Breaking plateaus

Breaking plateaus

I explained the basic fundamentals of how to create your own training program in my last post, and I thought a good follow-up post would be based on how to cycle programs to avoid reaching plateaus.

(As an aside, I didn’t mention that my last post was targeted towards people who have already been lifting for some time – which I assume is the majority of my readers – and not beginners. I wanted to provide some higher level information that could be applied to existing knowledge, but if there are any beginners out there who would like a more basic explanation of creating a program please let me know!)

Firstly, once you create your program stick with it for a while. Don’t chop and change your workout every time or you’ll never give your body time to adapt to the challenges you’re giving it and see progress. Many people become fixated on creating the ‘perfect’ program that they waste too much time and energy designing workouts instead of actually training. By all means, if a certain exercise isn’t working in the way you want it to, replace it with another but don’t go overboard. Your program should be designed with your goals in mind, but give it time to do its job.

Periodisation is the cycling of various programs over time. For anyone that lifts weights, this idea is extremely important. If you do the same exercises over and over again without ever changing, your progress will flatline – and maybe even go backwards. As I said previously, there is no specific program that will achieve all your goals at once – you need to cycle your programs to focus on different objectives at certain times.

You obtain maximum benefits from a program after 8 to 10 weeks; however, you want to alter your program before you reach this plateau stage. That is because the results which are achieved in the time between the sixth and tenth week of training are minimal in comparison to what is achieved in the first six. Around the time you reach the tenth week, your body has become so accustomed to what is being asked of it that it has no reason to change. Therefore programs should be changed every six to eight weeks.

It’s common to immediately think that changing your program requires a complete overhaul of all the exercises. That’s not the case! The exercises themselves are just one variable that can be modified to break a plateau, and you will see changes even if you simply re-order those same exercises. Other variables include:

  • The number of repetitions (if you have been doing high reps, increase the resistance and decrease the reps, and vice versa)
  • The number of sets (should be directly proportional to your reps i.e. if you increase your reps, decrease your sets)
  • The tempo (speed) of your lifting (i.e. instead of doing a  2 seconds up [concentric phase]/2 seconds down [eccentric phase] lift, try 1 second up/3 seconds down)
  • The length of the rest period (you generally want to reduce it if you’re trying to break a plateau)
  • The training systems used beyond single sets, such as supersets, giant sets and pyramiding
  • Changing from a bilateral to unilateral movement (i.e. from two arms to single arm isolation)
  • The range of motion (increasing your lever length increases intensity)
  • The total length of your workout (gradually add a set or two, but don’t train for longer than an hour)

If you have been training for several months without a break, you could also try a deload phase. Obviously, the weight you’re lifting is obviously a huge factor in the results you see. The more advanced of a lifter you are, the harder it is to constantly increase your weights, but I try to increase the load I’m lifting every two to three weeks for most exercises. Waiting to increase your weights after six to eight weeks of training is simply a waste of time, in my opinion.

Have you ever reached a plateau? How did you break through it?

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