Blog Category: Fitness 4.0

If you've stopped seeing results at the gym, it's time to switch things up: Try these simple strategies.
By Mary Weaver | Posted November 8, 2012
Ideas for breaking your strength training plateau.
iStock Photo

A couple of months ago I worked with Tina, a woman in her mid-50s who had been working out regularly for many years. No one who knew her would call her overweight or out of shape, but Tina described herself as “skinny fat” and said she didn’t think she was getting a big enough result from all her hours in the gym.

I’m telling you her story because it’s one I see played out every time I go to the health club.

Tina and her sisters are dutifully showing up–and going through the motions. They’re using the same exercises, the same machines, and the same weights today as they did six months or a year or five years ago. It’s obvious they’re no longer progressing because their current workouts are, in a word, effortless.

If this describes you, think back to when you started strength training. The weights felt heavy. You were probably wasted by the end of the session and sore a couple of days later.

But then your brilliant body responded to the challenge by getting stronger, making what exercise scientists call “specific adaptations to imposed demand.” And because of that successful adaptation, your formerly butt-kicking workouts are now easy-peasy.

The cornerstone of strength training is so-called progressive overload, which simply means if you don’t regularly up the ante, you stall.

Not to worry. If that’s happened to you, it’s pretty simple (note that I didn’t say easy) to bust through your resistance-training plateau. All you need is greater intensity–a new demand to adapt to. Here are six ways to get it:

1. Increase the weights you’re handling. Not every workout has to be, um, balls to the wall. But you need some tough sessions if you want the body-shaping, calorie-burning and bone-building benefits of hefting weights. So next time you lift, see how many more reps you can do with the weight you’ve been using. If you can perform two or more reps (using good form) with that weight, it’s time to up the poundage.

2. Vary your repetition ranges. Don’t always stick with the often-recommended eight to 12. Mix things up with some heavier sets in the three- to six-rep range and some lighter sets at 12 to 20 reps. Each range emphasizes different benefits: low reps are especially good at building strength; the mid range, size; and high reps, muscular endurance. Perform all reps with correct form. The amount of weight is correct–in any rep range–if you approach or reach temporary muscular failure (meaning you can’t do any more reps) by the end of the set.

3. Reduce the time you spend between sets. If you’re resting for two minutes or more, cut it to 60 seconds–or even 30. This strategy will increase your workout intensity even when you don’t lift more weight. And it’s an obvious time saver. Note that if your goal is maximum strength (e.g., you’re a power lifter), you need those longish rest periods, at least on heavy days.

4. Perform giant sets. The old-fashioned way to train is to do a set of an exercise, rest a bit, do another set of the same thing, rest, and do a third set. With giant sets, you perform three or more different exercises back to back, then rest and move on to another giant set. A giant set on an upper-body day might look like this: one set of bench presses, followed by shoulder presses, followed by dips. If you train your whole body during every gym session, you can mix and match body parts: squats, then bench press, then lat pulldowns, for example. After each giant set, rest for a couple of minutes or (my preference) jump on a treadmill or walk around the gym instead. Added benefit: Giant sets burn a ton of calories.

5. Focus on multi-joint moves involving larger muscle masses. So instead of doing dumbbell kickbacks (an “isolation” movement that employs just one joint–the elbow–and one primary muscle, the triceps), perform the bench press (which works chest, shoulders and triceps) and/or dips (which engage chest and triceps). Instead of doing separate exercises for lats (the large muscles of your mid back) and biceps, perform seated rows or assisted pull-ups–both of which hit the pulling muscles of your back and arms at the same time. Also, when you emphasize multi-joint exercises, you end up lifting a lot more weight and developing much greater functional strength.

6. If you’ve been using machines primarily or exclusively, it’s time for free weights. Machines eliminate much of the postural and stabilizing work of weight training. But when you use free weights, you have to control them yourself. This brings additional muscles into play and does more to improve your balance and overall strength. If you’re not sure of the correct form for free-weight exercises, hire a trainer for at least a session or two and have her demonstrate the safe way to perform key basic free-weight lifts.

Try one or more of these strategies, and let me know what you think. They worked for Tina!

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