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?
You can only know if you’ve reached a training plateau if you keep track of your training results. If there is indeed a plateau, make a careful diagnosis of the underlying cause before taking action.
The first step is to determine how regional the plateau is. Based on that, you can determine what exactly isn’t working in your program.
A plateau can occur in three situations:
- an overall lack of progression;
- a lack of progression in a particular muscle group;
- a lack of progression in a particular exercise.
By progression we mean that you make progress in the number of repetitions and/or the training weight, also known as progressive overload.
Let’s take a closer look at these situations.
1. AN OVERALL LACK OF PROGRESSION
Has your muscle growth stagnated across the board and are you not making progress in any muscle group? Then check the following.
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 faster injuries. Loss of strength, especially grip strenght, is usually an indication of recovery problems.
Then check whether your training program is still adequate. Because maybe the problem lies in your way of training and that is at the expense of your overall result. A plateau usually occurs because you train too little or too much.
As a beginner you can make progress with relatively little training volume: around 10 sets per muscle group per week is sufficient. However, over time, after six months to a year, that volume is no longer sufficient. You have reached a plateau and you need greater training stimuli to be able to achieve muscle growth again. You do this by doing slightly more sets per muscle group, for example 12 to 15 sets per week.
You may also need to train more intensively, that is, the degree to which you train to muscle failure. As a beginner you can leave quite a few reps ‘in the tank’, as much as 5 Reps In Reserve, RIR. As you get more advanced, 1-3 RIR is the norm. As an advanced person you also train some sets until muscle failure (0 RIR).
It can also be the other way around: that you train a lot and/or too hard. That is something that often happens to advanced users in their quest for gains .
You may be doing too many sets in general (your training volume is too high), and/or training too intensively (training too much until complete muscle failure) and/or training too often (training frequency). Too much training actually has the opposite effect: it comes at the expense of your recovery capacity and it eventually leads to overreaching, a preliminary stage of overtraining.
In this situation, a deload can be useful: do not train for a week and then start a new training cycle with significantly less volume and/or intensity. Aim for 15-20 sets per muscle group per week, trained with 1-3 RIR.
Optionally, you can also introduce new exercises into your training program, but be careful with this: your body needs time to master a new exercise. If you change exercises often, you create nothing but fake progression.
2. LACK OF PROGRESSION IN A PARTICULAR MUSCLE GROUP
Does your progress only get stuck with a specific muscle group, with multiple exercises for that muscle group? For example with both bench press and chest flyes for chest? Then it’s time to change your training variables for this muscle group.
The most effective change is usually the training volume, or the number of sets per muscle group. This applies:
- Do no more than 10 sets per muscle group per workout. More productive volume does not come in a day, at least not for naturals. Anything over say 10 sets is junk volume.
- For beginners, 10 sets per muscle group per week is usually sufficient. As you get more advanced, you’ll need to do more sets, sometimes as many as 15 to 20 a week.
- If you do more than 10 sets per muscle group per week, you should divide those sets over at least two training days.
Again, don’t reach for the volume knob too quickly: you need to make sure your recovery is in order – see this flowchart.
Another ‘knob’ is that of the training intensity. Do you train every set to the hole (until muscle failure)? Then your recovery capacity will be put to the test: you can only do a limited number of sets. In other words: your Maximum Recovarable Volume (MRV) is a lot lower. There is a good chance that you will have recovery problems. For bodybuilding purposes, 1-3 RIR is the starting point.
Only beginners can afford about 5 RIR. If you have trained successfully with 5 RIR or more for a longer period of time, then perhaps the time has come to increase the intensity to 1-3 RIR
If you are advanced and adding volume becomes more and more difficult, you may want to apply intensity techniques. Think of rest-pause sets or myo reps, drop sets, supersets and eccentric training. It is not yet clear 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.
3. A LACK OF PROGRESSION IN A PARTICULAR EXERCISE
If your progression stalls on only one exercise, you may have training staleness. In that case, the exercise in its current form and with the current parameters no longer offers growth incentives, even if you still have sufficient growth potential.
You can also increase the volume with training steeless and possibly also the training frequency. For example, if you do 6 sets over 2 training days, increase this to 9 sets over 3 training days. This way you not only increase the quantity but also the quality of the volume.
As a bodybuilder, like a powerlifter, you also want to be as strong as possible in a specific exercise. For example, you want to bench press or squat as hard as possible. By adding auxiliary exercises, you become stronger in certain parts of the exercise and therefore also in total. See also our powerlifting section.
Remember that for bodybuilding it is not strength, but muscle growth that is the most important. Doing three sets with one heavy rep each is what powerlifters and powerbuilders do, while bodybuilders should be on the spectrum from 5 to 15 reps.
Sometimes it can be useful to temporarily replace part or all of a certain exercise with another, similar exercise. For example, machine press for bench press, leg press for barbell squat. However, do not vary exercise too quickly, as we explain in this article.
It is quite normal to end up on a plateau over time. Then don’t make a new training schedule like crazy, but try to find out what the weak links are in your current program.
Adjusting the training volume can often be the solution, but you must first make sure that your recovery is in order.
Article originally published October 20, 2021, revised August 17, 2022.