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Break Through Strength Training Plateaus

How to break the boredom and get unstuck

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Updated January 30, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Strength training programs require constant adjustment throughout the year or you risk hitting plateaus. If you are new to strength training, such a plateau usually arrives after about six months of training. During the first months of training you will likely make some dramatic strength gains. Soon, however, these gains begin to level off. To continue making gains, you will need to vary your training techniques and understand basic conditioning principles. You can use the following techniques to break out of your plateau.

Increase Training Intensity
One of the easiest ways to break out of your plateau is by making your muscles work harder, rather than longer. At this point in your training you should try "high weight - low reps" rather than "low weight - high reps". If you had been lifting 3 sets of 10-12 reps, drop down to 1 set of 6-8 reps. Always warm up for 5 - 10 minutes before lifting and lift in a slow and controlled motion to get the most out of each lift. Bouncing the weight and using momentum in your back and legs does little to build strength in the target muscle.
Also see:
High intensity training burns more calories
Interval training boosts performance

Vary Your Exercises
Varying your equipment or exercise (crosstraining)will work your muscles in a new way and help you develop new skills. If you always use machines, try free weights or a medicine ball for a change. If you use the bench press for chest, start doing pushups instead. This new form of training forces you to use the muscles in a slightly different way and allow stale muscles a chance to rest. It keeps your program interesting and stimulates a different pattern of motor unit recruitment.

Change the Order
Another way to break out of a plateau is to change the sequence of exercises you normally do. When muscles get fatigued in a different order they will adapt in a different way, allowing a variation in muscle strength gains.

Remove Some Exercises and Add Others
There may be some exercises in your routine that you have outgrown. Look at your routine critically for unnecessary or redundant exercises. You might consider scheduling a session or two with a personal trainer who can provide you with recommendations for adding or removing exercises you have in your routine.
Also see: Five Strength Exercises You Must Do

Get Adequate Rest
If you train too hard for too long, you will undoubtedly hit a plateau. It is also likely that you will develop an injury. Adequate rest and recovery is an essential element in continuing to make progress in your training program. Most world class athletes train in a 'rest - recover' fashion. There may even be times during the year that you should reduce your strength training altogether.
Also see:
Active Recovery
Overtraining - When Less is More.

Eat Wisely
Proper nutrition will help your muscles rebuild as well as fuel your workouts. Don't be taken in by the high protein hype. Protein intake of greater than 2 gr/kg of body weight per day does nothing to increase muscle growth. Carbohydrates are the primary fuel for intense muscular effort, and should not be reduced or avoided in the name of performance. (see: High Protein Diets and Protein and Muscle Building for more about nutrition for strength training).

Finally, If you plateau before you reach your strength goals you have to vary your program. Consider reading How to Achieve a Personal Best. These strategies can also help you break out of a slump and remind you of the key factors in developing a successful training program. By following such principles, you'll find it easy to overcome most training plateaus
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