Here’s the scenario: You’ve been following a workout routine for weeks now—maybe even one of these 10 workout programs to completely transform your body in 2017—and you’ve made great progress. But lately, something isn’t right. You couldn’t get all your reps on the bench press last week, so you had to lighten the weight. You don’t look any bigger now than you did last month and, perhaps worst of all, you’re not even looking forward to going to the gym for your next session. What gives?
In short, you’ve plateaued. Don’t worry; it happens. But it can also leave you wondering, Where do I go from here? You know you need to change things up in your workouts to start making gains again, but where do you start? The good news is you don’t have to start from scratch. In fact, abandoning a program you’ve been successful with for something very different can be counterproductive, causing you to lose the adaptations your body has already made. Instead, your best option is to take what’s been working and tweak it, one step at a time. It’s a process called “periodization,” and strength coaches have used it for years to keep athletes making steady progress and avoiding plateaus. Read on, and we’ll break down exactly how to adapt your routines to constantly keep up with your evolving goals and needs.
1. Rearrange your reps
If you’re like most guys, you’re probably performing 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps for each exercise, regardless of your goal. But did you ever stop to ask yourself why? Instead of 3 sets of 8, why not try 8 sets of 3, or 5 sets of 5? Despite how different these combinations look (and feel to perform), all three are very effective for building muscle. Including each one in your program is a surefire way to reap maximum gains.
That’s because the first workout variable your muscles adapt to is the number of reps you perform. You see, once your central nervous system has learned to recruit all the muscle fibers it needs to complete a given number of reps, it stops adding new muscle because it can do the job you’ve asked of it with what it has. Therefore, if you train in just one rep range—such as the moderately heavy 8 to 12—you’ll improve in that range only up to a point, then plateau.
Unless you train with lower reps, and therefore heavier weight, you’ll never get very strong or stimulate those stronger muscle fibers to grow. Conversely, if you don’t alternate low-rep lifting with occasional bouts of higher reps, you won’t build muscle endurance or stimulate an influx of fluid within your muscle cells (an adaptation to higher-rep training that also accounts for muscle size). By regularly changing the number of reps you perform, you train your body to recruit every possible muscle fiber during every lift, extending the life of your routine, and allowing more gains in strength, size, and endurance.
2. Vary your sets
As we just mentioned, 3 sets per exercise seems to be the intuitive prescription people follow when lifting. But ultimately, it’s too conservative a volume to base your training on, and there are better methods for gaining size and strength.
A workout’s volume correlates with its intensity—i.e. how heavy you’ll be lifting. The heavier your weights, the fewer reps you’ll be able to perform, and therefore the fewer sets you’ll have to do to build strength. For the best gains in size—which, as you’ll recall, come from the 6-to-12 rep range. Your volume should be higher, since each set isn’t that taxing by itself. As for gains in endurance, only a very small volume is needed (as each set will last a long time).
Understanding volume is especially important when you’re trying to lose fat. Contrary to popular belief, heavy weights and a low volume of sets is probably the best method for fat loss. A small number of sets ensures you won’t overwork yourself. When you cut calories from your diet, you endanger your ability to recover, especially if your workout intensity remains high, so performing fewer sets prevents overtraining. At the same time, the heavy weights you’re using will keep your muscles fully stimulated, so you won’t lose strength and muscle mass. The result is that you “trick” your body into burning fat instead of muscle, which is your body’s survival instinct when calories are down.
3. Be strategic with rest
You can alter the effect of your workout tremendously in a matter of seconds. In fact, you can change the entire goal of any program simply by adjusting the length of your rest periods. Longer rests are needed when your sets are heavy, as your muscles must be almost fully recovered in order to lift a heavy load for successive sets. Greater muscular endurance comes from keeping rests to a minimum, which forces your muscles to adapt to longer work bouts with less recovery. Short-to-moderate rest periods elicit the greatest release of your body’s testosterone and growth hormone.
While fat-loss training can be organized in many different ways, one particularly effective method is circuit training, in which you perform one set each of several exercises back-to-back with little or no rest in between. In this case, the lack of full rest keeps your metabolism stoked, so you burn calories at an accelerated rate. Circuit training also saves time, moving you through your workout much more quickly than performing straight sets.
4. Change your tempo
It’s easy to race through a set. If the weight is heavy, you get psyched and want to punch it through the roof on each rep. If the weight is light, you get into a groove and “pump out” your reps like you’re dancing to a club beat. While both methods do allow you to move the weight from point A to point B, neither fully stimulates your muscles because you’re using momentum. To promote the most muscle and strength, you need to keep tension on the working muscles and ensure you recruit as many muscle fibers as possible.
Studies have shown sets lasting between 40 and 70 seconds are best for achieving muscle growth. Shorter sets imply heavier weights, so those are best for pure strength. Longer sets, naturally, would benefit endurance goals. In general, the portion of the lift in which your muscles shorten (usually the “up” part, such as pushing the barbell off your chest on a bench press, or raising the barbell on a curl) should be done fast to maximize the activation of your strongest muscle fibers. The portion of the lift in which your muscles stretch (the “down” part) should be done more slowly, as the muscle is actually stronger in this phase than in the upward one. That said, exercise scientists have discovered regimenting a rep further can enhance muscle activation even more.
The technique is called “tempo,” and it’s usually represented as a 3-digit number. The first digit is the number of seconds you should take to perform the lowering portion of the lift. The middle digit is how long you should pause in that bottom position (when the muscles are under the most tension), and the third digit indicates how long you should take to lift the weight to the “up” position. Occasionally, you’ll see tempos with an “X” in place of a digit, which means you should perform that portion of the lift with explosive speed. Furthermore, a “0” means to move immediately to the instructions of the next digit. So, for example, a tempo of 311 on a bench press would mean to take three seconds to lower the bar to your chest, one second to hold it there, then another second to press it back up. Tempo may sound tedious, but it’s a great way to keep your form in check, especially when you’re performing a number of reps when your form is most susceptible to falling apart.
5. Switch up your exercises
Whether you’re just bored by the lifts you’ve been doing or you’ve plateaued with them, swapping out the main exercises in your routine for similar moves can be an excellent solution. Many times, a plateau is the result of an overused movement pattern. Your nervous system has recruited the same muscles in the same way for so long it can’t do any better. For example, if you’ve been back squatting for ages, try switching to the front squat for a few weeks. This variation hits essentially the same muscles, but in a slightly different way—just enough to get your nerves to recruit muscle fibers a little differently and get you growing again.
Other times, stagnation is the result of a weak point in your range of motion, which, once addressed, will send your poundage soaring. Say you’ve gotten your deadlift up to 350lb but can’t budge 360lb off the floor, you might benefit from deadlifts done on a platform for a few weeks. Stand on a box and use a moderate weight for a few explosive reps. This will build the pulling power you need to overcome inertia in the opening seconds of your deadlift. Afterward, you’ll be able to get 360lb with no problem.
You can also rearrange the order in which you perform exercises. For example, if your upper-body days pair bench press and row movements, but you start with benching, spend the next few weeks doing the rows first in the pair so they get the priority.
How to use training strategies so you never plateau
Now that you understand the basics of program design, you can start applying it to your own routine, periodizing your progress. Let’s assume you’ve been following a 3-day per week full-body routine that contains two separate workouts alternated back and forth. (For example, you do Workout A on Monday, Workout B on Wednesday, Workout A again on Friday, then pick up with Workout B on the following Monday, and so on.) Exercises are paired and performed as alternating sets with one-minute rest between sets. So far, you’ve been doing 3 sets of 10 reps and using a 201 tempo. Your goal is muscle size. As a template, we’ll use this:
2a. Romanian deadlift
1b. Incline dumbbell press
2a. Dumbbell stepup
2b. Bentover row
After 6 weeks, switch up the sets and reps. First, take an “unloading” week. This means drop the reps, weights, and volume so the workouts are almost easy. The idea is to keep working out but allow your system to recover before you impose any tougher demands on it. Afterward, vary your volume so you stay in the range that builds maximum muscle but also takes advantage of contributing qualities, like more heavy strength work and lighter, higher-rep sets. So the next 4 weeks might look like this for both workouts:
Week 7: 1 set of 10 reps, 201 tempo, 60 seconds rest
Week 8: 5 sets of 6 reps, 201 tempo, 90 seconds rest
Week 9: 8 sets of 3 reps, 201 tempo, 3 minutes rest
Week 10: 4 sets of 12 reps, 201 tempo, 90 seconds rest
At this point, you have a good base of size, strength, and conditioning, and now you can alter the sets, reps, and tempo every workout for even faster gains. Try starting the week (say it’s Workout A again) with a “heavy day” in which you perform a few low-rep sets. In your next session, Workout B, go lighter and do sets of higher reps. Finish the week with a moderately heavy Workout A for a moderate number of sets. The next week would begin with a heavy Workout B. For example:
Workout A: 8 sets of 3 reps, 201 tempo, 3 minutes rest
Workout B: 4 sets of 12 reps, 311 tempo, 90 seconds rest
Workout A: 5 sets of 6 reps, 301 tempo, 90 seconds rest
Workout B: 8 sets of 3 reps, 201 tempo, 3 minutes rest
Workout A: 4 sets of 12 reps, 311 tempo, 90 seconds rest
Workout B: 5 sets of 6 reps, 301 tempo, 90 seconds rest
From here, anything goes. Take another unloading week, then re-evaluate your goals. If you’ve been eating enough, you should be plenty big by now, and you may want to switch to a fat-loss protocol. In that case, you could drop your rest periods to 30 seconds, or perform the exercises as a circuit. If you’re bored with the exercises, you could replace a few at a time. For instance, put a shoulder press in place of the dip and a seated cable row in place of the bentover row. Another option is to prioritize certain exercises—probably the toughest, most muscle-involving lifts like the squat and deadlift—by giving them more sets and using fewer sets for the easier exercises (such as the stepup).
After a few more weeks, you’ll probably find that you’ve milked your workouts dry and your body is ready for something new. Keep checking our website for new programs and routines. And use these principles to keep your body growing.