Probably the largest obstacle that more experienced lifters face is the dreaded plateau. This is especially true for powerlifters because performing the exact same lift for years at a time makes improvement difficult. So, how do you overcome a plateau?
Simply put, the way to overcome a plateau is to change things up. Here are a few things that can cause lifting plateaus:
- Unbalanced Diet
- Not Enough Carbs
- Lack of Protein
- The Way You Consume Protein
- Not Getting Enough Sleep
- Inconsistent Sleep Schedule
- Your Type of Lifting
- Weak Stability Muscles
- Poor Recovery Tactics
A plateau is a period of time where you can’t make progress on a particular lift. It seems like you are struggling to push against this impossible wall, and you can’t seem to overcome it.
Keep in mind that you may have great patterns for some of these, and they shouldn’t be changed. My goal in this article is to help you evaluate your success or failure in each of these categories. To help you do this, you need to be completely honest with yourself.
The lifting application of the word “plateau “actually comes from the geographical definition, which is a large, flat rock formation. Oftentimes what happens to lifters is their weight progression matches the shape of the plateau, with a very steep curve and then a sudden stop.
It’s extremely frustrating because your many hours in the gym are not improving your strength, and nearly all lifters experience it at some point or another. Luckily, there are a few things you can do to overcome it.
Once again, the way to overcome a plateau is to change what you’re doing. Doing whatever you are doing right now isn’t getting you any progress, so I’m going to cover some areas which may help in overcoming the plateau.
Your Eating Habits Might Be Causing Your Plateau
This may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about overcoming a plateau, but it is undoubtedly extremely important. Eating is a big determinant of your energy for the day as well as how well you can recover from your workouts.
It’s easy to slide into bad habits for eating because oftentimes eating right is hard. If time is tight for you, it’s very tempting to eat cereal for breakfast 5 days a week instead of the eggs and toast you know you should be having, for example. Once again, be honest with yourself about what you’re eating. Getting an app or paper log to track the foods you eat can give you a good place to start.
When in doubt, feed the machine. If you start to eat more and notice a large fat gain, then you can cut back from there. But I challenge you to really see what progress you can make when you give your body as much as it needs and more.
Obviously everyone wants to eat right, but the right way isn’t the same for everyone. There are a few bad habits that lifters often slip into which can sap your strength in the gym and worsen your strength.
Not Enough Carbohydrates
This may shock some of you, but the human body needs carbs! They’re arguably the most important macronutrient in any lifter’s diet. Carbohydrates are what help you to actually execute the lifts to break down the muscle fibers so they can be rebuilt.
Some people are able to live without carbs in their diet because they condition themselves to it, and it is doable. Diets like the keto diet can absolutely work for people who use them and can be great for fat loss. I wouldn’t recommend these types of diets to people who want to build muscle, because it can significantly slow or stop muscle growth!
Suffice it to say, if you want to build muscle, don’t skip on healthy carbs. One more thing to emphasize: muscle growth is not sustainable on a calorie deficit.
The reason I say this is that for a short time, if you have a lot of body fat and are a beginning lifter, you can gain muscle and burn fat. But past a certain point, your body simply can’t build muscle if it doesn’t have the calories to spare. So don’t expect that you can continue the same eating habits that you had when you started lifting, because your body’s needs will change as you build muscle.
Not Enough Protein
Not enough protein. Lifters who take 6 scoops of whey protein every day, this isn’t for you. Without enough protein to rebuild muscle, you won’t see significant gains. This is not to say that you can’t gain muscle with a normally balanced diet, because you can.
But if you’re consistently pushing yourself to gain muscle, I would recommend consuming in between ½ and 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight each day. This is just a general rule of thumb, and I generally wouldn’t recommend anything beyond this. An extreme excess of protein just puts stress on your kidneys to filter it out.
How You Get Your Protein
Where and how you get your protein is a hugely contested subject among bodybuilders, powerlifters, and pretty much everyone else. The best ways to consume protein are the healthiest.
Getting all of your protein from meat will give you a high saturated fat intake, and getting all your protein from plants (unless you put a lot of work into it) makes it difficult to meet the requirements of your body. Simply put, eat protein from lots of places and you’ll be golden. Try and limit the amount of protein you get from supplements as much as you can. Nothing beats real food.
A Bad Sleep Schedule Can Hurt Your Progress
It may seem trivial, but sleep patterns impact your body’s time to recover and repair as well as your mental stamina. Don’t sleep on sleep! Getting enough sleep will help you in many other areas as well. Recovery and rest are crucial to keeping a strong forward progression. Sleep is your body’s time to repair itself physically and recharge mentally.
Amount of Time
Make sure you are getting a consistent amount of sleep at whatever time is right for you. If you need 6 hours like me, get 6 hours every night. If you need 8, get 8, or whatever you need, get it. It’s that simple.
Let’s face it, if you were up late the night before and you wake up at 6 AM to go to the gym, your workout will not be as productive as if you had gotten a good night’s sleep. Even for people who workout in the afternoon/night, you should still get the right amount of sleep for you.
Getting the same amount of sleep every night is important as well. You cannot ‘make up’ sleep on the weekends, or any other time for that matter. Napping can help, but it doesn’t replace the base amount of sleep you get each night. Remember, getting over a plateau may only require a very slight change to get you going, even something as simple as this.
Bad Lifting Patterns Can Cause Plateaus
Types of lifting
It’s very common to develop a strict routine or progression which limits the diversity of the lifts you do. Oftentimes this can leave certain muscle groups out, and those groups may be what you need to overcome the plateau.
Let’s be honest, we are all guilty of skipping core at the end of our workouts. If you’re trying to hit a deadlift PR with no belt like the absolute beast you are, then you need those core muscles! Don’t skip it.
Once again, be honest with yourself about what kind of lifts you are doing and what kinds you aren’t. A log can be seriously helpful for this, even for accessory work. It’s easy to slip into cable and dumbbell work that is more fun than beneficial, so don’t skip the stuff you don’t enjoy as much if it’s necessary.
For example, if you’re struggling to see deadlift progress and you only work legs once a week, you probably need to work on those hamstrings, quads, and glutes more than that. Making sure every muscle group in your body is making forward progress is important for everyone.
One of the key problems powerlifters encounter is a lack of stability muscle growth. These muscles are really important for making strong progress because, they often limit how much weight you can even hold, or control.
Make sure you are doing enough dumbbell work for your upper body because it directly works those stability muscles, more than flat bench press or the overhead press would with a bar. Just do those same things with a pair of dumbbells, and don’t be afraid to lower the weight so your form is great.
If you lift frequently, then you know that recovery is the name of the game when it comes to gains. Some professional athletes use all sorts of unorthodox techniques to recover and will pay anything to recover faster. This doesn’t mean you need to buy the best liquid nitrogen massager for hundreds of thousands of dollars, but it does mean that some simple recovery methods can go a long way.
If you asked me what I do to recover after any workout, I’d say the exact same thing: Roll out, stretch, and eat. That’s a great and easy place to start. Buy a foam roller online and maybe a stretch band, and use them!
If I had a dollar for every foam roller I’ve seen collecting dust in someone’s house, I’d be able to afford a much nicer keyboard than I’m typing on right now. Commit to the extra ten minutes, most of us have already been in the gym for a couple of hours. So what’re a few minutes more?
Most importantly, eat! You don’t have to eat something really specific, either. Anything with carbs, protein, lipids, and essential electrolytes. Your body needs these to recover. If you find yourself plateauing when you switch to a keto, paleo, or some other crazy diet then maybe don’t do that! Don’t starve yourself. Eat big and eat right.
The Bottom Line
Plateaus are usually caused by a circumstance outside of the actual lifts themselves, which we’ve gone through here. The best way to get over a plateau is, to be honest with yourself. Ask yourself if you’ve really been doing all you can to maximize your gains and if you’ve been putting the time outside of the gym to ensure your recovery. If you feel like something isn’t right, make the change!