In every gym go-er's lifting career, there are going to be times where you look around and realize that maybe you aren't making the progress you'd like to be making at your current stage. It happens to everyone, so if that describes you as you read this, fret not. We've all been there. As trainers, our job is to look at the totality of the training picture and figure out why.
Speaking candidly, the first place I will look literally 100% of the time is how that individual sleeps. Sleep is where muscle is repaired and rebuilt to be able to handle a greater work capacity. So if I ask a new client that's plateaued in their training how they normally sleep, I'm usually not surprised when the answer is something along the lines of "not great, usually." The next thing we'll usually look at is how that individual eats. Are they getting enough protein to even begin the recovery process? Are they drinking enough water to enable protein synthesis? Is there enough fat in their diet to help regulate their hormone levels and to provide that secondary energy source when our carb stores are depleted? Are there enough carbs in the diet to provide the oomph we need to facilitate the workload we need to adapt. Say it with me- CARBS ARE OUR FRIENDS.
If ALL OF THAT is good, then we can turn our attention to the gym, which is the subject of this blog.
We've hit a plateau- be it regarding strength or aesthetics, we're stuck. It happens. There could be lots of reasons for it, and maybe more than one simultaneously. My best advice might sound remedial- but take a good look at how hard you're actually working.
What do I mean by that?
I'm working hard!
I sweated a bunch in my last workout!
Well, unfortunately, all a bunch of sweat is an indicator of is that you sweat a bunch. DON'T GET INTO THE HABIT OF MEASURING SWEAT OR NEXT-DAY SORENESS AS A BAROMETER FOR HOW GOOD THE WORKOUT WAS. Figure out a different way to judge a workout's efficacy. Anyone who tells you that you must be sore the next day to see progress is an idiot and you should stop listening to that person.
We know that to achieve adaptation (growth) we need to take our exercises to, or at least close to, failure. The big caveat here is that our technique should stay strong the entire time. So, if we're sleeping, eating correctly, and lifting heavy weight relative to our individual strength with good technique to an exertion level at or near failure, we should be solid! But how are you supposed to know if you're near failure? Ask yourself this-
"If I had just continued that set until I hit failure, how many more reps would I have gotten out?"
This is called the RPE scale, or Rate of Perceived Exertion. It's a 1-10 scale that you can absolutely use to measure your exertion. Take the number of reps you think you had in the tank after each set, subtract that from 10. If that number is less than 7, it's probably time to work harder.
Generally speaking, my clients and I will progress in three different ways depending on the lift and how they're feeling on that particular day. We can add:
1.) Load - get heavier weights. For example- we have the 50lb dumbbells in our hands for a flat bench press. We do 8 reps, with 3-4 left. Let's get the 55's and see if we can still get to 8. On days where you get a ton of sleep and had a huge breakfast or lunch and feel awesome- this is a great option
2.) Volume - add reps at the same weight. Back to the dumbbell chest press- we didn't sleep great, and maybe just had some oatmeal, but still had 2-3 left. We'd try the same weight and look for 9 or 10 reps. Yes, I said 9 reps. THERE'S NOTHING IN THE RULE BOOK THAT SAYS YOU HAVE TO END ON AN EVEN NUMBER OF REPS. If you're working hard and getting close to failure, it doesn't matter one bit.
3.) Tension- we're going to move slower. Adding time under tension is a great way to get to the muscle fatigue we're searching for. For example- if performing seated cable rows, hold the first rep for like 10 seconds and force a contraction through the rhomboids and traps and lats. Or hold the last one, anything to make those muscle groups work hard for a longer period of time. A better example might be any carry; farmer, waiter, suitcase, whatever, just walk slower. Adding tension is awesome for those clients who have a hard time "feeling" the muscle group we're trying to recruit. Honestly 75%ish of the time it's the butt. It is what it is.
Remember- for muscle growth to occur, we HAVE to lift at or near failure. Your body will always adapt to what you put through it. it's an amazing machine. Don't program-hop, stick to your prescribed exercises, practice them week after week, get better at them, and watch yourself grow. If you need help, ask.