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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.
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.
“You need to take a close look at how you’re performing an exercise, to see if there’s a problem with your mechanics, or if you truly are just not strong enough to lift more,” says Farmer, who suggests recruiting a friend for this. A helpful hint is to have someone record you doing a set or two during your next workout so that you can analyze from a detached point of view, comparing frame by frame your performance to the textbook ideal.
Farmer stresses, “Before worrying about increasing your strength, you want to make sure your form is spot-on.” To prioritize form, you’ll want to decrease the weight you’re using and get back to the basics. Relearn the motion by going through a slow two-count for the initial lift, a one-count pause, and a four-second negative. If you can, have someone coach you to help correct bad habits that may have become ingrained over months, or even years, of bad-form technique.
If practicing proper form isn’t leading to increased strength, you’ll next want to take aim at sticking points. For instance, let’s say your squat is lagging, because you’re having issues driving forcefully out of the hole. “What you may need to do is extra work in the lower half of the lift,” Farmer says. “You could do pause squats, stopping for a count at weaker points of the lift to increase your muscles’ time under tension. You can also do partial squats through just the lower part of the range of motion by setting up the safeties in a power rack.”
Other ancillary exercises might help, too. “When it comes to the squat, exercise gains in the hack squat, leg press, lunge, step-up, or Romanian deadlift can help build additional squat strength,” she says. “Ancillary exercise adaptations are transferable, although it may take a period of time to see results from that approach.”
Of course, if muscle-building is your primary goal, gaining strength isn’t necessarily a priority. Still, generally speaking, a stronger muscle is a bigger muscle, so achieving fairly regular personal bests matter. That doesn’t mean, however, you need to constantly be attempting one-rep maximums—you can also incorporate strength-endurance training.
“I would set goals that involve how many reps you can do with a target weight, to keep improving your strength endurance,” Farmer says. “How much weight can you do for 10 reps, or 15, or 20?
“For an athlete who has been focusing primarily on lower-rep work, a strength-endurance phase could increase his or her overall work capacity, which would allow for a greater overall training tolerance,” she continues. “In other words, in order to get stronger over time, you will need to train for longer periods to handle greater loads within set time frames, so it is beneficial to have a higher-volume phase mixed in every once in a while.”
For example, you may do a strength-endurance phase for 3-6 months, followed by 3-6 months of a lower-rep training phase. “After doing strength endurance for a while, you’ll reach a point where a lower-rep phase could help break a plateau and aid your overall max strength,” says Farmer.
Tried everything else and still struggling? “Consider a new environment to increase training results,” Farmer suggests. “If you always train in the same gym around the same people, things can get stale. Sometimes simply switching up where you lift can provide a good stimulus and motivation to push more intensely during training.”
You can also wholly revamp your normal routine, if only for a week or two. “Try different types of training—anything from endurance-style weight training to a group fitness class to a whole new activity like snowboarding or yoga or boxing,” says Farmer. “It’s an opportunity to hit the reset button and come back after a break to restart your attack on your strength goals.”