Let's get this out in the open—anyone can get an untrained person stronger in the first three to six months. However, It takes skill to continually get someone stronger after three, four or five years of training.
To put it in perspective, the first year of your training journey is the same as your first day learning math. Anything the teacher says to you is going to be new and helpful. Wait, you're telling me that if I take 3 and add it to 7, I get 10? Mind blown.
Fast forward a couple years and you're trying to learn advanced calculus. You are going to have to push yourself to learn these concepts; the learning does not come as easy as it did when you were learning basic addition. The same is true with lifting.
If you have never lifted a weight or challenged yourself, any type of strength training is all a new stimulus for your body. It is going to eat that up, and you are going to see the gains accumulate over those first few months. But after a year, the same strategies that got you where you are now may not be enough to take you to the next level.
Hitting a plateau in your strength can be a frustrating experience, especially for lifters who've become addicted to gains. You're still putting in the sweat and hard work, but you're not seeing the same rewards. But most stagnations in strength can be attributed to one (or more) of four major factors. Address these issues, adjust your training, and you'll be back on the gain train in no time.
1. You're Not Nearly as Consistent as You Think
It is easy to want something, but to go out there and get it is a whole different challenge.
I meet people every day who want to play D1 sports, put on muscle, or get lean— what's the difference between the people who reach their goals and those who don't?
Passion, devotion and consistency. The achievers make sacrifices and attack their goals with enthusiasm.
In the beginning, you could work out two days a week and see results. You could work out three days in a row and then take four days off and see results. You could even miss an entire week and still see net gains for the month.
This is not the case when you've been working out for an extended period of time. Doing two workouts a week will likely no longer be enough stimulus or volume to elicit a result. But you also can't skip a bunch of days in a row then expect to make up for it in a short span—working out hard three days in a row won't make up for a week off. If anything, the lack of proper recovery may do more harm than good!
If you want to get stronger, you can't be missing workouts. Period. And it's not just about the total number of workouts you perform, but how those workouts are scheduled throughout a given week/month and how the workouts themselves are structured.
It's also important to examine your effort and intent. What type of energy are you bringing to each session? Never underestimate the power of training with intent. Simply going through the motions will still result in gains for those with little previous training, but once you've built a solid foundation of strength, that's just not going to cut it.
2. You're Getting Volume/Intensity Wrong
Volume and intensity drive growth and progression. Too much will leave you beat up and injured, too little will leave you with a lot of time wasted and nothing to show for your work. You have to strike a balance, and that comes with planning.
At your stage, results likely no longer come with linear progression (simply adding more weight/reps each week). Going hard every time you hit the gym with no plan in place other than to lift more than you did last week doesn't work in the long run.
Work and results are not one and the same. If you are trying to increase strength, doing extra sets that are not quality (done with poor technique or not enough weight) will not get you any closer to your goal.
Here is want you need to know if you want to get stronger: Your total work needs to be going up and you need to stay above 80% of your one-rep max most of your working sets.
- Week 1: Bench: 3x5 at 100 pounds (1,500 pounds lifted)
- Week 2: Bench: 1x6/ 2x5 at 100 pounds (1,600 pounds lifted)
- Week 3: Bench 2x6/ 1x5 at 100 pounds (1,700 pounds lifted)
- Week 4: Bench 3x5 at 105 pounds (1,575 pounds lifted)
If you start feeling beat up from lifting heavy weights you can back off for up to a month (lifting below 80% of your 1 rep max) and not see much loss in your max strength, but anything beyond that will result in significant decreases. It's also important to test your one-rep max every 2-3 months so you can gauge where you're at and ensure you're not building programs around an outdated, inaccurate max.
3. Your Recovery Sucks
The closer you get to your true strength potential, the less you can get away with. At this stage in the game, how much sleep you get matters, what you eat counts, and how you manage stress (physically and mentally) plays a role in your success.
Quite simply, every component of recovery now counts. And if one or several of them are failing, you can't realistically expect yourself to get consistently stronger. A lot of young people tend to write off the importance of recovery, but mountains of research have demonstrated its importance. Insufficient sleep has been shown to result in weaker muscle strength, for example.
Results don't come in leaps and bounds at this stage; you are fighting for the inches and centimeters. Therefore, you have to put a premium on recovery. How you sleep and what you eat are going to be the most important factors here. You can get caught up with all the minutiae of foam rolling and ice baths and the like, but sleep and nutrition are your two most powerful recovery tools.
If you are new to the weight game, good for you, enjoy the easy gains; but if you have been in it for a while, gains don't come without sacrifice. You need to start paying attention to the details.
4. You're Being Stubborn
Sometimes, plateaus just happen. Even the most consistent and well-recovered lifters aren't necessarily immune to them. If you're just performing the same lift over and over without seeing results, sometimes the best thing you can do is walk away from it for a while rather than continue to metaphorically bang your head against the wall.
So, quit? No. Not at all. Instead, stay away from that lift for a few weeks and instead integrate some exercises that can target potential points of weakness in the movement and that focus on building up the stabilizer muscles.
Harrison Phillips, a defensive tackle for the Buffalo Bills who put up 42 reps on the Bench Press at the 2018 Combine, once recounted to STACK how he overcame a seemingly-indestructible plateau on his most favorite lift.
After being stuck with a 405-pound bench press max for three straight months, Phillips walked away from the exercise for six straight weeks. In its place, he performed dumbbell bench press variations, triceps exercises, single-arm presses, Chaos Band Push-Ups, etc. When he finally got back under the barbell, he nailed 405 for five straight reps.
Don't be afraid to walk away from one of the "big lifts" for a little while as you use variations and accessory movements to expose your body to different stimuli. It could be exactly what you need to shatter through that plateau and keep getting stronger.
Photo Credit: martin-dm/iStock
READ MORE FROM JOSH WILLIAMS:
- Build 'Real-World Strength' With Uneven Load Weight Training
- Fundamentals of a Pre-Workout Warm-Up
- How Mental Performance Affects Your Workouts