5 Strategies to Break Through a Strength Plateau

Do you ever feel like you’re stalling with your training? Have you ever thought that your workouts might not be producing the results you want?

Or maybe, like many others, you’ve trained for years but look pretty much the same from year to year.

If any of these rings true, read on because we’ll be laying out everything you need to know about making consistent progress with your training.

Let’s dive in.

What Is a Plateau And Why Does It Occur?

Many people have the wrong idea about what a plateau is, so we decided to spend a few paragraphs going over what it truly means.

What constitutes a plateau will vary between individuals because the more advanced you get, the more challenging it gets to make further progress. Elite athletes often train for an entire year to make marginal improvements. In contrast, a beginner makes progress every week or two.

For the average trainee, a plateau is a period of at least one month where you’re not making any progress toward your goals. If you primarily care about muscle gain, that means remaining the same. If you mostly care about getting stronger, it means being stuck at a specific weight.

A plateau can occur for many reasons, and no two cases are the same. Weight loss plateaus tend to be the trickiest to diagnose because weight fluctuations can mask fat loss, making you think you’re stalling. Similarly, a strength-related plateau can occur for many reasons, and it isn’t always easy to diagnose, as some people are quick to conclude they are in a plateau.

With that in mind, let’s go over the most common reasons for strength and muscle plateaus and the fix for each.

The Five Most Common Reasons For a Plateau (And How to Fix Each)

1. Improper Form

Training with poor form is one of the most common reasons for a plateau. You’re essentially building your castle on a sand foundation, and that eventually catches up to you.

Lifting weights with poor technique stops you from engaging the correct muscles and prevents you from putting yourself in the strongest possible position. Instead, you have to rely on shallow tactics like momentum and shortening the range of motion to complete more repetitions. But, you can only progress for so long before you hit a wall.

If you suspect that poor form is the root issue, reduce your load across all exercises and re-establish each movement pattern. Filming some of your training sets can also be helpful, as doing so could help you spot subtle and glaring errors in your form.

2. Changing Exercises too Often

Many fail to realize that strength training depends on skill just as much as it does on physical ability. Having either would net you decent results, but combining the two is the best way to reach your true potential.

Changing exercises too frequently prevents you from getting stronger precisely because you don’t get enough consistent practice with specific activities. As a result, you struggle to develop and maintain the necessary skill to lift a weight in the most effective manner.

A much better way to prevent strength plateaus is to stick with the exercises you perform for at least three to four months. That way, you get enough consistent practice with a movement to develop your skills without necessarily growing bored with your training.

3. Maxing Out Frequently

Maxing out, the act of lifting weights close to your one-repetition maximum (1RM), is a favorite activity for many trainees. After all, it shows you just how strong you are, and it boosts your ego. Plus, you get to play with big boy weights.

But, here is the thing:

Maxing out is not that productive. Sure, it has its benefits, such as making you more comfortable with 1RM attempts. But, maxing out isn’t something you do to make progress. It’s more of a tool you use to monitor your progress.

The problem with maxing out frequently is that it stops you from getting the quality training you need to cause a strong stimulus and build strength. Instead, you’re constantly testing your current ability, often lifting identical amounts of weight.

A much better approach to your training is to keep loads between 70 and 90 percent of your 1RM for most of the time. Do multiple sets of 3, 4, 5, and 6 reps, give yourself enough time to recover, and practice the main lifts two to three times per week. Then, once every ten to twelve weeks, permit yourself to max out and see what progress you’ve made.

4. Poor Nutrition

While many people look for the cause of a plateau in their training, poor nutrition is often a bigger reason for being stuck. Getting stronger without building new muscle or gaining weight is undoubtedly possible. Improving your skill on a movement and developing your neuromuscular capacity are two good ways to start lifting more weight while looking pretty much the same.

But, while it certainly is possible to get stronger that way, most people make the best progress by also increasing their body weight and muscle mass. Doing so improves their strength capacity, allowing improvement to occur more naturally. As such, nutrition can get in the way of your progress due to:

  • Inadequate calorie intake that impairs your recovery and prevents you from gaining weight
  • Low protein intake that leads to slower recovery and stops you from building new muscle

So, just as you look for ways to improve your training, you should also keep your nutrition in mind, ensuring that it doesn’t stop you.

5. Lack of Sleep

The fifth common reason for a plateau is sleep deprivation. Countless people sacrifice their sleep in favor of other, seemingly more important things. But, the truth is, your sleep is at the core of everything. Adequate rest helps you feel better, allows you to train harder, and boosts your motivation. Good sleep is also integral for muscle protein synthesis and overall recovery from training.

In contrast, sleep deprivation can slow down recovery, lead to poor workouts, and make you more likely to skip sessions. So, get at least seven hours of sleep per night. If possible, aim for up to eight hours.

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