Plateaus: sometimes you feel like you’ve just hit the wall. Your nutrition is on point, your sleep is excellent, you’re pre-habbing, rehabbing and everything in between – but your wheels are spinning. In strength terms, this is known as a plateau. Your numbers aren’t going down, but they aren’t going up either.
If you are new to training, then this may not have happened yet. But it will. If you’re an old-timer you know just how frustrating a plateau can be. Anecdotally, some people report plateaus that have lasted months, and sometimes years.
Today we’re going to discuss two effective tools that you can use to bust through the stubbornest of strength plateaus and get your numbers moving again. They don’t all need to be tried at once. Pick one, take it for a spin for a few weeks and see what happens. You may be pleasantly surprised.
Plateaus: Tempo training
Tempo training is a real joker in the pack when it comes to smashing a plateau but first we need to get a little technical to talk about it. To illustrate tempo, we’ll use the bench press: let’s say you have taken the bar out of the rack and are ready to press. You lower the bar to the chest, you touch the chest briefly, and then you press it back out again. Simple. Three stages of the lift right there.
If we go at a normal speed, we would annotate this lift as such: 0-0-0-0. The fourth digit is the top of the lift, or the position in which you started.
Now let’s imagine we are going to let the bar descend normally, but we’re going to go for a two second pause on the chest. The notation for this would look like so: 0-2-0-0
On the next set, we get rid of the pause on the chest, but we are going to really focus on a slow and controlled 3 second descent from lockout to the chest. That would look like this 3-0-0-0
Finally, let’s imagine you’re a complete sadist and you want to do a 3 second controlled descent, a 3 second pause, and a three second press to lockout, and then you held that lockout for 3. Can you picture how that would look? That’s right: 3-3-3-3
Now that we know how to write about it, let’s look at the benefits of it. The main reason for tempo training when trying to obliterate a strength plateau is, paradoxically, that you have to use less weight. Using less weight offers a number of benefits but primarily your form will be tighter and you’ll recruit more muscles (hypertrophy).
In the case of the bench press or the squat, fighting against gravity in phase one of the lift will recruit all your stabilizing muscles. Pausing at the bottom of the squat, bench or press will mean that you are not taking advantage of muscle elasticity to ‘bounce’ the weight, making you much stronger out of the hole. It might hurt your ego but tempo training will massively help your strength and muscle development.
How to employ? Pick a movement you want to get stronger in. Let’s imagine that movement is the squat. Now film yourself (or have a trusted gymbro watch you) doing a relatively heavy lift, about 85% of your 1RM. Where does the lift break down? If it’s just all-round awful then add 2 second tempo to every phase: 2-2-2-2, and then drop the weight by about 20-30lbs.
If there is a section of the lift that is particularly weak, for example getting out of the hole in the bottom of the squat, then add the pause there – 0-2-0-0
Carry out your reps as usual, but with lighter weights and the new tempo. You should start to see improvements in form within a few weeks. You can then decide what to develop, maybe a longer pause in the hole, maybe a longer pause at the top of the movement. Play around and listen to your body. Adapt this tempo approach for 4-6 weeks, then go back to performing the lift normally. You should notice a difference. Get ready to smash some PRs.
Plateaus: Isometric holds and presses.
Isometrics, a fancy word which basically means developing tension without contracting the muscles, are another fantastic tool for taking your strength to the next level. A really nice and easy way to use this method is pin-presses in a power rack.
Let’s imagine you’re benching, and you set the pins at your usual height to stop yourself getting squished. Now turn that idea on its head – imagine if the pins are to limit the weight going up, not coming back down. This is how we employ isometrics on the bench press.
Set the pins at the sticking point (for the purposes of this walk through, that will be about 6 inches from lockout, but it could be anywhere) and start with the bar on your chest, or, if you’re really lucky, another set of pins. It can be useful to have a spotter to help with this as it’s quite tricky.
Press the bar up to the pins – because you’re underneath, the pins will stop you from locking out. This is good.
Push as hard as you can for 5 seconds. Full power. Then allow the bar to come back down to your chest. This is one rep. As you will be working lighter weights you should stick to the 5-8 rep range. With each rep, push as hard as you can against the underside of the pins.
Over the course of 4-6 weeks, you should vary the time you press against the pins, but go no longer than 10 seconds. When you can do a set of 5 with a 10 second press against the pins, stick a bit more weight on.
After the 4-6 week block, take the pins away. Try the bench press again, unhindered. You may be surprised by the amount of sheer power you generate. Be careful not to launch the bar through the roof of the gym – they don’t have an insurance clause for damage due to insane strength gains. But they should. You can employ this with squat and deadlift too, you just need a little imagination, and something to push (or pull in the case of the deadlift) against.
Plateaus can be annoying and make you lose motivation for training. With the two tips described here, you should now have a toolkit for breaching even the most belligerent plateaus. Get to it – and stay tuned for more plateau-busters very soon.
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