Training Plateaus: Fact or Fiction?

Dave Draper, backstage

Plateaus, fact or fiction? No matter. Our job is to kill the ugly beast, real or imaginary, and sustain the process of building muscle, strength and shape at an agreeable pace... if not at the speed of light. I personally believe that plateaus or sticking points are the abominations of un-seasoned muscle builders, whose patience and understanding have not wholly developed.

The first approach to managing an apparent halt in progress is to persist, a small word with grand purpose. To persist is to overcome. Despite sufficient advertising evidence, muscle building is eventually a slow and laborious task. The snail moves but who can wait or measure the distance? I submit that the plateaus that plague the bodybuilding world are the disappointments of start-up intermediates whose investment on a daily basis seems to be significant but is, in the larger picture, indeed begging for more, more and more.

I offer this unpopular consideration 'cuz I see too many trainees dumping their latest hot routine at the first gummy chew of boredom or flickering sign of a slump. Hey, mate, don't lose heart. Fire away with renewed vigor knowing your sought-after load is reaching a limit and core muscle adaptation is achieved with each successive, intense workout, each heartfelt rep. You've got to blast it. Push, eat, sleep, recuperate, re-motivate and push some more. Growth is in persistence.

When the blasting is completed (discovered and accomplished through perseverance, grit, trust and intuition), you may change your routine slightly or a lot.

Here are some quick suggestions:

The old standbys: take a few days off or do aerobics only. Get plenty of Zs, bump the protein and carbs. R and R, when in order, does wonders for the body, mind and spirit.

When a wrinkle in my workout appears, I shift gears for a day or two and lighten the weight I've been handling, increase my pace and focus on form and pump and reps. This alteration is a welcome relief and reminds me of the rhythmic joy in training and its revitalizing effects. Resuming the regular schedule is appealing and the body's response is up.

Assuming we all want to grow-improve-and none of us grow like weeds, I recommend you place a consistent, intelligent and logical demand on yourself when before the weights. Order and completeness in your routine is a priority but not without just enough looseness so you don't squeak, get jammed or freeze up.

Within each workout I apply eighty percent structure and allow a neat twenty percent margin... room to fit the pieces to the whole. Looseness in this context is neither sloppy nor random; it is freedom of expression, the realm where finesse and instinct reside. Example: varying the grip on the bench or adding a four-inch block for a minor yet effective change of angle, replacing dumbbell presses with intense wide-grip pause-flys, investing in forearm training instead of exclusive biceps training (wrist curl and thumbs-up curl tri-setted with some rope-grip triceps extensions... yummy), giant sets like dumbbell presses followed by dumbbell shrugs with pullovers followed by seated lat rows... locomotion. Give squats a rest and throw in some tough leg presses supersetted with thigh curls and calves. You've got the picture: creative, logical and constructive workout persuasion.

I'm pushy when pushing discipline, forbearance and perseverance. I'll risk repeating myself. These are the rascals that break plateaus in any and every endeavor. And logic is right in there. Convinced you're maxed and change of a greater magnitude is needed, consider bulking up (excuse the ole 60s lingo). When the season is right and if I'm not already feeling like a sow, I set myself to the task of gaining five to ten pounds. This is done by commitment, of course, and a clear plan to increase my food intake (i.e. daily addition of 500 calories of choice protein, fats and carbs) and my heavy, basic training. Plenty of sets and warm-ups with lower work sets and reps and a slower pace. I might drop one workout a week to assure repair and avoid injury. Two on, one off-two on, two off. There goes another winter.

You want to leap off the line without a whole bunch of psyche and preparation-the way of today's young and restless-don't you? Sure you do. May I interest you in the handy-dandy, compact 10x10 non-stop multi-set XXtreme Routines? These will set you on fire and burn your socks off. Pick two favorite exercises that complement each other and meet the broad superset requirements. Examples: barbell curl and machine dips or bench press and wide-grip pulldowns or press-behind-necks and side-arm lateral raises. Choose a moderately light weight in each movement and with fortitude and mettle begin an even-paced ten sets of ten reps superset marathon. Early on you are fresh and the pump is delightful; as you proceed without losing tempo the burn takes control, fatigue bites at your glutes and the novelty is replaced by bloodshot eyes. Works wonders on plateaus, dead ends, slumps, walls and valleys.

Popular versions of this exuberant training practice include 8 sets of 8 and 5 sets of 5. Pick and match, supersets can be replaced with tri-sets. The less volume in the combinations, the more frequently the method can be applied. On sunny days when life is endless I enjoy tough barrel rolls with five, six or seven different movements smartly entangling cooperative muscles. The gym floor must be your playground and the equipment under your control for this eruption of exercise to be successful. If these combos don't break the plateaus, they are sure to keep them from occurring.

To wrestle the sticking points to the mat and acquire order, patience and discipline at the very same time, get out your training log or pad and pencil. You're about to choose a basic exercise per muscle group and with a rep-per-set and add-weight procedure, embark on a six-week, eight-week or twelve-week program to incrementally increase your strength and muscle mass. This is fundamental instruction but the basics need to be lifted high for them to be visible in this age of retarded new wave info. Let's use the bench press as our reliable model. After a warm-up start with a base weight with which five sets of six reps are tough yet friendly. You're on a mission. Record and move on. Next workout, perform one set of seven reps and four of six-you choose the set when to raise the rep. Next session hit two of seven and three of six, and so on until you've completed five sets of seven reps.

Continue recording and pressing until five sets of eight reps are scrolled on the pages before you. This is a substantial, comfortable and commendable accomplishment and has held you to the mark for over five weeks of two bench sessions a week. It is now time to return to the six-rep regimen and up the starting weight by a sensible two to four percent, your call, and start the incrementing process all over again. You do the math, your steady improvement and application provides the inspiration, the wise eating and clean life-style offer the environment to grow. Presto.

Final test: What's a plateau, anyway? Pick one.

Ancient Greek scholar (Wrong, that's Plato)
Small, faraway planet (Wrong, that's Pluto)
Bodybuilder's disaster (Getting close)

Other new pages of the website to inspire your training

Did you sign up for Dave's expanded email yet?
It's free, motivating and priceless!
We'll also send you a link to Dave's free Body Revival Tips and Hints booklet with your confirmation notice.

Enter your email address here:

Our IronOnline Forum will answer your training and nutriton questions right now

Golden Era fans will rejoice in this excerpt from West Coast Bodybuilding Scene

It's practically a miracle! Dave's Top Squat assists sqatters with shoulder problems

Click here to see the previous week's column