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  • Writer's pictureFiras Aouinet

How To Break Through a Plateau

Updated: Oct 8, 2022

If you’ve been lifting weights for a while, you’ve probably hit a dead end where nothing seems to get you new gains. You’re confused because you’ve been doing what you were taught to do, yet nothing has changed: You’ve cranked up the weights, you’ve changed and rearranged some exercises. Still nothing.

It might have to do with a couple of reasons which I am about to address right about… Wait for it… Now.

Let’s review the basics

I lied, I’m sorry but hear me out. In order to understand why you hit a plateau, we’ve got to review the fundamentals.

The goal is to build muscle and to be consistent with it. To do that, you started resistance training.

The positive aspect of starting out is beginner gains — obtained during the Alarm stage of the General Adaptation Syndrome. The body is introduced to the new stress (resistance training) and, therefore, does its best to adapt to it.

After a while, we reach the resistance stage (also called the Adaptation stage). Adapting to the stress factor, the body releases less cortisol (a stress hormone) than it did during the alarm stage. This is when changes occur (muscle breakdown and recovery, energy mobilization, etc.).

Should this stage continue to linger for more than the body could handle, we enter the final stage called the Exhaustion stage. This is the over-training zone. We start losing strength, feeling irritable, and our mental and physical well-being decline.

General Adaptation Syndrome
The General Adaptation Syndrome chart

Progressive Overload

Now, we get to the nitty-gritty portion. This is probably what you’ve been doing since day one. It makes sense because to build muscle, you have to keep lifting heavier weights in a hypertrophy-inducing rep range, right?

Here’s what you may not know: progressive overload is not just about lifting heavier weights.

It could be divided into two main categories.

Volume: Gradually increasing weight.

Frequency: Working with the same weight but increasing the volume of your work. In other words, increasing the weekly reps or sets.

You shouldn't implement both (volume and frequency) together, otherwise, you risk injury and/or over-training.

If you’ve been using progressive weight overload (volume) as your strategy, increase your frequency instead.

pokemon machop machamp machoke progressive overload
Progressive overload applied to pokemon

Metabolic Stress

A.k.a the pump! It is my favorite because this is what I'm used to. It is what I have been doing for the past several years as my main strategy, and most importantly because I love the burning sensation.

Metabolic stress happens when you put a muscle under continuous muscle tension for long (longer than what you would go for with progressive overload), hence, emphasizing the principle of Time Under Tension.

The mechanics behind this strategy of muscle growth are complex and going in-depth would put you to sleep so, allow me to simplify:

Implementing metabolic stress uses a cascade of reactions starting with aerobic reactions (using Oxygen) and finishing with anaerobic reactions (Oxygen deficit). Metabolites build up (e.g. Lactic Acid/Lactate) in the muscle, causing cells to swell.

The goal of metabolic stress is to fatigue the muscle. It has been hypothesized that fatigue is another factor of hypertrophy just like mechanical overload and muscle damage.

This strategy is widely used by athletes. It builds:

  • endurance: using a lighter weight than what you'd usually go for a 12-rep set and going for, e.g, 20 reps/until failure.

  • power: Exploding on the concentric part of the movement as fast as you can with proper form and control.

Type 2 muscle fibers (fast-twitch muscle fibers) are recruited as well.

If you're looking to delve deeper into the different strategies to implement metabolic stress, check this article.

metabolic stress process
Metabolic Stress process

Eccentric training

There are three types of contractions:

  • Concentric contractions (e.g. the curling motion of a bicep curl)

  • Isometric contractions (e.g. stopping the bicep curl at peak contraction for an interval of time)

  • Eccentric contractions (e.g. the lowering motion of a bicep curl)

Eccentric training is used majorly in rehabilitation and injury prevention processes. Eccentric contractions were shown to damage muscle fibers only for those fibers to recuperate and regenerate stronger and bigger.

Basically, eccentric contractions can be compared to car brakes and shock absorbers combined.

From experience and scientific evidence combined, Eccentric Training will absolutely leave you stiff and sore starting a few hours up to a couple of days after your workout — if you're not accustomed to it. Be ready for DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscles Soreness)!

"Eccentric actions place a stretch on the sarcomeres to the point where the myofilaments may experience strain, otherwise known as exercise induced delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS)" (Aaron Bubbico & Len Kravitz, 2010).

Don't get discouraged though, should you feel stiff a day or two after training, the quickest recovery method will be to repeat the exercises you did with lower impact (e.g. a couple of body-weight sets or lightweight sets).

It sounds counter-intuitive but the repeated movement drives blood and nutrients to the muscles, therefore, speeding the recovery process.

Your body will become accustomed to the movement and therefore, it will feel less uncomfortable. This phenomenon is called the Repeated-Bout Effect.

eccentric contraction
Eccentric contraction

So, there you have it! Now you can plan your workouts properly to avoid the plateau.

I'll leave you with a video that motivated me to write this post.

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