Our bodies push for a state of homeostasis. It doesn’t want to change, you have to force it. And what worked to get you to your current level of fitness, won’t cut it anymore once your body adapts and reaches a plateau. You must push your body to the brink of its capabilities if you want to force it to change.
Sometimes we stall out because we keep the same training variables for too long. Other times it may be a mental issue keeping you from reaching the levels of intensity needed to break through plateaus. Or you may even be overtraining and breaking down your body instead of building it. If you are currently stuck with your progress, try some of these suggestions to get off that plateau and continue the trek towards your ideal physique.
Routines are not meant to be static. They must be adapted to fit your body’s increasing capabilities. What worked in the beginning will quickly give you diminishing returns because your body’s workload capacity has increased. It must be challenged more. Simply adding weight and sets is not enough, sometimes a routine overhaul is necessary. An example of this is the novice weightlifter.
If you are just beginning, your body responds most favorably to a 3x a week routine where the full body is worked out each session with 3-5 sets. This is great because it doesn’t take a large amount of volume to facilitate increases in strength and size when your muscles aren’t used to lifting weights. At a certain point, though, your body requires more volume to stimulate hypertrophy. Now most people don’t have the time or recovery ability to do a 3-hour full body workout so simply increasing the amount of sets won’t cut it, you’ll have to change up your routine. Instead of doing a full body workout you would need to start pulling apart muscle groups so you can achieve 6-10 sets of volume per body part each session. So instead of doing a full body program 3x a week you may need to switch to an upper/lower program 4x a week to achieve enough volume and have enough recovery time.
Increasing volume isn’t the only way to change up your routine to help break through a plateau. Changing training variables in anyway after you have been doing it 12+weeks becomes beneficial and stimulates new muscle growth. If you have been doing a bodybuilding style routine with high volume, think about going heavier and lower volume for a while. You could do a calisthenic workout program for 4-8 weeks to strengthen neural connections and connective tissue. Even just switching up the body parts you are working out together will bring about favorable changes. If you want your body to continue evolving and adapting you can’t let it get comfortable in the same stale routine, you have to change your routine.
When you’re at the gym, it’s not enough to simply go through the motions while your mind is elsewhere. This may work in the beginning but once you become an intermediate to advanced lifter you have to maintain a certain level of focus and intensity during the entire workout to facilitate a strong “mind-muscle connection.” There are a few ways to achieve this and keep the intensity up the entire workout.
One way is to use the right supplement before a workout. Pre workout supplements contain ingredients increasing the aggression and focus you approach your session with. If the main goal is burning fat, then try Sheer Thermo. It contains a mixture of ingredients like 5-HTP, caffeine, and yohimbine that increase energy and give you laser focus. If your main goal is strength and to achieve a skin-splitting pump, then Sheer NO2 is the route to go. This increases the intensity of your workout and produces more nitric oxide resulting in more energy and explosiveness. These pre-workout supplements help get you “in the zone” and approach your workout with the right mindset.
Another way to kick up the intensity of your workout a notch is to incorporate some advanced intensity techniques to “shock” your body and force change. When you plateau, your body feels no need to change. You must push your body to the brink of its current capabilities otherwise it has no reason to continue adapting. Give these techniques to push your body out of its comfort zone:
Linear Variable Resistance Training
LVRT proven in multiple studies to result in more power and explosiveness than using free weights alone. It is done using either bands or chains on an exercise, so the weight becomes heavier as you increase the range of motion. A common example is the bench press. Adding chains or bands makes you generate more force and recruit more muscle fibers to achieve lockout. As you press upward the resistance increases so this often helps break past the “sticking point” before lockout where lifters often get stuck.
This technique is best done with a partner although certain exercises can be done on your own. Using any exercise pick a weight slightly heavier than your current max. Although you can’t do the concentric portion, we are typically about 60% stronger on the eccentric portion of a lift than the concentric. Your partner needs to apply a large amount of force to help you on the concentric, but you will control the eccentric down on your own. Once you fail to maintain a controlled eccentric, have your partner help you force out one or two more reps by providing a little help on the eccentric and then a lot on the concentric.
Post Exhaustion Superset
If you have plateaued in one particular muscle, then try a post-exhaustion superset. First perform a compound free weight exercise for 6-10 reps then immediately perform an isolation exercise for the targeted muscle group for 8-12 reps. An example of this would be a dumbbell chest press followed immediately by chest flyes. For legs, you could do some squats and then either leg extensions or hamstring curls depending on which is the weaker area that you need to target.
It’s not always about pushing yourself harder and trying to achieve the most intense workout ever, sometimes it’s necessary to take a step back to move forward. When you are overtrained or dealing with excessive stress cortisol levels will rise. This leads to more storage of fat and higher blood sugar. When cortisol becomes chronically elevated the body begins producing glucose through the process of gluconeogenesis breaking down muscle tissue and converting the aminos to glucose. One way to combat the breakdown of muscle through gluconeogenesis is to supplement with aminos so your body doesn’t resort to breaking down lean muscle. Sheer Recovery and Sheer BCAA both aid in preventing catabolism.
If you feel like you may be dealing with excessive cortisol levels, then lower the amount of time spent in the gym and consider taking 1-2 weeks off. It takes three weeks before your body really begins to lose noticeable strength or muscle so don’t think you will suddenly lose all the gains you worked so hard for.
If you are at a plateau ask yourself these questions to see if it may be caused by excess stress:
If so try to take some time away for yourself and do some walking outdoors or try some meditation. These can engage your parasympathetic nervous system halting the production of more cortisol. Try not to worry about things you can’t control and don’t let the small things in life get to you. Slow controlled breathing can also help when the feeling of stress approaches.
High cortisol levels keep you from getting into deep sleep when growth hormone production is the highest. To achieve the best quality sleep try to “shutdown” an hour before bed. Turn off all LED and bright lights. Instead of watching the TV or looking at your phone catch up on some reading or journaling.
Excessive and prolonged intake of caffeine will lead to elevated cortisol levels. If you haven’t taken a break in some time, try a few days of lower intake. Instead of coffee consider using tea.
Elevated cortisol can cause gastrointestinal issues that compromise digestion and absorption of nutrients. If you notice you are having stomach problems, your best bet is to follow a low inflammation diet and use some probiotics such as kefir. Avoid alcohol, transfats, processed foods such as white flour, and refined sugars. Try to eat organic as much as possible and favor grass fed and wild caught food over factory farmed.
It can be frustrating when progress stops, especially when you are working hard in the gym and eating right. A plateau can cause us to fall completely off the wagon and let bad habits and nutrition make it even more difficult to get back on track. Don’t fall into that trap, with the right mindset, intensity, and rest you can break through any plateaus, in the gym and all other areas of your life.
Jonathan Warren is a national level physique competitor and personal trainer with multiple certifications including NASM, NCCPT, and IKFF. His specializations include mobility training and corrective exercise as well as contest preparation.
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