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Every so often I get an email from someone telling me they’ve hit the dreaded workout plateau.
This is not to be confused with the equally common weight loss plateau, which is when someone who was successfully losing weight suddenly stops losing weight. What we’re talking about here is when strength stops increasing, exercises stall and progression comes to a screeching halt.
While both types of plateaus suck, the first (weight loss) is much easier to break through. In most cases, you just… ya know… eat a little less or burn a little more. Behold, the caloric deficit exists once again!
But when it’s a workout plateau, breaking through it isn’t quite as simple. This is because there are all kinds of different causes and potential solutions for them. The question is, how do you figure it all out and get back to progressing again as quickly as possible?
Well, here’s the thing. I’ve helped enough people answer this question over the years that I’ve noticed an interesting trend… most people haven’t actually hit a legitimate workout plateau.
Instead, their progress has stopped for some other reason and they just think it’s a plateau. Let me show you exactly what I mean…
6 Questions You Need To Answer First
Whenever someone tells me their progress has stalled, I automatically respond with a pre-written list of 6 questions that I know should be answered first.
Why? Because most of the time, these answers uncover an underlying issue that helps me weed out the real workout plateaus from the not-so-real ones. So, let’s answer each of those questions right now…
1. What is your current goal?
If your primary goal right now is to build muscle or increase strength, we move right on to the next question. But if your goal is fat loss or something endurance oriented, we usually stop right here.
Why? Because if your goal is fat loss, you’re in a caloric deficit. And if you’re in a deficit, you’re basically in the worst possible spot to be in for making strength gains and progressing at weight training.
Now sure, some people may still make some decent progress while losing fat… especially beginners. But for everyone else, your primary goal while losing fat is to just maintain muscle and strength. Which means, if you’ve hit a plateau at this time and your strength levels are staying the same on most exercises… it’s actually a good thing.
And if you happen to have some endurance/aerobic heavy goal in mind, you’re putting yourself in another equally terrible position in terms of being able to increase strength. The body can only handle and recover from so much at a time, and doing a ton of endurance work in addition to weight training is just not an ideal situation to be in for progress to be made.
So in both of these cases, it’s not that you’ve reached a true workout plateau. It’s just that your goals at this time are counterproductive to making improvements in strength… especially for non-beginners.
2. What has your diet been like and what has your body weight done during this period of time?
If you’re in a surplus and your body weight is increasing at an ideal rate (and you’re eating a sufficient amount of protein, etc.), we again move right on to the next question. But if you’re in a deficit or even at maintenance, and your body weight has remained the same or decreased (or your protein intake is nonexistent), we stop right here.
Why? It’s a lot like what I mentioned for question #1. You’re just not eating in a manner that is conducive to strength gains.
Again, it is possible to make some degree of progress while in a deficit (and losing weight) or at maintenance (and maintaining weight), but it’s just A) much less likely, B) much less ideal, and C) not going to happen anywhere near as fast or consistently.
So if you were making great progress when your diet was optimally designed for it (moderate surplus, sufficient protein, slow and gradual rate of weight gain, etc.) but then suddenly stopped progressing, guess what?
It’s NOT your workout that has plateaued. It’s your diet. You’re just no longer eating properly to support the results you want. Or… you just never were in the first place
3. What is the exact extent of your plateau?
Often times I’ll hear a person claim to have hit a terrible plateau in their workouts, and when I ask them for the specifics, they’ll proceed to make it look like they don’t really understand what the word “plateau” means.
For example: “I’ve only increased my bench press by 10lbs in the last 1-2 months!” Or maybe: “I’ve only been able to get 1 more rep on certain exercises each workout for the last 6 weeks!”
Uh, hate to break it to you, but unless you’re a beginner… this isn’t a plateau. This is solid realistic progress.
The problem is, people just have crazy unrealistic expectations of how quickly and consistently they should be making progress. Sorry, but if you’re past the beginners stage, you’re not going to be able to add 5lbs to each exercise every week. Hell, sometimes adding 5lbs to most exercises every month could be considered amazing!
So while only being able to get 1 or 2 additional reps in some of your sets or adding 5lbs to your bench press every month might SEEM like a terrible plateau, it’s not. It’s progress. Keep up the good work.
4. How long has this plateau lasted?
Now even when the above case is legit and progress has stalled completely, the next thing I always ask is how long this lack of progress has been going on for. And honestly, the answers I sometimes get are just hilarious.
For example, there have been plenty of times where the person says something like “I’ve been gaining strength really well every week, but then last week I could only lift the same weight for the same reps! What the hell is going on?!?!?!”
Dude, seriously? You had one single workout where you couldn’t add weight or reps and you’re calling it a workout plateau? Sorry, but no. It’s going to take a bit more than 1 non-progressive workout before you can start calling it a plateau.
What you’re experiencing is just reality. With the exception of beginners, we can’t expect to make strength gains every single workout week after week, month after month, and year after year. It just can’t happen. If it could, you’d be lifting 1,000lbs on every exercise.
That means you’re definitely going to have workouts where you’re not going to be able to add weight or reps to certain exercises or possibly even every exercise. This is normal.
Now, how long you should allow this lack of progress to go on for before it actually DOES become a legit workout plateau is hard to say because it will vary based on everything from your goals to your current level of strength, muscle and training experience.
But unless you’re a beginner, a week or two with no progression is fairly normal and bound to happen at some point.
5. Which exercise has plateaued?
In many cases, a workout plateau affects every exercise in your routine all at once with no real progress anywhere. Other times though, only certain exercises will stall while others continue progressing just fine. It could even be exercises that train the same part of the body. For example, your bench press could be going nowhere while your incline dumbbell press gets stronger every week.
However, generally speaking, certain exercises (like big multi-joint compound movements) will always progress faster and more consistently than others (like smaller single-joint isolation movements).
And if it’s one of these “others” that have stalled for you for a significant period of time… it STILL may not be a plateau. It might just be an exercise that isn’t meant to increase any more often than it is.
For example, exercises like biceps curls, triceps extensions, dumbbell flyes and lateral raises won’t progress anywhere near as quickly as presses, rows, squats and deadlifts will. So if you think you hit a serious workout plateau because you’ve been “stuck” doing lateral raises with the same weight for 3 weeks… you haven’t.
That’s just the typical slow progression of that specific exercise.
6. What does your workout routine look like?
And if all of the above questions were answered correctly and everything is being done A) right and B) realistically, I move on to the final and likely most obvious step… show me your workout.
Why? Simply put, if your routine sucks, it’s not going to work even if you’re doing everything else right. In this case, your problem isn’t so much that you’ve hit a plateau as it is that you’re just using a shitty routine that doesn’t work as well as it should (or just doesn’t work at all).
The solution here is simple. Use a proven, intelligently designed program that suits your specific needs and goals. For example, these or these or any of the routines included in my downloadable guide.
How To Break Through A REAL Workout Plateau
Now if you’ve made it this far and none of the above questions led to the solution to your specific issue, then guess what? You appear to actually have a legitimate workout plateau. Yay!
Now let’s cover the most common ways of breaking through it.
1. Follow the program.
The first thing I want to mention is that depending on what program you’re using, some (especially those aimed more at strength/performance) sometimes have a built in protocol for what you’re supposed to do when your progress stalls.
So in a case like this, just follow what the program tells you to do.
If everything (or just about everything) in your workout routine has stalled, and most (if not ALL) exercises have plateaued, it sounds like it’s time for a full deload.
I’ve already covered deloading and training breaks in detail before, so I won’t attempt to do it again. Instead, you can find it all right here: How To Deload
2b. Deload just that exercise.
Like I mentioned earlier, a workout plateau sometimes affects your entire workout, and it sometimes affects just certain exercises in it. In fact, often times there’s just one specific exercise that stalls while everything else progresses just fine.
In a case like this, the full deload option mentioned in 2a may still help, but it may not be completely needed. Instead, you might benefit from only deloading the specific exercise that has plateaued, slowly ramping it back up and then (ideally) breaking right through the plateau.
So for example, if various presses and rows and pull-ups and squats and deadlifts are increasing well but your bench press has hit a wall, just deloading your bench press is often the way to go.
There’s a lot of different ways to do this, but the basic outline is to reduce the weight on the stalled exercise to maybe 80% of what it usually is. The next week, bring it back up to maybe 90%. The week after that back to 100% and then you’re back to pushing to make some form of progress over what you were previously capable of doing.
Some people do better taking a little longer to ramp up… maybe doing 80%, 85%, 90%, 95%, then back to 100% or something like that. No special rules or anything here. It mostly comes down to what suits your situation and works best for you. Experiment and find out.
3. Change something.
One thing I feel like I’ve repeated over and over again on this site is that changing your workout too often is a terrible thing to do. Muscle confusion is a bullshit concept based on nothing, and the idea that your body/muscles needs to be constantly “shocked” in order to improve is also bullshit.
The frequent changes people make and the excessive variety they think is needed is not only NOT necessary, but it’s also extremely counterproductive to getting the results they want. Like I’ve said before, the only change your body truly requires is progression. It doesn’t need to be shocked or confused… it needs to be consistently challenged.
Having said that, it’s also unrealistic to think you’re gonna continue progressing with the exact same workout being done the exact same way for years at a time.
Sure, options 2a and 2b above will certainly keep you progressing quite well for quite a while, but at some point… you’re going to be due for a change. I’ve already covered what those “points” are in detail in my article about when, why and how often to change your routine, but one of them is especially relevant right now…
“If what you’re doing stops working for an extended period of time.”
Meaning, a workout plateau. As for what type of change you should make or how big or small it should be… that’s honestly impossible to say without knowing the specifics of your situation and the routine you’re using. However, the article I just linked to contains some guidelines for what to do and how to do it.
Now Start Progressing Again!
So, there you have it. A lot of the time, the workout plateaus people think they are experiencing are actually a result of some other fundamental mistake or unrealistic expectation. Fix that, and you’ll fix your lack of progress.
Other times, people have legitimately hit a wall and strength gains have stalled because of a real plateau. In these cases, one of the options laid out above will almost always allow you to break right through it and get back to making progress again.