How to break the plateau?
August 2, 2011 9:17 AM   Subscribe

Can you help me break through a weight training plateau?

I am a male in my early thirties. I started weight lifting about two years ago. I put on nearly 30 pounds in weight since I started. I am now 5’8”, 160lbs. I am fairly active as I run about three times per week and weight train about five times per week.

My diet is high in vegetables (my wife is vegetarian) and I eat three full meals (and snack in between) a day. I usually have an egg-based breakfast and I always have a protein shake post workout. I take a creatine supplement on the days I lift weights.

My weight lifting routine is one major muscle group a day (except arms, where I do both bis and tris in the same day). I do five exercises of three sets of 5-8 reps for each group. If I hit 9 or more reps I increase the weight. I try to max out at 8. I found this to work best for my body type and changing from a 10-12 reps set to 5-8 is when I made the most gains over the past 2 years. I made that change about 6 months in and it made all the difference. Every week I change up the routine by mixing up the workouts. For example, one week on chest I will do all bench work with the bar, the next I will do all free weights and the next I will mix in cables.

However, I have plateaued (spelling?) and have not made any gains in the past 4 months. I know this happens to most long term weight lifters and there is a plethora of opinions out there (just Google ‘how to break weight lifting plateau’) but most of this information in general and not very specific to my body type.

So I am looking for specific advice from people that might be close to my body type and current program. I am wondering if you broke through the plateau and what methods you used to do so. Did it take diet and training changes? Any specific diets, routines or workouts used?

posted by birdlips to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Since you've started lifting how much have your benchmark lifts (squat, bench press, deadlift, overhead press) improved?

Also, changing your routine weekly is overrated. You will be better served by more consistency. The first change I would make would be to drop the machines and cables and focus on the barbell for a few weeks.
posted by Loto at 9:40 AM on August 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

I am almost 30, 6ft, about 180. I have done a similar routine as yours. I respectfully disagree that consistency would be advantageous to you. Your body adapts, and it sounds like it has adapted to your routine. You need to switch it up. What has worked for me to break plateaus is doing a 10 x 10 for about 4 weeks and reducing the days per week I trained during this period. The 10x10 is 10 sets of 10 reps each. Use about 20 percent of the weight of a max-rep per exercise.

Your routine might look something like this:

Scale your routine to 3 days a week and break it down similar to as follows

M - Chest / Back
Incline Dumbell Press
Barbell Rows
Pull Overs
Lat Pulls

W - Legs
Calve Raises

F - Shoulders / Arms
Reverse Curls
Lateral Raises

10 sets of 10 reps for each exercise with low weight (20 - 25 percent max rep). Do this for 4 weeks and i'd bet you'll see some gains.

If not, other ideas would be to definitely cut your training down to 3 days per week. 5 times a week may be a bit much for mass gaining. Concentrate on compound, olympic-style lifts - deadlift, squat, clean / press, etc. When working on reps...try to use a slow tempo on the negative rep, 4 seconds down, 1 or 2 seconds up. more clean carbs. Oats, Sweet Potatoes, legumes. Be eating at least 3 eggs per day along with other lean proteins. If you are trying to gain mass, given your body stats try for 3000+ calories a day. Eat, eat, eat.
posted by jnnla at 9:50 AM on August 2, 2011

If you've been working hard for the past 4 months and haven't made any progress, I'd start by taking a full week off to give your body a rest. Focus on eating well and getting plenty of sleep.

Then check out something like 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler. It's a program that focuses on compound movements and building strength.
posted by Homo economicus at 9:50 AM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Hire a personal trainer.
posted by TheBones at 9:51 AM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


Plyometric, full range motion training can greatly improve your coordination, balance, and help prevent injury. Check out Bulgarian Bag training, Kettlebells, and Boxing.

But seriously, Crossfit. You can find a gym, or do the workout of the day. I think you might really like the change of pace.
posted by tumble at 9:56 AM on August 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

More protein. Much more.
posted by unixrat at 10:11 AM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well if you'd like to keep trying to do what you're doing:

1. Eat more.
2. Sleep more.
3. Instead of changing your exercises every week do every month.
4. Use heavier weights where 5 feels like it might be your max.
posted by zephyr_words at 10:22 AM on August 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seriously, though. Eat more. I don't think I made that clear enough. Track what you're eating every day currently and then bump it up by 500 calories a day, every day.
posted by zephyr_words at 10:24 AM on August 2, 2011

Came here to say what Homo Economicus and Zephyr_words said.

Shock the body, a month or two of 3-5 sets of 5 reps (Wendler's program) should do the trick.

Also, how many grams of protein are you consuming each day?
posted by platosadvocate at 11:06 AM on August 2, 2011

This is great advice so far, thanks! I am excited to try some of this out. To answer a few questions:

My squats, deadlifts, bench press and overhead press have increased a lot. For example, on the bench I started at 115lbs and today I am at 205lbs. Probably similar percentages of increase for the other exercises.

I just got back from taking a full 12 days off. I usually take a week off every 3-4 months.

I know I don't get enough food, I am trying to correct that. I have about 50 - 70 grams of protein a day. However, I have read that in the beginning you need a lot more protein than when your body starts to get in a routine. So I take a lot less now than I did in the first 6 months.

I have a 2 year old kid, I know I need more sleep, I haven't really slept in 2 years ;)
posted by birdlips at 11:23 AM on August 2, 2011

I've never heard that you can dial down your protein intake after beginning weight training. I'd advise you to bump it up a lot - magazines tell me anywhere from 1.5 to 2 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass.

I'd also second others' opinions about big, compound exercises. Also, don't be afraid to rest for 2 or 3 minutes between sets. You're not looking to do anything cardiovascular, it sounds like, so let your muscles recover a little bit.

Good luck!
posted by boghead at 11:49 AM on August 2, 2011

I have about 50 - 70 grams of protein a day. However, I have read that in the beginning you need a lot more protein than when your body starts to get in a routine. So I take a lot less now than I did in the first 6 months.

First thing I do would be to double that. 130-150 sounds about right.
posted by unixrat at 11:59 AM on August 2, 2011

Eat more tuna.
posted by bravowhiskey at 12:56 PM on August 2, 2011

First of all, you need 1 g of protein per lb of body mass, full stop, and most of it should come from an animal, preferably one that lived on a farm in the manner to which its ancestors were accustomed.

Second of all, buy and read Practical Programming for Strength Training by Mark Rippetoe. The book is a fast read, well laid out, and will describe exactly what you need to do to break through your plateau (and hopefully create a better program for yourself than the bodybuilder-esque plan you are currently following, though it sounds like you are already starting to see the light since switching to lower reps per set).
posted by telegraph at 1:05 PM on August 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

Agreed with telegraph, and you can find the beginner program advocated in Practical Programming right here. Despite the fact that you have been lifting for a couple years, you should still be able to progress from this; if you try it and it doesn't work, there are other great programs like 5/3/1, Greyskull LP, and the Texas Method that you could try.

However, to my knowledge the one-gram-per-pound thing is not entirely substantiated with research, but .6 to .875g/lb is. So, at bare minimum you should be getting 100 grams, and usually closer to 140. I have read that there can be some ammonium toxicity at 1g/lb, but I'm not sure of the credibility of those sources. You might use this article as a starting point if you want to delve deeper into this issue.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 11:00 PM on August 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am going to try the Practical Programming Novice Program as a few of you have suggested. I will also increase my caloric and protein intake. For those that might be interested I will come back and do an update in a month or so.

Thanks for all the help, I am excited to get this going!
posted by birdlips at 10:21 AM on August 4, 2011

It's been two months and I figured I would give an update for anyone that may be interested.

I have certainly broke the plateau and this program (Practical Programming for the Novice) has been just awesome!

My average weight has jumped to about 163, which might not seem like a huge gain but on my small frame that is about a 3% gain, which I am very happy with, considering I was at 158 (average) for 4 months.

I basically read everything I could on this program and then "reset" my body.

Here is where I started (2 months ago) and where I am today:

Squat - started 180lbs - today 245lbs - 36% increase
Bench Press - started 175lbs - today 225lbs - 29% increase
Press - started 90lbs - today 135lbs - 50% increase
Deadlift - started 125lbs - today 220lbs - 76% increase
Chin-ups/Pull-up a solid 16/13 respectively, I will be adding weights to this soon.

All these exercises I am doing very strong. Some days I feel like I can jump the squat.

Thanks again for your advice, I will pop back in for another update in another month or so.

posted by birdlips at 9:00 AM on October 18, 2011

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