How to Bust Through a Strength Plateau

Many women nowadays are focusing on getting stronger, and we are
so excited about it! While we honor and respect anything that each
person wants to do with their own body, we hold strength training
close to our heart.

While working towards strength can be really exciting, it can
also be a bit frustrating at times when progress seemingly comes to
a screeching halt.

Not to worry, though! We’ve been strength training for a long
time, and have solutions to help you bust through your strength
plateau.

Before we get started, it’s important to first ask…

Is it Really a Plateau?

Strength gains aren’t linear, particularly in intermediate
lifters, and especially with advanced lifters. This is why it’s
not uncommon to see advanced lifters celebrating a Personal Record
(PR) of finally adding 2.5 pounds to their huge squat or deadlift.
While it may seem like a very small addition, advanced lifters
sometimes work for months and months to be able to add that on.


Women who are new to
lifting weights often experience a wonderful phenomenon fondly
referred to as “newbie gains.” It’s very likely that a new
lifter will be able to increase the load that they are lifting week
after week for many months, assuming that they stay consistent with
their training.

Eventually, as the lifter becomes stronger and is able to move
more weight, the weight increases will become less frequent.

While this is normal and to be expected, this is typically when
a person erroneously thinks that they’ve hit a plateau, and tries
to overhaul their training, convinced that it’s no longer
working.

While it may be frustrating to notice that strength gains are
slowing down, it can also feel exciting. This means you’ve
reached the point where you’ve moved beyond the point of newbie
gains, which is progress in and of itself. Congratulations!

If you are a beginner or intermediate lifter who has stayed
incredibly consistent, and you haven’t been able to increase the
weight you’re using on most of your lifts in three to four weeks,
it may be time to take a look at the following things.

Focus on Building Your Strength Rather Than Testing It

One of the most common mistakes we see when someone is working
to get stronger is spending too much time testing their strength
rather than building it.

Most people are working at their max effort far too often. The
majority of your time should be spent building your strength, not
testing it. Testing your strength, session after session, can
prevent you from progressing.

For example, let’s say that Jamie is able to squat 100 pounds
for five sets of five reps. However, they are very difficult for
her: she has to grind through those reps, and she couldn’t
possibly do another if she had to — 100 pounds for five sets of
five reps is her max effort. She really wants to get stronger, so
every time she squats, she tries to use the maximum weight possible
(which in her case is 100 pounds). What Jamie doesn’t realize is
that working at her max over and over again will likely leave her
stuck at the same weight.


For the most part, we
like to see people leaving anywhere from one to two reps “in the
tank” when they are training for strength. This means that you
should be able to perform one or two additional reps if you
absolutely had to.

Additionally, while you may have already assumed this by now,
this also means that consistently missing lifts (also referred to
as failing a lift) is a big sign that you are working at too high
of a percentage.

Missing lifts will happen, but it should be rare, and limited
— for the most part — to the times that you set out to actually
test your max.

For example, if you want to see what your one-repetition maximum
(1RM) is, you may work up in small increments and then finally miss
the lift, which will establish your max, and provide other valuable
information, such as where your form broke down and why.

Testing your max is typically done at the beginning of a
strength training cycle, and then not again throughout the
cycle.

Use Training Cycles

Another reason why many people become stuck with their strength
is that they are attempting to train in the same way and at the
same intensity all year long. In order to make progress with our
strength,
we need our training to fluctuate throughout the year
.

Assuming the goal is to build strength, throughout the course of
a year you’ll include:

  • Strength training cycles
  • Hypertrophy training cycles (to increase muscle mass which
    contributes to your ability to continue gaining strength)
  • Deloads
  • Periods of training that are a bit easier and include less
    volume or less weight
  • Optionally, training and dieting cycles with a focus on other
    goals (i.e., fat loss, muscular endurance, etc.)


Not only are different
cycles necessary to get the best results, but with a little
forethought, you can plan your annual training cycle so that it
better aligns with your life, lifestyle, and what you have going
on.

For example, some people — like myself — choose to focus on
strength or hypertrophy over winter, because we tend to eat more in
the colder months, and sleep more due to less daylight. More fuel
plus extra sleep for recovery is optimal for gaining strength or
packing on muscle mass.

Another example may be scheduling your hardest training cycles
during the year when there aren’t other stressful things going on
(holidays, tax season if you are an accountant, or finals if you
are a student).

How you set up your annual training cycle will be unique to you,
your lifestyle, and your priorities, but it’s important to cycle
your training throughout the year in order to get the best results,
allow for adequate recovery, prevent burnout, and keep the gains
coming.

Stick to the Program

Constantly changing things up is not an effective way to develop
strength. The people who are the strongest have gotten there by
showing up day after day and working really hard on the basics.

I understand the desire for change and spicing it up, and there
is a lot of value in moving in many different ways. However,
constantly changing up your training is not an effective way to
develop big strength.

Sticking to a program also ensures that you are doing important
exercises that you may not have selected on your own.

While it’s crucial that you enjoy your training in order to
help you stick to it, a good training program is going to require a
bit of give-and-take.

There isn’t an effective strength training program out there
that is only going to include all of your most favorite exercises.
There will surely be some exercises that you don’t love. Remember
that it’s likely that those are the movements you struggle with,
which also means they are the ones that may be the most beneficial
for you.

Put in the work with your strength training program by doing
what it calls for, and make it more enjoyable by recruiting a fun
training partner, or putting together a music playlist that gets
you fired up.

How Is Your Recovery?


When we say
“recovery,” we aren’t just referring to rest. Rest and
recovery are different. Rest means that you took a day or two off
from strength training, or spent some time snuggled up on the couch
with a good book. While these things are important — and recovery
does includes some rest — recovery is more multifaceted than
merely resting your body.

Recovery also includes:

  • Consuming nutritious and well-balanced meals to the best of
    your ability.
  • Getting plenty of sleep.
  • Moving your body often.
  • Incorporating some soft tissue work either with a foam roller,
    lacrosse ball, or getting a massage
  • Doing things to help you manage your stress levels, such as
    taking a leisurely walk, doing restorative yoga, or
    meditating.

Your recovery is just as important — if not more so — than
your actual training sessions. If your training progress is
suffering, ask yourself if you have been giving recovery your best
effort. If not, consider which things you can do to improve it
based on some of the ideas mentioned above.

Speaking of recovery…

Overdue for a Deload?

How long has it been since you’ve taken a
deload
?

Deloads look a little differently for each person, but in
general they’re comprised of 5–7 days either taken completely
off from strength training or intense exercise, or using
significantly less volume and load (20–30 percent less than what
you usually use) and performing easy recovery workouts.

Deloads can be challenging for those who really love to lift.
However, it’s important to periodically incorporate them in order
to keep building strength. Deloads are important mentally and
physically, especially after a big strength cycle.

If you’re unable to progress with your strength gains, and
it’s been more than 12 weeks since you’ve taken 5–7 days off
from strength training, consider a deload in order to get you
moving forward again.

Periodization Is a Non-Negotiable


Last, and most
importantly, in order to make progress with our strength training,
we must have periodization. Periodization, to over-simplify, means
proper and appropriate progressions.

It’s absolutely crucial to find a program that understands the
importance of periodization if you want to continue to move forward
with your strength training.

As you can see, there are a lot of ways to get your strength
moving again in the right direction. The most important thing is
resisting the urge to do a complete overhaul.

Instead, take some time to analyze exactly what you’ve been
doing, and which areas can use some improvement.

Tired of not getting the health and fitness results you’re
looking for?

We can help!

Our small group Get Results Coaching program gives you
everything you need to accomplish your goals – with GGS
co-founder and head coach Jen Comas right by your side.

Enrollment opens twice a year – get on our free, no-obligation
pre-sale list now to learn more and get an opportunity to enroll
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How to Bust Through a Strength Plateau
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How to Bust Through a Strength Plateau