Progress in the gym is never in a straight line. There are times when you’re crushing your workouts and making great gains. Then, there are moments in which you and the barbell are butting heads and everything comes to a crushing halt because you finally hit a “plateau.”
The dreaded workout plateau is when progress stalls no matter what you do or try. If you’ve been lifting for a while, you’ve most likely experienced one. The trick is to find a way to break through one without resorting to anything silly or dangerous, like squats on a stability ball.
If you’re currently experiencing a workout plateau, there is light at the end of the training tunnel. The following three methods have been around a while because they work. Perhaps they’re not as sexy as quarter-squatting a huge amount of weight, but when you flex after doing these, you’ll be pleased.
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The three main triggers for muscle hypertrophy are mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage.
Although metabolic stress and muscle damage is discounted in some circles, adding a pause covers all three of these bases. But be warned: Pause reps don’t tickle — you’ll be hating life in a hurry after these. Pausing while the working muscle is under tension (think bottom of a squat) will test you in ways you’ve never thought possible because busting plateaus are hard work.
How it helps: if you have a sticking point, it pays to spend more time there, not less. Pausing at a sticking point, like just above your chest with the bench press will build strength where you need it most.
How to do it: Pauses work best with compound lifts like deadlifts, squats, presses, and rows. Do these at the beginning when you have the most energy. A three- to five-second pause with a load between 60% to 80% of your one-rep max and lifting between five to 10 reps works well.
1A. Pause Bench Press (3 to 5 second pause): 4 sets of 5 reps
1B. Band Pull-Apart: 3 sets of 15-25 reps
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Ever look at a program and see this direction: “2121”? This what’s called lifting tempo, and each of those four numbers represents a different point in the lift. The first number is the lowering eccentric portion. The second is the bottom position, the third is the concentric portion, and the fourth is the top position or lockout.
For example, the tempo of 2121 for a barbell squat — it takes two seconds to lower down. Then a pause of one second at the bottom, followed by two seconds to squat back up and one second pause at the top.
How it helps: Tempo lifting encourages you to slow things down and to focus on your form. Any glitches will be easier to spot when you’re slowing down your lift. Plus, the increased time under tension will help you build more strength and muscle.
How to do it: This is best performed with pressing, squatting, and Romanian Deadlift vatiations. You can manipulate the tempo according to your goals. For example, if you’re having trouble controlling lowering the weight on your bench or squat, lightening the weight, and using a three- to five-second eccentric will help. Using 70 to 80% of your 1RM for six to 12 reps (depending on load) is a good starting point.
1A. Barbell RDL (3131 tempo): 3-4 sets 6-8 reps
1B. Single-leg Hip Extension: 3-4 sets 12 reps
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Adding half a rep
Adding a partial rep during most strength training exercises reps will increase your muscles time under tension, helping you “feel” the exercise more and helping to address any technique flaws or sticking points. Because when you have sticking points, spending more time there will help you improve your overall strength.
How it helps: This works best with accessory work such as single leg exercises, row and pressing variations to build strength where you need it most. For example, if you have a sticking point above your chest on the bench press, adding half a rep there with the dumbbell bench press will help address this weakness.
How to do it: You take an exercise and “extend” the set by inserting a half rep in between full-range-of-motion reps. For example, in the bottom of a squat, come half way up, then go all the way down and then come all the way up to lockout. Be conservative and lower your usual weight here by five to 10 pounds. Anywhere between three to four sets and eight to 12 reps will do the trick.
1A. One and a Half Kettlebell Front Squat: 3 sets of 8-12 reps
1B. Hip Flexor Stretch: 30-60 seconds (each side)