Getting back on the road to progress after a less than productive season is quite easy if you apply a few simple ideas. Often during our training it’s easy to fall into a lazy state. Even people who exercise regularly tend to fall into a status quo that leads nowhere. Every day I see people who despite being consistent with their training make common mistakes. Either, they stay on the same program and only maintain or in most cases, regress. When this happens there are usually two results: injury, which leads to a long layoff, or boredom, which can also lead to some time off. Either way, progress comes to a stop. The following is a list of 10 suggestions that I give too many of our clients in order to help them overcome plateaus.
Get professional help!
People who are successful often try to find others who are also successful in order to learn from them. What you have already learned has been applied to your training program. You need to apply what you don’t know. Fitness trainers and strength coaches make it their business to know and can teach you some new tricks. For example, how many exercises can you think of for the abdominals (the average is about 8)? I can teach you 30 or more. The cost of a professional is worth the commitment. If you learn three new things that you can apply; it was well worth the expense.
For the next 8 weeks, I want you to use exercises that you have not used for at least a year. Everyone keeps a log of their training, right? Put together a list of the most common exercises you used during the last year. The average is about 20 – 30. Now put together an 8-week program using movements not on the list. Muscles adapt to familiar movements to the point that, after only three weeks of using them, they are no longer allowing your muscles to adapt to the stress.
Use your log for more than a diary.
Examine your logbook for a time when you made great gains in strength and size. Look at the 8 – 12 weeks that led up to it and copy it using your new max percentages (% of your new one-rep maximums). You must improve on every session; this can be done in a number of ways. You can increase the weight: aim for between 2½ to 5 pounds each session per exercise. Slow the rep speed down if you used a 3-1-1 tempo then try 4-1-2, that is, 4 seconds to lower the weight, a 1-second pause and 2 seconds to lift the weight. Add reps to the set; we use this with exercises in which a person uses a steady weight, like body weight, for example – exercises like dips or pull-ups and push-ups. Try to add one rep to each work out until you can increase the total number of reps by two or three then add weight. Increase the number of sets: a maximum of 10 sets for small muscles like the biceps and shoulders, and 12 sets for large muscles like the chest and lats. Reduce the rest time between sets: use the regular weight but reduce the rest interval by 10 seconds each session. When you can do a full set of 10 – 12 reps with your given weight, in an exercise with only 30 seconds of rest between the sets, and then add weight and rest intervals and start again.
Time your sets and breaks.
Most people underestimate how important it is to time their sets, reps and rest periods. Let’s take two people, both male, both weighing 190 lbs. and both with 5 years of training experience. They are both doing a barbell curl with 125 lbs. for three sets of 12 reps. Person A lifts with a 3-1-1 tempo and rests 90 seconds before beginning the second set. Person B also lifts 125 lbs. but uses a 5-0-1 tempo and rests 1 minute before beginning the next set. Who has worked harder? Clearly person B; his time under tension was longer and his breaks were shorter making his sets more intense. Use a stopwatch or have a partner time your sets.
Make constant changes.
A mentor of mine once said: “the best program for your client is the program they’re not on”. It didn’t make a lot of sense at the time, but after 12 years of designing exercise programs for the average Joe all the way to top national athletes, it now makes perfect sense! By the way, the more advanced the athlete, the more often changes need to be added to the program. Consistency is what the body adapts to first. You should continually try to use different exercises, heavier weights, shorter breaks, faster or slower reps, etc.
Never use training programs from muscle magazines.
You have no idea how many times a week I walk into a gym and see a group of young novice lifters standing around with the latest issue of Muscle Fitness and they’re preparing to do Lee Haney’s Killer Chest Workout. Muscle Fitness is a great magazine, full of knowledge but, if you’re expecting to do the workout done by a 9 time Mr. Olympia and expecting to get the same results, then you must be prepared to follow the whole lifestyle. One which includes eating between 5000 - 8000 calories a day, training twice a day, and supplementing your system with legal and yes, illegal supplements as well! Oh, and if you do all this and lack the proper genetics, you still did it all for nothing! Remember to keep your goals realistic.
Proper nutrition and supplementation are key components.
This will make a huge difference if you are consistent. Not everyone has the will power to always eat properly. In these times, with people working longer and longer days, it gets quite hard to eat the proper foods let alone the right amount of calories. Supplement technology has created excellent lines of products, designed to help gain weight in the form of lean muscle. They can often help with recuperation, increase endurance, remove lactic acid from the blood and increase your overall potential. They are not for everyone but they have earned their place in exercise science.
Do other activities.
Things other than what you’re muscles are used to! Muscles adapt to the imposed demands placed upon them. If you bike, your muscles will adapt to biking; if you swim, they adapt to the specific movements and stresses of swimming. By doing different activities, you are always keeping your body in tune with different stimuli and it must always learn and remember to do different things. Play ball, hockey, scuba dive, play tennis, etc. These activities help speed your metabolism, burn calories and help facilitate recovery by increasing blood flow. Now of course if you are a skier then you must ski as well as any sport specific movements but, if you only do those movements and nothing else you’re looking for trouble! Imbalances in strength can and most likely will occur!
Take time off.
Whether you think you need it or not; if you’re at a point where you’re just going through the motions and progress is at a standstill, then take some time off and rest. You will be amazed at the gains that will be made after even a short break. If you train and never need a day off, you’re not training hard enough. Every person I design a program for is instructed to take at least one week off every two months. Of course, this depends on certain factors, but it’s a good idea to stop hard training and let the body super compensate from the stress of 2 – 3 months of training. Often these breaks are for the psychological aspect of your training. If your mind is burnt out your body will soon follow.
Keep your goals in focus.
If you have lost the edge then stop, take a break, re-evaluate your program, look back at your log and examine your diet and supplement regime. If all seems fine, look at your technique. Are you using the muscles the way they were designed to work and are you stressing them properly? If you want to get stronger, you need to find how best to move the heavy weights. If you want to look like Arnold, then you need to find the best way to pack on muscle. It’s all about focusing on the goal and the best ways to achieve them period!
In closing, you may have noticed that I tried not to use the words ‘schedule’ or ‘routine’ and this is something that you must stop doing. Making a habit of exercising is good, making a habit of the way you exercise is wrong. If you’re going to plan your exercise program, change the plan every time. Variety is indeed, the spice of life. “Every day you either get better or worse: you never stay the same”.
Until next time: “Stay fit and be strong!”
Peter J. Morel C.F.C, C.I.C, C.A.F.S