How To Break Through Weight Training Plateaus
Updated: Apr 5
You have been training at the gym regularly and managed to lift heavier weights consistently over the last few months. Suddenly you reach a point where you are not able to lift any heavier and you feel stuck in your training routine. This is referred as fitness plateau and it is very common among gym goers. So how do you break through the plateau and keep making progress?
First of all, it is important to understand what factors can be modified in order to give a stimulus to your muscles to grow.
Resistance training variables help us to structure our training programs.
The most important ones in regards to improving hypertrophy are: load, volume, frequency, end set point and exercise selection.
Loading refers to the magnitude of resistance employed during training.
It can be expressed as a specific target repetition goal (e.g. 10 repetition maximum). Athletes can achieve comparable muscle hypertrophy across a wide spectrum of loading zones. There may be a practical benefit to prioritizing the use of moderate loads in hypertrophy oriented training, given that it is more time-efficient than lighter loads and less taxing on the joints and neuromuscular system than very heavy loads.
Volume is the amount of work performed in a resistance training session. Volume can be expressed as the number of sets performed for a given exercise. A dose of approximately 10 sets per muscle group per week would seem to be a general minimum prescription to optimize hypertrophy.
Frequency refers to the number of resistance training sessions performed over a given period of time. From a hypertrophy standpoint, frequency is most commonly expressed as the number of times a muscle group is trained on a weekly basis. Significant hypertrophy can be achieved when training a muscle group once per week in lower to moderate volume protocols (<10 sets). However, it may be advantageous to spread out volume over more frequent sessions when performing higher volume programs (>10 sets).
Set end point can be defined as the proximity to momentary failure when performing an exercise. Novice lifters can achieve robust gains in muscle mass without training at a close proximity to failure. As an individual gains training experience, the need to increase intensity of effort appears to become increasingly important.
Exercise selection refers to the inclusion of specific exercises in a resistance training program. Resistance training programs should include a variety of exercises that work muscles in different planes and angles of pull to ensure complete stimulation of the musculature. Free-weight exercises with complex movement patterns should be performed regularly to reinforce motor skills (squat, deadlift, bench press etc.)
Let's have a look at a practical example of how you can implement these variables in a workout plan. A trainee has been doing bench press 3 sets of 10 repetitions once a week with 80kg for a few weeks and he is not able to do the same amount of reps and sets with a higher load.
A few options to keep progressing could be:
1) increase the weight and aim for 6-8 repetitions.
2) Maintain the same load and do 4 sets.
3) Keep the same volume and load and increase the frequency to 2 x week.
To sum it up, progress at the gym can be achieved in multiple ways and not only by increasing the weight you lift. Volume, intensity and frequency play important roles in driving muscle growth and should not be neglected when creating a training program.
Reference: Brad J. Schoenfeld et al. (2021). Resistance Training Recommendations to Maximise Muscle Hypertrophy in an Athletic Population: Position Stand of the IUSCA, International Journal of Strength and Conditioning.