The more advanced you become in the weight room, the more you will struggle to put on more size and strength. The linear strength and muscle gains that beginners enjoy, don’t last. That is why you see so many guys lift the same weights over and over for years. It looks like they have reached the pinnacle of their genetic potential.
Of course, this is rarely the case. Their repertoire of techniques to shock the body to change might just not be big enough. The body has become used to the same old routine and methods being thrown at it.
And for most guys at the gym, that repertoire of muscle building techniques is limited to things like forced reps and the occasional superset. A real waste, as there are a lot more ways to break through a plateau.
Here I just want to introduce five of them.
First off, what deserves special mention is the principle of forced reps, which is shamelessly overused. Forced reps is when you perform a set to failure, for example in the Bench Press, and then have a spotter help you knock out 2-3 additional reps.
Forced reps do work, but not if you use them on every set, every time like most guys do, especially those that train with a partner. Then, they can become detrimental.
Forced reps are extremely stressful on the nervous system, because you are taking the muscle past failure on every set and then forcing it to do even more work. The principle behind it is that you will be recruiting every last high-threshold muscle fibre when taking the set past failure.
That might be the case, but it comes at a price. It fries your nervous system and negatively affects your performance when used too frequently. Remember, your nervous system takes longer to recover than your muscles.
Also, what I dislike about this method is not being able to measure how much weight you actually lifted and how much your partner was helping you. This makes programming difficult.
Forced reps should really only be used on the very last set to limit neural fatigue. Guys using this technique on every set rarely increase their strength levels, which in the long run hinders muscle gain. When using forced reps, limit it to your very last set and don’t use it on every exercise.
6 Techniques To Crush Strength Plateau And Gain More Size
Traditionally a technique for increasing strength, it can also be effectively used for hypertrophy. In Rest-Pause Training you perform your working set to failure (failure here meaning stopping after the last perfect rep, knowing you won’t be able to perform another rep), rest for 15-20 seconds, pick the weight back up and again do as many reps as possible with it, rest for another 15-20 seconds and continue this until you are unable to complete a single rep.
For the Back Squat a Rest-Pause set might look like this:
- Back Squat @ 185lbs x 10 (10RM weight)
- Rest 15-20 seconds
- Back Squats 185lbs x 3
- Rest 15-20 seconds
- Back Squats x 2
- Rest 15-20 seconds
- Back Squats x1
Of course, you would only do the Squat in a Power Rack with the safety pins in place. The Rest-Pause method holds the advantage, compared to methods like forced reps, that you are able to measure how much weight you actually lifted.
This method can also lead to substantial nervous system fatigue and should therefore be limited to once a week and a single set for any big lift. And never use the Rest-Pause method on lifts, which you are not technically proficient and very confident in. It leads to extremely high muscle recruitment and fatigue and must therefore be used with caution.
It is rightfully an advanced tool, but a highly effective one when it comes to building muscle and knocking down strength plateau.
I hardly see Pyramid Training being used anymore, even though it is a timeless muscle building classic and arguably my favorite training method when it comes to putting on size. I also use the always colorful Pyramids for my conditioning and work capacity workouts.
For hypertrophy, nothing beats the Reverse Pyramid. Start off with a heavy weight for low reps and progress onto lighter weights for higher reps.
Bench Press 2-4-6-8-10 (decrease the weight for each set)
This method works wonderfully because of a “phenomena” called PAP (post activation potentiation) where lifting a heavy weight before lifting a lighter weight, makes the lighter weight seem even lighter.
It’s like picking up a suitcase, which you expect to be a lot heavier than it actually is and thus, you elicit a more powerful muscle contraction.
When you prime your nervous system with heavy weights, you will knock through your normal training weights with ease and we can do this beautifully with reverse pyramiding. Also, by decreasing the weights on each set, you are able to keep working, before muscle fatigue sets in.
Descending Pyramids go the other way. We start with high reps and work our way down (eg. 10-8-6-4-2). I prefer these for conditioning work though. They have the advantage that they have a built-in warm up, starting with lighter weights and higher reps and then moving on to heavy weights and lower reps.
We don’t take advantage of PAP though and there’s the real possibility that we’ll be too tired when we get to the heavy weights, which can lead to sloppy form. One way to counter this is to use the same weight for every set.
I find that pyramids give you a welcome motivation boost too, because they are definitely more exciting than your average 5×5 routine.
Grease the Groove
We’ve established before that many trainees do the same routine, using the same weights for what seems to be forever. How do we get out of this hamster wheel? Adding frequency, and hence, volume, to the big money movements.
If your progress is stalling, you need to change something. More often than not strength levels are the limiting factor when you just can’t seem to put on more muscle. By increasing your strength levels, you’ll be able to handle more weight, which will lead to bigger muscles.
The Grease the Groove method is simply increasing the weekly frequency of movements that we would like to become stronger at. The added frequency increases the amount of time you “practice” the movement, which for one increases the neurological adaptations that increase strength, but also add a significant amount of volume, which promotes muscle gain.
Take the Bench Press as an example. The average guy trains the Bench Press once a week on Monday – international “Chest Day”. That equates to 52 Bench Press sessions a year.
In the Grease the Groove method, we’ll bench press up to three times a week. That’s 104-156 Bench Press sessions a year.
Who do you think will become better at the Bench Press, build more strength and more muscle?
I know what you’re thinking. Won’t training the same movement multiple times a week lead to overtraining? It would, if you are going balls to the wall every session, pushing the muscle to exhaustion on every set and trying to squeeze in everything else you’ve been doing too.
Don’t do that.
Pick 5-6 “Big” exercises and do them for 3-4 sets of 5 reps up to four times a week. Never take the muscle to failure. You’ll naturally be able to use heavier weights over time.
The overall volume of work will make the movement more efficient and us stronger, and your new strength will do wonders for when you go back to a more traditional program.
Breathing Squats / High-Rep Squats
Whenever I come off a High Rep Squat Program, I feel indestructible. There is no method more effective for gaining size fast, than High Rep Back Squats. Anyone who has gone through a grueling high volume squat program knows the feeling.
There are few things left in the training world that have the power to shock you after you’ve loaded a Bar with your bodyweight or more and aimed for the clouds. After doing a program like this for awhile, any low rep squatting will seem ridiculously easy.
Breathing Squats in particular are an old technique, that helps you develop the grit to push through your perceived limits, when every muscle in your body is begging you to stop.
The original Breathing Squat routine is a set of 20 Squats done with a weight that you could normally only squat for 10 reps (10RM). This is accomplished by taking a few deep breaths between reps and grinding it out one rep at a time until you reach 20 reps. This is beyond cruel, not for beginners, and will take some balls to pull off.
A strategy that I use, which has worked well for me is to use single breaths for the first 8 repetitions. Breathe in at the top, hold your breath on the way down, and release your breath by pressing it through pursed lips on the way up to maintain a stable midsection.
For the next 4 reps take two breaths between reps, hold your breath for the entire Squat and only breathe out after each rep. For the final 8 reps – and this is where things get ugly – take 3-4 breaths in between reps and make sure you hold your breath for the entire squat. You’ll need the extra stability this provides when your body just wants to fold in two.
The prolonged pauses between reps can take a real toll on your lower back. Always make sure you squeeze your glutes as hard as you can at the top to take the strain off your lumbar spine.
Start off by implementing breathing Squats once a week. And I wouldn’t recommend doing them more than twice a week.
You’ll be shocked by what it does for you.
Compensatory Acceleration Training (CAT)
In CAT the goal is to move as fast as possible through each concentric part of an exercise. This ensures we are maximizing force through the entire range of motion.
At end ranges of a movement, where the joints are at a mechanical advantage, we tend to waste force, by moving at the same slow speed that we use when moving through the harder parts of the lift.
CAT ensures we keep force production as high as possible by focusing on max speed of movement. This means your muscles are working harder.
There are two possibilities of increasing force – either through mass or acceleration.
Force = Mass x Acceleration
In the Back Squat for example, the lift gets progressively easier as we move up past the sticking point (usually when hips are knee level). We will make this easier part harder by going at maximum velocity.
Accommodating Resistance training – where you use chains and bands to increase the difficulty of movements at end ranges – makes use of the same principle, but instead of increasing speed, it increases Mass. Both are great tools with a similar effect.
CAT definitely is a more useful tool to break through strength plateaus. But again, anything that will increase your strength levels will inevitably also help you put on more muscle, as you can put that new strength to use in your hypertrophy training.
The Westside Barbell Method uses the principle of speed lifting at lighter loads in their programming to maximize strength gains. It works very well. And in a typical gym setting where everyone has been doing 3 sets of 8-12 at moderate speeds for years, CAT will be a real jolt to their system and a welcome wake up call.
One thing to be wary of is not to use loads that are too light, which can lead to bouncing or losing control of the bar at the top of the movement which can increase the risk of injury.
Staggered Set Training is great for anyone who wants to get a lot of work done in a short amount of time.
It involves taking two or more non-competing exercises and performing them back-to-back. The idea is to also include an isolation movement. For example, do a set of Back Squats, followed by a set of Biceps Curls and then a set of Dips.
None of the movements will interfere with the performance of the other, as they are all working different muscle groups. One gets to recover while the other is working.
Yes, this is basically like Circuit Training. You do get some conditioning for free. By doing more work in less time you’ll also boost your metabolism and promote more anabolic hormone production like HGH and Testosterone.
I like to use staggered sets to strategically bring up lagging body parts. If you know your Biceps is the limiting factor on your way to 20 Chin Ups, add them as your Isolation movement. They are also great for incorporating training for body parts that no one ever trains – like the neck.
I have a rule that the first exercise, the main money movement should be a free weight, compound one like the Squat, Deadlift or Bench Press, and not a machine based one. On the second or third exercise, feel free to add a machine in.
A Few Last Words
All these methods work. But probably not if you use them all at the same time. Pick one, stick with it for awhile and see if it works for you, before you discard it.
The only way to see what you best respond to (and every person responds to every method differently) is to try things out one at a time.
On that note, go out, get your progress back and dominate the gym floor.