build muscle mass even with a calorie deficit. But sooner or later that will no longer work: you are a beginner and you will have to pay attention to your diet.

2. IMPROVE YOUR RECOVERY

A common cause of training plateaus is poor recovery. Recovery encompasses many factors, both outside the training (rest, relaxation and nutrition) and within the training. The optimization and coordination of all these factors is also known as recovery management.

For natural bodybuilders, recovery is just as important as training. If you train hard but don’t recover well, you will not grow or not grow enough, and eventually you will even lose muscle mass (atrophy), because your body is too busy repairing muscle damage. Let alone that it is still able to optimize muscle protein synthesis and provide you with maximum muscle growth.

OVERREACHING

A situation in which you do not recover sufficiently from your training for a longer period of time is also called overreaching. This is the preliminary stage of overtraining. You won’t get really overtrained that quickly, but overreaching is always lurking.

Hans Selyes’ (not “Seyles”) General Adaptation Syndrome. Over time, the body can no longer recover sufficiently, after which overreaching and eventually overtraining threaten. Source: Bodybuilding.com.

SIGNS OF POOR RECOVERY

If you no longer recover sufficiently from your workouts, you usually don’t just notice this from the stalled progression. Your body may be sending out other signals, such as extreme fatigue, poor sleep, more aches or injuries. Loss of strength, especially grip strength, is usually an indication of recovery problems.

NON-EXERCISE CAUSES

Poor recovery can have various causes. Often these lie in factors outside the training, namely physical rest, mental health and nutrition, or a combination of these. Adequate sleep, not too much stress and eating right (enough calories, sufficient micronutrients and the right distribution of macronutrients) are the minimum requirements to perform well in the gym.

Unfortunately, we do not always have complete control over some matters. Psychological stress is sometimes unavoidable, for example due to school exams or relationship problems. This stress is a major drain on your recovery capacity vi ] . In times of stress it is therefore better to keep your training volume to a minimum, perhaps even to the number of sets strictly necessary to maintain muscle mass (Maintenance Volume, MV). Do not add volume (see below). Wait with that until you have reached calmer waters mentally.

UNLOAD

If you’re not sure whether you’re recovering enough, it’s best to keep an acute deload. A deload is a period of usually a week, in which you do not train or only train at a very low intensity. Deloads are intended to help the body recover from cumulative fatigue, i.e. the fatigue that builds up in muscles, tendons and joints over an extended period of training. Advanced bodybuilders are best off deloading every six to eight weeks.

In summary:
If you have reached a plateau, always first check whether your daily lifestyle allows sufficient recovery. Sleep, stress and nutrition in particular have a major influence on your recovery capacity. In addition to stagnation in your progression, your body may give other signals of poor recovery, such as excessive fatigue, poor sleep, more aches, faster injuries and loss of strength (especially grip strength). If you don’t recover enough from your training for a long time, it can lead to overreaching and eventually to overtraining. By deloading regularly, you give your body time to recover from cumulative fatigue.

3. ADJUST YOUR TRAINING INTENSITY

By training intensity we mean in this case the extent to which you train a set to muscle failure (also called the relative intensity). Muscle failure is the point in a set where you can’t do a decent rep. We usually express this intensity in Reps In Reserve (RIR), the number of reps that keep you away from muscle failure.

It is quite possible that you have reached a plateau because you are not training hard enough (too many RIR) or because you are training too hard (too little RIR). Let’s have a look at both situations.

I. YOU ARE NOT TRAINING HARD ENOUGH (ANYMORE)

To create a growth stimulus, you have to train your sets close to muscle failure. We don’t call the repetitions just before muscle failure effective or stimulating repetitions for nothing . If you stay too far from muscle failure, you’ll create too few stimulating reps to fuel muscle growth. In general, it is recommended to train with 1-3 RIR: you keep a maximum of three repetitions ‘in the tank’. Beginners, however, can stay a little further away from muscle failure: 4-5 RIR.

You may have been able to achieve the necessary muscle gains with 4-5 RIR, but you have now reached a point where your body requires more from you to build muscle mass. Try to train your sets for a shorter period of time for muscle failure, so with 1-3 RIR. You can even train isolation exercises to complete muscle failure (0 RIR), but limit yourself to the last set of an exercise.

In summary:
As a more advanced bodybuilder, it is no longer enough to train with 4-5 RIR. Train your sets with 1-3 RIR.

II. YOU TRAIN TOO HARD

For others, the temptation may be great to train every set to the limit, so to complete muscle failure. However, training to muscle failure results in a disproportionate amount of fatigue, which is at the expense of your recovery and your other training performance. That is why it is generally recommended not to train with 0 RIR, but with 1-3 RIR. If you train everything to muscle failure, sooner or later you will come to a point where you no longer recover sufficiently, with a training plateau and perhaps overreaching as a result.

Training for muscle growth means using your powers with intelligence. So don’t go to the max every set, but stay one to three reps away from it. Occasional to muscle failure is okay, we said, as long as it involves isolation exercises and only in the last set.

If you suspect you have recovery issues from overtraining to muscle failure, do a deload first. Then you resume your workouts respecting 1-3 RIR.

In summary:
Training every set to the max is counterproductive. Usually keep a few reps ‘in the tank’; train with 1-3 RIR.

4. ADJUST YOUR TRAINING VOLUME

Another aspect of training where problems can arise is the training volume. By training volume we mean the number of sets per muscle group per week. And by sets we mean ‘hard sets’ (so no warm-up sets), which are trained to near muscle failure, but not completely (you train with 1-3 RIR).

Many natural bodybuilders do too much volume, others too little. Still others basically do the right number of sets on a weekly basis, but do too many per workout. Let’s go through these scenarios. Then you will probably find out automatically which scenario may apply to you.

I. YOU’RE DOING TOO MUCH VOLUME

Many natural bodybuilders train according to the principle more is better. But as a natural you soon get to a point where ‘more’ is no longer ‘better’ — quite the contrary.

Compared to steroids users, natural bodybuilders have a much lower volume from which they can recover, in other words a much lower Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV). For average to advanced bodybuilders, the MRV is roughly 20-25 sets per muscle group per week, provided the recovery management (see points 1 and 2) is in order. This is based on an average relative training intensity (1-3 RIR). That is, you don’t train your sets completely to muscle failure, but stay one or a few repetitions away from it (for example 2 RIR). If you trained all your sets to muscle failure, your MRV would be much lower. However, for muscle growth it is more sensible to maintain that 1-3 RIR, because training to absolute muscle failure involves a disproportionately large training load.

To achieve maximum muscle growth, you usually get by with much less: roughly 15-20 sets per week (Maximum Adaptive Volume, MAV). So you don’t have to train around your MRV to maximize your growth.

Many natural bodybuilders estimate their MRV completely wrong or do not even realize that the recovery capacity of the body is limited. The fact that you can still squeeze out that last set of your sixth chest exercise on chest day with verve, does not mean that your body is able to completely repair the resulting muscle damage again and again. Let alone that there are productive sets, but more about that in point II.

Training above your MRV for a long time means that you end up in the aforementioned situation of overreaching, which stagnates muscle growth and even threatens muscle breakdown. To make matters worse, many strength athletes train even more and harder because of the lack of gains, which makes the problem worse and can even lead to injuries and eventually overtraining. So a downward spiral. Bodybuilding coach Christian Thibaudeau speaks of stimulus addicts :

Training stimulus addicts are emotionally driven and their instinctive reaction to a lack of progress is to do more, go harder, train longer. This is the drawback of being passionate about training – you become your own worst enemy. i ]

Stimulus addicts have become immune to training. They have become victims of their own fanaticism.

Do you recognize yourself in this situation? For example, do you do around 30 sets per muscle group on a weekly basis? Then chances are you are in a state of overreaching. From our own experience, we can wholeheartedly advise you to first deload for at least a week (see point 2) and then resume training at a much lower volume. In the example of the 30 sets, it would mean that you can safely halve your volume. You will notice in no time that your body responds to training stimuli again and that you will feel a lot fitter.

In summary:
For natural bodybuilders, there is a maximum volume from which one can recover, the Maximum Recoverable Volume (MRV). Systematic training above the MRV leads to overreaching. At first you plateau, later you even lose muscle mass and strength. You can only break this deadlock by deloading and then drastically reducing your volume.

II. YOU’RE DOING TOO MUCH VOLUME PER WORKOUT

MAV and MRV are usually expressed on a weekly basis, but there are also ceilings for the amount per workout from which you can grow (productive volume) and recover. Many bodybuilders put way too much volume into one session, not only doing unnecessary sets, but also risking recovery problems. This is especially the case with people who do a so-called bro split (the old chest dayback day and so on).

During a training session, the growth stimulus for a certain muscle group starts to decrease after 5 sets. It stagnates after 10 sets. Doing more than 10 sets therefore makes no sense and only causes unnecessary extra muscle damage and fatigue. So do 5-10 sets per muscle group per workout, which usually comes down to 2-3 exercises per muscle group.

After about 5 sets, the efficiency starts to decrease sharply, to stagnate around 10 sets.

If you need to do more than 10 sets per week for a muscle group to grow, then the principle applies: divide your weekly volume over at least two sessions, provided you recover sufficiently from each session. Assume an average recovery time of 48 hours. In short, doing less volume per training means that you have to increase your training frequency.

In summary:
There is a maximum productive volume per session for natural bodybuilders. This round is probably 5 to 10 sets per muscle group. Two to three exercises per muscle group per training is therefore sufficient. More exercises and sets are unnecessary and will only affect your recovery capacity. If you need more than 10 sets for a muscle group on a weekly basis to grow, split them into at least two weekly sessions.

III. YOU DON’T DO ENOUGH VOLUME (ANYMORE)

Volume is today seen by many renowned coaches as the main driver of muscle growth. That while in the past it was usually thought that intensity was the order of the day. We see it more as an interaction between the two, with volume being the ‘motor’. If that engine falters or stalls, the entire vehicle stops and you can no longer move forward.

Volume is the amount of work you do, as already mentioned, usually expressed in number of sets per muscle group per week. It will be clear to you that with one set you will not get very far, no matter how heavy that set is. Your body only sees the need for muscle growth when you do a certain amount of sets. The same applies to other sports. You will only be able to run serious distances if you train enough every week. And to a certain extent, the more you train, the better you get.

Beginning bodybuilders should, on average, do about 10 sets per muscle group per week to grow. This muscle growth makes you stronger and you can train your muscles with more weight and repetitions. At that point, intensity becomes your primary means of progression, while the volume engine continues to simmer at the same pace. For now then.

Sooner or later those 10 sets will no longer be enough to stimulate muscle growth: your body has fully adapted to this workload (adaptation). The result is that your muscles no longer grow, so you no longer become stronger. As a result, you can no longer make progress in weight and/or repetitions, in other words no longer apply an overload. To continue the chain of muscle growth, you need to do more volume. Unless you regularly resensitize your body to volume (see point 5).

Overall, the volume requirement of a natural bodybuilder evolves from approximately 10 sets per muscle group per week to 20 sets for advanced users.

Average bodybuilders usually suffice with 10-20 sets per muscle group per week. Source: Abel Scabai podcast.

Never just add volume. First check all aspects of your recovery management (see point 2) before you start training more. Bodybuilding coach Eric Helms about this:

Changing volume is one of the last things you should do when you’re confronted with a lack of progress. I think assessing recovery, sleep, nutrition, technical form, adequate intensity, and having someone objectively helping you do that should all be done before you decide to pile on more. vii ]

And also:

Every unit of volume is a unit of risk. viii ]


See also the handy flowchart below.

Don’t just add volume. First check whether your recovery is in order. Source: Rippedbody.com.

If you decide to add volume, don’t be too hasty: 3 extra sets per week should in principle be enough to get the engine running again. We mean 3 sets per muscle group on which you plateau. Volume requirements and recovery capacity differ per muscle group, so you will normally not need to add volume for all muscle groups at the same time.

If there is a general plateau, in which all muscle groups no longer grow, there is usually another cause, for example poor general recovery and therefore possibly even overreaching. In that case, go back to point 2 of this article.

Doing more volume means you have to train longer. If you don’t have the time or the will, read our article on how to train faster.

In summary:
Volume is the primary driver of muscle growth. If you stop making progress, you may not be handling enough volume. However, only add volume (sets) if you are sure that you can recover sufficiently.

5. STRATEGIC DECONDITIONING

As you get closer to your genetic potential as a natural bodybuilder, you have to put in more and more work to achieve some muscle growth. The principle of diminished returns applies here: having to do more for less. It is therefore logical that as an advanced gym goer you often end up on plateaus.

If your recovery is in order (see point 1), such a plateau is often a sign that you need to add volume (see point 2-III). But that becomes more and more difficult over time. On the one hand, your agenda should allow you to train even more (and more often). On the other hand, more volume requires more recovery capacity. And there too the shoe can wring. From a certain point, it is possible that the volume you need to grow is greater than the volume you can recover from. In technical terms: your Minimum Effective Volume (MEV) is greater than your MRV (Maximum Recoverable Volume). Or your MEV is just below your MRV, so there is only minimal bandwidth to realize muscle growth. Doing more volume in these cases makes no sense and in the long run is counterproductive.

Varying between intensity and volume is also no longer an option after a while. Because even at a high intensity you will need a certain volume to be able to grow. But because of that high intensity, that relatively low volume will still pass your MRV. No, the life of the advanced natural bodybuilder is not a bed of roses…

You now seem to be stuck: once your body has adapted to a certain stimulus (load), you basically need a larger stimulus (overload) to achieve muscle growth again. The solution may lie in strategic conditioning.

RESENSITIZATION THROUGH DETRAINING

Strategic deconditioning means that you don’t train for a while to let your body wean, as it were. When the stimulus is then administered again, it again causes overload and thus muscle growth.

According to current insights, your body starts to ‘resensitize’ after 9-14 days of non-training, in other words to become more sensitive to training stimuli again. Leaving the weights undisturbed even longer is of course also possible, but then you will gradually start to lose muscle mass. This fact forms the basis of strategic deconditioning: not training long enough to resensitize, but not long enough to lose (a lot of) muscle mass. If you pick up the weights again after roughly twelve days, a load that used to stop doing so will now result in growth again. So you’re actually fooling your muscles.

The principle of strategic deconditioning is derived from Hypertrophy-Specific Training (HST), a muscle-growth training program by coach Bryan Haycock from 2002. The program is still going strong and the strategic deconditioning has now been scientifically substantiated by animal studies ii ] . The principle is not the same as deloading, as a deload is usually too short to resensitize. Conversely, strategic deconditioning can also serve as deload.

CRITICISM

However, not all coaches are convinced of this principle. Menno Henselmans, for example, states that it has never been studied directly in humans and is therefore based only on indirect and anecdotal evidence ix ] . He also thinks that the result does not matter much on balance: you may indeed grow a bit faster after a detraining, but you have also stood still for a while and perhaps lost some muscle mass or strength.

In any case, strategic deconditioning is a ‘trick’ that is especially interesting for advanced bodybuilders. Beginners are already sensitive enough to training stimuli and intermediates can normally continue to make progress by manipulating their training variables, especially volume and intensity.

In summary:
Strategic deconditioning means that you stop training for about twelve days, in order to make your body sensitive to training stimuli that it had already adapted. This way you can re-energise muscle growth without having to increase volume and/or intensity, or even with less volume and/or intensity. This can be a useful strategy for advanced bodybuilders approaching their genetic potential and/or maximum recovery capacity.

6. VARYING IN REP RANGES

You probably train your sets mainly in the range of 6 to 15 repetitions. After all, for practical reasons, that is the most ideal rep range for muscle growth. But if you’ve reached a plateau and your recovery is in order, you can benefit from training some sets outside that rep range, so with 1-6 and 15+. This is because you may address different signaling pathways for muscle growth, optimize different types of muscle growth (myofibrillar and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy), and/or optimally stimulate all types of muscle fibers. In short, you tap into muscle gains that you would miss if you were only training in the same rep range.

Varying in rep range can be done sequentially (in training blocks) or simultaneously (several rep ranges per training or per training week). We prefer simultaneous, because in blocks you may lose adaptations of the reprange that you don’t do. For example, your training program might look like this:

Example of variation in rep ranges in a training program. The blue area is the most ideal rep range for hypertrophy, so 6-15 reps. Source: Stronger by Science.
In summary:
You may be able to achieve ‘extra’ muscle growth by training outside your regular rep range (which is probably 6-15 reps).

IN CONCLUSION

Plateaus are actually mainly feared because they seem like some kind of elusive thing. You have reached a plateau and now you just have to wait patiently when you get off it again. But it’s not like that. Your body doesn’t just stop getting stronger. In this article you have been able to read what the possible causes are and what the logical solutions are.

By the way, if you don’t make progress in a few workouts, that doesn’t mean you’ve reached a plateau. Sometimes the body just needs some time to adapt to a certain growth stimulus. For that reason, we also advise you to make progress in your overload as gradually as possible. A little overload is often enough for a maximum growth stimulus, so why shoot all your gunpowder right away?

Also remember that a plateau can be general or only affect a certain muscle group. In the latter case, it is usually just a matter of adding volume for the muscle group in question. With a general plateau, there is usually a general recovery problem.

OTHER OPTIONS?

The following advice is often given to break through a strength and muscle growth plateau. However, we have not included these in our list, because in our view they are apparent solutions: they do not address the actual cause.

It mainly concerns the following well-intentioned advice:

Doing other exercises
There may be reasons to exchange exercises for others, but a plateau is usually not a valid reason. It is true that you can make progress again with a new exercise, but this is a sham progression, namely only improving a skill based on neurological factors. More on that in this article.

And yes, by switching exercises you can ‘surprise’ your muscles (and that can trigger a growth stimulus), but the surprise also wears off quickly. So it is not a structural solution to the problem. Muscle growth comes from progressive overload, not from variation.

Only select a different exercise if a particular exercise has training steeless occurs. This means that you will no longer make progress with that exercise alone, but with others you will.

Doing exercises in a different order
This too gives no more than a temporary surprise effect. You should change the order if you want to prioritize certain exercises or muscle groups.

Intensity Techniques
Intensity techniques certainly have a place in hypertrophy training, but they are too often seen as a lifeline when the gains are not forthcoming. Beginners and intermediates do not need this type of technique. With them, progression in overload should be fairly straightforward, namely by increasing weight and/or the number of repetitions. When that is no longer sufficient, add volume.

Only when you are advanced and adding volume becomes more and more difficult (because your MEV and MRV creep closer together) you can apply intensity techniques. Think about rest-pause sets or myo reps, drop sets, supersets and eccentric training. It is not yet possible to deduce from the scientific literature whether these techniques actually provide more muscle growth or whether they mainly save time and therefore allow you to train more efficiently.

Supplements
There are a handful of supplements that have been scientifically shown to improve training performance (maximum strength and/or strength endurance). First and foremost that is creatine, in addition you have citrulline malatecaffeine and beta-alanine.

The impact of these strength supplements is limited and so they can help you move forward, but they don’t really break a plateau. So always investigate the cause of a plateau and tackle it. Supplements are at most a very small help in strength sports.

REFERENCES

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