Updated: 28th January, 2018
If you’re serious about building a great physique, you need to be getting stronger over time.
Well, aside from the awesome feeling you get when you lift serious poundage, being strong generally allows you to build more muscle.
You see, doing sets of 8 with 225 pounds on the bench press is going to build your chest nicely. But do you know what is better?
Doing sets of 8 with 275 pounds.
Doing sets of 8 with 315 pounds.
In today’s guide, we’ll go over everything you need to know for optimal strength gains and how to bust through strength plateaus quickly. Let’s go.
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Not Making Progress or Progressing Slowly?
Not getting stronger is a sure way of knowing that you’re doing something wrong and need to find what it is.
But often guys confuse their slow progress with an actual weightlifting plateau and the two are not the same.
Slow progress is normal, especially when it comes to strength.
After all, if getting stronger weren’t slow, we’d all be benching 1000 lbs by year 5. But, as you can probably guess – this is not the case.
In fact, progress is never linear and you will often feel a bit weaker before the load increases. Here is a chart that illustrates that:
Before we can jump into the solutions of breaking a plateau, we first need to know what we’re dealing with. Here are the 7 questions you need to answer:
Question #1: What is your diet like? Do you track macros (the very least protein) and is your body weight going up?
When you first started lifting, you probably made great progress. This is thanks to newbie gains and your nervous system getting used to the movements. You were also able to pull off a successful body recomposition thanks to that.
Your strength and muscle gains kept going up from week to week and the feeling was awesome. Even if your diet and training weren't optimal. The exceptions to the rule are only people who started off lifting with a knowledgeable coach by their side.
But after a while, once the newbie gains run their course, the fun part ends. This is where most guys plateau because they need to get smart with their diet but often don’t know where to begin.
If your body weight is moving up, but strength isn’t, we can proceed with the other questions.
Below, we’ll take a deeper look at nutrition, bodyweight tracking and how to do it efficiently and accurately.
Question #2: What does your plateau look like? Are you sure you’re making NO progress?
Guys often ask me how to get over a lifting plateau. The conversation often goes like this:
Does it sound like you? If it does – don’t worry. You haven’t hit a plateau. This is how progress looks like after the newbie gains are gone. The more progress you've made, the harder it becomes to acquire further gains.
And you should also keep in mind that progressive overload can be achieved in quite a few ways. Here are some:
As you can see, there are many ways to make progress and none of them include lifting heavier weights.
Even if you can only do one or two more reps compared to the previous week, it’s progress. Don't discount small wins.
But, if the above scenario doesn’t describe you and you’ve made NO progress for more than 3 weeks, don’t worry. I’m going to go over everything you need to do to break through that plateau and start seeing improvements again.
Question #3: Which exercises are you stuck on?
This is yet another important question to ask because the most common response I get is:
“I’ve managed to increase my overhead press by 20 pounds in the last 2 months but I’m still doing lateral raises with a pair of 20s!”
Here is the deal:
Your progress is always going to be better on multi-joint exercises compared to isolation movements.
There are 2 main reasons why this is true:
A plateau is best diagnosed when there's no progress on a compound lift for 3 or more weeks. Don't worry if you can't make weekly progress on lateral dumbbell raises.
Isolation exercises are steadily going to follow the lead as long as your compound lifts improve over time. You’re never going to see amazing progress on your chest flyes, but as long as your bench press goes up over time, your chest will grow.
Question #4: Could the problem be related to bad form or lack of mobility?
You see, these movements are highly technical. Getting stronger requires proper execution and skill.
Setting yourself up for each set and leveraging your strengths can be the difference between making strength progress, injury-free and plateauing for months.
Aside from getting the proper form down, practicing the lifts often will allow you get better at them which will lead to faster progress.
But, performing the lifts with bad form will not only limit the potential benefit you can get from them but also increase the risk of injury.
And lastly, lack of mobility can significantly worsen your form and reduce the range of motion you can use.
If you have bad hip mobility, your squats and deadlifts are always going to suffer. They’ll feel uncomfortable and unnatural and progress will be very slow.
If you’re having trouble progressing on one or two exercises, but everything else is going up, your problem is most likely hiding somewhere within the execution of that particular movement.
Because of that, you need to make sure that your form is on point. If you’re having doubts, ask someone who is knowledgeable to review your form or film yourself and review it yourself.
Question #5: What do your training volume and frequency look like?
Let me start by saying that overtraining is quite real and it can kick your ass if you can’t diagnose it early on.
A big reason why you might have hit a plateau is that you could be pushing it a bit too hard. Yes, doing more work can be less effective (to a point where it becomes counterproductive).
I’ve had guys walk up to me asking why they're not getting stronger despite putting in a lot of work. Some of them have told me that they do 20-30 working sets for muscles like chest and back per week!
As a beginner to intermediate level lifter, you don’t need such high amounts of volume to grow. We’ll get into more specifics on training below.
Question #6: Are you training for strength gains?
If everything is good so far, it’s time to take a look at how you approach your training.
Here is why:
Diet and recovery play a huge role in your progress, but if those 2 aspects are in check and you cannot detect an issue there, it’s time to take a closer look at how you train.
If you want to make good strength gains over time, you need to incorporate heavy compound lifting into your training sessions, period.
I used to train only in the 8-12 rep range (where 8 felt like a heavy set) for my first 2 years in the gym. Let me just say that I made so little progress despite my newbie gains that it was embarrassing.
My bench was 95 lbs when I first got started and I barely broke 135 by year two.
Because I wasn’t focusing on progressive overload, I was exercising. Furthermore, it is much more difficult to build strength when you’re only using lighter weights.
Question #7: Could cardio be interfering with your lifting progress?
Cardio is excellent for your health, longevity, and endurance. But it can also interfere with your strength and muscle gains. It does that mainly because of 3 reasons:
- Cardio burns calories. Yes, a shocker, I know. But say you’re doing 20 minutes of low-intensity cardio after each lifting session. That would burn an extra 150-200 calories. And if you don’t make up for those calories, you may not be in the caloric surplus that you need for optimal muscle gains and strength.
- High impact cardio, such as running, causes damage to muscles, joints and soft tissue. When the damage becomes more than the body can handle and recover from, issues such as lifting plateaus come to the surface.
- The SAID (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands) principle can also be the reasons why cardio could hold you back. Many studies have looked at concurrent training and how it affects the trainees’ results in regards to aerobic and anaerobic adaptations.
Without fail, most find that combining cardio and lifting delivers smaller anaerobic (strength, power, hypertrophy) adaptations when compared to strict lifting protocols.
A meta-analysis from 2012 that looked at 21 studies came to the following conclusion:
Our results indicate that interference effects of endurance training are a factor of the modality, frequency, and duration of the endurance training selected.
And while the principle of specificity is clear (if you want to build strength - lift heavy weights, if you want to improve your endurance - do more endurance work), context still matters.Doing excessive amounts of cardio will interfere with your strength gains (trying to prepare for a marathon while also building up your squat won’t go well). But cardio can also improve your work capacity (the volume of work you can do, recover from and adapt positively to) and many health markers.
I don’t want you to think that I’m bashing cardio - far from it. Below, we’ll look at specific ways you can add cardio to your training in a way that improves your long-term results.
How Diet Can Make or Break Your Progress and What to do, Step by Step
A lot of times, not making any progress in the gym is due to not eating enough calories.
After the initial ‘newbie gains’ run their course, you need to start paying more attention to your diet to ensure that it is not holding you back.
For example, the first time I attempted to bulk, I wasn’t tracking my macros or even calorie. I tried to eat a lot and I generally kept my meals filled with whole foods.
I wasn’t making much progress partially because I was under-eating.
Despite my plate being full of foods, each meal was no more than 700-900 calories. I never ate more than 3000 calories, which put me under maintenance at the time (but I didn’t know it).
Once I started tracking my calories and macros, I started eating much more food and I never had to worry that my diet might be holding me back.
To make sure that your diet is never the issue, you need to do 2 things:
1. Track your calories and adjust as needed.
2. Track your macronutrients (or at the very least – protein).
Start by calculating your BMR:
Once you’ve got your BMR number, multiply it by one of the following values that best describes your activity level (be honest) to get your TDEE number:
I recommend this method of calculating your TDEE because it’s among the more accurate ones out there. Sure, it’s not 100% accurate, but it gives you a good starting point to work with.
Now, add a 200-300 calorie surplus to your TDEE, ensuring that you’re providing your body with enough energy to build new muscle.
Note: Keep in mind that as you build muscle, you will have to increase your calorie intake to maintain a surplus. I recommend re-calculating your TDEE for every 7-10 pounds of weight you gain over time.
Now that you have a starting point for your calorie intake, it’s time to calculate your carbs, fats, and protein.
If you prefer the more minimalistic approach, you can just calculate your protein needs, get enough calories and call it a day.
Protein provides the body with the building blocks it needs to maintain, repair, and grow muscle. It’s also very satiating and if you’re someone who struggles with hunger, even when eating in a slight surplus, consuming more protein can help you feel fuller and avoid getting overly fat.
As for intake, there are many recommendations out there, but for the natural lifter, aiming for 1 gram per pound of body weight is enough to get the most out of it. If you weigh 175 pounds, eat roughly 175 grams of protein daily.
Same for you, ladies. Don’t be afraid of protein, you won’t turn into Ronnie Coleman in his prime. Just eat roughly 1 gram per pound of body weight.
Now, we’ll be going over carbs and fats. If you can’t be bothered calculating them, you can skip the next section.
Calculate Fats and Carbs
Split your remaining calories between carbs and fats based on your personal taste, but keep one rule in mind:
Get at least 15% of your calories from fats. If you eat 3300 calories per day, 15% is 495 calories (3300 * 0.15 = 495) or 55 grams of fats (495 / 9 = 55). This is because dietary fats are important for many functions of the body including metabolic function, immunity, hormonal production, cell signaling and more.
Fats also add texture and taste to meals and take longer for your body to break down and absorb, which makes you feel full for longer.
If you are interested in learning more about dietary fats, read this.
Once we’re done with fats leave the remaining calories for carbs.
Once you know your calorie and macronutrient goals, track your bodyweight to gauge progress.
Track your body weight daily, in the morning and take the weekly average. Here’s an example of how it might look like:
As you can see, there is a steady weight gain each week. Granted, this is the ideal scenario, but most people do experience fluctuations in weight due to bloating and other things.
Even if you wake up a couple of pounds heavier one day, you shouldn’t take it as definitive proof that you’ve overeaten too much. As long as your weekly averages are consistent, you’re on the right track.
If you see your weight plateau for more than 3 weeks, you can bump your calories by 100-150/day. This should get things moving again.
How to Train for Steady and Consistent Strength Gain Over Time
To ensure that you’re training for consistent strength and muscle improvements over time, there are a few things you need to focus your attention on:
I)Train each lift 2-3 times per week.
If you'll recall from earlier in this guide, we discussed that getting stronger on a certain movement is a skill that, like any other, needs to be practiced. You see, many people only train the major lifts once a week and practice the execution just 4 times per month.
And while this approach can deliver decent results as long as the training volume is there, it is not optimal for getting stronger.
This is why training the lifts you want to improve more often, provided you’re recovering, will lead to faster strength gains.
Part of that can be attributed to the improved neuromuscular efficiency with the lift. Also, any extra hypertrophy you get from a higher frequency can also contribute to strength.
Remember: a bigger muscle has more potential for strength. You may not necessarily gain a lot of strength if you gain 5 pounds of muscle, but your long-term potential will be much greater.
Also, there is a confidence boost that comes with the increased frequency and a small part of the strength gains could be thanks to that.
This, of course, is a thought and something that I’ve noticed about myself and people that I’ve coached.
And finally, training a lift (and muscle group) more than once per week allows for better volume allocation. Instead of cramming as much as you can within a single workout, higher frequency allows for more flexibility and somewhat easier training sessions.
Think of it this way:
Say you’re doing 16 working sets for the chest per week. If you do them in a single workout, the accumulated fatigue will make you progressively weaker throughout the course of the workout.
But, if you were to split these 16 sets into 2 or 3 workouts, you can manage your fatigue much better and always train your chest fresh. This would allow for more training volume to accumulate.
II) Do enough work (optimize your training volume).
The term “training volume” refers to the amount of work you do each workout or within a given week. There are many ways to track it, but for the context of this guide, we’ll talk about the number of sets.
Training volume is a key driver for strength adaptations and muscle growth. More volume brings more results, to a point. Finding the “Goldilocks zone” is important for optimal progress.
Do too little and progress is slow, or non-existent.
Do too much and you run the risk of overtraining or injuring yourself.
So, what is the right amount?
The general consensus is that you need 8+ sets per muscle group/week for strength gains and 10+ sets for muscle growth.
Now, my opinion is that these estimations are very conservative for most people. Obviously, factors such as genetics, training age, current goals, ability to train, stress outside of the gym, and diet all play a role in how well you can respond to training.
But, I consider 8 sets per week to be the bare minimum for progress in the gym. If you’re looking for optimal results, building more volume will bring better results.
But how much volume you need is going to be individual. Some people make great progress with 10 sets per week, where others need upward of 16 to see good progress.
This is going to involve some trial and error to find the sweet spot. But you’ll still make decent progress as long as you’re building up enough volume every week.
IIl) Dial down the cardio or do it on separate days if you can.
Don’t get me wrong. Doing regular cardio provides numerous benefits and you should do at least 20-30 minutes a week, whether you’re trying to build muscle or lose fat.
But there are two major ways in which cardio can slow down or even stop your progress:
The first issue is pretty easy to deal with. Especially when you consider that low-intensity steady state cardio can increase appetite for some people. But, you still need to be mindful and eat an extra 50-150 calories a day depending on how much cardio you do every week.
The second issue is directly linked to the intensity and frequency of your cardio sessions. As I mentioned earlier, doing 20-30 minutes of cardio a week is recommended and it can be quite beneficial.
But doing too much will inevitably cause muscular and CNS fatigue that will have a negative impact on your workouts.
Another important thing to keep in mind is the type of cardio. Most of the data out there suggest that running negatively impacts strength and size, where cycling doesn’t.
IV)Take deload or recovery weeks regularly.
I’ve written a very long and detailed guide on deload and recovery weeks. You can check it out here. But, let me give you the cliff-notes:
V)Don’t train to failure, leave repetitions in the tank.
Pushing yourself to the limit on a given set does have its benefits. You are doing the most work your body is capable of and you’re taking as much from the set as you can.
You’re recruiting the most muscle fibers and causing the most damage to the muscles.
But, where you could be failing is to understand how taking one set to failure could impact the rest of the exercise and workout.
Let’s take a look at an example of training to failure vs. training close to failure and see where we end up:
Example #1: Training to failure on all sets on the barbell back squat
Set 1: 255 pounds for 10 reps
Set 2: 255 pounds for 7 reps
Set 3: 255 pounds for 5 reps
Set 4: 255 pounds for 2-3 reps
Total reps done: 24-25
Example #2: Training close to failure on all sets for the squat
Set 1: 255 pounds for 8 reps
Set 2: 255 pounds for 8 reps
Set 3: 255 pounds for 8 reps
Set 4: 255 pounds for 6-8 reps (possibly hit failure before 8)
Total reps done: 30-32
See the difference there?
Even though the first dude went all out and took the old saying “Squat ‘till you drop!” seriously, he was behind the second guy who managed his fatigue much better.
The second guy could fail to get 8 on his last set due to the accumulated fatigue. But, he would still get more repetitions in without having to bust himself up in the process.
The accumulated volume the second guy has is more. If he can manage his fatigue throughout the entire workout, he will build up more training volume. And that, over the weeks and months can and will result in much greater strength and muscle gains.
An example where training to failure can help you:
Say you’re doing a set of seated dumbbell shoulder press and you get 8 reps on the first 3 sets, stopping close to failure. Now, on the 4th set, you can push it to failure and increase your training volume.
Depending on how long you rest, you might be able to get as much as 9 or 10 repetitions.
In this example, you would be:
VI)Include a few main lifts into your training to track progress better.
As we already discussed above, you can’t expect to make the same progress on each exercise. For example, gauging your progress on the deadlift is going to be much easier than doing so on an isolation movement like a dumbbell curl.
The deadlift recruits the whole body and many muscle groups, where the bicep curl only works a single, small muscle group.
Because of that, you can expect to make much more noticeable load progress on a compound lift than on an isolation one.
For that reason, you should include a few main lifts into your training that you can gauge progress on. Here are some examples:
Shoulders: overhead press
Bicep: chin-ups and weighted chin-ups (either track the extra weight you use or the number of reps).
Abs/Calves/Biceps/Triceps: Aside from the 3 movements for biceps and triceps, I can’t recommend any exercise for these muscles. Instead, focus on other methods of progress, such as doing more repetitions with the same weight. If you’ll recall from earlier in the guide, I listed 8 ways you can progress, none of which include adding more weight to the bar.
VII)Train the main lifts at a higher intensity.
In this very recent meta-analysis, 21 studies that met the following criteria were included:
Across the board, they concluded that gains in 1RM strength were significantly greater in favor of high-load training vs. low-load training.
Changes in hypertrophy were similar between the two conditions. This further proves that training volume is the main driver of hypertrophy. As long as volume is accounted for, muscle growth can occur within all repetition ranges.
What does this mean for you?
For one, make sure that you’re working with heavier loads (at least 60% of 1RM) on movements you’re trying to get strong on.
70-85% of 1RM is ideal.
Second, you can rest assured that you don’t need to ego-lift heavy dumbbells on lateral raises if you want shoulder growth. A pair that allows you 12-15 repetitions with good form will likely make your shoulders grow the same, if not better.
Follow These Rules to Ensure That Your Recovery is Not The Cause of Your Plateau
Apart from diet and training, recovery is another important factor for getting stronger.
If you're not recovering well, you'll accumulate a lot of stress and eventually hit a brick wall.
Below, I’ve outlined the 3 steps you need to follow to ensure that your recovery is adequate.
1.Sleep enough every night.
Sleep deprivation is responsible for some health issues. This study, in particular, took ten healthy young guys at the average age of 24 and cut their sleep from 8 hr 55 min to 4 hr 48 min for a week. What they found was interesting:
Their total free testosterone levels decreased by 10 to 15 %.
Other problems people face because of poor sleep are:
A good night’s rest has been proven to improve reaction times, accuracy, athletic performance and energy levels.
And although sleep deprivation hasn’t been shown to directly affect muscle strength, time to exhaustion is decreased.
This means that subjects weren’t able to exercise as long as usual before feeling exhausted.
So how much sleep should you get? The general guidelines for sleep is to get between 7 and 9 hours every night. Here are a few tips:
2.Manage your stress
When we talk about training and making gains, we often overlook one very important factor that plays a huge role in it: stress.
We focus on our training and nutrition, make tweaks here and there, and think that as long as we are consistent, we’ll get the desired results.
But, the human body is much more complicated and we cannot always expect the same outcome from our actions.
Even if we follow through with everything, sometimes we don’t get the best results. And a big reason for that is stress.
In this study, the researchers set out to compare two groups of people and how well they respond and adapt to training:
They found that the stressed out group gained less strength on the bench press and squat compared to their stress-free counterparts.
It’s worth noting, however, that the volume of stress may not be the only important thing, but how we react to it also matters. For example, I think that stress is much more detrimental to people who have very little stress but who get worked up over every little thing.
And then there are those people who have more stress in their lives but manage to remain calm and collected.
So, my recommendation is to not only try and reduce the stress in your life but also to become more mindful of how you react to it.
To some of you, this might sound silly, but I’ve found that meditation has helped me deal with stress much better. I’ve been practicing it for a few years now and I'm a much calmer and more collected person thanks to it.
At the very least, it’s worth trying for 30-60 days of as little as 5 minutes per day, and see how it affects you.
3.Structure your program in a smart way to allow proper recovery.
Following the guidelines of:
- Train each muscle 2-3 times per week;
- Train each muscle with 10+ sets per week;
We can put together a split. If you are a beginner lifter, I’ve already done the heavy lifting for you. Click the button below to download your free program:
Some guys like to train the entire upper body within two days: a push (chest, delts, triceps) and a pull (back and biceps).
But, if you’re like me and you prefer to hit them separately, make sure there is one day in-between each session that allows for proper muscle recovery.
The reason why this is important is that your chest, triceps, and delts assist one another during compound exercises like the bench press, overhead press, and close-grip bench press.
The same goes for back exercises. You cannot isolate your back with bent over barbell rows because your biceps get worked too. The same way you cannot isolate your chest with the bench press, because your shoulders and triceps play a big role in that lift, as well.
Same goes for the overhead press, dips, and close-grip bench press.
Even though some are going to come in as assisting muscles for the movement, they still get worked and need enough rest before you train them again.
Here are a few sample splits you can use:
Upper-Lower Body Split Example (4 Workouts)
Split spanning across 2 weeks (9 Workouts)
Chest, Shoulders & Triceps
Back & Biceps
Legs & Abs
Chest, Shoulders & Triceps
Back & Biceps
Legs & Abs
Chest, Shoulders & Triceps
Back & Biceps
Legs & Abs
Modified Bro-Split ( 4 or 5 Workouts)
Back (+back/front squat)
Chest (+ lower load overhead press)
Legs (+ sumo/conventional deadlift)
Shoulders (+ lower load bench press)
Arms (optional volume day)
As you can see, tons of different things can stop you from getting stronger and no single strategy is going to work for everyone.
Some people need to eat a bit more food, others need to take a step back in their training, and so on.
What is the #1 tip that you’re going to put in place?
Are you going to take a deeper look at your training? Maybe improve your eating habits? Or take a week off from training and see how it benefits you?
Let me know by leaving a comment below.