What you're getting yourself into - 2,013 words
Estimated Read Time - 15 minutes
Many people experience plateaus; I myself am no different. How we overcome them can be a tricky subject with many people having varying opinions on how to break through a plateau. In this article I will attempt to give you an outline of how to break a plateau using some basic practical concepts. Before diving straight into the methods I need to touch on some of the theory behind plateauing; how it potentially occurs then how we can identify the means by which to overcome it.
Stress, Recovery, Adaption
The most basic, accurate model regarding training is the SRA curve. It highlights in a very basic way how an organism adapts to it’s surroundings. You can think of this curve as evolution on a micro scale. The most basic analogy that i’ve heard to describe the SRA curve is how we get a tan. The sun is the stress; the more exposure the darker you can get. Too much and you become sunburnt, not enough and you get no tan at all; but if you get just enough over a longer period of time you become tanned. This analogy works well to define the dose dependent relationship we have with training stimulus.
Over time performance increases although different mechanisms in the body, from technical adjustments to the size of a muscle (hypertrophy) to neuromuscular coordination (Nervous system adaption to produce maximal force for example) and even the longest adaption; connective tissue. So if we took that simple SRA curve and utilised the examples I mentioned it may look something like the below graphic.
As far as overtraining is concerned it is quite a rare phenomenon; as most individuals are recreational lifters and not professional athletes, which is the context in which overtraining came about (context is important). From a work capacity standpoint we are not so fragile which I have mentioned before in a previous blog. Overreaching is something that is real and is required sometimes in order to induce a better adaptive response. This is one way to break through plateaus. Overreaching is not to be confused with the regular stress stimulus or over training. In fact; the concept of overtraining and overreaching originally comes from Mateyev’s model of periodisation where we have things like the preparatory, transition and competition period. This model includes the concept of compensation supercompensation (sometimes referred to as overcompensation) and involution (Where you miss the adaptive window to tolerate more).
The point is; there are many models and terms we can use to describe the process of getting stronger but ultimately long winded explanation may be nice in a theoretical setting or in a classroom setting but from a practical standpoint the basic SRA model does just fine in explaining how we get stronger. Stress. Recover. Adapt.
Grab The Bull By The Horns - The Stress Response
So why go through the trouble of explaining this basic model? Well if you’re hitting a plateau the answer is usually simple but not easy. The SRA model has three stages for a reason. Put simply if you’re not progressing one of the stages isn't working as it should and thus you are clutching out. In certain areas ahead i’ll be delving into some terms that may be new to you, i’ll do my best to explain them in the simplest way I can in order for us to move on empowered by knowledge rather than overloaded and confused. Let’s begin.
Stress manifests in many ways; specifically in training the stress response initiates a long chain of responses in your body from hormonal to structural to psychological. We will be talking specifically about training from here. Remember the analogy I gave about the sun and the tan you could get? Well the majority of the time I find most people don’t progress due to working too hard or not working hard enough. The latter is more common than the former. A practical example is someone coming in and performing the same workout again and again then expecting to get stronger. This sounds silly but hear me out. This person may be doing a basic linear progression like 3x5 and then adding 2.5% each session then doing the same accessories they usually do. Linear progression works really well, and is on parr with daily undulating periodisation (reference needed) but over a long period of time it can stop working. This is referred to as the repeated bout effect and typically it happens quite quickly (you get sore from squats but the week after you do squats and you’re not sore at all), although the mechanisms which make it occur are still not understood very well (Reference needed). The muscle and nervous system starts tolerating the movements and loads you're putting on it and it starts to blunt training response (your adaptive response to become stronger basically). So although the person may be pushing as hard as they can they seem to just spin their wheels. When someone works too hard on the other hand they keep trying to push the weights up or do more reps, etc but end up sacrificing technique and bar speed which leads them to the same issue; progress grinds to a halt. The repeated bout effects like the law of diminishing returns; once you break through a certain ceiling it’s harder to break through the next with the same/slightly more amount of work.
Specificity Gone Too Far
Typically when discussing progression we can use the analogy of the glass. This is a common example of prioritising training with the bottom of the glass being the most important factors related to success in program design to the least important sitting at the top. A common theme is that you must do the specific thing you want to get better at in order to get better at that thing. While this is 100% true there comes a point where running every day doesn’t make you faster, benching more doesn't make you bench bigger. There is that point of diminishing returns and once you reach it specificity may need to take a back seat to some form of specific variation. I say specific variation as any type of variation will not do. Simply working a muscle or group of muscles may not have any/minimal carry over to the specific thing you want to get better at.
You should notice that the glass itself is specificity as everything is built around the ability for you to progress around a particular specific goal. For a powerlifter it would be a squat slightly below parallel, pause bench press and deadlift; all for the heaviest single allowed within the rules; for a sprinter it’s how fast they can run a given distance and so on. Within the glass of specificity overload, fatigue management, SRA, variation, phase potentiation (if you want to use that term) and individual difference fill it.
Realistically overload and fatigue management sit within the SRA model. As I explained before stress needs to be high enough (intensity, volume, total work) so that we may adapt and we require proper recovery (sleep, food, days off) before we can adapt to raise our baseline. The SRA curve is so important that it essentially makes up over half the glass! What is mentioned next is variation; what I believe is a commonly misunderstood chunk of the glass. Variation if used correctly can make a large impact on training due to a few reasons but mainly it reduces the repeated bout effect (RBE) by creating a novel stimulus. There are indeed many ways (which I will list in the next section) that allow you to overcome RBE but variation deserves a special mention as it is typically overlooked and misunderstood.
I’ve seen individuals over-utilise variation and others barely use variation in their training at all. To reap the benefits of a variation you need to first assess a lift and see where a sticking point or an area that needs improvement and then choose a variation that will make that weakness stronger. This is what I will call “specific variation”; just like a touch and go bench is a specific variation of the pause competition lift so is something like a floor press/board press with your competition style grip if you have lockout issues. The great thing about specific variation is it gives the body a new stimulus while training a movement close enough to the competition lift that it has carryover. Having bigger glutes may help you get a big booty but that doesn't necessarily mean you will fix a lockout issue on a deadlift or increase your squat. Remember that motor patterns dictate your ability to utilise the muscle you have built in certain situations so hip thrusts although are magnificent for gluteus hypertrophy they may not have as much carryover (maybe for what you need) due to a lack of specificity to motor control in a squat or deadlift. It is important to do what you need to do, not what you want to do. I've seen people use the wrong tool for the wrong job countless times, usually because they are trying to chase aesthetics over performance and sacrifice performance in the process when they say performance is their number one priority. Don’t get caught in the honey pot and choose something you like doing if it doesn't help what you want to achieve; train with a purpose. Overall a specific variation assists specificity, it doesn't hinder it by adding fatigue that has no benefit.
Fixing The Repeated Bout Effect
There are some simple yet practical strategies you can employ in order to stop the RBE process from stunting your progress. Here is a list of stuff you can try with examples in brackets.
- Switch repetition ranges regularly (5, 3, 1 would be a classic example)
- Switch exercises frequently (Three week waves and switch to a specific variation is an example. Low bar to High bar; preferably something you’re crap at)
- Deload a movement every 3-4 weeks and replace it with a less taxing accessory that trains the same muscles (Could replace squats with barbell lunges or deadlifts with reverse hypers or hip thrusts)
- Fluctuate Frequency (Squat one week 3 times but next week only squat once at the end of the week, then switch to two the week after or train twice in one day, etc)
- Add more volume to the point where you become a little weaker; then back off completely. (This works by overreaching; do more than you can sensibly recover from, then when performance drops take a deload for a week and come back to training to retest. This is in my opinion the worst way to break plateau and I don’t recommend it 90% of the time)
Although your body can’t be confused it can get very good at tolerating stress; making it sensitive again without simply adding more is in my opinion a more sensible way of continuing to progress. Sometimes more is needed (as noted) but if you’re already doing huge amounts of volume then doing more volume usually doesn't help that much, and if anything can lead to a greater risk of injury. There are a few more options such as doing singles and triples to keep strength as high as possible for a month or so then adding a bunch of volume to increase MRV (Maximum Recoverable Volume) but that is more for advanced lifters and doesn't work well with beginners or intermediates so I have omitted it from my recommended list.
I should mention that individuals at a high level have found ways to reduce the RBE response usually through trial and error. This is where you will hear stuff like “Hip thrusts/back extensions/rack pulls made my deadlift huge” or “I always deload and work on technique/switch reps regularly/change my periodisation/do heavy walkouts, hand outs, etc”. Many people have found many different ways to get to the same place. As an old proverb states: Someone can take a different path up the mountain and still reach the same view.
What is important is understanding the reason you have made progress. Following an elite lifters routine won’t turn you into that lifter; you’ll have to find your own way. The way someone has made progress is usually an organic process done through trial by fire but it doesn’t have to be (all) that way. Look at any high level athlete and they have found a way to progress by muting the RBE so they can push their body beyond known limits. Yes of course there are genetics and drugs but it doesn’t mean you can’t keep progressing without stellar genetics or drugs. Pay attention and find your best approach from the list I gave you as a start. Make some modifications after paying attention to what worked well and what didn’t. Modify, rinse, repeat.
In the next article I will be discussing recovery and how to optimise it. In the meantime. Work your arse off and stay healthy.
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