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How to avoid training plateaus and keep progressing

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by Yuan

To avoid training plateaus, you will need to understand the basics of tracking and workout programming. The picture above shows Milo of Croton, a legendary wrestler that trained his strength by carrying a calf every day. As the calf grew, it got heavier and Milo was able to gradually ramp up his work weight. A calf grows faster when it’s young and it slows down as it ages, matching his ability to grow.

Your own ability to grow will slow down as you get closer to your genetic potential. The key to avoiding plateaus is to accommodate your slowing ability to grow. Always apply programming that creates consistent progress, whether it’s on a weekly basis or once every six weeks. The first step to make this possible is tracking:

Track your strength progression

Most people workout to build muscle, but strength progression is the best figure to track. Muscle grows slowly and you may gain fat at the same time, this makes it harder to track. Strength improvement comes faster, it allows you to react more quickly and apply the necessary changes to keep progressing.

Focus on the major lifts

The major barbell exercises can be scaled up over extended periods of time (the bench press, squat, deadlift and overhead press). These exercises work multiple muscles groups at the same time and the muscles can be stressed more when they are working together as one unit as opposed to working them individually in isolation. One way to think about it is that working the whole creates better long term results than working the sum of its parts individually.

Beginners tend to put most of their focus on isolation exercises and don’t get anywhere. You are growing as long as the major lifts are going up on a consistent basis. When you can no longer progress on a consistent basis, it’s time change the workout programming.

Workout programming for consistent growth

Let’s go through the different stages of growth. You start off as a beginner and this is where you grow fastest. On a good program, beginners can increase their major lifts every single session a couple of months.

Eventually you won’t be able to complete all of the reps with the new weight. This is when you can drop the weight by 10% next session and try again (a deload). After 3 deloads, it’s time to move on. Starting Strength is a program that creates this level of growth for beginners, the routine looks like this:

Day 1

Squat 3×5
Overhead press 3×5
Deadlift 1×5

Day 2

Squat 3×5
Bench press 3×5
Power cleans 5×3

The workouts are alternated on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays. It may seem too simple with too little volume, but remember that you will be raising the weight every single session. The goal is to apply just enough stimulus to get the maximum signal for growth and you need very little stimulus as a beginner. All of your body’s resources can be dedicated to growing instead of repairing the excessive damage you have done from doing too much work.

When you can no longer grow stronger every session, it’s time to apply programming that accommodates growth on a weekly basis. The texas method is an example of weekly progression:

Monday – volume day

Squats 5×5 @ 90% of 5 rep max
Bench press 5×5 @ 90% of 5 rm
Deadlifts 1×5 @ 90% of 5rm
Tricep extensions/Bicep curls 4×8-12

Wednesday – light/recovery day

Squat 2×5 @ 80% of Monday’s weight
Overhead Press 3×5 90% of 5×5
Chin ups 3 x failure
Back extensions 5×10

Friday – heavy day

Squats 1×5 new 5rm
Bench press 1×5 new 5rm
Power clean 5×3

The key here is to cycle different intensities throughout the week. Light intensity at the middle of the week lets you recover from high volume Monday’s and it sets you up for a new personal record on Friday. When you can no longer make progress every week or every two weeks, it’s time to use some more advanced programming.

Andy Bolton uses a simple 4-12 week cycling approach. Try a simple 4 week cycle when you can’t progress every 1-2 weeks on the texas method. Let’s say you hit 245 lbs x 5 and your new goal is to lift 250 lbs for 5 reps, the 4 week progression can look like this:

Week 1: 220 lbs x 5
Week 2: 230 lbs x 5
Week 3: 240 lbs x 5
Week 4: 250 lbs x 5 (new personal record)

If 250 was a breeze, try for 255 on week 5. If it was a tough grind, start another cycle for the next 5 lbs:

Week 1: 225 lbs
Week 2: 235 lbs
Week 3: 245 lbs
Week 4: 255 lbs

The 2nd part of programming

If you don’t eat enough, you won’t grow no matter what you do. The amount of food you eat has to correspond to the routine you are applying. The texas method is calorie extensive and it will burn you out fast if you can’t keep up the food intake. On the other hand, Martin’s reverse pyramid progression is less calorie extensive, but progress could be slower for a starting intermediate.

Taking it one step further

These examples gives you an idea of the slowing progression required for constant growth. Apply a cookie cutter template if you’re a beginner or intermediate. These templates are created by experienced coaches and they are proven to work. You can experiment once you have the results and experience. Wasting a bunch of time as a beginner will just discourage you from lifting. Practical Programming and Starting Brawn are great books on this subject.

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