The Two Biggest Reasons Your Strength Gains Have Stalled
At some point during your strength training journey, you may find you’ve hit a plateau.
The weights just aren’t flying up anymore.
It seems like you’ve been lifting the same weights for months.
Workouts are getting more difficult.
What gives? You’ve hit a plateau!
This can be a frustrating experience.
Sometimes, no matter what you try, it can just feel impossible to break through a plateau. But are you guilty of the following two things?
Reason 1: You’re Trying to Push Your Strength Increases Too Quickly
Many trainees find there is a period at the beginning of their strength training journey where they can simply increase the weight from workout to workout.
But you can’t just keep adding 2.5kg or 5 pounds to the bar every week and expect that path to continue indefinitely.
Eventually, this period ends and you need to change the way you train to ensure progress continues.
Strength is built by training with progressive overload. This does not mean lifting more weight every workout. It means you increase the demands on your muscles over time. This is a subtle difference. It can mean increasing the weight, but this only works for so long. Once your newbie gains have stalled, you have to get more intelligent with your approach.
You need to increase the volume of weight you are lifting.
Many beginners get into the habit of lifting for very low rep sets. Maxing out every week is fun! At the beginning, they can still progress doing this. They can walk into the gym and lift a new max, heavier than the week before!
When newbies eventually plateau, they still go for one rep maxes and wonder why they’ve stopped being able to add more weight to it each week.
It’s very difficult to improve a one rep max by doing one rep maxes.
What you need to do is increase the demands on your muscles by lifting lighter weights for higher volume.
What is meant by ‘volume’?
Volume is the total amount of weight lifted (reps x sets x weight).
Three sets of one rep with 135 pounds = 405 pounds volume.
Three sets of ten with 115 pounds = 3,450 pounds volume.
The trainee would find it easier to increase the volume in example two. That’s because it’s much easier to add one more rep to a set with a weight you can lift for 10 reps than it is to add a rep to a set with a weight you can lift for one or two reps.
How do you increase volume?
- Add weight
- Add reps
- Add sets
- Increase frequency (train more often)
- Improve form, or slow down the lift (more tension on muscles)
Adding weight to what you lifted for three sets of ten is easier than adding weight to what you lifted for three sets of one. Use the smallest plates in the gym to progress slowly over time.
Instead of increasing the weight, you could just lift three sets of eleven next time. If that’s too much, life one set of eleven, and two sets of ten. The next time you can take that up to two sets of eleven, and so on. Eventually you’ll be lifting that weight for three sets of twelve, then perhaps you can think about increasing the weight and dropping the reps a bit lower again. Keep building like this and you’ll definitely get stronger.
Volume doesn’t go up forever in a linear fashion
It’s important to make the point that you can’t just keep increasing volume forever. If you add one rep or 2.5kg (5 lbs) every workout, you’ll eventually be breaking records.
In order to keep progressing, you will eventually have to work in a different rep range. Once you’ve exhausted the progression in an 10 – 12 rep range, you might drop the number of reps down to 6-8 and apply the same principles to keep progressing there (one more rep, or slightly more weight).
Clearly dropping the number of reps down will represent a sudden drop in volume. This isn’t a concern, as you have increased intensity (amount of weight you’re lifting). Volume and intensity exist in an inverse relationship. The more volume you do, the less intensity there will be. The more intensity is present, the lower the volume will be.
In your training, you should be focusing on increasing volume and intensity during your “lifting career”, but not necessarily at the same time. Focus on increasing volume for a while and when progress slows or stops, switch down to lower volume and higher intensity and work on adding weight/reps in a lower rep range.
Reason 2: You’re Not Paying Enough Attention to What You Eat
Another thing that is only really possible at the beginning of a strength training journey is the ability to gain muscle without really paying attention to nutrition.
Muscle gain will ONLY happen if you are in a calorie surplus.
That means consuming foods with more energy than the amount of energy you expend in a day.
Bigger people and people who train and move around more expend more energy than smaller people who don’t train or move around much.
The amount of energy you expend in a day is what is known as your maintenance calories.This is because eating this amount of calories would result in maintaining your weight.
But you want to gain muscle, therefore you NEED to gain weight. In order to do this, you have to eat more than your maintenance calories.
There are many calculators online that will help you figure out what your maintenance calories are. They are not exact, but can get you close. From there, you’ll have to track what you eat and watch what happens to your weight over the coming weeks and months. You want to aim for a slow weight gain, so you need a small surplus of about 10 or 15% over your maintenance. Muscle gain doesn’t work like fat loss where you can overshoot your target and get faster results. Trying to rush muscle gain by eating more just results in faster fat gain.
In addition to a calorie surplus, building muscle requires protein. Make sure you’re getting at least 0.8 grams of protein for every pound of your body weight. That means if you weigh 200 pounds, you’ll eat 160 grams of protein in a day.
Muscle and Strength Gain is a Slow Process
You cannot rush the process. Trying to do so will get you less desirable results.
Trying to rush your training progress will cause frustration as you can’t lift the weights you are going for. This is a recipe for injury and burnout. Drop the weight to something you can lift for three to five sets of more than five reps and focus on small weekly increases to the total volume.
Similarly, you need to be in a calorie surplus for muscle gain, but don’t think you can speed up results by eating even more. Muscle will still be gained at the same rate, anything extra you gain by eating more is just additional fat.
Track what you eat, track what you lift and track your weight. You want to see small increases to the lifts and your weight over long periods of time.
Keep doing that, and you will do well.