We have all reached that point in our cycle where we can’t seem to increase our size or strength. Most individuals will grab a spotter and throw more weight on the bar in hopes to break through and see some more gains. However, this is not always the best strategy.
Plateaus normally occur when an individual conducts the same physical training over and over. Lack of variation causes your muscles to learn and adjust to the pattern, becoming stagnant. Adding more sets and reps to the exercise generally will not give you the desired result . Focus on maximizing hypertrophy through muscle confusion. The best way to do this is to switch up exercise choice, variations in contractions, as well as range of exercise.
A study recently conducted by the ASPI Institute took a number of young healthy males and divided them into 2 groups . One group kept same exercise routine only varying weight lifted and rep count. The other group varied the amount of weight lifted and exercise. Both groups saw increase in size, however, the group that changed exercises saw the greatest increase in size and strength.
SLOW vs. FAST CONTRACTIONS
I have seen people slow down their lifts, thinking it will increase muscle growth. However, studies have shown this to be false. Slowing down a contraction, when lifting, leads to less muscle growth than performing the repetition in a controlled fast motion. When you slow down the contraction you lose tension in the muscle leading to the opposite outcome. Maintaining a faster / controlled motion in the contraction will keep muscles under tension, allowing the exercise to become more efficient while leading to muscle failure quicker.
Ultimately, the best way to break through a plateau is to vary the selection of your exercises. This is more important than even changing exercise intensity. Variation can even come with positioning of hands or stance. For example you can switch your grip on bench press between regular and wide grip to vary the exercise and engage different parts of the muscle. The other alternative is to vary length of motion. After contraction of exercise, release extension only 50% of the way before contracting again (this will allow more reps, and a centralized focus on one portioin of the muscle). After finishing sets, rotate to the missed portion of the muscle by extending all the way out and only contracting 50% before full extenstion.
NEED SOME EXTRA HELP AND MOTIVATION?
Mayhew, T. P., Rothstein, J. M., Finucane, S. D., & Lamb, R. L. (1995). Muscular adaptation to concentric and eccentric exercise at equal power levels. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 27(6), 868-873.
Shepstone, T. N., Tang, J. E., Dallaire, S., Schuenke, M. D., Staron, R. S., & Phillips, S. M. (2005). Short-term high-vs. low-velocity isokinetic lengthening training results in greater hypertrophy of the elbow flexors in young men. Journal of Applied Physiology, 98(5), 1768-1776.
Improve overall strength and performance through Unilateral training.
Everybody want to get stronger and put up more weight on their bench, squat, or deadlift. We automatically think that the only way to do this is to throw more plates on the bar and just go for it . . . Let’s take a time out and think about what we have learned. Some people are right handed, some are left. Track stars have a dominant foot they push off of when on the starting block. Basketball players have a larger vertical when jumping off of one foot rather than the other. The same applies to weight training. Think about it, have you ever seen another (or been that) person who is throwing up weight on the bench and cannot quite lockout one side at the top? During these bilateral motions, our dominant side can actually pick up slack from the weaker side, creating an even bigger gap in performance between left and right.
So how do I improve my weaker side? Unilateral training, that’s how. Switch from barbell bench press to dumbbell bench press. This forces your muscles to respond to the same amount of weight individually. I will be honest. I love barbell curls. I was shocked at the difference in endurance and strength my right arm possesses over my left . . . It is not the prison house effect . . . at least, I don’t think. My right side has always compensated for my left and assisted with getting the heavier weight up to chin level. By improving your weaker side you will not only improve strength, but you will also reduce chance of injury.
This form of training forces your body to recruit more muscle fibers to perform the same motion as a bilateral or barbell exercise. This gives several benefits. If you are only focusing on one side at a time, it will force your weaker side to perform at the same level as the dominant side. It also forces your core to engage more to offset and stabilize the rest of the body with the imbalance of weight being lifted from side to side. Ding . . . now you are getting abs too.
This type of exercise can be done with the various body parts. Bench press can be done with dumbells and rotating every other (do not push both sides at same time). Biceps through dumbbell or kettlebell rotating curls (left to right). If you are more focused on legs, try the leg press machine (single leg), complete an entire set on your left then do the same number with right. It would not be wise to attempt a squat with one leg tied to your hamstring. Throw a barbell over your shoulder and perform lunges to focus on the same muscle groups. Chainsaws or bent over dumbbell rows are a great unilateral movement to workout your back and biceps.
I am not saying that you need to change out all of your powerlifting techniques and go 100% unilateral and dumbbell. I think it is smart to switch your programs up so you do not become stagnant. Try to incorporate at least one unilateral exercise into each session to improve strength and overcome weaknesses that you may not even be aware of. If your suffering from the prison house effect, try changing hands every now and then.