How to Break a Muscle Mass Plateau for Advanced Lifters
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The basics of building muscle mass are no secret. Overload. Eat. Recover. If you have just started training seriously and are struggling to gain muscle mass, chances are that you don’t need a more advanced training program, a complicated nutrition plan, or a sophisticated supplement regimen. What you need to do is master the boring stuff, and have a bit of patience. It’s important to understand, though, that just because the basics are simple, it doesn’t mean they are easy to integrate into your daily life. If you are training solo, it might take a few months just to get into a consistent training and nutrition routine. You might also need to spend several months improving your mobility and posture before you are even capable of training hard without injuring yourself, and then it will be another few months until you start seeing significant changes in your physique. Having a realistic time line from the start will help to prevent the temptation of jumping from one program to the next and stressing about the minutiae of nutrition. Instead, you will focus your energy on the habits that make the most difference in your results.
If, on the other hand, you are a more experienced lifter who has had been able to build a solid foundation of strength and muscle mass, but have been stuck at a plateau for more than 3 months or so, it’s time to reassess what you are doing in your current training program and identify the areas that can be optimized. Early on in your training career, just about anything that you do consistently will get you results, but the more advanced you get, the harder and smarter you have to work to continue to make progress. Understand that the training program that got you here is not the one that will get you to where you want to go. The following five insights that I've gained over my training career are based on the observations I've made in my own training programs and those of my clients, in addition to the teachings of other trainers, coaches, and therapists that I've interacted with over the years.
One last thing before we discuss training details: you have to have a certain level of maturity and attention span, in order to achieve long-term success in building your physique while staying healthy and injury-free. It’s not a lifestyle for those who need instant gratification. No one has ever put on 20lbs of muscle mass overnight. You have to be willing to set your ego aside and focus on the movements that you struggle with. If you are not open to changing your training routine and worry about losing progress, then this article isn't for you. On the other hand, if you are open minded and willing to experiment with your training routines, read on!
Lesson #1: Prioritize your weaknesses and don't get emotionally attached to exercises
It can be easy to become obsessive with your training program, trying to make sure that you dedicate an exercise to each individual muscle group. I used to hear a lot about the benefits of various isolation exercises when issues of Muscle & Fitness and episodes of BodyShaping on ESPN2 were my primary sources of training knowledge. Because of that, I thought that the more exercise variations I could fit into my training program, the more "balanced" it would be. My workouts ended up being 2+ hours long, and by the time I got around to the last few exercises, I wasn’t really getting any productive work in. While I did make progress training like this, I was only 14, and would have probably made progress doing just about anything. It would have been a much better use of my time to focus on building up my weaknesses, as they are what determines your overall rate of progress in the long run.
Now let me be clear, there are certainly very effective training programs that include a ton of exercise variation within a single session, such as Giant Sets routines (check out my triceps workout here) and various types of circuit training that have a high training density (i.e. a high work to rest ratio). However, I would perform all of my exercises as straight sets (finishing all the sets of one exercise before moving to the next) which would make the workout too long and inefficient.
Consider the following points if you want to make your workouts more efficient:
- Whatever you work on first during a training session is what will improve the fastest. Focus on targeting your biggest weaknesses first in your training session to ensure that you are making the best use of your time. This approach will build strength faster, reduce your likelihood of injury, and make for better long-term progress. You just have to set your ego aside and be willing to work on things that you aren’t good at!
- There is a lot of carry-over between similar exercises, so don’t feel obligated to perform every exercise you know in order to build balanced strength. If your progress has stagnated in a given lift or movement, sometimes the most effective intervention is to take a break from that particular exercise for a few months and instead focus variations or ‘assistance exercises’ with a slightly different emphasis. Behind the neck presses will improve incline barbell presses, wide grip pullups will improve your close grip chin ups, and good mornings will help to improve your deadlifts. Just be patient and allow yourself enough time to make progress in a given variation before moving on. You will spread yourself too thin if you trying to push too many exercises at once. Remember that when maximizing muscle mass is the goal, the exercises you use are a means to an end, not an end in and of themselves, which brings me to my next point...
- Don’t get emotionally attached to certain exercises! Unless you are training to compete in Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifting, or Strongman, the exercises and methods you use to build your body or improve your performance do not matter as long as they are effective! An exercise variation being more popular doesn't mean it is more effective. There is no exercise that is absolutely essential to building muscle mass. Back squats and bench presses work, but they don’t always have to be the centerpiece of your program. The strength of any lift or movement can be improved, or at least maintained without having to work on it directly.
Lesson #2: Learn to progress without increasing weight or reps
Lifting more weight or getting more reps is gratifying, but those aren’t the only ways to make progress, especially when muscle growth is your primary goal. Maximizing time under tension and thoroughly fatiguing a broad range of muscle fibers are the keys to a muscle-building training program. The amount of weight lifted and reps performed are somewhat arbitrary if you don’t take into consideration the other variables in the program. Rep speed, work-to-rest ratios, range of motion, and exercise technique are all equally important factors in the effectiveness of your training program. Experimenting with these variables in your training programs will allow you to continue making progress in a safe manner when you can’t add more weight to the bar or grind out another rep.
Increasing Training Density
Increasing your training density is simple. All you need to do is complete the same amount of work in less time, or, do more work in the same amount of time. This method is great for body weight movements where you aren’t always able to lighten the load. For example, if you are stuck at 5 reps on pull-ups and your first workout looked like this:
Set 1: 5 reps, 2 min rest
Set 2: 5 reps, 2 min rest
Set 3: 4 reps, 2 min rest
Set 4: 3 reps, 2 min rest
Set 5: 3 reps, 2 min rest
In order to increase your training density you could do the following:
Set 1: 5 reps, 1 min 40 sec rest
Set 2: 5 reps, 1 min 40 sec rest
Set 3: 4 reps, 1 min 40 sec rest
Set 4: 3 reps, 1 min 40 sec rest
Set 5: 3 reps, 1 min 40 sec rest
As you can see, even though all of the reps are the same, each rest period is shortened by 20 sec, which increases the training density.
Alternatively, you could also add a 6th set which would increase training density and overall training volume:
Set 1: 5 reps, 1 min 40 sec rest
Set 2: 5 reps, 1 min 40 sec rest
Set 3: 4 reps, 1 min 40 sec rest
Set 4: 3 reps, 1 min 40 sec rest
Set 5: 3 reps, 1 min 40 sec rest
Set 6: 3 reps
After a few weeks of using the decreased rest intervals, try returning to the original rest intervals and you should be able to perform more total reps. The key to success with this system is keeping strict rest intervals, so you’ll want to use a stopwatch to keep you on track.
Increasing Range of Motion
Increasing the range of motion of your exercises (which is something lifters with fragile egos will avoid like the plague!) is another great way to make progress without having to increase weight or reps. Not only will it increase your time under tension, but it will also increase muscle fiber recruitment. Simple modifications like deadlifting while standing on a low step instead of on the floor will force you to bend your knees and hips deeper, increasing the recruitment of the quads, glutes and hamstrings. If you have access to a cambered bar, you can use that to get a deeper stretch for your flat, incline, and decline barbell pressing movements. Just be conservative with the weights for your first few workouts so that you can allow your tendons to adapt to the increased stretch. If you are someone who is used to squatting only to parallel, switching to full squats (butt to heels at the bottom position) might be a drastic change at first, but if you take your time in perfecting the technique, you will see greater development in the thighs and glutes, and will also improve the mobility of your ankles, knees and hips. Regardless of the exercise you are performing, always consider ways in which you can maximize the range of motion. In some cases, it will be a smarter way to progress than by simply adding more weight.
Varying exercise tempo is a powerful technique that can be used to extend time under tension or target a specific weakness in an exercise. First let’s address a common misunderstanding. “Using tempo” does not imply that an exercise is performed slowly. The word tempo is simply a description of the speed of execution of the concentric contraction, eccentric contraction, and transitions between the two. If you don’t have tempo prescriptions written into your training programs, it leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Two people could execute the same program in drastically different manners. A fast squat with a rebound out of the bottom position vs a squat that takes 5 seconds on the lowering phase will be drastically different in terms of the training effect and the amount of weight that can be used. Regardless of the training goal, it is important to consider the effect of tempo.
As I mentioned previously, when it comes to muscle building, time under tension is key. A simple way to increase the “time” part of that equation is by slowing down the rep speed. Slowing down the eccentric contraction (lowering phase), or adding a pause at some point in the lift, are my preferred methods of increasing the length of a rep.
If you are used to taking one second to lower the bar to your chest on a bench press, try taking three seconds in the next workout. You wont be able to perform as many reps initially, but try to stick with it until you can match the reps you were originally able to complete with the faster tempo. Increasing the duration of the set while moving the same weight will equal increased muscle growth. When you go back to using a faster tempo, it may take a few workouts before you notice much of a strength improvement, because you'll have to get used to using the stretch reflex again.
Significantly slowing down the concentric contraction (the lifting phase) can be great for rehab situations, building muscular endurance, and learning exercise technique. In most cases however, I wouldn’t make slow concentric contractions the focus of a muscle-building program because the amount of force you will be able to generate will be so limited that it will be hard to stimulate fast twitch muscle fibers. Additionally, the eccentric part of the lift will not receive much overload. If I do use slow concentric contractions in my muscle building training programs, I'll usually put them at the end of a workout as “finishers” after the heavier training is already completed.
Lesson #3: Dedicate time to improving flexibility
Without a doubt, stretching is one thing that I wish I had spent more time on early in my training career! While some people are blessed with naturally great flexibility, the rest of us have to dedicate time to increasing and maintaining flexibility in our weekly routines. Not only will this prevent many injuries and pains, it will also improve your ability to increase strength and muscle mass. Movements which require good mobility, like the Olympic lifts and squats, will feel more comfortable and fluid.
Keeping your opposing muscle groups in balance in terms of flexibility and strength will allow you to make faster progress and will increase your efficiency of movement. If an antagonistic muscle is overly tight, it will restrict the ability of the prime mover to contract. For example, if the psoas are overly tight, the ability of the glutes and hamstrings to contract will be limited, especially near the end range of motion (think of the second pull of a snatch, the drive phase of a sprint, or the finish of a back extension). Additionally, improved mobility in the legs and hips will take stress off of the spine. Besides keeping your body feeling good and functioning better, it is thought that stretching the fascia which surrounds muscle fibers, will allow the muscles more room to grow. Speaking from personal experience, diligently following a hamstring stretching routine, in conjunction with regular strength training, resulted in a significant boost in size and strength. Whether that was due to the fascia being stretched, allowing for muscle growth, or from improved exercise technique and range of motion (thereby creating a more effective training stimulus) is not totally clear, but the bottom line is that it increased my results. There's nothing trendy about it, but I find that basic long-duration static stretches performed after a thorough warm-up to one of the most effective methods for creating lasting flexibility improvements.
Lesson #4: Using two-a-days can greatly accelerate your rate of progress
I realize that training multiple times per day is not practical for many people, but don’t dismiss it right away! There are many creative ways to fit more short training sessions into your schedule. Utilizing multiple daily training sessions can greatly speed up your rate of progress as long as you stay diligent with your nutrition and recovery. The main advantage of multiple short training sessions in a day, versus longer single sessions, is that you can maintain a higher level of intensity for the duration of a session, leading to higher quality workouts. You also get more opportunities to have your post-workout protein shake, which is a prime opportunity to to shuttle more nutrients into your muscles.
If you are motivated, I'm sure you can find a way to get more training sessions in. Let’s say you work a Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm schedule and are trying to find time to train more often. The following schedule would allow you to get in six workouts but still have four days completely off from training to allow you to focus on your other priorities:
Wednesday: 7-8am, 6-7pm
Saturday: 9am-10am, 2pm-3pm
Sunday: 9am-10am, 2pm-3pm
Another option that allows for more free time on the weekends would be this 4-day per week routine that doubles up on Saturday so that you can get in 5 total sessions each week.
Saturday: 9am-10am, 2pm-3pm
If you work from home or have more flexibility in your schedule, you could try this high-frequency training schedule for 1-2 weeks, alternated with a back-off week to allow for supercompensation:
Monday: 9am-10am, 2pm-3pm
Tuesday: 9am-10am, 2pm-3pm
Thursday: 9am-10am, 2pm-3pm
Friday: 9am-10am, 2pm-3pm
The number of options you have for arranging your training schedule are almost unlimited. Even if you can only fit in an extra 20 minute training session that focuses on 1 or 2 movements, it will make a big difference in your progress. If you do have a flexible schedule, concentrating more training sessions on fewer days might be something worth experimenting with, as some people will do better with more complete rest days, particularly when it comes to gaining muscle mass.
Lesson #5: Specialization programs that emphasize a particular muscle group or movement might be the best way to overcome a plateau
Without a doubt, embarking on a specialization program for a particular muscle group or movement is one of the quickest ways to add size to a lagging body part or to increase strength in a particular lift. It’s not often that you see people use specialization programs, however, as most often they are reserved for advanced trainees, and, because the standard school of thought is that specialization programs will tend to create overuse injuries if you overdo it. Consider it from this angle though: If you aren't balanced, should your program be? Spending an equal amount of time working on your strengths as you do on your weaknesses wouldn’t really make much sense if you are concerned with injury prevention. In order to bring up your weaknesses, you need to dedicate more of your energy towards improving them while doing enough to maintain your strengths.
That being said, even if you are an advanced athlete with good all-around strength, you may be struggling to progress by continuously dedicating an equal amount of training volume to each muscle group. In that case, it might be time to focus your energy on one lift or muscle group in order to start seeing progress again.
With a bit of trial and error, you will figure out how much frequency and training volume you can handle for a given body part. For example, in my experience the quads and glutes tend to respond well to a high training frequency (5+ sessions per week), and you can hammer away at a few exercise variations (squats, lunges, leg presses, trap bar deadlifts, etc) and have good success. Just make sure to include some high rep, lower intensity training days, especially as you are getting used to the increased frequency, so that you don't stress your tendons and ligaments more than they can handle. On the other hand, the shoulders, wrists, and elbows tend to be more susceptible to over-use injuries. This means that you may not be able to train heavy as often and would benefit from using a wider variety of exercises in order to help prevent overuse injuries.
Just remember that with a muscle group specialization program, you might not see much progress until you actually back off from the training and allow your body to fully recover.
One of my favorite movements to specialize in is overhead pressing. To get access to a complete specialization program for overhead pressing, click the button below:
Summing it all up...
- Be objective in your self-assessment and prioritize exercises that target your biggest weaknesses. This will result in much better long-term progress and will decrease your chance of injury. Don't worry about trying to include every exercise variation you can think of, you can't improve everything at once. Be open minded and don't get emotionally attached to your favorite exercises.
- Progressively increasing weight or reps are only two methods of creating overload in your training. Don't forget about varying rest intervals, rep speed, and exercise technique as additional variables in your training, especially if you have been stuck at a strength or size plateau.
- Becoming more flexible will help you to build more muscle mass. Not only does it decrease your chances of injury and allow you to move more fluidly, it will also gradually expand the fascia surrounding the muscle fibers, allowing more room for growth.
- Training once per day works, but doing multiple short sessions per day instead can be a great way to accelerate your progress as long as you make sure to increase your calorie intake (having a protein shake after each workout helps) and maintain good sleep habits. Keeping the sessions shorter allows you to maintain a higher training intensity for the duration of the session, and it gives you more opportunities to get in that post-workout feeding. Even workouts as short as 20-30 minutes can be effective.
- It can be hard to improve if you are working on too many things at once. Using a specialization program that focuses your energy on a particular muscle group or movement for several weeks, while doing enough to reasonably maintain the rest of your body, can be a great way to spark new progress. The key to a successful specialization program is being patient and not getting injured, so maintaining perfect form is essential, in addition to periodically decreasing the training volume to allow for supercompensation to occur. More exercise variety is recommended when specializing in upper body muscle groups as compared to lower body muscle groups.
Long term success in building muscle mass comes down to consistency, hard work, and patience. Consistency in your training, nutrition, and recovery habits, along with hard, focused work during your training sessions is what will set you up for success. I don’t want muscle building to seem like an overly complicated process, but we all hit plateaus in our training at one point or another. The lessons contained in this article simply are meant to help you analyze your current training regimen and identify strategies you can use to help spark new progress while staying injury-free. One final piece of advice: Always assess your nutrition and recovery habits before changing up your training routine. You don’t want to be jumping from one program to the next, making no progress, while avoiding the real issue of poor nutrition or sleep habits.
Now apply something you've learned from this article and get to training!