In the last article we looked at two brilliant strategies that you can use to smash a strength plateau, that annoying period where time seems to stand still, and you can’t make any forward progression on your lifts.
Today we are going to look at three more strategies that you can add to your toolkit in order to tackle this inevitable gym inertia.
Break your plateau: Variable resistance
Bands and chains might sound like something from a low-grade Chick-Lit novel, but they’re amazing weapons in your fight against stalled progress. There exists an almost endless supply of bands with thicknesses and resistances that vary from retailer to retailer so you really need to do your own research into what you need. Red bands are generally very thin so better suited to your warm-up/cool down stretching, but green and blue bands are tough and durable so can be used to wrap around a barbell without fear of snapping.
We can use bands to break a plateau in a couple of ways. I’ll demonstrate with the deadlift.
If we fix the bands low, then they will provide resistance in the concentric (the ‘up’ section) of the deadlift. Why would we want to do this? Well, lets imagine that you’re pretty strong off the floor but you have a sticking point roughly below knee level. By attaching bands at the correct resistance you can use a weight that you are comfortable with, but when it hits your desired sticking point the band will apply resistance and it will all of a sudden get heavier! This is an excellent way of pushing through weaknesses without crippling yourself lifting weights that hamper your form.
Alternatively, we can suspend bands above the weight, maybe from the top of a power rack. If you have a deadlift that stalls below the shin, then you can overload the first 8 inches of the deadlift by using a very challenging weight, but when you get to mid-shin the bands will kick in and ease you to lockout.
Chains have a very similar application – as you lift, more of the chain leaves the floor thus your barbell gets heavier. It’s a time-proven tactic to getting stronger in squat, bench and deadlift.
So how can we use these tools to burst through a plateau? Well, as ever, program a 4-6 week block on the lift you wish to improve using chains or bands. Keep the reps in the 6-8 range but 1-3 does also work well if you are focusing on pure strength. Analyze where your weaknesses lie, think about whether you would benefit from the bar getting heavier or lighter as you approach lockout, and have a play around with what feels good.
When you take the bands away at the end of the block, you should find that you burst through the sticking point effortlessly – when we can destroy our sticking points, we can set our new PRs with ease.
Break your plateau: Focus on assistance movements instead
There is a Chinese Taoist principle ‘do by not doing’. This applies to plateau-busting surprisingly well. It might seem counter intuitive, but there is good evidence, both anecdotally and in published papers, that completely abandoning the lift you are trying to improve and doing something else instead can yield positive results.
Hypothetically, let’s say you were bored of being a weakling and wanted a bodyweight strict press. A most noble goal. One strategy for achieving this might be to abandon strict pressing altogether for a time.
If your strict press stalls then it’s usually in one of two places: in the bottom of the lift, or slightly above eye level. If it stalls at the bottom of the lift, this may be an issue with weakness in your lats and triceps. If it stalls at eye level, then you might have weak front delts, or again, triceps.
So to tackle this, you could lay off the main movement for 4-6 weeks and instead focus on hitting those areas. To strengthen the lats, we might incorporate a ton of heavy and medium weight rows, as well as wide-grip pull ups.
If we’re looking to focus on triceps power then nothing beats the weighted dip for sets of 5-8. Front delts can be toughened up by Arnold Presses or JM Press.
After the 4-6 weeks are up, you can try and hit a 1RM. I can absolutely guarantee that you won’t have lost any strength in the lift you haven’t been doing, and I would be willing to bet very good money that you will beat your previous 1RM
Some ideas for the substitute movements in the other main lifts are as follows:
Improve bench press – Dumbbell flat bench, JM Press, weighted push ups, pullovers, dips.
Improve Back Squat – Front squats, single leg squats, Good Mornings, Zercher Squats.
Improve Deadlift – RDLs, heavy lunges, kettlebell swings, deficit deadlifts, heavy rows.
Break your plateau: Go beast mode on one lift
Lifting is often full of contrast, and my final suggestion for breaking through a stubborn plateau is the absolute binary opposite of the last one.
Instead of subbing the lift out for assistance moves, sub the assistance moves out for the main lift!
Now, this is not to be tried lightly, and only really for those who have the time, recovery protocols and experience to do so. I would not recommend this strategy to anyone who hasn’t been lifting for at least 3 years, and even then its not something that you should consider unless desperate.
There exists a program so mysterious, so feared in strength circles that it is known by one name which is only ever referenced in hushed tones – Smolov.
Old Mr Smolov was, predictably, a Soviet weightlifting coach back in the USSR days. He adapted a program so insanely ridiculous that many in the west didn’t believe it was real until the Iron Curtain came down.
The full Smolov program is a Squat-only, 13 week tour of madness where you squat over 85% of your max three to four times a week. Now, I am not recommending this to you as a plateau-smasher, but there are lessons to be learned from this.
Specificity, the skill of focusing on one thing, is a key tenet of physical training. If you are really fed up of not being able to break your strength plateau, and you have tried all other available methods, then desperate times call for desperate measures.
There is a toned down version of the Smolov program called ‘Smolov Jr’ which non drug-assisted lifters and those with other full time commitments than lifting can employ.
It certainly teaches you a lot about your body and your capability. Once, about 5 years ago, I ran a cycle of Smolov Jr for my strict press as I was annoyed at not being able to clear 200lbs. Doing literally no other lifts for 4 weeks was certainly interesting. It’s a good job the strict press is my personal favorite, as it is very easy for boredom to set in.
When I tested my max 5 weeks after starting the program, I had put 10lbs on the lift. However, strength is transient and within a few weeks of focusing on getting all my other lifts back on track, my strict press had dropped below 200lbs again.
As an experiment, for a very experienced lifter, I would recommend running one cycle of Smolov Jr for bench, squat or press at least once in your training career. It teaches you a lot about desire, technique and your own limits. I would emphatically warn against applying it for deadlift though – if you deadlifted that heavy and that often, it would probably end you.
Over the course of these two articles, we have given you five potent tools to smash that stubborn block and set yourself up with even more gains. Patience is key. Give each method at least 4-6 weeks before you write it off. If one of them doesn’t work (unlikely!) then try another.
Lifting is a long-term game, where we think in months and years, not days and hours. With hard work and determination – and a little help from experienced coaches – you can make lifelong progress. Get after it.
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