5 Guaranteed Ways to Break Through Plateaus

Originally posted at www.t-nation.com

Plateaus in weight-training suck.

Plateaus in fat-loss suck, too.

Plateaus in our strength and performance? You got it — they suck!

No longer do we need to fall victim to the plateau; throughout this article, I’m going to give you 5 GUARANTEED ways to analyze and break through your lifting plateaus.

Interested? I thought so!

In our article series Overcoming Lousy Leverages (Part I and Part II) Eric Cressey and I detailed how lifters of different body types could overcome specific plateaus in the powerlifts. While this was great, it got me thinking: How can I make this more general? More universally applicable? How can I take this information and boil it down to common principles versus specific information?

As the saying goes, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him forever.” I want to teach you how to fish!

I don’t really want to teach you how to fish — ya’ see, it’s a metaphor.

Before we get into all the answers, though, we need to be clear on one thing — if you aren’t training intelligently, it doesn’t matter what training program you’re on or what exercises you choose, you’re probably not going to see consistent results.

Let’s briefly examine the ways you can screw up your training before we get into the solutions.

The Fine Print

Just like all guarantees, there’s got to be some fine print. When you buy a TV, the manufacturer gives you a guarantee that they’ll replace it in the first year if it goes kaput. I guarantee that if you follow the ideas I outline in this article, they’ll help you make progress towards your goals.

But what if you take a golf club to your TV? I’d put cash money on the fact that your TV manufacturer isn’t going to replace it. Hence the need for fine print and stipulations. The above ideas will work assuming you choose the correct path and train intelligently.

Before we discuss the stipulations, let’s quickly look at the physiological principles behind training and recovery so you understand where I’m going with all this.

The Physiological Basis of Training

Your body likes homeostasis; the less adapting it has to do, the better. Homeostasis on the graph below is called “Baseline.”

When you train, you force your body to respond to the stimulus by adapting; this could involve improving nervous system efficiency, strengthening tendons, ligaments, and muscles, increasing muscle size/cross sectional area, or a combination of all these factors.

Now if you were to continue training the same body part day after day, or kept training day after day intensely without a break, eventually you reach the “exhaustion” stage.” Whether you want to call it chronic overreaching, overtraining, or anything in-between is irrelevant. You must give your body adequate time to recover to ensure long-term success.

As your body builds resistance, it slowly becomes a bigger, stronger and more efficient version of its previous self. This is what we’re all aiming for: Supercompensation. However, it doesn’t stay this way forever! If you train hard you’ll achieve supercompensation a few days or even a week or two later (depending on how much fatigue you have accumulated), but you can’t wait a month or two before training again and hope to keep those gains! If you wait too long after the initial session(s), your gains eventually trail off and the training effect is lost.

Granted this is a long-winded answer but these principles are critical if you really want to smash current plateaus!

But enough with explanations; let’s get on to the stipulations.

Stipulation #1 — You Train Hard Enough to Elicit Change

This should be simple: I could give you the best information in the world, but if you don’t train hard enough to force your body to adapt, you’re not going to make progress.

In training terms, we have to induce a certain stimulus to force our body to adapt. In the graph below, this is called the “alarm” stage; you train your body hard enough and it says, “Hey, I need to do something about this.”

This stipulation is simple — once you understand WHAT you need to do training wise, you need to go out and do it!

Stipulation #2 — You recover well enough to achieve supercompensation

Let’s assume you trained hard and forced your body into some level of the “alarm” stage. The next goal is to actually recover and get into the “supercompensation” area of the graph. Simple enough, right?

Let’s say you have a great squat workout and induce the right amount of fatigue to see a training response. But instead of going home and resting up, you go out and booze until 6 a.m., sleep two hours, and then go out and train again the next day. Do you expect to achieve results? If you do, you’re a dumbass!

Just like we need to train hard enough to elicit a positive change, we need to recover hard enough to achieve supercompensation. Entire articles have been written on the topic of recovery so I won’t bother getting into the details here, but you must achieve supercompensation if you want to see progress over the long term. Recovery is an integral part of this process.

Stipulation #3 — You train frequently enough to continue the cycle

You’ve trained hard and supercompensation has commenced. You’ve won the battle right?

Yep — but that’s only a small part of the war. The goal is to continue taking advantage of the supercompensation effect; to continue building, driving your fitness levels to new-found highs.

As you can see in the above graph with intelligent training your new “baseline” keeps going up — you’re getting stronger, losing body fat, or developing bigger muscles. Just like you wouldn’t make one deposit into a bank account and expect the balance to go up (without interest, of course), you can’t train once or twice a month and expect to see continual progress.

Here’s a quick recap of our stipulations:

I only mention these stipulations because I have to; far too many trainees aren’t heeding to the basic, core principles of training. These same people would say, “I used that information from Robertson’s article and it didn’t do squat for me!” If you aren’t following the basic physiological principles of progression, you aren’t going to see progress, PERIOD.

With that out of the way, let’s jump right into this — 5 GUARANTEED ways to smash your plateaus forever!

Plateau Buster #1 — The Set-up

Many of the lifts you make or miss are determined before you actually move the bar. If your set-up sucks or is inefficient, it’s going to affect the rest of the movement. This concept was solidified in my brain in the winter of 2004.

As a coach of the USA World Bench Press team, I got to spend three days watching the world’s best do what they do — BENCH! How technical can a bench press be, though? You just plop down on the bench and lift the weight, right?


These lifters were extremely efficient with their technique, sure. But what really stood out was their efficiency when setting up. These lifters used everything from their feet, to their legs and hips, to their upper back and arms to stay tight. This tension led to rock-solid set-ups and absolutely ridiculous poundages being hoisted.

(If you’d like a thorough recap on how to set-up properly for the bench, be sure to check out Yo, How Much ya Bench? in the archives.)

I couldn’t possibly go through all the exercises out there and detail how to set-up. But if you continue treading water on one exercise, go back to the beginning and figure out if your set-up is the cause. Leaning too far forward on squats at the beginning? Not on the heels at the beginning of your deadlift? Did you just plop down on the bench and expect to move big-boy weight?

A rock-solid set-up is the first key to making plateaus a thing of the past. Don’t discount the importance of this tip!

“Clown don’t know the first thing about setting up for the bench press.”

Plateau Buster #2 — Technical Perfection

In this day and age, the average trainee is bombarded with training information from a variety of sources. While I’m sure all of them mean well, the “average” trainee often falls victim to overanalyzing their body and/or training program. Worse yet, quite a few suffer from paralysis by over-analysis where they do absolutely nothing!

Here’s a great example: I took on a new trainee a while back who wanted to focus on improving his squat and deadlift. When I arrived, he had several ideas as to what was holding him back from a performance and injury prevention perspective. Was it his hip mobility? Ankle mobility? I was immediately impressed because he’d obviously been doing his homework and talked the talk.

So we approach the bar and had him squat. It was atrocious! All the things you DON’T want to do, he was doing: He was too upright, feet too close together, didn’t sit back, the works. It wasn’t that he had some sort of biomechanical limitation, he just couldn’t squat! After a few minutes of technical cueing we immediately had him squatting more efficiently.

When we’re talking training, the first thing you should focus on is technical perfection with all your lifts. Problem is, everyone wants to get into the gym and immediately focus on gunning their lats or blasting the bi’s. There’s no focus on the performance of the lifts themselves!

Can you front squat and power clean? If not, don’t even bother following an intermediate or advanced program until you can. After all, performing the lifts well is what’s going to determine your success; not training poorly and following the most advanced program you can find.

Now I know what many of you will say, “Where can I find articles on weight training technique?” So I’ve compiled a ton of resources right here.

Squatting Articles

10 Tips for Flawless Squattin’

6 Tricks for a Sexy Squat

Squat 900 pounds

Benching Articles

Bench Press 600 Pounds

Deadlift Articles

Precision Pulling

Deadlift Diagnosis

The Dead Zone

Taking it one step further, knowing and understanding proper technique is great. However, I’ve talked with many trainees who can talk shop with the best of them, but once they get under the iron they’re lost! If this sounds like you, seek out a qualified trainer or gym where they understand how to lift. There’s nothing better than having someone consistently coaching and critiquing your technique.

Plateau Buster #3 — The Body Part Perspective

Once you have your set-up and technique down pat, at some point you’re going to encounter a plateau. The key is to have multiple ways of addressing the weak links and bringing them up to par. This first method is viewing things from a body part perspective.

The bodypart perspective is quite simple; figure out which muscle group(s) are weak, strengthen them, and then watch the primary lift go up! Zatsiorsky defines this as delayed transmutation; strengthening a specific muscle group with a non-specific exercise. So while a lunge may not transfer directly to an improvement in your squat, it could. Here’s an example:

You miss your squats towards the top, indicating a weakness in the quadriceps. To combat this, you insert short-stroke lunges into your accessory work to strengthen the quads. Once you’ve increased the strength and size in the quadriceps, your body will learn to translate this increased quadriceps strength into your squat motor program, and thus obliterate your sticking point!

Now I understand everyone here doesn’t have a Ph.D. in biomechanics or anatomy, so I’ve given you some basic ideas with regards to sticking points and specific muscle groups. However, with the release of the Building the Efficient Athlete DVD series, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to understand functional anatomy and how it correlates to your training.

Sticking point
Exercise Top Mid-range Bottom
Squat Quads Quads, Hams Quads, Glutes, Hams
Bench Triceps Chest, Shoulders, Triceps Chest, Shoulders
Deadlift Glutes Glutes, Hams Hams

Plateau #4 — The Sticking Point Perspective

The sticking point perspective is very similar to the body part perspective, except this time you’ll be training a specific range of motion versus a specific muscle group. The problem with the body part perspective is this: What if you don’t understand functional anatomy? And therefore what muscles groups are lagging behind? In my estimation, the sticking point perspective is more easily applicable to beginners or those who don’t have a firm grasp of biomechanics and anatomy.

To use the sticking point perspective, simply train your sticking point and the positions above and below it. The research on functional isometrics by O’Shea determined that isometrics not only increased strength at the joint angle you trained, but also 15 degrees above and below that position. So don’t worry if you miss a squat at 85 degrees of knee flexion and you’re training at 79; the carryover will still be there!

The key here is to utilize exercises that specifically train the range of motion where you miss. Pretty simple, eh? If you miss a bench press right off your chest, a 1-board press should be a good exercise to train. If you miss a deadlift at the top, use heavy rack pulls. When in doubt, use the grid below to give you a starting point.

Sticking point
Exercise Top Mid-range Bottom
Squat High Box Squats Anderson Squats 1 1/4 Squats
Bench 5-Board Press 3-Board Press 1-Board Press
Deadlift Rack Lockouts Rack Pulls (Mid-shin) Snatch Grip Deadlift

Plateau #5 — The Speed-Strength Perspective

“Train what’s weak and you shall become strong.” But what if strength isn’t the issue at hand?


That’s right, forcing the strength issue could be akin to beating your head against the door when you could simply open the door and walk through it!

Once you achieve an intermediate level of strength, you need to have an understanding of what kind of lifter you are. I’ve detailed the speed-strength continuum below. On the left side of the continuum we have our true speed freaks; these people are very explosive. On the right side of the continuum we have our brute strength guys; these people have that slow, grind it out strength like a mack truck.

Absolute Speed Speed-Strength Strength-Speed Absolute Strength
Countermovement jump, sprinting Jump squats at 30% 1RM Speed squats at 60% 1RM 1RM squat

Now think about where you are on this continuum. Are you more of a strength guy? If so, you typically rely more on brute strength to move lifts. As well, heavier lifts for you may take an inordinate amount of time as you “grind” the lift to the top. If you fall more towards this side of the continuum, chances are you’ll respond favorably to speed training.

Louie Simmons and Dave Tate have discussed this topic ad nauseum in their articles. They spent so much time developing an amazing strength base, it wasn’t until they took a step back and focused on improving speed that they saw big jumps in their competitive lifts.

On the other hand, are you more of an explosive lifter? Explosive or speed based lifters are very fast and like to utilize the stretch shortening cycle in their lifts. These lifters natural propensity towards the “speed” side of the continuum dictates that they’ll see the greatest benefits while training with heavier weights and consistently focus on adding pounds to the bar.

I’m a great example of someone on the “speed” side of the continuum. When I focus on adding pounds to the bar from week-to-week, I see the greatest benefits. In contrast speed-work does very little for me from a training perspective; in fact, I think the greatest benefit of speed work for me is the increased focus on training the competitive lifts and dialing in my set-up and technique, NOT the actual speed training itself.

Chances are you already understand whether you’re more of a “speed” guy or more of a “strength” guy — with that in mind train the opposite and see what it does for your lifts!


Do you ever wonder what the difference is between the guy who continually makes gains and the guy who looks the same year-after-year? While we can’t discount the psychological differences between these two lifters, understanding how to choose appropriate lifts to bring up weaknesses is something every lifter should know and understand. The better you understand the body and how to choose appropriate exercises, the less likely you are to suffer from plateaus and poor overall progress.

Start applying these principles today and see what intelligent training can do for your progress!


Leave Comment

Leave a Reply

Back to All Posts