The dreaded plateau – a physical phenomenon whereby progress slows or halts altogether.
In my twenty years of athletic endeavors, I’ve had to break through my fair share of plateaus; they’re just one of the many obstacles which try to obstruct growth.
Anyone who wants to build muscle mass needs to know how to deal with plateaus, as they’re a common occurrence for athletes, especially those working towards building their ideal physique.
While frustrating, there are ways to break through them, and I’m here to share my five tips to do just that.
1. Lacking Progressive Overload
For years science has illustrated the importance of progressive overload and demonstrated its important role in building muscle. Without it, progress such as muscle growth, will evade you.
The principles of progressive overload focus on gradually increasing the mechanical stress put on the body through a training program. The body is built to adapt to the stressors placed on it, including the amount of weight you make it lift. If this stress remains the same, the body will plateau as it has met the demand.
Track your training sessions to ensure that you continue challenging your body by increasing the amount of reps you perform or the amount of weight you lift. In doing so, you can prevent plateaus from occurring.
2. Poor Strength Gains
While I recognize the benefits of high rep training and also thrive off the challenge it offers, I never forget the importance of heavy lifting for building strength. There is no replacement for heavy progressive lifting when working to break through a plateau.
Plateaus are likely to happen when there is too much focus on the “pump” and not enough attention on lifting heavy weight. High rep training, which focuses on cell swelling rather than strength gains, remains important to muscle building.
However, this needs to be combined with progressive gains in strength on compound exercises to see continued growth.
3. Bad Form
Exercise technique can come in many forms; some which may appear more correct than others. Sometimes my form is strict, while on other occasions I will loosen things up a little to rep out my set. It depends on the exercise, the rep range, and the objective.
However, as an experienced trainer I have learned how to make my muscles work in the gym. If plateaus are plaguing your workouts, stricter form is going to help. Using a full range of motion and removing momentum ensures that the targeted muscle is working to its full potential.
Sometimes a lack of growth is just a reflection of bad training habits in the way of technique. Once this is fixed, the plateau soon becomes a thing of the past.
4. Sleep Deprivation & Overtraining
Plateaus often strike when the body is over-worked and lacking proper recovery time. Suppressed central nervous system (CNS) activity is the main issue in this situation. The CNS is responsible for the recruitment of muscle fibers in response to a demand placed on the body.
Neurological pathways between the brain and muscle are less responsive when they’re tired, which can negatively impact performance. The CNS recovers while you sleep, highlighting the importance of adequate rest.
However, sleep quantity isn't enough, it should also be high quality. Trained athletes should get at least six hours of sleep in a darkened room with fresh air flowing through it. To further enhance your sleep, don’t bring your digital devices into the bedroom.
The blue light projected from these items has been found to alter the release of melatonin, the sleep-inducing hormone, interrupting natural sleep patterns. The body is able to repair itself best when full sleep cycles are obtained each night, especially when the REM phase is reached.
The impact of blue light on your sleep cycle can be detrimental to your performance in the gym – which should be enough of a reason to keep these devices away from the bedroom.
In addition to ensuring adequate rest and sleep, you also want to avoid overtraining. Muscle grows outside of the gym, with proper nutrition and rest. Reaching the necessary volume of training to achieve overload is vital, and once this has been achieved, further training can be detrimental.
Deciding when you’ve reached your threshold is entirely subjective, however most people won’t need more than five workouts per week, lasting any longer than an hour each. The aim is to get in, push the body enough to force change, and get out to start recovering.
5. Inconsistent Eating
While training plateaus can be blamed on many shortcomings, what you do in the kitchen is often overlooked as a cause of plateaus. Better training, performance, and progressive overload rely upon recovery. Only when all of these things are taken care of will muscle start to grow again.
Meeting a daily baseline of at least 1g of protein per pound of lean body weight is essential for fast recovery and growth. Almost everybody struggles to eat this volume of protein from solid food.
My favorite way to overcome this is to have whey protein isolate in the morning with my oats as well as following my training sessions. Make sure to look for a quality whey protein isolate, one that is carefully processed using low temperatures which protects the integrity of the amino acids. Many whey protein supplements are exposed to too much heating during processing.
In addition, creatine, glutamine, and betaine should also be used alongside your whey to support recovery. All of these agents can help defeat plateaus by guaranteeing that the muscles have what they need to continue to grow without stalling.
If I’m forced to use a protein shake as a meal replacement during the day I will mix one scoop of whey protein isolate with one scoop of micellar casein isolate. This way I benefit from the ultra-fast digesting whey isolate and the slow releasing amino acids from the micellar casein isolate. This elevates muscle protein synthesis and prolongs the duration at which I am able to benefit from this anabolic reaction.
The next priority is making sure you’re consuming enough calories from the best natural sources, using complex carbohydrates, healthy fats and fibrous vegetables. Most people will require 17 calories per pound of lean body weight to gain muscle, but some people require more based on their metabolism and energy output.
If you find that you’re losing weight or becoming leaner, it’s a good sign that what you’re eating isn't sufficient for muscle growth. In this case, gradually increase your caloric intake until you start overcoming your plateau.
A final nutrition tip for overcoming plateaus is consuming meals frequently throughout the day. Often, this is the best way to make sure you’re able to eat all your calories consistently, day after day. It also provides better energy, which can lead to stronger training sessions in the gym, resulting in growth.
Plateaus might seem as though they cannot be defeated, but with enough knowledge and consistency, there is always a way.
Using these tips will equip you with the right information to shatter plateaus as they arise, or even avoid them altogether.