Workout plateaus, overcoming plateaus, making gains, workout improvements

Principles to help you overcome plateaus: Part 1

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ALSO: Check out "Principles to help you overcome plateaus: Part 2"

So you’ve been training for three or more years and you say you haven’t made gains for a while. You believe you’ve reached a plateau and are trying to figure out what to do. You’re reading all the rags from the newsstand and online articles. You’re asking advice from all the so-called experts in your local gym, even though 90% of them are complete idiots and are a worse source of information than you got at the newsstand. Although, I must say many gym rats mean well, they just haven’t a clue as to what works long term for the average Joe. At this point, you’re getting desperate, as most do when their training has reached a standstill and they can’t seem to find the answer.

You’ve all heard the saying “desperate times call for desperate measures.” Using desperate measures to solve your training woes will only make them worse. A typical example would be a person who can’t seem to get his legs stronger or bigger for the last six months. Because what he is doing has stopped working, which is the case for even the best of routines, he decides he needs to “shock his muscles into growth.” This is by far one of the more desperate and moronic things one could do. Instead of taking a methodical and logical approach to his training and using his training log as a reference (if he kept one), he decides to quadruple his work load. The dip shit is now going to work his legs every other day for as long as he can to “force them into growth”. O…K….

A plateau is a halt in your progress. In most cases, adding more to the workload will only exacerbate the problem. There are two main reasons people plateau. First and most common, the longer you’ve been training and the stronger you get, the more recovery time you need. In other words, if you keep the same workload and get progressively stronger, eventually you will not have the ability to recover. In this instance, you need to decrease your workload by performing fewer sets or exercises. Second, the body has a great capacity to adapt to a specific stimulus placed upon it. Every time a workout is updated, the trainee usually notices good gains. These gains diminish over time, however, because the body becomes efficient at performing the stimulus placed upon it. In this case, changing exercise order or changing tempo would help the person overcome his plateau.

There are many principles you can follow to overcome plateaus. Sometimes just becoming re-motivated, changing your diet or setting goals can help.

More is not always better
Your gains have stopped because you’ve reached a point at which you no longer have the ability to recover from that workout. You are still training intensely, but for some reason you just aren’t making gains anymore. You must understand we have a finite recovery ability. Don’t get me wrong -- we do improve our recovery ability over time, but it has its limits. Exceeding this limit is perhaps the most common error for people who weight train.

We all recover from exercise at different rates. Many people who recover quickly have reached a high level of success performing a high number of sets. Many who recover slowly have also been very successful performing low numbers of sets. Because everybody is unique in their ability to adapt and recover from different programs, the number of sets needs to be individualized. Without keeping a detailed journal, it will be almost impossible to determine what workouts were successful and which ones were not.

The first component of a training program that should be given consideration is training frequency. How often can, or more importantly, should I train per week? Optimum recovery time between training sessions is essential if one is going to continue to make progress. Training frequency, which is determined by one's recovery ability, is often a forgotten part of most training protocols.

Don't be so concerned with the number of training sessions, exercises or sets you can handle per week. Be more concerned about the optimal amount or how much you should be doing. As stated earlier, more is not always better. In fact, as you probably have deduced from previous paragraphs, when somebody comes to me for advice because they've stopped making progress, usually I either reduce the workout volume or add days off. Many of the top strength coaches in the world point out that there is no reason to go to the gym if you're not going to make progress. In every workout, if you have fully recovered, you should be able to add some weight or do an extra rep.

How can anyone get stronger every workout? You can only bench press so much. Eventually, you have to hit a plateau. This is true. If you stay with the same exercises, the same number of reps and the same number of sets, progress will eventually stop. If the proper changes aren't made at the right time, eventually the body adapts to the stimulus. And this is where the "art" of being a coach or changing your own workouts comes into play.

It's easy to write a workout. Any knucklehead who’s read a few rag mags can write or, more appropriately, copy a workout. The real challenge is assuring recovery from workout to workout so that progress continues.

A training and nutrition journal is required for this course
You must track your successes and failures and constantly monitor your progress. If you don’t keep a journal, start. And if you refuse to keep a journal, stop reading now because you are wasting your time. Without a record of what you do and have done, it is impossible to make correct decisions for improving your performance.

Record your daily workouts. Record your rest periods betweens sets and the tempo of your reps. Record your food intake and dietary habits. Also include how you felt on a particular day. Keep track of how a particular exercise felt, and how you felt during your workout. You must keep records of what works for you and what doesn’t. There are guidelines for working out and proper nutrition, but each body responds differently. You need to track what works for you, and what doesn’t.

It is impossible for anyone to remember what they did for the past nine weeks. Someone who was concerned because he hadn’t made strength gains during his chest workouts told me the other day that he didn’t need to keep a journal because he knows what he does each workout. So I asked him several questions: “How many seconds rest do you take between each exercise and between each set?” “How long do your workouts take?” “Have your rep ranges changed?” “How much protein do you eat per day?” Without the answers to these and other questions I couldn’t possibly give him the best advice. However, if he had been keeping a journal I could have seen where he’s been and given him a new path to follow.

Most people think they can go haphazardly into a gym and get gains. It just doesn’t work that way. And it shows by all the people in the gyms spinning their wheels, sometimes for years. Most people who go to the gym do not change much for their effort. This could be rectified by simply recording what they are doing and making changes accordingly.

Visualization, or lack thereof, could be your problem.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, a master of setting goals and visualizing them, believes your mind can be your greatest ally on the road to success. Many people I consult do very little goal setting and visualization. This is an important tool not only for training but for everyday life. I once told a favorite professor of mine at Bowling Green that I really wanted a Stingray Vette someday. His reply was, “Where is the lighter located in the Vette you want?” I replied that I had no idea. He gave me my first real explanation of visualization. He said if you really wanted that Vette, you would know that vehicle inside and out and should be able to visualize it in your mind. The mind needs to travel there before the body can follow.

Once you set your fitness goal, you need to use your mind to visualize how you want to look or how much you want to lift. You must also be able to imagine how you will feel when you reach that goal. Visualizing your goal completely is very important.

This concept of visualization may seem odd to some. However, it may interest you to know that many of your favorite athletes do some sort of visualization to maintain their optimal performance. For example, Michael Johnson, Olympic gold medal winner and world record holder, said that he actually sees himself running with perfect form and then winning the race before it has even begun.

Power lifters see themselves bench pressing the weight successfully before they have even made the attempt. The mind must travel there before the body can follow.

To help yourself visualize, put pictures of role models up on your bathroom mirror or on the refrigerator to help you see your ultimate goal. However, be realistic. Having a picture of Ronnie Coleman, multiple Mr. Olympia winner, on your refrigerator can be very motivating but keep your goals in perspective. Ronnie Coleman is literally a genetic freak to the nth degree.

Another tool you can use is to write your small goals on a piece of paper and keep it in plain sight so you can constantly be visually reminded of your goal, even in your weakest moments. For example, on a post-it you could write, “I am not going to eat any junk today.”

Don’t worry about other people seeing these reminders. Announcing your goals is another facet of the visualization process. When you are aware that other people know what your goals are, your motivation levels rise. These people can also be a support system as you travel toward your goals.

In part II, we will discuss the following: optimum number of sets, optimum number of reps, diet, tempo and cycling your workouts.

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