What to do when hitting a plateau

Published: 2018-10-28
(Last updated 2023-09-14)

It happens to us all unless you’re the most amazing genetic freak ever. Gains stop coming and no matter how hard you push you simply can’t lift more than your current max. Perhaps not even that. Now the question is, how do you get past it?

Table of Contents

What you're doing is wrong

First, let’s be clear, when I’m talking about a plateau I don’t mean that you haven’t made a new personal best for a few weeks or a month. If that's the case it simply means you’re past the beginner stage. I’m talking about the situation where none of your major lifts have budged in months or even a year. It doesn’t mean you’ve hit a genetic ceiling, it just means you have to change.

Whatever you’re doing you must stop. It’s that simple. Get this into your head: what you’re doing right now isn’t working. It doesn’t mean the program is crap or useless, it means that right now, at this point in time, it’s not creating the necessary adaptations to your body. It can be because you’ve been doing the same thing for too long (likely) or that you haven’t been doing it long enough (also likely). That’s the time factor. It has been said that fully adapting takes about six weeks, I believe it was the East Germans that first reached that conclusion, and interestingly enough it ties in somewhat to the amount of time it takes to build muscle. As many have noticed by experience, most gains comes in the first three weeks after which it diminishes. In other words, if you’ve been doing the same thing for one and a half week you might want to stay at it a bit longer. If you on the other hand have been doing the same thing for months you should change things up.

The second factor to consider is the amount of work you’re doing. Examine your journal (if you don’t have one you really should start one!) to see if you're actually doing enough. Or perhaps you’re doing too much? That can also be the cause of your plateauing. Or perhaps you’re doing too little and too much. An example of that would be to go in and take a max attempt in a lift every day and then finish up. You’re not getting enough volume but likely too much intensity - too little and too much. While this might make you peak short-term, come back to me in a few months and tell me you’re still progressing. Spoiler alert: you likely won’t.

Suggestions to get you moving again

But how do you get past your plateau? Here are some ideas. Which one is for you is up to you to find out.

Keep it simple, stupid

Get back to basics. Have you been using every little trick in the book recently? Stop it. Get rid of the fluff, go hit your big lifts, hit the showers, hit the food, hit the bed. All that extra stuff, while at times useful and within certain systems crucial, might at some points hold you back.

Go back to basics part 2. Mikhail Koklyaev, the beast that can do just about anything, has an interesting take worth trying.

The best method to change your plan is to cut intensity to around 60-70% and work on volume – reps and sets. Forget about PRs, forget about shit like “I deadlifted 300kg today, and i am going to deadlift 350kg in half a year following this plan”, forget it.

Just cut your weights, stop going for 1RM once or twice a month. If you have a plateau, then you can say that you’re in the pit. […]

Soon it will be time when your body will tell you when you’re ready for PRs. You will walk across the gym and see a 320 kg barbell on the floor (and your previous PR was 300kg), and you will know intuitively that you can lift it, when you’re ready.

Change your reps. On the same line as Koklyaev above, if you’ve been living on singles, do triples or fives or vice versa. Paul ”the wonder of nature” Anderson said 3×10 in squats helped him through many hard times, and that’s just about as basic as it gets but sometimes that’s what it takes.

Go rest. Some people benefit from a week off. Go enjoy the sun, go hiking, relax, vacation, whatever.

Messing with the micro cycle

Change the frequency. We can’t assume that you’re actually overtraining, regardless if it’s the buzzword du jour or not. I remember a powerlifter telling me his bench had been stuck for a long time. He’s a good lifter, National level. I asked ”how often do you train it” with his response being ”twice a week”. Here’s how my brain works, I asked him ”why don’t you train it three times per week?” Now, you need to be careful with things like this because, as stated above, more isn’t always better. But you know what? Right now it might be.

Change the frequency part 2. There are many ways to change the frequency, you might have to do something less, you might have to do it more. You might even have to do more workouts in a week… Or less. Doing four right now? Add one or two more. Doing six now? Try four or five.

Change your split. Tying in with the above, you might want to consider a different split altogether if you use one. Instead of doing squat and bench press day one and deadlift day two, perhaps you want to go with a more upper/lower focused one such as squat and deadlift day one and bench press day two.

To train or to practice

Train same but different. You’ve burned out on deadlifts, try focusing all your deadlift efforts on deficit deadlifts instead. Half of your snatch workouts are power snatches and the other is full snatches, try doing snatches from blocks and floating snatches instead. Prof. Zatsiorsky has suggested the example of varying the method of training every four weeks and the exercises themselves every eight weeks, not a bad idea if it fits within your current system. Like Charles Poliquin told me regarding the biggest mistake weightlifters make in his opinion: not having a large enough toolbox.

Spend some time attacking your weaknesses. Take a few weeks or months and get brutal attacking your weaknesses. It could be a lagging muscle group (how well are those hamstrings really working?) or a movement pattern. Identify and annihilate.

Practice the skill. Proper skill practice it not only for learning a lift. On the contrary, learning the lift is a skill very different from the skill of lifting maximal weights in the same lift. It might be just what the doctor ordered for breaking your plateau. Go heavy, >85% of 1RM, go low rep and high set, 4-8x1-3, and go home without failing a lift. Or as the aforementioned Prof. Zatsiorsky stated: lift as heavy as possible, as often as possible, while staying as fresh as possible.

In conclusion

These are just some suggestions and which one is best for you is up to you to figure out. It will be dependent on why you have stalled, the system of training you use and your personality. Just remember two things:

  • You haven’t hit your genetic ceiling because as they say in Bulgaria ”adaptation never stops”.
  • Whatever you’re doing now isn’t working – you must change!

Good luck.

Get help

Workshops. I do in-person workshops and seminars where I help people with proper technique and training.

Online training. I take on a small amount of online training clients. Getting people "unstuck" and over plateaus, regardless of goal or sport, is one of my specialties for over ten years.

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