Breaking Through and Avoiding Plateaus
I have been weight training one way or another for about ten years now. In that time I have progressed quite a bit, from a physique that made my parents worry when I told them I wanted to play football, to a physique that has managed to find success in the natural bodybuilding world. It took a long time and massive effort to orchestrate this transformation, and sure enough, it has been a journey with its moments of frustrations.
It’s quite the shock when a novice lifter runs into his first plateau, and simply attending the gym ceases to yield the desired results. Sadly, the honeymoon stage is over. As time continues, these plateaus become even more challenging, and we run into them more frequently. You find yourself having to add more variety to your current protocol in order to keep progressing. As a natural athlete it’s a matter of adjusting variables in your nutrition and training. In this article we will focus on training methods that can be applied to both a novice trying to take it to the next level, or an advanced bodybuilder near their genetic limit wanting to get the ball rolling again.
It is very easy to fall in love with any method, and deem it the “only way I grow.” A common trend among bodybuilders is to fall in love with the method originally used to break through their first major plateau, simply because this is the protocol that yielded the most impressive results. Despite its necessity, it is hard to leave the comfort zone that a time proven method provides; the following are a few ideas that can help revitalize a routine gone stale.
Often “cheating”, by using slight deviations from the prescribed movement, can aid in creating more overall overload. Curls or lateral raises with some swing, or a bench press that is not brought down all the way to your chest are examples of this. These techniques are best left to advanced lifters, and those who generally have a solid understanding of biomechanics. When you “cheat” you must understand which exercises allow for a safe deviation from the prescribed kinesiological pattern. It is highly recommended that a beginner first learn how to perform their sets in a strict manner in order to promote the correct neuromuscular patterns. Slight variations in form can be added to movements once the correct biomechanics are learned.
Prioritizing Muscle Groups
Almost immediately upon commencing training, we realize that some muscle groups seem to respond better than others. While some muscle groups tend to progress quite easily, others are left behind despite your best efforts. Adjusting your training so that these muscles get hit when you are at your freshest is a great idea. This can be achieved by training lagging body parts in the first workout of the week, or by prioritizing certain exercises earlier in individual workouts. For example, a bodybuilder who lacks in the hamstring and glutes department would start his lower body days with deadlifts, and leave quad dominant work for the end. Also upping the workload on lagging muscle groups and in turn lowering the workload on body parts that grow more rapidly is a great idea. Reducing your workload can be scary, but remember, maintaining is easier than building. You can roughly cut the workload in half for your dominant muscle groups without seeing any atrophy. Considering you grow well in these areas, you may still see some continued improvement.
The initial concept of pre-exhausting a muscle group was the sequence of targeting bigger, more powerful muscle groups with an isolation exercise, followed by a compound exercise for the same muscle group. The idea was to push the desired muscle past failure to stimulate growth. However, it has been found that this method simply causes the synergist muscles to have to work harder on the compound lift, resulting in less stimulation in the desired muscle. An example of this would be performing a fly movement and following it up with a pec-dominant press. Normally this protocol would be followed to increase stimulus for the chest; however now we know this would actually be an effective way of training the triceps. In the prior example, the pectoral and anterior deltoid muscles are pre-exhausted and the triceps are forced to take up more of the workload. In this way bigger, stronger muscles are not limited by smaller weaker muscles because the stronger muscles that are last to fatigue have been pre-exhausted. Remember, use of this technique is advised on days when you are not handling near-maximal loads.
Also known as the “rest pause” technique, this is defined by taking a short break before completing any remaining repetitions. This technique allows you to push past momentary failure by stopping for 2-5 seconds between reps. Another variation is completely stopping the exercise and then continuing after a 10-20 second rest. The rest pause technique also allows those who don’t have a training partner to work past failure.
Peak Contraction Sets
Peak contraction is the position in a range of motion that yields the most intense isometric tension. In application, this means pausing and holding a weight at the point where the muscle is working the hardest. Despite what the name implies, this does not necessarily mean pausing at the end of the range of motion. In fact, at the end of a range of motion, most of the force of the load has greatly diminished. For example, it is easier to pause at the end of a row or leg extension than it is to pause in its mid range. Holding a contraction in this “sweet spot” places a greater amount of tension on the muscle and elicits more growth.
Eccentric training refers to training a muscle by focusing on the portion of a lift when the muscle is lengthening, as opposed to a concentric contraction which is defined by the muscle shortening. Muscles are capable of generating more force, and sustain greater tissue damage from eccentric training compared to concentric training. Eccentric contraction has been found to be more metabolically efficient than concentric contraction and eccentric contractions are primarily responsible for strengthening connective tissues. It’s a good way to strengthen the integrity of the structure, and a great arsenal to your training.
Using Near Maximal Loads
Work done within the two to five rep maximum range can help take a physique to the next level, especially for one who has not done much lifting with near maximal loads. Fast twitch muscle fibers have the most potential for growth and are heavily recruited when lifting such loads. Muscle fibers are recruited in the following order: Type I, Type IIA, and Type IIB last. Therefore slow twitch fibers are still active during sets where near maximal loads are used. Aside from the direct growth that can be achieved through near maximal loads, the weights used in the eight to twelve rep maxes will also increase, so there is plenty of carryover when moving back into more traditional hypertrophy specific rep ranges.
Constantly cycling your training into different phases is the most important thing you can do as a bodybuilder in order to keep progressing. This concept is still fairly new in the bodybuilding community, and many lifters train the same way year round. In part two of this article we will discuss periodization, from the many options, and organization schemes, to popular hypertrophy programs.
About the Author
Alberto Nunez is a natural bodybuilder who earned his pro cards in the PNBA, NGA, and WNBF. He is also completing his degree in dietetics. Be sure to check out his website 3DMuscleJourney.com
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