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Breaking through Plateaus

There is no real way of explaining it other than by saying “I was stuck." I had been working out for around a year with great results. I had dropped body fat, put on muscle, and become stronger on every lift I was performing, but I hit a wall. It wasn’t as dramatic as it sounds, but as I kept working out I noticed fewer results. The weight I was able to lift was no longer increasing and the amount of muscles on my frame was a good indication of this as the reflection in the mirror had become stagnate as well. I was going crazy. Why was this happening? I had not deviated from my workout regimen, no cheating on my diet, and my cardio and activity level had not changed.

This was mentally confusing and it started to negatively affect my drive and motivation in and out of the gym. I had slipped into the “zone” of mediocrity. I was just about to give up and just accept it when I decided to seek the opinion of a long-time gym rat at my local gym. I laid out how I had not changed anything and I was no longer getting any results. He stopped me in mid sentence and his next words, of over 10 years ago, still drive me today. He said, “That is your problem, stupid, you have to change things.”

Turns out he was right. Since then I have been changing it up regularly and have never hit another plateau that I couldn’t break through.

My realization was that changing the training was the catalyst for breaking through stubborn plateaus -- whether they were with weight I was lifting or the muscle I was seeing in the mirror. Ever since the long time lifter humbled me with those simple words, I have been experimenting with rut-busting techniques and subtle changes to push me past plateaus and on to heavier weight and bigger muscles. Although many different techniques and changes exist, to make sure you can track the effectiveness of each, don’t employee more than one change at a time. Changes should be given a 3-week minimum to take effect before you move on. Patience is a virtue, so don’t veer from the course.

Move Explosively

When weights are moved/lifted at a slow controlled pace, your body only uses the minimum amount of muscle fibers necessary to move the weight. Furthermore, weight lifted slowly for repetitions causes the fibers that are used to alternate as your body always keeps some fibers fresh. Endlessly you are lifting close to your maximal effort; this will limit the number of muscle fibers that are affected by the lift.

The change: Lift weights faster. This will cause your body to recruit a huge number of muscles fibers and force you fibers to work in overload and not give them time to recover during the set. This will challenge you in a different way, but realize if you are lifting faster you must lift lighter. Don’t worry, your body will not forget how to lift heavy.

Illustration: In large muscle exercises like bench press, barbell rows, and squats, a weight that is 50 percent of your max should be used. Do five- to- seven sets of six- to- eight repetitions and only rest 45-60 seconds between sets.

Slow and Steady

Don’t think big all the time. I have been around lifters that wouldn’t add weight unless it was 10 pounds at a time. This causes them to move the weight too much, too early. It is a macho thing, but no guy wants to use the five pound plates much less the two and a half pounders. Get over it because they were made for a reason. If you move the weight too much too quick it will stall your workout gains due to the body’s adaptation process. The process is slow and so should be the addition of weight. Adding weight too quickly can also effect form and cause lifters to break form during the lift due to the weight. This will only have negative effects and also causes the muscle to be erratically trained -- making gains even harder to achieve.

The change: Increase your weight by the smallest amount possible. This gives you something positive to leave the gym with as opposed to the defeated feeling you get from a stagnate workout. Think of it as small steps to a big goal.

Illustration: If you gym doesn’t have two and one half pound weights buy some and keep them in your bag. You may get some looks when you get them out, but that is better than being stuck at 295lbs for a maximal effort on the bench for longer than three weeks. You can also purchase magnetic one-half pound weight that can be added to dumbbells.

Overload Your Last Exercise

Many people start with a bang and end with a fizzle in the gym. You should try reversing this trend. The overload to the muscle will recruit more fibers and if done at the end of the session, it should cap off a terrific workout. Overloading the muscles and taking short breaks also builds up the muscle endurance.

The change: Begin the overloading by doing your regular workout for the body part you are working and when the last exercise comes, lift it for more sets with less weight and very short breaks. This will not allow the muscle to fully recover and will also force the body to recruit more muscle fibers.

Illustration: On chest day, for example, end with incline barbell bench press and pick a weight that you could do 15 repetitions. Lie down on the bench and do seven sets of ten with only 30 seconds rest in between. Make sure you have a partner to spot you and get ready for the burn.

Find Your Sticking Point

Every person has a sticking point on every lift. The point at which your lift gets harder or from an onlooker it would be the point where the movement slows or decelerates. This point is your sticking point. Once you have pinpointed the weakness, then you can do something about it. Strengthen that point and you will push through plateaus on your way to higher ground. A strengthening of weak points equals bigger lifts -- which in turn leads to bigger gains.

The change: Partials are the key. Yeah, some guys may see you and say something about a full rep, but again you have to shun that ego if you want to gain. Use a power rack with pins that can be changed to manipulate the height of the cross bars. Place the bars so that the exercise starts at the sticking point. This may call for inventiveness with some exercises, but things such as presses and pulls should be easy to achieve. This method to lift from your sticking point should strengthen that segment of the lift.

Illustration: In a dead lift, you will start at the deceleration point. For most people that is just before the bar cross the knees or about half way up. After each repetition, pause with the bar resting on the stops and then repeat. Six, full range motion of a dead lift should finish the set.

Only Do Big Lifts

Everyone wants to curl for big arms, but it is not always the best way to put on size. Our body uses muscles that complement each other and they work as a group in all of the big lifts that employee more than one joint. You should pick out a list of compound lifts that use more than one muscle group and push yourself on those for a period of time.

The change: Using compound lifts hit muscles at different angles. You could use these lifts to push your secondary muscles past plateaus. Pick enough exercises that use all muscles. Squats, dead lifts, bench press, pull ups, clean/presses, and rows are just a few of these plateau-busting exercises. This will recruit extra fibers in the lift that you will feel for days to come.

Illustration: Go through an abbreviated normal regimen then implement one day of big lifts. For example, you could do back and biceps on Monday; chest, triceps, and shoulders on Tuesday; and legs on Wednesday. That would be followed by a compound lift day on Friday after a day of rest. The compound day could consist of four big lifts that you pick and you could rotate those lifts from one week to the next.

These are by no means the only feasible alternatives, but they are the ones that have worked for me in the past. The point is to change it up. If you do the same thing every time you come to the gym it is only a matter of time before you stop coming to the gym. Sticking points breed frustration, and frustration breeds complacency. Don’t let a refusal of change chase you from your goals and gains.

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