It's called getting into a rut, and exercise enthusiasts are not immune.
The problem is following the same routines. This trait is found equally in daily fitness fanatics and casual gym weekenders, so if your strength levels have not improved since the first Bush administration, it's high time to re-evaluate your strength-training program.
You should be focusing the majority of your efforts on multiple-joint exercises which work a lot of muscles simultaneously.
Doug Monaghan, strength coach and owner of Athletic Strength and Power in Covington, Kentucky
You have to learn to ask more of your body, because to make genuine progress in building strength and fitness you have to think about building muscle and strength for years, not just a few weeks or months.
In other words, a lifetime.
The name of this game is progressive overload. You must insist on more from your muscles. You have to continually ask more from your body to give your muscles the proper stimulus for continued growth and a continued progression in your strength.
Where many people make a mistake, however, is performing higher repetitions -- 10 to 15, for example -- and trying just to add weight to the bar.
“If you are a beginner, you can make strength gains using as little as 40 percent of your one-repetition maximum. And you can get away with using the generic three sets of 10 repetitions protocol,” said Tony Gentilcore, CSCS, co-owner of Cressey Performance in Hudson, Massachusetts.
The one-repetition maximum is defined as the the maximum amount of resistance you can lift in any exercise for one repetition.
“However, after a few months, strength gains will come to a halt and you have to manipulate and vary the number of sets, the number of reps or the amount of resistance you are using relative to your maximum strength,” Gentilcore said.
Both casual gym-goers and fervent fitness enthusiasts can fall into this habit of performing the same set and repetition protocol. Using the same amount of resistance relative to their maximum strength is a sure recipe for a strength plateau after a few months, according to BodyBuilding.com.
Being able to lift more weight is a good thing, and no strength coach would argue against trying to increase the resistance you use over time. But no matter the number of repetitions you perform, you are going to need to alter the plan.
Why? It's your age -- not the one on the calendar, but what the fitness industry calls your training age.
This is defined as the amount of time you’ve been consistently training. As that increases, you’ll actually need to start using lower-repetition sets to keep the gains coming. And you will need to perform those at a higher percentage of your one-repetition maximum.
“If you were making gains using sets of 10 to 12 repetitions -- about 70 to 75 percent of your maximum strength -- eventually your gains will dry up," Gentilcore said. "At this point, you’ll need to start working with weights in the 80 to 85 percent range, and then, eventually, with weights in the 90 percent-plus range.”
The efficiency of that model quickly declines, and it's often married with the same routine in more ways than one.
It’s not just about gradually increasing the percentage of weight relative to your maximum strength and trying to add weight to the bar. Your exercise selection is equally important.
A good approach is the 80/20 rule, which is endorsed by many top strength coaches, including Doug Monaghan, strength coach and owner of Athletic Strength and Power in Covington, Kentucky.
“Eighty percent of your strength gains will come from 20 percent of the exercises you perform in your workouts,” Monaghan said. “You shouldn’t waste a lot of time focusing on smaller, isolation exercises, like leg extensions, bicep curls and the inner thigh machine. You should be focusing the majority of your efforts on multiple-joint exercises which work a lot of muscles simultaneously.”
Monaghan says there are only six exercise variations worth investing much energy on: squats, deadlifts, bench presses, rows, chinups and overhead presses.
“These are the big ones. The ones which provide the best return on your strength investment," Monaghan said. "You can round out your workouts with smaller isolation exercises, but these are going to pay the most dividends.”
Beyond The Plateau
Strength plateaus are an inevitable part of the training process. They've happened to anyone who has spent any real time in the gym, and they are also an indicator you've made some progress. But they don’t have to be permanent. Instead, they should provide you with the message that it's time to adapt your routine.
By paying close attention to your exercise selection while focusing on multiple-joint exercises and gradually attempting to lift weights closer to your maximum strength over time, you can keep the strength gains coming and burst through any plateau.
A Four-Week Progression to Proven Strength Gains
Use this protocol on only one or two exercises toward the beginning of your workouts. Preferably, variations of these exercises should come from one of the following categories: squats, deadlifts, bench press, rowing, chinups/pullups and overhead press.
Week One: Perform four sets of seven repetitions with a weight you can lift only 12 times -- your 12-repetition maximum -- and rest two minutes between sets.
Week Two: Increase the resistance by 6 percent from week one and perform four sets of six repetitions, resting two minutes between sets. For example, if you used 100 pounds during week one, you should use 106 pounds during week two. Calculate how much weight to add by simply multiplying your week one weight by 0.06.
Week Three: Increase the resistance by 6 percent from week two and perform four sets of five repetitions, resting for two minutes between sets.
Week Four: Increase the resistance by 6 percent from week three and perform four sets of four repetitions, resting two minutes between sets.
Week Five: Begin again at week one, but increase the resistance by 10 pounds from the first cycle.