How To Break Through Any Workout Plateau
This is an article that I suspect a lot of people will find very helpful.
Indeed, one of the most frustrating parts of working out is when you suddenly hit that proverbial wall.
Yup, I’m talking about the dreaded workout plateau – where all of your progress seems to come to a screeching halt.
You’re stuck lifting the same amount of weight week after week.
You can’t seem to move up in reps, despite your best efforts.
If this sounds like you, don’t worry – I’m about to give you a step-by-step method for diagnosing this problem.
And if it doesn’t sound like you, and everything is just smooth sailing, then you should still read through this article…
Inevitably you will hit a wall with your workouts at some point – so avoid any unnecessary frustration by mentally preparing yourself now!
Let’s get right into it.
What Is A Workout Plateau?
Before we get into all of the details, though, let’s first define exactly what we mean when we say ‘plateau’.
A plateau can be defined as not making progress in most of your exercises (or a specific exercise) for 2-3 weeks, in terms of increasing either reps OR weight.
What a plateau doesn’t mean is that you aren’t skyrocketing up the weights week after week in a completely linear fashion like you did when you first started working out.
Yes, the truth is that after you’ve been working out properly for a little while, you won’t be adding weight to the bar each week – or even every couple weeks.
Instead, the rate of process will slow down, and you’ll be aiming to increase either reps OR weight on your primary exercises each week as your main goal.
If you can do that, then you have not plateaued, and don’t need to stress about it.
Just keep doing what you’re doing, focusing on steady improvements week to week.
But if you truly are stuck lifting the same weight for the same amount of reps for more than 2-3 weeks – and, of course, your current focus is on building strength and muscle – then you probably have hit a plateau, and should read on to learn how to solve it.
How To Figure Out What Is Causing Your Workout Plateau
Now when you find yourself stuck in a workout plateau, there can actually be a whole bunch of potential causes.
Not to worry – I’ve put together a step-by-step process for figuring out what is causing your plateau, and how to fix it so that you can continue making progress again.
Go through the following list in order, from top to bottom, and see if any of them apply to you.
When you find one that does, you should follow the advice, and then see if that helps you break through your plateau.
If it doesn’t, then just come back to this article and continue moving down the list until you find what does.
Step 1: Look At Your Diet
As a reader of this blog, you know how important your diet is…
When your diet isn’t in order, it can impact your workouts significantly, so it always makes sense to start with that first.
First of all, make sure you are getting enough calories.
After you’ve been working out for a little while, you can’t expect to be moving up in weight or reps if you aren’t eating at an appropriate caloric surplus.
Secondly, you need to be getting enough protein to build strength and muscle effectively.
You should review your food logs, and make sure that you are hitting your protein targets each day, which you can read more about here.
Finally, you should look at your daily carbohydrate intake.
If you aren’t getting a sufficient amount of carbs, then your strength in the gym will suffer, since you won’t have the necessary muscle glycogen to fuel your workouts.
Now if you are having issues hitting these goals consistently, I suggest reevaluating your diet approach with all of this in mind.
Note: If you are currently following a ‘cutting’ diet, then you should NOT be concerned if you aren’t gaining strength each week.
In fact, unless you’re pretty new to weight lifting, you are very unlikely to gain any significant strength while cutting, since the focus is on losing fat and maintaining strength/muscle, not building it.
Step 2: Check Your Form
If you’re confident that your diet is on point, then the next thing to look at is your exercise form.
This is especially true if you are having issues with a specific exercise, but are still making consistent progress with other ones.
First of all, you’ll want to carefully review the instructions for the exercises you’re having issues with.
If you’re following an exercise plan, you’ll probably have instructions there; otherwise, they can be easily found by searching Google for ‘Exercise name instructions’.
If possible, you should also watch an instructional video of that exercise, which can often be found on YouTube, making sure to note all of the form particulars and whether you are doing each of them properly.
In addition, you can also take a video of yourself doing the exercise in question, to see if you can spot anything wrong.
Often a little tweak to your form will have you progressing again on an exercise where you’d been stuck for awhile.
Step 3: Stop Overtraining
Overtraining can be a real progress killer…
If you’re feeling any of the typical overtraining symptoms (tiredness, irritability, sore joints, weakness in the gym), then you should take a step back and look at whether you’re doing too much.
Have you recently added a whole bunch of additional sets to your workouts?
If so, then this may be the culprit!
Less is often more when it comes to making strength and muscle gains, so scale back your sets and see if that unclogs things.
You may also be ready for a deload week or week off from the gym, as I discuss more in this article.
People will often find that after these down periods, they come back to the gym reinvigorated, stronger than before, and break through plateaus that were previously holding them back.
Step 4: Get More Sleep
Many of us don’t get enough sleep each night – but if you’re chronically sleep deprived you’ll find that it tends to bleed into your workouts.
You need to give your body an opportunity to recover from each workout, and while you’re sleeping is one of the times where this happens most effectively.
The amount of sleep that each of us needs is pretty individual – some people need a full 8 hours, whereas others can get by on as little as 5-6.
That being said, if you are feeling tired when you wake up each morning, that is a pretty good sign that you’re not sleeping enough, and should attempt to fix this and see how it impacts your workouts.
And if you’d like some supplementation recommendations that can improve the quality of your sleep, take a look at this article here.
Step 5: Reduce Your Cardio
Now you may not be doing any cardio, but if you are then this is another factor that you should look at.
Basically, a certain amount of cardio is fine, and won’t impede your strength or muscle development.
However, too much cardio can definitely start to hurt your ability to build muscle and strength effectively.
Part of this has to do with overtraining, but it also has to do with potentially burning muscle to fuel your cardio sessions.
If you are doing cardio at the moment, and are currently bulking and focusing on gaining strength and muscle, then you may want to reduce the amount of cardio that you’re doing (or stop it completely) and see if that helps with your current plateau.
Step 6: Make Smaller Jumps
Now if you’ve looked at the first 5 potential causes, and have determined that there isn’t anything wrong there, then you should start looking into ways to make it easier to make the actual progressions themselves, to see if that gets things moving.
One such strategy is to see if you can move up weight in smaller increments.
So if you have been trying to jump from benching 185 lbs to 195 lbs, but can’t seem to get in the appropriate rep range when you attempt the jump, then try moving to 190 lbs instead.
These smaller jumps are sometimes just what you need to be able to progress in weight, while still staying in the appropriate rep range.
Step 7: Widen The Rep Range
As an alternative to moving up weight in smaller increments, you can potentially increase the rep range that you are working in temporarily.
This works particularly well for dumbbell exercises, where it can be hard to make 5 lbs jumps sometimes.
So if you are stuck using 30 lbs for lateral raises for your shoulders, and can’t seem to make the jump to 35 lbs, then you should try adding 2 additional reps to each set – so instead of doing each set in the 6-8 rep range, you would do it in the 6-10 rep range.
Once you are able to complete those 2 additional reps, you’ll often find that you can make the jump and successfully hit the bottom of the rep range with the heavier weight.
Step 8: Work Up From Lower Reps
Another approach is to make the jump in weight, even if you are currently stuck with reps on the lower weight and are unable to hit the minimum number of reps in the range for the heavier weight.
For instance, if you are working in the 4-6 rep range with bench press, and are currently stuck at a certain weight, you can try increasing the weight even if you are only able to get 2-3 reps.
Then what you’ll do is just keep trying to increase reps with that heavier weight each week, until it is within the appropriate range.
Step 9: Change Your Workout Plan
Now you might be surprised to see this one all the way at the bottom of this list.
Well, that is because most of the time your workout plan isn’t the limiting factor in your development (assuming, of course, that you’re following a decent plan to begin with).
There is no such thing as muscle confusion, so if you’re following a well-constructed plan to begin with, you should be able to go very far with it without drastic alterations.
However, after a certain point, when you have reached more intermediate/advanced levels of training, you may come to a point where linear progression stops working as effectively.
If/when this happens, you may benefit from altering your workout program, and potentially implementing more complex periodization strategies.
I wouldn’t advise this for beginners, or even necessarily for people that have been training for years, but it is something to look at if your current program stops producing results and you’ve exhausted the other potential causes.
The Bottom Line On Workout Plateaus
In the end, while workout plateaus can definitely be aggravating, they are generally solvable once you identify the specific cause.
This process can be a bit tricky at first, so if you’re unsure it can be helpful to consult a trainer, who can better guide you through the process.
Just remember, in the vast majority of cases, these workout plateaus are in your control – so don’t let them beat you down.
Figure them out, address them properly, and get right back on track to reaching your goals.