How To Break Weightlifting Plateaus Without Giving Up Your Favorites

If you’re like me, you love your gym favorites. But in our own little nirvanas, picking heavy stuff up and putting it down, we rarely think about how our go-to exercises, techniques, or machines contribute to our inevitable weightlifting plateaus.

We convince ourselves that our favorite things in the weight room are still delivering results. But strangely, we don’t seem to notice when they aren’t making us stronger, bigger, or leaner anymore. 

Even if you love mastering new challenges, you might be unwittingly spinning your wheels.

Plateaus: Our Constant Companion

Lifters cling to their favorites because it’s fun. We gravitate towards things we’re good at, even if it isn’t giving us the best benefit anymore.

How do you break out and start seeing results again? That’s the key question, particularly for more experienced lifters.

Let’s put it this way: If you haven’t seen any new glute development in months or years, adding the latest cool-looking glute exercise to your workout probably won’t make much difference. Even if you completely overhauled your workouts, would you stick with it long enough to see results?

As your training experience advances, you need to be more purposeful about how you train. Not that beginners shouldn’t be purposeful, but their progress is easier. When you’ve been training for years, the gains slow down and you need to think through your workouts a bit more. But with some creativity, you can break up weightlifting plateaus without sacrificing your favorites.

If you enjoy going through the motions of your favorite exercises without any progress, by all means continue doing that. But I personally get a lot of satisfaction out of new gainz!

Change #1: Favorite Exercises and Equipment

There are certain movements that indisputably give the best results. These include squats, pull-ups, rows, push-ups, and deadlifts. But you can’t keep doing the same exercises forever without hitting major weightlifting plateaus. Even if you use varying reps and sets, there will come a time when you’re just stuck.

Let’s take the quest for unassisted pull-ups, for example. You simply can’t get past the dreaded two-rep plateau. You’ve been using a pull-up band and eccentric reps, but every time you test your unassisted reps, you stay stuck at two.

If I were to peek at your workouts, I might find that you’ve been using the same pull-up band for weeks. The result is that you eke out the same number of reps and sets each session, ensuring that you stay stuck. Even when you mix in eccentric reps and iso-holds at the top, you can’t break out. 

Pull-ups are a uniquely savage beast. it takes a lot of variation to keep progressing, and at the same time, relentless consistency. When evaluating your lack of progress, you should consider your bodyweight, training schedule, and other exercises you’re doing. But if everything else was in place, I would suggest changes like these:

  • Instead of using the same pull-up band, rotate in a lighter one so that every other session is done with higher reps. Always sticking to low reps with any exercise is a recipe for a plateau. You need to vary the reps on a week-to-week basis (undulating periodization) or in phases (linear periodization).
  • Use a different special technique once a week for a specific period of time – consistently. Oftentimes, we just mix in new techniques randomly and don’t track how long we’ve done it. Don’t be random about it – have a plan. For example, aim for 30 reps in as few sets as possible once a week for three weeks. When I started doing this, it took eight sets to get to 30 reps. Eventually I could do it in five, and that’s when my pull-ups really took off.
  • Spend more time on assistance exercises and building back strength with other exercises. It comes down to favorites again: If you always do dumbbell bent-over rows, mix it up with other variations, like chest-supported rows, lat pulldowns, one-arm landmine rows, and cable rows. 
  • Instead of doing an exercise first in your workout every time, try supersetting it with the opposite muscle group or putting it later in your workout. We’re told to prioritize what we want to work on, yet you should still change the order regularly.

With our glute plateau example, you’ll need to do more than adding one or two exciting new exercises from Instagram. If you’ve been doing barbell hip thrusts followed by lunges for months, adding banded glute kickbacks won’t be a game-changer. Sometimes trying an starting new routine is more effective than switching the exercise order or variations. But stick with it for at least 12 weeks.

These are just a few examples of how to fix an exercise plateau, which is actually a plateau in muscular strength. It might mean changing your favorite exercises or equipment for awhile, but you can rotate them back in later.

Change #2: Favorite Training Split

One of the best ways to smash a weightlifting plateau is by changing your training split. We get very attached to our split because it’s a comfortable, cozy routine. Schedule changes can bring on anxiety and feel inconvenient at first. But chances are, if you’ve been doing the same days and body parts for years, it’s time for a change.

For example, if your go-to schedule has always been an upper/lower-body split four days a week, try three full-body workouts per week or even two. You will be amazed by how unfamiliar it feels when you do this, and that means progress.

If you don’t want to change your training days, change the way you train on each day. For example, instead of an upper/lower four-day split, creatively change your split:

Monday – Upper push
Wednesday – Lower push
Thursday – Upper pull
Saturday – Lower pull

Or –

Monday: Push
Tuesday: Off
Wednesday: Pull
Thursday: Off
Friday: Legs
Saturday: Off
Sunday: Off

Along the same lines, if you’re plateaued with fat loss, you can add in resistance circuits – multiple rounds of timed exercises with short rests. Your heart rate should stay high during circuits and come down only enough to catch your breath between rounds.

I love kettlebell circuits for fat loss! Fun, challenging, and effective. Kettlebell high pull, deadlift to clean, swings, and snatches are my favorites. But since they are my favorites, I know I need to consciously change them on a regular basis so I don’t plateau.

Let’s not forget that most people don’t do anything long enough to see results with it. Boredom, frustration, and lack of tracking lead you to change things too often. Give a training split a chance to work for 12 weeks before changing it. Use these principles as your guide:

  • Don’t be afraid to change small variables in your workouts more often, like grip, equipment, tempo, or rest periods. 
  • Change variables once a month for variety, but not drastically.
  • Integrate different reps/sets, but in a structured way. Understand how volume relates to the goal you want.

We all have blind spots and self-limiting beliefs, even with training. As an experienced lifter, your challenge is to be savvy, knowledgeable, and open to new ways of doing things. This is an amazing combination of qualities to possess, leading to gains that make you say, “Daaaamn, girl!”

This article originally appeared on www.workoutnirvana.com.

9 thoughts on “How To Break Weightlifting Plateaus Without Giving Up Your Favorites

  1. Interesting site you have here. I reached a plateau with glute training but I think I have found a way to overcome it. I have a naturally skinny-fat body which I’ve worked hard on over the years to improve body comp with full body training and later, body part hypertrophy training. My glutes are naturally small but got bigger after dedicated glute training that I learned from Bret Contreras. What was interesting was that my upper glutes got super strong (I can hip thrust over 3 times body weight for reps) but my glute max were lagging because I was using lots of bands to push against when thrusting. I started experiencing knee pain on the left-hand side as I think my glute med was pulling things out of alignment. I’m now using a block between my thighs to glute bridge and hip thrust to turn on my adductors and glute max and the difference feels amazing. Early days yet and always learning more. Have you experienced anything similar with this muscle group or others?

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    • Hey there Carmena,
      You sound super aware of what’s happening posteriorly! Good stuff and I appreciate your sharing. I’ve learned a lot from Bret over the years. His method of doing 1/3 vertical exercises (lower glutes), 1/3 horizontal (whole glute), and 1/3 lateral (upper) in every glute workout should ensure that everything stays pretty balanced. But I hear you about having certain areas that just grow better than others. I’ve personally had to work very hard to bring this group up because I, too, was born with a flat backside!! xo

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  2. One thing I’ve found that helps is to add isolations for muscles that you use in the lift. For instance, my OHP was stuck but I added in tricep extensions and slowly but surely it started going up again. I think it’s a combination of making the muscle stronger and also just learning how to activate it better.

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  3. Something else that really helps, but I suppose is kind of obvious, is to simply add more volume to your routine. A while back I changed to a routine that was pretty similar to the one I was doing before, but had me doing about 10 more sets of bench press each week, and my bench numbers started increasing basically immediately.

    Not gonna lie, it made me feel a bit silly, like I’d been wasting time this whole time doing too little volume… oh well, live and learn right? 🙂

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  4. Love your blog Suzanne! You are an inspiration to so many. Changing training days is an interesting idea to get out of stagnation. Change has a huge power to bring difference in the body. This is about those kinds of stressors, that is actually beneficial to health.

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