Breaking Through Strength Training Plateaus


Getting stuck in a workout rut is a drag.  If you can’t seem to squeeze any more progress out of your strength training, try these tactics to rev up your progress…

Recovery:  Although it’s at least as important as the workout, recovery tends to be vastly underrated.  Exercise stimulates your system to become more fit, but recovery is when that happens.  Getting adequate quality sleep, managing daily stress and keeping good nutritional habits are all big contributors to your fitness momentum.

Quality sleep is a huge contributor to fitness results.

If you’ve been consistently exercising with high intensity, take a week off from structured exercise every 4-6 weeks to fully recover.  It’s a great time to rework your program and give your body time to recharge fully and avoid getting into a state of over-training.

Add Weight: Sometimes simply challenging yourself by lifting more weight is all it takes to break through a plateau.  If you’ve been using the same weight consistently, try some basic progressive resistance training by adding weight to exercises every week – around 5% is a good place to start.

Get More Muscles Working: Convert from machines to “free” exercises.  Machines target single muscles, which is less effective for improving body composition and strength.  Bigger exercises that get more muscles working concurrently burn more calories and are much better for improving true strength since they mimic the patterns our brains use to produce daily movement.

Change Exercises: This one’s probably the most obvious.  Sometimes all it takes is a change in movements to get your workout on track again.  Try going from double limb movements to single limb (from a two leg squat to a split squat) or move in a different direction (from a forward lunge to a lateral lunge).  If you’re stumped for exercise ideas, ask a trainer.

Create Circuits of Exercises: Circuit training strings individual exercises together in series to increase overall intensity.  Using circuits is also time efficient, getting more work done in the same or less time.  Move from one exercise to the next without rest until you get to the end of the circuit, the repeat the circuit.  Here’s an example:

Lunge → Stability Ball Bridge → Single Arm Pulley Row → Push-up → Recover

Apply the same guidelines for weight, reps and sets as you would for exercises performed in isolation.  Use weights that allows for 6-12 repetitions maximum and do 1-3 sets depending on how much time you have.

Change Strength Training Tempo: If you don’t want to overhaul your entire strength training program, try incorporating simple tempo changes.  The most common tempo is about 2 seconds total per repetition (1 second up and 1 second down).  Decreasing tempo will make the same workout feel completely different and break you out of a rut.  Moving more slowly in the resisting phase is particularly beneficial for increasing strength.  For example, try a 2 second count for the lift, a 2 second hold and a 4 second resist on each repetition.

Next time, I’ll talk about ways to mix up aerobic conditioning to breathe new life into your workouts!

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Michael Bento is an Advanced Trainer at the Clubs at Charles River Park. He holds a Masters degree in Human Movement and is certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine as a Corrective Exercise Specialist and Performance Enhancement Specialist.

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