7 Ways to Smash Through Your Plateau

Implement ‘Progressive Overload’ Technique

With any form of training, this technique can be implemented. In its simplest terms, it means that you’re sequentially increasing the volume of your training – whether that’s increasing number of reps, sets &/or weight-load – in order to keep the exercise challenging. In theory if you are comfortably squatting 15 reps x 3 sets of 20kg, you could make it harder by either:

  • Increasing reps to 20

  • Increase sets to 4

  • Or by increasing the weight by some challenging percentage.

Remember that the body is outrageously smart and adapts to any stresses placed upon it. When those stresses are balanced, the body itself will remain in balance. Soft tissues (muscles, tendons and ligaments) will adapt to gravity, momentum and ground reaction forces by sensing and reacting to body position. Soft tissues are placed under both static and dynamic stress in everyday activities and thrive under that stress by improving and adapting accordingly. However, if you’re looking to get stronger, faster, leaner – whatever it may be – you need to keep your body guessing. Once your muscle memory has become accustomed to 3 sets of 15 reps at 20kg, you simply have to change it up or you’re only to blame for indulging your plateau!

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Step up the frequency

This could be for your overall training program – so for instance training 4 times a week instead of 3. Or the frequency in which you train a certain muscle/muscle group (remember recovery is key!). It may be that to observe real, demonstrable progress with a muscle group such as shoulders / upper back, you’ll need to train more frequently than once a week, provided there’s the requisite rest period in between. This ‘targetted’ frequency consideration will help you advance specific muscle group goals.

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Make it more complex

In this instance, complexity refers to the degree of biomechanical difficulty provided by the exercise. The performance of more complex exercises in training can increase training intensity. Doing the same exercises week after week, month after month isn’t going to break a plateau, but rather reinforce it. Going back to my earlier point that the body adapts accordingly, and that after a time you need to ‘fire up’ the body by doing something different, this complexity point is critical. It’s also going to prevent boredom and who doesn’t love a challenge?

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Pick up the tempo

Tempo training – increasing the ‘time under tension’ to which you subject your muscles (i.e. for how long is the muscle contracting) is also a way to implement a form of progression without having to necessarily add more weight. The muscle is working harder for a longer period of time.

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How’s my form?

Form & Technique – possibly the most important point I can make in this post. If you’re not performing the exercise correctly, you’re not targeting the right muscles and it may be your doing more harm than good. There’s a chance you’re compensating for your poor form by engaging the wrong muscles in the wrong plane; so, before you start loading your squat with too many plates (machismo alert!) ensure you’re doing the exercises correctly, so you don’t end up damaging your back instead. Once you sustain a back injury from squat, there’s a decent chance that will haunt you for a long time to come. My preference is always to go slightly lighter, but to ensure my form is right. Use the mirrors to help you gauge body planes and angles, and don’t be afraid to ask a PT at the gym to help show you an exercise if you’re not sure.

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That’s intense, man

Increasing intensity really comes down to honesty with oneself. You’ve got to ask yourself ‘how much effort did I really put in to that session?’ If you think out of ten… was it a 5 or a 7? For how much time are you ‘resting’ between sets, whilst chatting to your mates or looking at Instagram… You don’t necessarily have to give it a 10 every single time and be a quivering exhausted wreck plastered to the gym floor, but if you’re leaving every time and haven’t really broken a sweat then maybe it’s worth stepping the intensity up a notch. I have had a lot of female clients throughout the years coming to me with huge goals and aspirations to be followed by the comment ‘by the way I really don’t like and want to sweat’. Some people naturally don’t sweat very much but the likelihood is that if you don’t train hard enough, you won’t see the results you want. Intensity is key, and only you’ll really know how hard you’re pushing it.

Don’t overtrain

This is something many people overlook; overtraining is often caused by repetitive overuse or overstretching. Muscles and tendons have an elastic limit at a point whereby an elastic structure cannot stretch any further and is likely to rupture. It’s the combination of training the muscle incorrectly in the sense that it’s pushing it too farw hereby the body cannot adapt to the stresses or demands placed upon it and is not receiving enough rest and recovery in between training sessions. When you train hard, fitness levels will naturally increase but fatigue will also increase, which can reduce your preparedness for the next session. My view is that you want to step into the gym (or to approach whichever form of training you’re about to do) full of energy, not feeling mentally and physically depleted. For me, a minimum of 7 hours sleep, enough recovery between each training session and the occasional sports massage does the trick nicely. There should be no guilt about taking a break when it would be detrimental not to do so.

That’s not by any means an exhaustive list, and there are of course countless considerations such as nutrition, supplementation, sequencing of training load (etc…) but I thought we’d start there! Hope that’s given you something to bite into for now. Best of luck for 2020!