May 10, 2015

Plateau Busters - The Most Effective Strategies To Promote New Strength And Size Gains

In “the science and practice of strength training,” which has largely become a bible in the world of strength and conditioning, Zatsiorsky suggests that for a muscle to be “trained,” it must not only be recruited, but exhausted as well. When framed under this scope, it’s easy to understand how to train a muscle to respond to further growth, when it seems nothing else is working.

Break Away From The Norm

When people hit a plateau, they don’t really care to attempt to understand why, they just know that they want it to end, and in doing so they try a plethora of different methods, in hopes that something will work and kick-start making progress once again.when it seems nothing else iswoing, irrespective of whether or not you include explosive reps concurrently, is thatt, an But before one can attempt to break out of a plateau, one must understand how they got there in the first place.

Training normally focuses on the concentric capacities of the muscles – meaning, we base the amount of weight we use, and reps we perform, on what are muscles are capable of lifting concentrically. When we can no longer lift the weight concentrically, the set is over. And this is where a lot of people are lost – they are unaware that their muscles are still quite capable of handling loads isometrically, and eccentrically, and as a result are leaving gains to be had on the table.

The following are some of the best ways known to exhaust a muscle, when traditional concentric focused training no longer seems to be working:

Repetitive Max Effort

This method consists of performing multiple momentary max efforts. Under normal conditions, a set consists of only ONE max effort – the last rep, as all other reps cannot be a max effort if you can perform another rep. This method eliminates all of the reps leading up to a max effort by starting with a max effort, then reducing the weight ever so slightly so that another momentary max effort can be performed. An example looking like this:

After warming up, select a weight that represents 100% of your 1 rep max (1RM) and perform a single rep. Quickly remove 2-5% of the load (which should give you at least 10 seconds) and perform another rep. Quickly remove another 2-5% of the load and perform another rep. Continue in this fashion until you’ve performed 5-7 max effort reps. Rest 4-5 minutes following this “set,” and repeat 2 more times for a total of 3 max effort drop sets.

Post-Exhaust Eccentric Overload

This method consists of exhausting the muscles concentrically, and upon reaching concentric failure, further exhausting them eccentrically. An example looking like this:

Select a weight which you can lift roughly 4 times (heavy, but not too heavy sort of thing). Upon reaching concentric failure, increase the load by approximately 20% and perform ONE eccentric rep by slowly lowering the weight on your own for roughly 8 seconds – perform 2 such eccentric reps per set. Rest 4-5 minutes following this set, and repeat 2 more times for a total of 3 of these post-exhaust eccentric sets.

Post-Tetanic Facilitation Via Isometric Overload

This method consists of exhausting the muscles concentrically, and upon reaching concentric failure, further exhausting them isometrically. An example looking like this:

Select a weight which you can lift roughly 5 times. Upon reaching concentric failure, rest 3-4 minutes and increase the load by 15%, and hold the weight at the hardest range of motion, or range in which the targeted muscle is mechanically under the most stress, and hold it there for roughly 8 seconds, before lowering (or lifting, depending on the exercise) it to allow the muscles to briefly disengage, and then raising it once more, as high as you can for another 8 seconds. If performing curls, you’d hold the first iso at 30 degrees of elbow flexion, and the second iso at 20 degrees, and if performing presses or squats you’d hold the first iso just above the bottom range, and the second iso at, or above, mid-range.

These overloaded iso’s should allow you to use more weight during your following set due to post-tetanic facilitation, so you should be 2-5% stronger after 3-4 minutes. Therefore, after 3-4 minutes, increase the load for your full range reps by 2-5%, and bang out another 5 full-range reps. Follow that with another 3-4 minutes of rest and add 15% to the new weight used for 5 reps. Once again perform two isometric reps with 15% of the most recent amount of weight used, pausing twice for 8 seconds.

Rest for another 3-4 minutes and once again perform 5 full range reps with the load used during the second full range set. This may be confusing, so here’s a practical example to help illustrate the point:

Set 1: 5 reps w/5RM, rest 3-4 min

Set 2: 2, 8 second iso’s with 15% more weight than which was used for set 1

Set 3: 5 reps with 2-5% more weight than that which was used for set 1

Set 4: 2, 8 second iso’s with 15% more than that which was used for set 3

Set 5: 5 reps with same weight which was used for set 3

Don’t stress out about the exact percentages being used, as it’s not always possible to increase the load by 2, 5, or 15%. The point is that we want to get the body used to handling greater loads for moderate reps, and in the sequence above, 2 sets are performed for the same amount of reps, with a heavier load than would otherwise be possible.

Survival Activation

This method consists of activating your survival fibers, which otherwise wouldn’t be called upon during normal conditions. To perform this “trick,” both a partner, and power rack are needed. An example looking like this:

Set up the pins in a power rack so that the bar can only travel approximately 4 inches. Push/pull the bar into the pins, and squeeze the targeted muscles as hard as possible while trying to blast through the pins. After roughly 8 seconds, have the partner “punch,” or “slam” the bar downwards, causing the muscles to stretch rapidly under a forced contraction – this is what activates “survival fibers” to protect the targeted musculature from damage, resulting in more fibers being recruited and increasing the capacity to stimulate more growth.

Allow 3-4 minutes to pass by, and then aim to perform your scheduled work with 2-5% more than what you would normally use for full range reps. This is simply another way to create the post-tetanic facilitation effect provided in the method above, allowing you to be able to lift more than you could under normal conditions. Rest 3-4 minutes, then repeat the "punch/slam" set, followed by another 3-4 minutes of rest before performing another full-range set, using more than you normally would.

Double The Dosage

This consists of performing the lift in which you want to improve the most, twice in your workout. Performing 4 sets of an exercise, on two separate occasions during a training session will lead to greater strength gains than doing all 8 sets at once because of greater neural adaptation and better motor learning – you have to work harder internally to get back in the groove, than to stay in it.

The best way to break this up is to perform the targeted lift first and last in the session. At first because that is when the nervous system is freshest, meaning it will be able to send the strongest neural drive to the muscles, facilitating the usage of greater loads at the beginning of the workout.

Because the last thing you do will tend to have the greatest neural adaptation, repeating the movement at the end of your workout will contribute to gaining strength at the highest possible rate – which, in turn, increases the capacity to build size as well. Obviously the goal is to lift as heavy as you can during the first run, but for the second run, aim to use at least 80% of max for 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps.

Finish Strong

Because what you do last will lead to the greatest neural adaptations, always back down slightly and do one last set to kill the weight. The weight still has to be heavy enough to require maximum effort, but light enough to be able to physically dominate – usually reducing the weight by 7-10% and performing 2-3 explosive reps is suffice.

End Every Workout With The Lift In Which Improvement Is Sought

This method is geared for both size and strength gains, and consists of performing the lift in which you seek the most improvement at the end of your workout (assuming it is performed at the beginning as well, when you’re fresh). Simply perform 3-4 sets at the end of every workout you do (on top of your work).

This works because the neural adaptations tend to be greater for the last thing you do, thus improving neural efficiency for the trained lift (meaning improved intra-/inter-muscular coordination). Even though you’re likely to be fatigued at the end of a workout, the minimal load you should be using should be no less than 80% of your max. The number of reps you’ll be able to perform will vary depending on how the rest of your workout was, but generally 3-4 sets at 80% at the end of every workout, for 4-6 weeks, should lead to rapid and sustainable strength gains. If the primary muscle groups for the lift you’re focusing on were trained, you may only be able to get 2-3 reps, while if the involved musculature is fresh you should be able to get 5-6 reps. Due to the high frequency, do not perform these sets till failure.

Due to the residual fatigue of such high frequency training, it is not expected that the gains made from such an approach will solidify until 10-14 days after you stop using this method.

Contrast Series

This consists of performing a slower movement, followed by a faster movement, and finishing with a normal speed movement, and is best suited to maximize power. An example looking like this:

Set 1: 2-3 reps using 70-80% (or 75-85%) using a deliberately slow (5 seconds) eccentric tempo, with a 2-3 second pause at the bottom of the eccentric (without allowing the muscles to disengage – meaning keeping them under load, not resting the weight on the floor, or body), before lifting normally. Resting for 2-3 minutes before performing set 2 (see below).

Set 2: 3-5 reps using 60-70% (or 45-55% with resistance bands, or chains, attached) performed explosively (control the lowering portion however, but explode from the bottom, attempting to impart as much acceleration as possible). Resting for 1 minute before performing set 3 (see below).

Set 3: 4-6 reps using 80-85% (or 2-3 reps with 90-95%) using a normal tempo. Rest for 3 minutes before repeating the series 2-3 times.

The exact sequence should be based on your goals, and always finishing with the style of rep that is most beneficial to your goal. If strength is your goal, end the workout with one final heavy set. If speed is your goal, end with the explosive set, adding one additional set on to the entire series.

Weak Position Holds

This consists of simply performing medium duration holds, at the weakest position of a lift, or the one in which the targeted muscle is under the most stress. For strength, 3-4 sets of roughly 12 seconds (which is pretty much the limit of the phosphagen energy system – the key system for limit strength), with the heaviest load you can handle, while being in control and maintaining perfect position is suffice.

Other Strategies

While the above strategies are my general go-to strategies, there are a few others that may be of great benefit as well, including:

·         Learn to isolate a stubborn muscle by using isolation work and constant tension (isometrics pauses, and slow partial reps, to name a few ways), focusing on the quality of contraction

·         Pre-exhaust a stubborn muscle with an isolation movement (using the strategies outlined in the point above) prior to compound movements – the pump will allow you to feel the targeted muscle working more during compound lifts, which will improve the mind-muscle connection and help teach you to integrate it during other lifts

·         Focusing on feeling the stubborn muscle during compound lifts by using constant tension in the ranges in which the targeted muscle is most active – this requires the use of lighter loads while focusing on proper muscle contraction, not just on moving the weight

And finally, include speed and power work – but not with the goal of increasing speed and power (which should be done in a fresh state). I’m talking about doing it in a state of metabolic fatigue, as this can have a very powerful training effect because the nervous system has to work harder to recruit more muscle fibers when in a fatigued state. Some examples are:

·         Performing speed/explosive work once the primary muscle groups are pumped. For example, pumping the chest with 4 sets of 10 on the pec deck (holding a 3-second squeeze at the peak contraction) followed by 6 sets of 3 bench presses performed as explosively as possible with 50% of 1RM. Finish by performing 1 final set with 85% of max for as many dominant reps as possible (stop the set when you can no longer dominate the weight).

·         Finishing with explosive work combined with minimal rest. For example, performing a workout with a high volume of heavy power cleans, squats, and Romanian deadlifts, then finishing with lighter, super explosive, power cleans for 5 sets of 3 reps with 30 seconds of rest between sets.

·         Perform naturally explosive exercises like Olympic lift variations, or regular lifts like squats and bench presses with a low enough load to facilitate explosive reps to be performed, immediately AFTER you've created some metabolic fatigue with an exercise that challenges you metabolically (ex. burpees, loaded carries).

·         Performing ballistic movements like jumps or medicine ball throws following isolated higher rep/pump work for the targeted muscle groups (ex. 5 box jumps after a set of high-rep squats).

·         Including explosive work as part of a metabolically-oriented circuit. An example would be a barbell complex in which you perform 25 squats, 10 push presses, 20 deadlifts, 5 hang cleans, 15 front squats.

The exact sequence you choose to use is irrelevant (as long as it’s not completely counterproductive), as the goal is to create a state of fatigue, and then force the muscles to perform highly demanding work.

At the end of the day, if your results have tapered off, and you’ve hit the dreaded plateau, it’s important to understand that what got you there, will only keep you there. Doing more of the same will not magically produce more results than it’s already provided, and it’s in these times that the strategies outlined above are of highest value – as it’s likely that they are different than the traditional type of concentric-only focused training that most people stick to. When a muscle refuses to grow, or your strength is at a standstill, it’s of paramount importance to ensure that we are stimulating our muscles not just concentrically, but isometrically and eccentrically as well.

If you have any questions about any of the strategies presented here, or how to get yourself out of the plateau you’ve gotten yourself into, feel free to contact me at I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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