Pro Tips

How to Shift Your Strength Gains Into Gear

Try our five high-octane training tips.

Dustin Snipes

Whether you’re striving to inch up your one-rep max on the bench press, deadlift more than 500lbs, or even just lift the whole stack on the pulldown machine, you’re bound to have killer workouts that move you closer to your goal—and others that leave you a little pissed at their mediocrity.

But when does a small setback portend bigger problems? How long is “too long” when it comes to strength plateaus? Here, we list the warnings to watch for and then give you five training tools built to bust a rut, from one of the nation’s top Olympic weightlifting competitors.

Break It Down, Build It Up

First, the bad news: If you’re struggling to add pounds to your key lifts, there’s no magic formula to tell you whether emergency measures are needed. Fact is, your rate of progress depends on everything from your body’s own genetic makeup—down to your natural composition of fast-twitch versus slow-twitch muscle fibers—to just how long you’ve been consistently training.

“A lot hinges on what level you are as a strength athlete,” says Heather Farmer, a New York City–based personal trainer, fitness coach, CrossFit group class instructor, and Olympic weightlifting national competitor currently ranked in the top five in the USA Weightlifting 63kg (127.6 to 138.6 pounds) women’s class. “Someone who is new should progress very quickly and consistently for a while. A more advanced strength athlete is going to see a smaller percentage of increase over longer periods of time.” That’s just how it is.

Still, she says, a fair rule of thumb is to analyze progress every three months, and if your advancement has been minimal, it’s a signal to shake up your routine. “You can look at data beyond your one-rep max,” she explains. “For example, if 90–95% weights are beginning to feel like normal work weight, if mobility is increasing where it was limited, if a technical error is improved by strengthening a weak portion of the lift, one can consider this as work that will eventually yield a personal record, even if it feels as if you are at a plateau right now.”

If the numbers point to utter stagnation, you’ll definitely want to consider small tweaks and larger-scale modifications, depending on just how off-track you seem to be. The following five steps range from minor alterations all the way to a complete program revamp—you can try one or two to start, or you can go all the way to DEFCON 1 if all seems lost.