How to successfully break through a strength plateau
Better Version of You
Novice trainees will often benefit from substantial performance increases at the onset of properly periodized programming. Week after week, cycle after cycle, their absolute strength climbs effortlessly.
Unfortunately, this slows quite quickly after a few months of foundational training. This phenomenon can be attributed to the learning phase that all new trainees endure, in which neuromuscular coordination rapidly increases, equating to elevated strength gains. Once the initial neuromuscular system adaptions occur, further enhancement requires a lengthy period of time for physiological adaptions. These include increased muscle cross sectional area, increased ligament and tendon strength, and increased stability.
Obviously, these do not happen overnight, and intelligent programming is necessary to achieve these results.
What’s the issue?
The issue most trainees run into is an inability to move a heavy resistance after a certain load. Attempting to squat heavy weight week after week simply will not do the trick; the body needs alternative stimulus to aid in change.
Different exercises targeting the same muscle groups can have entirely different implications.
One 2015 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, titled “Regional Differences in Muscle Activation During Hamstrings Exercise,” examined the difference between muscle activation in a hamstring curl exercise, and then compared it to activation in a single leg RDL exercise. It is well known that both exercises heavily target the posterior chain, but the author found through EMG analysis that the hamstring curl heavily targeted the lower medial portion of the hamstring, whereas the single leg RDL targeted the upper lateral portion.
Although this may seem trivial, the implications are rather important. Varying exercise selection allows for greater activation of the entire muscle group, specifically those that may be holding a trainee back in one area. Returning to the situation discussed about squatting, this could simply mean adding in single leg, lunging and lateral variations to break through the plateau.
Additionally, there are many other ways to break through a strength plateau. If you’re sticking with one movement, the way in which it is executed can vary greatly.
Implementing tempo changes, using bands or chains and increasing or decreasing range of motion are just a few ways to alter an exercise. They all return to the previously mentioned factor of variety in training; varying exercise stimulus allows for greater adaption.
One of the best pieces of literature to gain greater understanding about this concept is the book titled “Supertraining” by Mel Siff. In it, Siff describes countless methods to overcome strength plateaus as well as how to properly structure training.
A final point to consider is that no matter how much variation you aim to employ, consistency and fundamentally sound programming is key. It is easy to get carried away with variation and not understand its true function. Aim to change your exercise selection every two to three weeks within a program, without being too drastic. Simply changing an incline press from 15 degrees to 30 degrees is enough to elicit change.
I hope this article finds you well and assists in your understanding of how and why to vary your exercise selection as well as how it aids in breaking through strength plateaus. As always, thanks for reading.
Jimmy Pritchard has a BSc in exercise science from Colorado Mesa University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the director of strength and conditioning at Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. Contact him at 970-331-3513 or firstname.lastname@example.org.