3 Ways To Overcome a Strength Plateau

Coach enough individuals and you’ll often hear something along the lines of “the gains don’t come as easy as they used to”, coming from someone who only has a handful of training years under their belt.

While it’s believable that someone may be experiencing tough plateaus, or significantly diminished rates of progress when they are pushing up to, or past, a decade of training experience. Intermediate lifters usually aren’t facing this problem. What’s more likely is something is just slightly off with their training that needs to be addressed, and they’ll be back to seeing their regularly scheduled gains like nothing even happened.

While I can’t encapsulate every single reason your training may be off in one article, here’s 3 reasons you may currently be “plateaued” and how you can fix them.

1. You Don’t Train Enough

At some point in your training career, programming that was helping you along your way is going to stop working. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Strength training is a constant game of demanding your body to deal with more and more stress over the long term all so it can adapt and get stronger. Your very first program was not bound to work forever.

An extremely common issue with a lot of the beginner programs that individuals start out on is that the overall training frequency and volume is generally speaking quite low. Time to step things up. This doesn’t mean you go full send mode and start training every single lift, every single day. Simply that you’ll want to begin to increase your overall training volume. That means more sets, and more reps being completed over the course of the week.

The general rule of thumb here is you want “just enough” training volume that you are seeing progress. That means, if you are seeing progress with your current training volume, there’s no real need to increase it. Only when progress begins to slow, or stop completely do you need to consider adding additional volume.

Increasing training volume can be done in two ways. Either increase the number of sets you do for a certain exercise in a given day, or increase the number of days you train that lift per week. Increasing the number of sets you do in a single training day works up to the point. If you were traditionally training squats 1 time a week, doing 3 sets on that day, moving up to 4 or 5 sets in that given day is going to improve your progress. That being said there’s only so many “quality sets” you will be able to complete in one workout. This is when you should add an additional training day instead. Now instead of trying to squat, say 8 sets, all in one day, you could have two squat sessions for the week, doing 4 sets of squats each of those days.

Moving forwards with this idea, you will titrate volume up in your training as you progress. If squatting 2 days a week is no longer producing results, you may consider squatting 3 days a week, and so on, always shooting for “just enough” volume. Don’t be afraid to add this additional volume into your program. It’s not uncommon to see high level lifters training certain lifts 4-5 times a week. At a certain point, it does take a significantly high amount of training volume to produce the results you want to see.

2. Your Recovery Game is Trash 

When I say “recovery” I’m not talking about more time spent with foam rollers, PVC pipes, and bands. I’m not talking fit teas, or oils and creams to put on your muscles. I’m talking actual recovery. Everyone is always looking for ways they can “improve their recovery” but very few are willing to put in the work/ dedication to the basic areas which will actually help your body recover.

Aside from the extremely small population of individuals with the genetics to be fully rested on 4-5 hours of sleep. You need to sleep. While highly individual, 7 hours is the general recommendation you’ll see for how much rest you should be getting. Committing to getting a full nights sleep is the most realistic answer to improving your bodies ability to recover from exercise, yet how many of you reading this now can attest that you are getting at least 7 hours of quality sleep every night?

In terms of diet, protein intake will be important for your muscles ability to recover from training and for info on how much protein you should be eating check out this video by Dr. Eric Helms. As for the rest of your diet, the current dietary guidelines for American’s suggests eating a variety of nutrient dense foods within your calorie limits, limiting calories from added sugars and saturated fats, limiting sodium intake, and following a healthy eating pattern across a lifetime. This is about the most hard and fast nutrition info you will get. Nutrition is too individualized to suggest much more. From a recovery standpoint you want to think about your diet on two levels. Is this assisting my performance in the gym, and is this assisting my muscles recovering from that work put in at the gym?

Additionally, things like chronically increased stress levels and substance abuse such as alcohol abuse can directly impact the bodies ability to recover. These issues take time to work out, and are usually always a work in progress. However, the amount your training and quality of life can improve from addressing them is drastic.

Real “recovery” is more than looking up a quick 15 minute foam rolling routine. On a fundamental level, it’s all basic daily tasks, they just require consistency and dedication to accomplish. Stop looking into all the voodoo magic “quick fixes” for your recovery, and put some real work into those basic areas which are genuinely going to help your body recover from the hard work you are putting in at the gym.

3. It’s Time to Gain Some Weight

Probably not too often that you hear a trainer actively encouraging you to gain weight…

A lot of the time an individual’s stalled progress can simply be due to the fact that they are holding onto an arbitrary weight on the scale that they “have to weigh”, and a small caloric surplus can be all they need to push their progress in the right direction.

I’m not saying you need to plan on being sloppy, bulk up 20-30lbs, all to put on a solid 5lbs to your bench press. More so, don’t be afraid to gain a few pounds. Strength performance benefits from weight gain. For one, if you are in a caloric surplus you are guaranteeing your body always has the “supplies” it needs to properly recover from, and perform during bouts of training. Likewise, bigger muscles have the potential to be stronger than smaller muscles. In general the more weight you can put on, the easier your life with strength training is going to be.

As I said this does not have to be any drastic change to your diet. A small 200-300 calorie surplus each day is enough to initiate weight gain of about a half pound per week. If you are regularly strength training the majority of that weight you are gaining is going to be muscle too. Individuals will have reservations about gaining weight due to concerns of increased bodyfat levels. Yes, gaining weight regardless of how slow you do it, you are going to put on some extra fat. So long as you have been doing this gradually it’s not going to be a problem, and will be something you can easily lose in the future. All the while you’ll be increasing your performance in the gym. Trying to play the gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time game your whole life is a surefire way to ensure frustratingly slow progress, if any at all.

This isn’t to downplay the fact that you certainly can gain strength while remaining your current bodyweight. Additionally, someone who is already at a dangerously high bodyweight shouldn’t start gaining more weight all in the name of strength. Physical health will always be more important than arbitrary strength numbers. However, if you are currently sitting at a healthy bodyweight or even underweight, or you are just downright frustrated with your numbers not going anywhere, it may be time to experiment with a period of weight gain on top of proper programming.

Matt Molloy

Matt Molloy

I'm a graduate the University of Pittsburgh with a major in Exercise Science. I’m a local guy (North Penn) and athletics has dominated my life. I've led teams in basketball, baseball, soccer, golf and my passion, long distance running. I've been strength training for 6 years with a focus in power-lifting but have recently stretched to strongman since joining the pride here at the Den. When I’m not in the gym I enjoy, spending time with my friends, music, and relaxing and playing some video games.