5 Proven Methods to Break Through Training Plateaus

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It happens to gym rats and newbies alike...you hit a point in your training program where your strength, body composition, or balance haven't shown any significant improvements in spite of your best efforts.  You tried low/high repetition ranges, new exercises, and maybe even some vomit inducing HIIT routines.  Yet still your numbers won't budge.  What gives?  At times it's possible to overlook aspects of a program that could help address specific deficiencies.  This could be anything from an imbalance in strength to range of motion in an exercise.  The point is, you'll only ever be as strong as your weakest links.  Without targeting them, your progress will inevitably grind to a halt.  The below principles can be incorporated into any resistance training program and will help you break through your training plateaus.

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1. Tempo - Controlling the speed of your repetition, or time under tension, is an important stimulus for muscle growth.  Typically, the slower your speed, the greater the effect.  This mainly applies to the eccentric (or lowering phase) of the exercise and will improve your stability, conditioning, and range of motion.  You'll also develop a greater awareness of body mechanics throughout the movement as you're under load for a longer period of time and need to use every available muscle to help maintain control.  This can be utilized for a wide variety of exercises...Bench Press, Squat, Deadlifts, Bent Over Rows, etc.  Your eccentric reps can range anywhere from 3-10 seconds but I'd recommend starting at 5 seconds.  Lower the weight slowly and controlled for 5 seconds until you hit the bottom position of the movement then explode upwards (concentrically).  Start with a light load (60-70% 1 Rep Max) and gradually increase the weight as you feel more comfortable.  Aim for 8-10 repetitions.

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2. Unilateral - If you've noticed a deficiency in strength or balance from one leg or arm to another, unilateral, or single limb exercises, provide a host of benefits.  Not only do they increase muscle activation on the working side but also recruit the stabilizer muscles of your trunk, back, shoulders, and core to keep you balanced.  As an added bonus your bilateral strength will show a greater increase than just training with bilateral exercises alone since you're isolating the weaker side.  A few examples for upper body...Single Arm Presses, Dumbbell Rows, One-Arm Dumbbell Bench Press.  For lower body...Bulgarian Split Squat, Single-Leg Hip Raises, Lunges, Single-Leg Dumbbell Deadlifts.

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3. Modified Grip or Stance - Another training variation to address muscular imbalances can come through simple physics...changing the center of gravity or lever position of your feet and hands.  This can help you target specific muscles and build greater overall strength on any given movement.  For example, performing a back squat with a narrower foot stance places a greater emphasis on the quads.  A wider stance will place greater emphasis on the hips and hamstrings.  A close grip bench press will place greater emphasis on the triceps while a wider grip will primarily work your pectorals.  Before attempting any of these variations, it's important to recognize any potential limitations in range of motion, especially in the shoulders, knees, hips, and ankles.  If you haven't yet mastered the mechanics of the standard grip or stance, keep practicing them before throwing these in the mix.

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4. Partial repetitions - If you spot someone doing these from a distance, you might be tempted to think they're "cheating" on the exercise.  Partial repetitions simply means performing a movement a fraction of the full range of motion.  There are several variations but I'd like to talk about two specifically.  Variation number one is primarily for building strength for a 1-3 repetition maximum effort.  Using a heavy load greater than or equal to your 1RM will force your body to recruit more muscle fibers and acclimate your central nervous system to handling heavier weights.  Load up a bar with 100-130% of your 1RM and perform 2-4 reps to a safety bar - set at one-quarter distance from the top range of motion to the bottom.  Deadlifts, Squats, Rack Pulls, and Bench Press are a good place to start on these.  The second variation is meant for increasing muscle size, or hypertrophy,  Similar to Tempo Training, this is meant for increasing time under tension to cause a greater amount of muscle activation.  A method I use regularly is the One and a Quarter Rep - perform a repetition to just short of the bottom position of the movement, come back up a quarter of the way, lower all the way down to the bottom, then explode up to the top position.  These can be done using both freeweights and machines.

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5. Supersets. One of the greatest ways to simultaneously build strength and conditioning, supersets are two exercises performed back to back with no rest in between.  Because this greatly increases the intensity of your workouts, you'll not only spend less time in the gym but also boost your metabolism to aid in fat loss.  Depending on your training goals these can be done with opposing muscle groups (ie. Bench Press/Lat Pulldown) or similar ones (Front Squat/Leg Extension).  I typically use opposing muscle groups to enhance conditioning and fat loss and similar muscle groups for building muscle size and endurance.  You can structure your entire workout around 4-5 supersets or use them to supplement your existing program.  Perform 3 sets of each exercise group and take a minute and a half to two minute rest between sets.  If you opt for the opposing muscle groups variety, be sure to alternate the order of the exercise groups from your last training session.

-Dave

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