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6 Techniques to help you bust through plateaus and take your training to the next level
If you’ve been working out a while, you’ll have realized your progress starts to slow the longer you’ve been working out. If you’ve been working out for a couple of years, you’ll know that it’s quite hard to keep making continued progress and that you really have to fight for every little gain you make.
The reason this happens is because our bodies are wonderful machines that have the ability to adapt to almost anything. It’s this fantastic ability of our body, that causes our progress to stall and for us to hit a plateau.
When we start working out, it’s great, progress is pretty consistent and linear, we’re making gains each workout, getting stronger and stronger, but sadly that doesn’t last forever.
So why does our progress slow?:
To put it as simply as possible, it’s because our bodies just plain get used to the stress we are exposing them to. What might have kicked your butt and left you stiff for days, 3 months ago, probably doesn’t have the same effect any more.
How do we make sure our bodies don’t get too used to training?
Initially, you might be able to get away with just adding more reps, sets and weight, or if you’re doing bodyweight training, by progressing to more difficult variations of a given exercise.
The problem is, even with doing that, you can still reach a plateau which can be quite hard to bust through.
Everyone, at some point, will reach a point where they’ll add more weight, do more sets or try to progress to a more difficult exercise, but they’ll hit a point they just cannot seem to progress past. I’ve been there myself many times.
Welcome to the depressing world of the plateau.
How do you bust through a plateau?
To bust through a plateau, it’s important to understand what brought you to that point in the first place – your body got used to the stress you were applying to it!
To get past the plateau, you need to expose your body to a new stress, one it has never experienced before, one to which it quite literally gets shocked by and to which it now has to adapt.
But if you’ve already added more weight, sets and reps, how to you add even more stress? Isn’t part of the problem that you can’t add any more?
Well, yes, that is part of the problem, but there is more to increasing stress or intensity than just adding more, sometimes you need advanced techniques that’ll allow your muscles to work for longer than they usually would and to call upon different metabolic systems. Or maybe you need something that allows different types of muscle fibers to be recruited, fibers that typically wouldn’t be recruited with normal training methods.
The following 6 techniques will do just that and help you bust through your plateaus.
1. Negative Reps
A negative rep is where you resist the weight in the negative portion of the movement. The negative portion is the lowering phase. We are much stronger in the negative portion of a movement than we are in the ‘positive’ or lifting portion. For example, let’s say you reach failure (the point at which you cannot do one more rep) on the bench press, you’re still likely to have enough strength to be able to resist the weight in the lowering portion for several reps.
If you did this, you’d be extending the set beyond what you normally would, thereby causing your pectoral muscles to reach an even greater state of fatigue and for more muscle fibers to be recruited than there usually would.
The result, more stress and new adaptation, resulting in new muscle growth and more gains.
2. Extended Sets
Extended Sets rely on the fact that certain positions will be more difficult than others. For example,
Decline push-ups (where your feet are elevated above your hands) will be more difficult than Incline Push-ups (Where your hands are elevated above your feet) or knee push-ups.
So, to extend the set and subject your muscles to additional stress, start with the most difficult version of an exercise you can do for 10-15 reps, and when you cannot do any more reps, switch to an easier position and crank out a few more reps, then if possible, switch to an even easier position and do a few more reps.
Other examples of easier positions you could switch to, would be switching to inverted rows once you’ve reached your limit on regular pull-ups.
With lower body exercises you could switch from a one-legged squat (pistol) to a Bulgarian split-squat or lunge.
3. Forced Reps
This usually works a bit better with weights and when you have a spotter, but it basically involves getting a bit of ‘outside’ assistance to complete a few more reps once you’ve reached your limit on your own with an exercise.
For example, let’s say you’re doing the bench press and reach your limit at 8 reps. If you have a good spotter they’ll be able to help you squeeze out a few more reps by helping you lift the bar, allowing you to fry your muscles just that little bit more.
Examples of how you could apply this with bodyweight training would be with pull-ups. Let’s say you manage 11 pull-ups on your own and with no assistance, you could either get a training partner to help lift you by the legs, or you could put a bench or stool under the bar and then use your legs to help push you up a little, but while still applying the majority of the force with your arms.
You can apply the exact same method with dips too.
If you’re doing a leg exercise, when you reach your max, using only your legs, you could grab onto a TRX strap and help pull yourself a little with your arms so that you’re able to still force out a couple of extra reps.
4. Partial Reps
Once you reach fatigue with a given exercise, decrease its range of motion. You’re stronger in certain sections of a move than you are along the total length of the movement. Doing this will allow you to continue a set past its normal length and will keep the muscles under tension for longer.
For example, let’s say you’re doing pull-ups and you reach failure, you could use your legs and a chair or a training partner to get you up to the halfway point and then you could do a few more reps, but only going from the halfway point to the top of the movement and not going down to where your arms are fully extended.
The hardest part of a pull-up is getting out of the fully-extended position, so taking that sticking point away will allow you to complete a few extra reps.
Even just doing the movement over a few inches will help increase the amount of time your muscles are under tension and can stimulate additional growth.
5. Rest Pause
This is a great technique to mash up your muscle tissue even more.
To do it, perform your normal set to the point of failure, then rest for 10-15 seconds, allowing the muscle to partially replenish its ATP stores, at which point you’ll be able to complete a few more reps. When you reach failure again, rest another 10-15 seconds and repeat the process another 1-2 times.
6. Drop Sets
A drop set is where you perform an exercise to the point of failure and then immediately reduce the resistance, either by removing some weight or changing the angle if you’re doing a bodyweight exercise. With the now-reduced resistance, you then bang out more reps until you can’t do any more and reduce the weight further, repeating the process twice more.
For example, let’s say you’re doing the bench press with 180lbs and you reach failure after 10 reps. You then immediately strip off 40lbs and max out with this reduced weight. Then strip off another 40lbs and max out again and so on, for a total of an extra 3 drop sets.
An example of how you could apply it with bodyweight training would be if you’re doing decline push-ups (where your feet are higher than your hands) with a weight plate or sandbag on your back. Once you reach failure, remove the weight and crank out a few more reps with only your bodyweight.
How to incorporate these techniques into your workouts
It will not be possible or feasible to incorporate all of these techniques into every workout, so rather than trying to use all of them all of the time, think of them as a bag of tricks that you can dip into from time to time to help you get past sticking points.
Also, the aim is not to use them for every set of every exercise, that would result in you overtraining and burning out pretty quickly, these are advanced techniques and do increase the amount of stress on your muscles quite drastically.
The best way to use them is if you have a particular exercise you cannot seem to progress with. You’d use one of the techniques on the last 1-2 sets of that exercise to help you get past your desired number of reps for that exercise.
For example, let’s say your progress has stalled with pull-ups. Your aim is to do 3 sets of 10 reps for pull-ups. You can do 10 reps for the first 2 sets, but you can’t seem to get to 10 on the last set, you always find yourself failing on about 7 reps – that my friend is a classic case of hitting a plateau.
To get you past that sticking point of 7 reps, you’d apply one of the advanced techniques. Once you hit your max of 7 reps, you could do forced reps to get you past 10. If you keep doing that and occasionally use some of the other techniques, you’ll find yourself eventually busting through that sticking point and you’ll be able to get to your goal of 10 reps.
You can alternate with the different techniques, but the most important thing is that you use them to add extra stress to your muscles, so that they are overloaded and forced to grow.
Remember, without continued progressive overload, your muscles will not continue to grow and develop.
It’s never supposed to get easier, you need to find ways to make things continually harder if you want to keep making progress!
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Article by: Bryan Hamann.
Bryan is a personal trainer, certified bootcamp instructor, Ironman Triathlete and author of THE PRISON WORKOUT.
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