Sticking Points

Seven routes to conquering strength plateaus.


Progress rarely travels in a straight ascending line. If that were so and everyone grew stronger from one workout to the next, perpetually using more weight or doing more reps, then strength records would surely be broken on a weekly basis and gyms would be full of Olympia-caliber physiques. Even easygainers don’t grow stronger during every workout, and hardgainers can be stuck at the same relative strength level for months or even years. Ronnie Coleman has a saying posted in his house: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. To go beyond, you need to do something different. When you reach a roadblock, take a detour or you’ll never move forward.”

In this article, we detail ways to overcome a strength plateau for a specific lift, using the bench press as our example. Let’s say you want to set a new personal best for the bench press. Workout after workout, you pyramid up to 225 for six reps, but no matter how hard you struggle, you can’t do seven on your own, nor can you get six reps with more than 225. Sometimes you can get only four or five reps, but even on your best day, six is your limit. For both neuromuscular and psychological reasons, six is your Waterloo (orWeightloo). You’ve reached a roadblock. Here are seven routes for getting around it.

ROUTE 1: Lighten up

Training lighter to get stronger might seem antithetical until you understand that with low reps (six or fewer), each rep taxes you more than if you do medium (seven to 12) or high (13 or more) reps. Therefore, the more reps you do, the easier it is to do one more when approaching failure. Put simply, if you have only 10% of your strength reserves left, it will be much easier to get a 13th rep after doing 12 than to get a seventh after doing six. Stop performing low-rep sets until you’ve grown appreciably stronger in the 10- to 12-rep range.

ROUTE 2: Go heavy during related lifts

To take the focus off the targeted lift but still strive for low-rep strength, place your focus instead on a related lift. For example, do heavy incline presses, decline presses or dumbbell bench presses after the heavy work for other lifts. Either avoid barbell bench presses entirely or do only light sets. To heighten the effectiveness of this technique, rotate the related lifts, never going heavy during the same exercise two workouts in a row. When you’ve increased your strength for the related lifts, return your primary focus to the target lift.

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