Body Conquest Articles | Plateaus and how to avoid them

on Tuesday, 16 April 2013. Posted in Training

Plateau's And How To Avoid Them

It is perhaps an inenviability that at some stage during your bodybuilding training that you are going to reach a plateau. A plateau is a point where your results just stop coming. It can be a particular weight that you cannot lift over. It may also be that you cannot seem to make a particular body part grow. Nothing seems to make it repsond with the growth spurt that you are urgently seeking. The reasons for this stagnation can vary. Often the finger is pointed at the likelihood that you are overtraining. However this is not always the case. Plateauing can be a physical standstill or it can be a mental block. Alternatively it can be a combination of both. This article looks at the common reasons why trainee's plateau, what you can do to prevent the phenomenon and then provides some soloutions to the problem if you already have.

Plateauing is a real nightmare and incredibly frustrating. If the reason for your plateau is overtraining, it can be self-perpetuating because you are likely to be in the mode of not being accepting of the standstill and are probably persisiting in trying to move that weight or train harder. Certainly overtraining is probably the most common cause of why you have plateaued. How do you tell if you are so-called overtraining? You need to honestly assess your training patterns and intensity and ask your self some hard questions. Are you always experiencing DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness)? What are your motivation levels really like? Have you been well lately or have you been a little off, susceptible to every virus and cold flying around the gym? Do you have a niggling injury that just doesn't seem to heal, or even worse, more than one? How spritely are you at work and with your significant other, or do they consider you a bear with a sore head of late? How is your sex drive, your sleeping patterns, your eating habits and your weight? These are all things that can point your compass to the overtraining area. If you can answer yes to two or more of these questions then there is your red flag waving madly. You are a great candidate for the title of overtrained gym rat or bunny.

Improvements in strength and bodybuilding training occur only during the rest period following hard training. This process takes at least 12-24 hours to complete and best escapulated whilst you are firmly in the land of nod. If sufficient rest is not available then complete regeneration cannot occur. If this imbalance between excess training and inadequate rest persists then your performance will eventually plateau and decline. I can guarantee it. Don't get me wrong, I think DOMS and the like have a place in the training ethos but you should realise and appreciate that even mild overtraining may require several days of rest or reduced activity to fully restore a trainee's muscle. If you don't acknowledge your overtrained state or don't recognise the symptoms and you continue to train the condition may come to persist for many weeks or even months.

Overtraining may be caused by a number of mechanism that include microtrauma to the muscle fibres, that due to frequency and intenisty of training are created faster than the body can heal them as a major one. If you aren't nailing your diet then what can happen is the amino acids are used up faster than what they are supplied via the food system, which is sometimes referred to as protein deficinecy. This is one reason that remaining in a positive nitogen state is so important. Another nutrition related reason includes a calorie deficit which accelerates the rate of speed at which the muscle tissue breaks down. Finally the stress level cortisol is elevated for longer periods of time meaning that your body is in a catabolic as opposed to anabolic state.

To reiterate, muscle growth is achieved by progressively overloading the muscles and then allowing them to recover before working them again. This forces them to adapt by adding new muscle to handle future demands placed upon them. However, if you never allow your muscles to fully recuperate, they will not be able to handle any new demands placed upon them. They will start getting weaker from less rest. That is how plateaus happen. Throughout all of my articles a central theme is "less is more". You really need to apply it. Preventing plateaus is far more easy then trying to overcome them, and it's not difficult, you just need to have a serious chat to yourself. I advocate that you train every eight weeks and then have an "active rest week". This means, you stay outta the gym and do anything other than lift weights. If you want to play volleyball, rollerblade, swim, play soccer and walk the dog, do it in this week, but give your body a chance to recover from the intense weight training that you subject it too. Your body and your gains will thank you for it.

As far as your training goes, again, train harder and smarter, not longer. Your weight training should be just that, training with weights and not mixing cardio with it. Workouts do not need to be long to be effective, in fact, if they are too long, they are counter- productive. The goal of weight training is to go into the gym and stimulate muscle growth, not to annihilate the muscles. By stimulating them with progressive overload, you are forcing them to respond and adapt to this progressive overload. Anything more is futile over training.

Heavy and intense weight training produces microscopic fibre damage to the muscles. It is this damage and rebuilding which causes a muscle to get bigger and stronger. Without proper rest between workouts of the same muscle group, you will not recover sufficiently to handle placing more overload on that muscle group. Again, if your muscles cannot handle the overload, results are diminished. You should wait at least five to seven days between working the same muscle group. If you train chest on Monday, wait until the following Monday to ensure your pecs are rested enough. Training them prior will almost certainly create an over training environment. One of the most important things you can do for yourself is to start "listening" to how your body feels. You are lifting for progress, not just for the act of lifting some weight. If a muscle group is still a bit sore, there is still some fibre damage creating that soreness that needs to heal. Training with sore muscles is like trying to shovel your way out of a hole. You get nowhere fast. Taking an extra day off to rest will ensure the next day's workout produce results.

The single best thing that you can do with your training is to utilise the concept of periodisation. Periodisation is a tactic that prevents overtraining and provides the muscles with the best biological environment for muscle growth and increasing strength. It can reduce injury and help keep you motivated during your workouts. Training with high intensities and overload year round is tough on the body - the central nervous system, muscles, connective tissue, joints and tendons can only take so much. Even top professional athletes cycle their training to reduce the risk of overtraining and ensure long-term gains. Exactly how to periodise is beyond the scope of this article however having said this, usually every "mesocycle" will include the above mentioned "active rest week" every 8 to 10 weeks. If you are unsure how to plan your training scheme invest in hiring a well qualified and experienced personal trainer or strength and conditioning coach who has dealt with periodisation cycles many times before.

Having said that, if you feel you have hit a plateau, immediately take a week off. You may just need some rest. Use this time to heal and continue to eat properly. Make sure your protein level is high for this is the time your muscles need the building blocks to work with. This rest and proper nutrition will be very anabolic to your body. It may be all you need to bust through that plateau. One way not to overcome a plateau is by trying to work through it. You cannot make something better by doing what it was that caused it in the first place!

Be aware that overtraining occurs more readily if you are simultaneously exposed to other physical and psychological stressors, such as jet lag, ongoing illness, work stress, menstruation issues, poor nutrition to cite a few. It is a particular problem for competitive bodybuilders pre-contest who engage in intense training and extra cardio activity (and often less sleep) while limiting their food intake.


What if your training has stagnated due to mental and psychological reasons? You aren't overtrained yet your training isn't floating your boat right now? Yet you know you still want to keep going to the gym, its just that your momentum has waned and so has your strength and gains. What can you do about it?

Well the good news is, quite a bit. There are a lot of tips and techniques to revitalise your attitude towards training and this will hopefully transfer into your sessions and muscle growth.

Firstly, you can train around some trainee's who are at the top of their sport. Do you know of a good gym in the area with a reputation for churning out great competitive bodybuilders.......go there! Go for a casual workout or two. Being around top-notch bodies provides a challenge. Seeing a well-built, muscular, symmetrical bodybuilder provides true inspiration. These people are walking knowledge bases as well and they are usually more than happy to share with you. Being around people who are better makes you rise to the occasion and may be all you need to break your current motivation plateau.

Boredom equals death. If you're bored with a relationship the train is going to stop at the next station. If you're bored with a game you stop playing. If you're bored with your workout routine you'll slog through it. You want training to be fun. I am not going to suggest a specific workout to break your motivation plateau. I find the concept crazy; to suggest that by doing this workout, these exercises and this weight you will "break your current plateau". I mean, that is just non-sensical and not individually tailored to the individual, so I find these articles useless. But I do suggest varying your repetition schemes, changing exercises and break timing to add variety and spice. Try burnouts, strip sets, cable machines, dumbbells, weighted chins, and isometrics to spice it up. Breaking the monotony makes the gym fun. Keep it fresh and you'll be excited as a result.

Most people train for a particular look. Maybe you don't care if you are lifting 90 lb dumbbells or 45's as long as you looked better. Maybe you could ask one of the gymmies to give you a fitness assessment? Once you have had it, track your progress. I am a big believer in the training diary. How are you going to progressively overload if you don't lift heavier and heavier? How can you possibly remember each and every workout? You can't. So track your sessions. If you feel stronger, and there is proof right in front of you in quantitative data you will feel better and stay more motivated.


1. Watch a movie like Pumping Iron. It is a great way to heighten motivation. Nothing like seeing how the big boys play to stimulate a rockin workout.

2. Put on an ipod with your favourite music to get you pumping (and get your mind off being stuck on a particular weight)! Music has the power to get your mind well away from the fact that you are training really intensely.

3. Lift because someone says you can't do it. We all love doing something that everyone tell's us we can't! So use it to inspire yourself to take your training to new heights.

4. Seek out a like-minded individual as a training partner. Nothing like a youngster to have in tow who is hungry to grow. They will support, encourage and spot you.

5. Try and impress people! Yep, there's nothing wrong with that. Fellow gym goers, a member of the opposite sex that you like, a family member, whomever. If you want to impress someone bad enough, you will continue with your bodybuilding lifestyle.

6. Hire a personal trainer for a session. You will be amazed at how differently you will train. If you have been stuck on x amount of weight for your squat for example, just having the presence of someone there, who you will be trying to do your best for (not to mention who you have paid money for), will be enough to break the plateau you have been stuck on. Try it; I have seen it work numerous times.

7. Help other trainee's out. It's motivating to offer advice when it's sought, knowing that other people actually look up to you and value your opinion. Be helpful.

8. Use photo's to motivate yourself. Before's and after's are a great tool. Place them around your house, your car, your work and your gym locker. Use them to help garner that inner drive to improve and train well.

9. Use visualisation techniques. If you can see yourself doing it, lifting that weight, getting through your workout, then you will. Go through the workout or lift in your mind the night before, or on the way to the gym. Conceive it, believe it and achieve it!

10. Reward yourself when you break your plateau. I don't mean with a guilty pleasure, I mean something training oriented. Perhaps a new supplement, a pair of training gloves or a new training t-shirt. If you are doing really well, and achieve one of your goals, then pat yourself on the back for a job well done.

Hitting a plateau is no fun. But by training cleverly, with clear goals, and adding some variety you can do much to avoid the situation. Acknowledge the symptoms of overtraining, the most common reason for reaching a plateau. Periodise your program and stick to the plan. If you do plateau use these techniques to overcome the problem. If the plateau is more of a mental one use some of these tips and tricks to dupe your brain into believing that you are motivated and enjoying your time training. Train smart and stay hungry for your successes in the gym.