Reading time: 7 minutes
Go to failure.
Cardio 20 minutes.
First off, obviously the aforementioned works. If you’re progressively overloading, doing your compound lifts, and training with the appropriate volume, it’s gonna work.
BUT, we want to enjoy those sessions, and ensure we’re not stuck in the hamster wheel of a plateau.
Boredom can lead to loss of adherence, by way of lack of inspiration to head to the gym once you start to rationalize the work that ensues.
We want to look forward to training. We want to start thinking about the challenge it holds, the feeling of pushing through, and then anticipate the accomplishment and endorphin rush that follows.
We’ve all hit a plateau point: after weeks of working up to a max for the day, or nailing your sets at 65, 72.5, 80, 80, and 90% max, or just working the weight up on your 3×10’s.
It’s time for a monkey wrench.
First off, let’s be sure you’re tracking your workouts! Too many people let their training sessions fall by the wayside and leave their insufficient memory in charge of their metric tracking.
Keep a log; write your reps, sets, weights, and some simple feedback on how it all felt on any given day. If you’re tracking nothing, start simple. Write down your major lift’s (one you really want to improve) weights, sets, and reps; it’s as simple as that.
The following methods are to intensify, progress, and further stimulate your training efforts. When done right, they can provide an incredibly enjoyable “fun factor” to your training.
These are some of the best ways to murder your plateau, but keep in mind these techniques are meant to break the mold of your current training, and push you further by providing an advanced stimulus.
These are not meant to always become a constant, weekly endeavor. These can be incorporated in 1 out of 4 weeks in a training cycle, at the end of a set, or at the end of a workout. A method I like to follow is:
- Week 1: Learn movements
- Week 2: Perfect movements
- Week 3: Intensify
- Week 4: Deload/re-assess
This is essentially a 3 week mini-cycle I took from Joe DeFranco, which I use A LOT.
Notice how the “intensify” is the minority here; it’s one week. Not 3, or 4.
Intensification techniques should be viewed as the same, providing an additional muscle damage component, not a blanket to your entire routine.
Everyone knows that dude who puts every 5, and 10lb plate on the bench press, calls his spotters over, and proceeds to do 13 mini-sets off half reps.
That is a (poor) example of dropsets.
You have your weight, preferably hitting 5 or above reps, and you then peel weight back (typically 30-50%) to perform more repetitions. This added volume will be the plateau-breaker as when you compare the total load (setsxrepsxweight) lifted vs the last session with no dropsets, the total is higher.
Dropsets aren’t always the best choice with certain compound lifts. You may need the assistance of a spotter or two, which can sometimes be asking a bit much. “Bro, spot me?”
They can also be tough if you’re not too familiar with your max percentages, or the RPE scale. The more comfortable you can be with knowing your own output, and perceived exertion, the better you can gauge your stopping point.
I like to throw these in on the last set of my accessory and isolation lifts, such as:
- Kroc Rows
- DB Presses
- Landmine Presses
- Lunge Variations
- KB Swings
- Tricep Extensions
- Leg Extensions/Curls
This would be choosing your weight, but once you’ve fatigued, taking a short 10-20 second rest, and then bludgeoning through another few reps.
I (along with many others) prefer these with compound movements, as it’s a great way to burst through plateaus, and accumulate some more volume with quality weight. You’ll likely make serious strength gains due to the load you’re handling with this method.
There are also rest-pause sets in the powerlifting world, where you would take your 2-3RM, or 85-90% max, and do one rep, rest 10-20 sec, and do another, and continue to repeat until you’re either
- A. dead
- B. waiving the white flag.
Research has shown that rest-pause sets are most effective on lower body training, and can actually increase muscle activation even when volume is equated. You can add in a rest-pause squat session as your intensification, and then you don’t have to continue on with your accessories and isolation to the same degree, but that’s how the accumulation can help you through a plateau.
AMRAP’s (my simple fav)
“As many reps as possible” or “as many rounds as possible.”
These can certainly drag you into deep, dark waters. but it’s important to have a function in mind for these.
I am a huge fan of AMRAP’s at a certain point in training, and for certain people. I think too many people have a misinterpretation of their abilities, so I like to use that 3 week mini-cycle from above, and on week 3 perform AMRAP’s on particular lifts.
Let’s say weeks 1-2 we hit 4×8, by week 3 you should be well adapted to the weight, and can likely improve. So, week 3 we’ll use 8,8,8, AMRAP – which will likely end up looking like 8, 8, 8, 14 or some magical shit like that. We then would modify our weight up, or increase the reps per set for the next following mini-cycle. Simple as that.
These are great for beginner-intermediate lifters as well, because it provides an education. You learn yourself, and what you can really do, how quickly you can improve, and you can really start to gauge your RPE and RIR.
- (RPE) Rate of Perceived Exertion- numerical measurement of difficulty of an exercise’s set. Scale 1-10, used to estimate difficulty of exercse, usually paired with measuring reps in reserve: 10 being cannot complete another rep. 9 being can complete one more rep, 8.5 being can complete another rep, chance at 2, and so on.
- (RIR) Reps in Reserve- numerical measurement of difficulty similar to RPE, just in the reverse. Typically, RIR can be simpler to grasp, as the scale is used most often as 0-5, with 0 being “0 reps in reserve” meaning you cannot perform another, 1 meaning you can do one more, and so on.
It’s more common to see ‘as many rounds as possible’ used as a metabolic training tool (think Crossfit). But, it can also be used for density training (completing more reps in less time).
Say your DB Arnold press is 4×8, and you rest 60 seconds between each set. 8 reps at about 3 seconds per rep is 24 seconds, multiplied by 4 sets is 96 seconds. Add 3 minutes (60 sec of rest after rounds 1, 2, and 3) and that = 276 seconds, divide it by 60 to get the minutes = 4.6.
It’ll take between 4.5-5 minutes to get through your 4×8 (minus intra-set IG scrolling and snap-chatting). So, set your timer to 5 minutes, and knock out as many sets of 8 as you can in the allotted time. I guarantee you it’ll be more than 4.
Mechanical Drop Sets (my overall fav)
This is when we would modify the angle, grip, position, or other variables within the movement pattern to continue to lift the same (or similar) load while fatigue settles in.
This can be a fantastic educational-tool as well, because you really learn exercises within movement patterns. It also provides added tension, and of course volume for taking you beyond your plateaus.
The simplest illustration of this would be DB chest pressing:
- DB High Incline Press 6-8 reps
- DB Low Incline PressxMAX reps
- DB Flat BenchxMAX reps
- DB Decline BenchxMAX reps
There are numerous other ways to work this:
Squat Variation: (not handling the same weight, but shows how you can modify intensity to continue sets)
- Barbell squat of choice 6-8 reps
- Goblet squatxMAX reps
- Jump squatsxMAX reps (optional)
- Bodyweight squatsxMAX reps
Vertical Pull Variation: (lat pulldowns would be an optional addition)
- Wide grip pull ups
- Neutral grip pullups
- Chin ups
- Lat Pulldowns
Bicep Curl Variation: (biceps won’t grow? Here:)
- Spider Curls
- Seated Curls
- Standing Curls
- Cheat Curls
I gave 4 options, but you can extend the set as you’d prefer, of course. Some options work best with a partner so that we don’t have to expend our time and energy dropping weights and setting up, but it’s easy to see how this will increase volume and tension.
These added in once a week can seriously increase your capacity, volume, and hypertrophy.
Other Set/Rep Schemes to Break the Monotony
“Every Minute On the Minute”
Most notably found in Crossfit metcon’s, and infamous for brutality.
I am fan of EMOM’s for metabolic training, but I also use them in my compound and accessory work from time to time.
They will keep the training intense, metabolic, and the lactic acid buildup with provide a pump worthy of a Flex magazine cover.
10 minutes: Compound Movement-3-5 reps
Super simple, perform 3-5 reps of your main movement every minute on the minute in the 75-85%max range. Gainz.
Superset EMOM: Alternating Minutes
|a. Bench Press 3-5 reps||b. Trap Bar Deadlifts 4-6 reps|
|a. Chin ups 3-5 reps||b. Goblet Squats 6-8 reps|
|a. Overhead Press 4-6 reps||b. Single Leg KB RDL’s 4-6 reps|
|a. Split Squats to KB Press 3-5 reps||b. TRX Thrust Rows 6-8 reps|
|a. Drag Curls 6-8 reps||b. Bodyweight Skullcrushers 4-6 reps|
|a. Band Resisted Split Squats||b. Swiss Ball Curls 6-8 reps|
The options can be endless, and it can be an incredibly time-efficient training technique.
You can alternate upper and lower body for getting your strength work knocked out while not compounding the fatigue too quickly, or you can alternate antagonistic patterns in the same general area for the pump.
85 for 25
Stole this one from Boom Boom Performance
For all the 5x5ers, this is for you.
Possibly the greatest, and simplest strength training setxrep prescription of all time (5×5), modified into a much more engaging, and challenging scheme.
Example: Deadlifts – get 25 total reps, at your 85% 1RM, for time.
Set your timer, begin lifting. First round you get 6, awesome. Drop that shit, rest as needed. Next round is 5. Then, 5 again. 4, then 3, and then 2 and you’re finished.
Check the time, log it, beat it next week.
Plateaus Can Open Your Eyes to the Fun You’re Not Having
Use the halt in progress to redesign your training.
Add in new methods, switch accessory exercises, up the load on your compounds, make it more engaging.
There is no deficit of options, so enjoy the progress 🙂