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Never Plateau Again
How many of you, or your friends or family, have had that moment in your life, where, after committing your valuable time and effort to attend the gym for a sustained period, have hit a massive PLATEAU, and then stop going to the gym! Of course you stop going! What’s the point in spending money and time on something that isn’t giving you the return that you hoped for! PLATEAU, That horrible word, where the beginner gains stop, you stop losing body fat, stop getting stronger or fitter, or perhaps you even just get bored of the same routine and give up! This article will give you an insight into a simple, but key word, which is a state in which the body needs to continually strive for, if you are to make your fitness journey life long, and forever smashing goals! That key word is, ADAPTATION! And believe me, this posh little word, which basically means in fitness terms, ‘the body changing positively’, is what you need to strive for to get to where you want with your training!
To expand just a little more clearly on the meaning of ADAPTATION, it is the human bodies internal response to external stimuli. So when lifting weights for example, that is the external response that causes ‘stress’ to the muscles, and therefore the internal response is to get stronger muscles.
Now, imagine you start going to the gym and start lifting weights. The new ‘shock’ and ‘stimulus’ of lifting these weights is new to the body, so it adapts by becoming stronger, and you’ll probably put on some lean muscle mass too! Hell, you may even lose some body fat and get a bit fitter! You can do anything, you can rock up to the gym and make it up on the spot! Who needs a personal trainer? This is easy, I’m making gainzzzz every week, I’m turning up and doing what I feel like, and I’m feeling and looking great for it! Then, all of sudden, the gain train stops! Oh shit, what am I going to do now? Why is it not working? I’m hitting 3 sets of 10 on the bench press, which is what I’ve been doing for the last 6 months, and all of a sudden its not working! Why not? It was working before?
And that’s exactly the problem, you’ve been doing the same workout, over and over again, for the last 6 months! Now, the body has got used to the ‘external stimulus’, and that stimulus is no longer enough to produce stress, and therefore an internal response! Simply put, the body doesn’t need to get any stronger, the muscles don’t need to grow, you’re not challenging it! This is where you must go from beginner gains, to becoming an intermediate to advanced gain smasher! And unfortunately for you, adding 2.5kg to your lifts every week just isn’t going to cut it! Imagine if it did? We’d all be as strong as Eddie Hall, Lu Xiaojun, or even possibly Luke Rogers!
So, how can we continually improve in the gym and continue to make gains?
- In weight training terms, Intensity refers to how heavy the weight is. So, if you were training for maximal strength, you would be training some lifts at very high intensity. If you were doing a general circuit training routine, or lifting dumbbells for 10-15 reps, it would likely be low to moderate intensity. One way of creating that external stimulus that will create an internal adaptation, is by lifting heaver weights! Sounds simple, right? Well, it is. If you continue to lift heavier weights, you will become stronger, there’s no doubt about it!
- If for example, you have been going to the gym and hitting 3×10 on the bench press, and have worked your way up to being able to lift 60kg for 3 sets of 10 reps, but now you are stuck and can’t do any more weight, the answer could be to go heaver with your intensity (weight), and reduce the amount of volume (sets and reps) that you do. So, start to drop your volume and add some more weight each week, do 3×8 at 65kg, then 3×6 at 70kg, then do 3×4 at 75kg, ect ect. And, as obvious as it sounds, lifting a heavy weight you have not lifted before, will cause the body to adapt to this new stress and therefore become stronger than it was before. Think of it as the body surviving that heavy squat you just did, now the body wants to make sure it is prepared for that next time, so it adapts and becomes stronger. Now, this is just a simple form of what we call linear periodization! There are many other methods, including ones that are just as simple, or vastly complicated, but that’s for another article!
- You’re probably thinking, ‘that’s great mark, but when I get down to 1 rep and I can’t go any heavier, then what do I do?’, and then I would respond, ‘calm down you ungrateful little shit, I’m giving you free advice here!’, and then I would tell you that the great news is you’re now stronger than you were before, so if you go back up to 8 or 10 reps, I guarantee you will be doing more than your original 60kg! You may be doing 65kg, 70kg, 80kg, and that, will then create an external stimulus that will therefore cause an internal adaptation, and therefore, the progress continues, and the gain train remains on course! You are winning! You were creating an adaptation by lifting heavier weights for low reps, and now your reps are high again, and guess what…you are lifting heavier for reps then you were before, and therefore, producing new stimulus to create an adaptation! Well done, you’ve probably just brought yourself another few months or years of gains! You’re welcome x
- Just a little side note…when looking to get stronger and lift heavier weights, make sure you get some guidance from a qualified coach in regards to rep schemes, and your technique! The last thing you want to do, is start to lift heavier loads if your form on a lift is dog shit! That will likely cause injury! And if you’re injured, no adaptation for you!
- Another side note, get a proper coach, because most personal trainers in your commercial gyms are pony, and don’t know what they are doing. Seek a professional!
Right, I banged on quite a lot with the intensity stuff, so now its time to move onto other ways in which we can cause adaptation!…
- Volume, as mentioned above, refers to the amount of sets and reps that you do on an exercise. I’m not going to go into too much depth here, because I’ve mentioned it a lot above, but essentially, if I am doing 3×6 at 100kg on the front squat, and then I can do 3×7 at 100kg the next week, and 3×8 at 100kg the following week, then I am doing more work on the muscles, my total ‘tonnage’ is higher (sets x reps), and therefore I create a stimulus that will provide me with an adaptation.
- Doing a ‘volume’ phase, will prepare you very nicely for an intensity phase. It will practice the skill certain movements under lighter loads, build up work capacity, ‘prepare’ and strengthen joints and tendons for upcoming heavier loads, and potentially increase lean muscle mass.
- Again, as with increasing intensity, you can’t keep just adding weight, or adding reps forever, but again, that’s why I am giving you lots of options and different ways to continually improve and create that stimulus.
- Nervous system beaten up? Tired from all the heavy lifting and high intensity work you’ve been doing? Powerlifter post competition in need of some accessory work and some lighter loads, off season Rugby player battered and in need of setting a base for a big pre-season? Then tempo work might be worth a cycle! With tempo work, you are slowing the movements down, and therefore creating more time under tension. Time under tension here is the new stimulus to create your adaptation! Your muscles are working for a longer period of time! This will give you a great, horrible, pump feeling in your muscles and is a method used by certain bodybuilders to stimulate sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (increase blood flow to the muscles to make them bigger, with no direct return in increasing strength). As well as the obvious time under tension stimulus, this is also a great method to use to improve your skill and technique with a certain movement, and to increase your work capacity. You may look at this method for four weeks before you going into heavier work or a big volume accumulation phase.
- This is an obvious one, or so you would think! ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results’ Albert Einstein.
- However, that quote from Einstein doesn’t just relate to exercise selection. Remember, if you are doing the same rep scheme, or the same intensities over and over again, then that is still doing the same thing over and over again! In fact, I believe certain types of athletes rotate exercises too much! But again, that’s for a different blog.
- However, it is important to have some variation in your movements. Obviously, make sure you have a good balance of hip dominant and knee dominant lower movements, push, pull, carries and rotational work in your programme, and with these, think about changing your exercises up. For example, with a hip dominant movement, change from a Romanian Deadlift, into a hip thrust, or with an upper body push movement, change from a bench press to a military press. New ranges of motion and varying biomechanical positioning will create you a new stimulus. Just be very careful not to change exercises to regularly, if you do a Romanian deadlift one week, and then change it the next week, and then something different the week after, how will you get better at the Romanian deadlift and become stronger? I would recommend at least 4 weeks on the same group of exercises before changing. That means, if you are training 3 times per week, do the same exercises every Monday, the same every Wednesday, and the same every Friday, for 4 weeks, and then change the exercises, or even every 6 or 8 weeks. During the 4 weeks, instead of changing the exercises, change the volume, intensity, or tempo.
- For strength sport athletes, you may look at variations of your competition lifts to change the stimulus and improve week points, by doing partial, paused, speed, or biomechanical changes in positions. For example, a powerlifter might look to do a paused deadlift, where the bar will be paused 2 inches off the floor for a second or two, before completing the lift, in order to spend time under tension in a weak position, and to improve positioning and skill in the lift. A weightlifter may use the hang snatch, rather or as well as the snatch, to improve positioning and speed around the transition phase.
These are a few examples of how to create a new stimulus in a lifting capacity. If you’re a runner or field athlete, first of all, get your ass in the gym! Strength work is essential for you guys too! But when doing your running and what many of you would call ‘fitness work’, then the same basic principles apply to energy system training too!
Imagine you have a new years resolution, to start running and get fit. You start to run, the first time you run 1km, then next week you run 2km, then 3km and so on and so on. And guess what, you plateau! Yep, that’s right, you’re no different to all your gym monkey friends you make fun of! You have hit the wall because you’re doing the same thing over and over again, and there’s only so many kilometres you can keep adding each week right? I wouldn’t fancy on week 52 so be trying to run 52km, would you? So, think about ways to create new stimulus. That could be distance, but it could also be speed, it could be intervals, it could be doing strength training and getting stronger muscles, more robust joints, and being able to produce more force! I guarantee, if you get an experienced runner, who has never done strength work before, you can improve their running performance by not changing any factors within their running routine, but by simply doing strength work! Getting stronger would be the adaptation that would improve your running performance! But anyway, if you’re an endurance athlete and want to know more, Coach Josh James wrote a great article about this a couple of months back, and you can email us any questions you may have, that goes for everyone of course!
Last thing, get a coach! Not necessarily for one on one coaching, but for advice, programming, form checks ect. I’ve even got a coach! Since training with MSC coach Max Hartman this year I’m feeling stronger than ever, and if I benefit from a coach, without meaning to sound arrogant, then everyone reading this article should have one too! And don’t give me that ‘I can’t afford it’ bullshit either! If you are reading this on your laptop, or your mobile phone, then you can afford coaching in some capacity 😉