How To Break Through Muscle Building Plateaus feature image

How To Break Through Muscle Building Plateaus

Hitting a plateau despite your commitment in the gym can be borderline heartbreaking. But there are ways to enrich your body with the challenges it’s asking for. Ready to hit a new level? Read on!

Hitting a muscle building plateau will happen at some point. The newbie gains are in the distant past and you’re now grinding it out trying to build lean muscle.

We’ve all been there with a plateau. This is good and bad. Bad because no one likes to stall with their progress. But also good because those experienced with plateaus can help you smash through the other side.

We have to be realistic about it. I’ve hit plenty of muscle building plateaus since I’ve been lifting in the gym. And more often than not, I’ve come out of the other side with a few simple tactics and approaches.

This article will break down the key approaches for you to bear in mind to help you smash through your own muscle building plateaus.

Why Muscle Building Plateaus Occur

man frustrated weightlifting

First, it’s important to understand that plateaus are completely normal for us natural lifters. Plateaus primarily occur because the human body is an extremely adaptive machine. It’s interested in becoming efficient and conserving energy where possible.

When you perform the same or similar exercises, workouts and weights week after week, your muscles and nervous system eventually acclimatise to the stress. They become so efficient at handling your training levels and methods that they no longer need to recruit more muscle fibres or stimulate further physiological growth.

A plateau is effectively your muscles saying, ‘We’ve adapted to handle what you’re throwing at us and don’t need to grow more fibres.’

To break out of this stalemate, you need change. Mix it up. Hit your body with something new.

Breaking Out Of A Plateau

To break out of a lifting plateau you must provide new and different stimuli that force your muscles to re-adapt. This fresh stimulus essentially tricks your muscles into growth again as a by-product of re-adapting to new training stresses.

The key underlying principle is that you must challenge your muscles beyond their current capabilities. You need true progressive overload again to disrupt homeostasis and kickstart new gains. 

Here are six of the most effective ways to overload your muscles again. We’ll go through each below:

  1. Increase load
  2. Increase repetitions
  3. Increase volume
  4. Change frequency
  5. Increase intensity 
  6. Advanced training strategies

1. Increase Load

weightlifting spotter encouraging lifter

The most straightforward method of progressive overload to break through a plateau is simply upping the resistance. Lift heavier weights. This is the traditional approach to provide new stimulus to your muscles. 

Granted, it’s easier said than done.

Let’s give an example. If you can currently complete 3 sets of 8 reps with 100kg on the squat, try to get all 8 reps for 3 sets at 110kg. If that’s too much, go for 105kg.

Usually, the issue here is that you can’t complete all of the sets at the heavier weight. You can get round this in a couple of ways.

It may be that you’ll start off with lower reps at the new heavier weight before increasing them again over subsequent sessions. You can also get a spotter to help you bust out those last couple of reps. Sometimes it’s a mental block that’s holding you back and a spotter can give you the confidence here to sail past it.

However you do it, it’s important to complete all sets at the heavier weight as soon as you can. This will stimulate your muscles to adapt as they’re outside their comfort zone. 

2. Increase Repetitions

Another route to overload your muscles is to increase the number of reps you perform at a given weight. This can be completed while keeping the load constant.

Studies have shown that progressively adding repetitions leads to comparable muscle growth as adding weight, given the lifting effort is high.

Let’s take an example.

If your current routine sees you hitting 3 sets of 8 reps at 100kg on the squat, aim to complete 3 sets of 9-10 reps at that same 100kg. Once you regularly have these couple of extra reps in the bag, you’ll be able to increase the weight. 

Simply performing more reps above your normal load provides enough new stimulus to spur continued gains.

3. Change Volume

You can also achieve progressive overload by changing your total training volume. Volume refers to the number of working sets performed for a given muscle or muscle group

I say changing volume, as it’s possible you may be training with too much volume. Overdoing it with your volume in a single workout can impede your gains. 

Your body’s response to volume depends on how ‘well trained’ you are. For example, if you’re an advanced lifter, you’re likely to benefit from more volume training over a week. But if you’re only a couple of years into your training, it’s likely your muscles will respond better to less volume per training session.

Also added into the mix here is training intensity, i.e. how much effort you’re putting into your sessions.

There are lots of scenarios to play around with here in terms of your volume programming. A more favoured approach is to hit moderate volume training over the week (10-20 working sets per muscle group) with moderate to high intensity (not training to failure, but with 1-3 reps left in the tank).

However this will depend on how your training currently looks and changing it up from this to provide a new stimulus.

4. Increase Intensity

Touched on above, another route to overload muscles to make new gains is to simply train with greater effort, focus and intensity.

Are you starting to just go through the motions on your sets? Leaving way too much in the tank?

Training intensity when lifting weights can be measured in two ways:

1. RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion)

Moderate intensity would be training to 4-6 RPE. High intensity is between 7-9 RPE and maximum effort is RPE 10. RPE can also be used for non-lifting activities, such as running, circuit training, etc.

2. RIR (Reps In Reserve)

This refers to how many more reps you could do before you fail on the lift. For example, training with just 1 or 2 reps in reserve will be a high-effort set.

To make gains, you’re going to need to work muscles hard. You don’t want to leave lots of reps in the tank. 

I like working to failure or close to failure on most working sets. But a good rule of thumb is to train with moderate to high intensity. Interestingly, studies have shown there to be not much difference in muscle gains between training to absolute failure and with a 1-2 RIR. 

5. Change Frequency

Varying your weekly or monthly training frequency can also provide a new stimulus. It’s recommended to train each major muscle group 1-3 times per week, hitting between 10 and 20 working sets per muscle. 

For new growth, adjust your program depending on where you are in this range.

For example, if you always train a muscle group once per week, try to split the volume up and increase the frequency to 2-3 times per week. Or if you’re training too often, you may be at risk of overtraining. This can be detrimental as it doesn’t give your muscles enough time to recover and ultimately grow.

6. Advanced Training Strategies

man doing cable crossover

The final approach to break through muscle building plateaus is to incorporate different training strategies.

Change up the exercises you perform, the rep ranges and your overall workout structure. This will provide fresh mechanical and mental stimulus.

If you tend to do one exercise at a time with a couple of minutes’ rest, it’s time to mix it up! Add in more supersets, drop sets, cluster sets and giant sets. Drop the rest time or change your tempo.

I’m also a fan of periodising my training, and like to think in ‘blocks’ of time.

For example, I’ll focus on strength in an 8-week block, before changing it up and hitting a more typical ‘hypertrophy’ block for 8-12 weeks. I’ll add in conditioning work too.

Switching these blocks around throughout the year has helped to keep my body guessing and always adapting for the better.

Support Your Efforts With Proper Nutrition

There’s something that’s central and common to all of the plateau-busting methods above, and that’s nutrition.

It’s safe to say that you won’t get too far in building muscle if you’re not eating enough calories. It’s critical.

To break out of a plateau, you’ll want to be in a calorie surplus. A fairly modest surplus is 300-500 calories above your maintenance levels.

As you already know, protein is essential and you’re going to have to make sure you’re getting enough. Aim to consume 1.2-1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.

Each gram of protein has 4 calories, so you can easily work out your calorie intake. Once you’ve hit this protein target, fill out the remaining calories from complex carbs, healthy fats and vegetables.

It almost goes without saying, but proper nutrition is important. I’m talking whole foods with limited ingredients.

Here’s a good rule of thumb I go by. If you’re eating something from a packet, check out the ingredients. If there are less than three ingredients, you should be good to go. If there are more than five, you’re likely consuming a junk food source.

There are exceptions. Whey protein powder, for example, usually has multiple ingredients. This can be different protein sources, as well as flavourings.

The Importance Of Patience And Persistence With Plateaus

Finally, it’s crucial to be patient and persistent when trying to work your way out of a muscle building plateau. It’s not fun being stuck in a plateau, but it can be fun bursting out of one once you’ve got a good strategy in place.

Adding muscle and sculpting physique changes takes many weeks and months of consistent, science-backed effort.

Plateaus are merely temporary setbacks, not permanent limits. Stay focused on incremental gains and progressive overload by tracking your training strategies and nutrition.

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