Those that are new to lifting weights get to capitalize on the perks of being a beginner—what we call experiencing “newbie gains.” If you’ve never followed a consistent resistance training program and nutrition plan tailored to help induce hypertrophy (muscle growth) in the past, changes in body composition can be rapid—sometimes in a matter of weeks if your consistent and you get your nutrition right.
Seeing palpable changes can be motivating, especially when it feels that our efforts are paying off quickly. We beat ourselves week-over-week with our lifts; we see our muscles begin to develop. If we stick with it, we can experience significant progress in just a few months’ time.
However, the more seasoned we become, aka the longer we train and the more progress we make, the harder it is to put on lean muscle. Our efforts start to taper off; we hit a plateau. We’ll likely see a pause or even a regression in how much weight we can lift and/or how many reps we can do; we may even lose a bit of muscle. The plateau, in short, can leave you feel a bit defeated.
No one wants their hard efforts in the gym to be wasted. However, plateaus—especially as we become more experienced lifters––are inevitable, and will likely become even more frequent the deeper we progress, and the more advanced we become. If our primary goal in fitness is aesthetics alone, progress in body composition (or lack thereof) as an arbiter of success can cause us to feel discouraged, or halt us from pursuing our training altogether. A plan that has worked for so long that becomes futile can be disorienting.
Frequent plateaus from a resistance training and body comp perspective have become a norm for me. If I solely relied on body composition as the fueling motivation for going to the gym, I would have quit a long time ago. While I still find changes in my physique motivating (I am human, and as such, vain at times), my emphasis for fitness has been on the way it makes me feel, and how it positively impacts other facets of my life. In this article, I’m going to highlight some strategies on how to break through the plateau; some of the latest science on training and nutrition mixed with my own personal experience. If you’re a frequent reader of my blog, you’ll know what’s coming next: a good ol’ disclaimer! I always encourage readers to not take what I write about as dogmatic in any sense, but rather, approach this article with an open-mind and a willingness to try it out for yourself if you feel that it’s right for you. Trial and error is the best way to learn what works for you and you alone, and when in doubt, contact a health practitioner.
Before we go into some tweaks to our routine, let’s just start with the grassroots fundamentals. In order to gain lean muscle, you’ll want to incorporate a nutrition plan that works for you combined with the training principle of progressive overload. You can think of progressive overload as a gradual increase in the weight, sets, reps, and/or frequency over time. We can “overload” the muscles and induce hypertrophy by increasing any of the aforementioned variables. Progressive overload is in fact, the most important training principle to achieve muscle growth. You’ll also want to familiarize yourself with the intensity scale. You can measure intensity by RPE (rate of perceived exertion) or RIR (reps in reserve); the latter is more common in the bodybuilding world so for the purposes of this article, we’ll use RIR. RIR is on a scale from 1-10, indicating how many “reps you have left in the tank” before hitting muscle failure. Muscle failure is rudimentarily defined as lifting as much weight as you can until you physically cannot lift any more. Most experts recommend not bringing every single set of reps to failure, but rather, the last set only. You’ll want to have at least a RIR of 3 or less most of the time, meaning that you can only physically perform 3 more repetitions of a specific exercise.
From a nutrition standpoint, the fastest way to gain muscle is done in twofold: 1) ensure you’re getting enough protein (I aim for 2g of protein / kg of body weight / day) and 2) adjust my calories to a slight surplus (10-20% above maintenance). If you’re in a beginner or intermediate phase, body recomposition (losing body fat and building muscle at the same time), is indeed possible in a very slight caloric deficit or eating at your maintenance calories, but as you get more advanced, eating in a slight surplus has been scientifically proven in several studies to help you build muscle at a faster rate––just realize that there will likely be some body fat coming along for the ride.
Now that we have the barebone basics out of the way, let’s break down our strategies into three training segments: beginner, intermediate, and advance. Physique athletes are in a totally different category and have their own prescribed plans with coaches. With that being said, this is more tailored for the everyday, non-competitive strength trainee.
YouTuber Jeff Nippard put together a fantastic YouTube video called, How to Keep Making Gains, where he breaks down expected muscle gain based on the ‘phase’ you inhabit, what a training plan should look like, and how to continue building lean muscle as you become more advanced. I’ve summed up the main points in the video below, while also adding my own thoughts and anecdotal experience.
As I mentioned, if you’re a beginner, you can capitalize on the significant changes in body composition in the early days of resistance training—so long as you are consistent and follow the principles of progressive overload. When you’re first learning how to lift, it’s best to follow a linear progression; that is, learn some primary exercises (compound movements are typically recommended), and then continue to add weight to your exercise week-over-week. It’s in this phase where you’ll want to focus on getting the form right, while also getting a feel for the aformentioned intensity scale. You’ll want to know what it feels like to get to a RIR of 0-1 because technical failure is a driver of hypertrophy (muscle growth). Here’s what I would recommend as a beginner: 1) either hire a personal trainer to show you proper form of compound movements that can work multiple muscle groups or 2) head on over to the Anabolic Aliens YouTube channel and learn exercises from home with lighter weights. I recommend repeating these videos for a few weeks before bringing the routines with you to the gym, subsequently adding heavier weight each visit.
As a beginner, you can typically get away with eating maintenance calories or even a slight deficit in order to build lean muscle. Nippard estimates that you could potentially gain 10-25 lbs of muscle as a male and 6-15 lbs for a female in the first few years of training.
The intermediate phase is once again subjective and depends on the trainee’s consistency, body composition, amount of weight they can lift, and other variegated factors. We can roughly use the 1-5 or 2-5 year mark for the intermediate phase for the purposes of this article. As an intermediate, you should now have a decent amount of exercises in your toolbelt and a solid understanding of the RPE/RIR scale, perfected your form, but may have hit a bit of a wall with adding more weight each week. You’ll notice that you’ll get to a point where you can’t progress linearly anymore. You can still add more weight over time, but it’s better now to focus on some of the other variables with progressive overload. Weight is just one part of the equation. I’ve outlined some tweaks you can make to your routine to help push past the plateau and continue building lean mass:
- Increase the reps each week. Instead of adding the weight, keep the weight the same and either add an additional set or additional reps to your sets.
- Increase the volume: add more sets per body part. Usually, the 10-20 set range per body part per week is sufficient for most, but if you’ve been doing the same volume, try increasing the number of sets per week. Perhaps start with a single body part though. What I’ve found is that if I increase the volume across the board, I feel fatigued, and my other days begin to suffer. This is a matter of experimentation, so just keep tabs on your recovery.
- Increase intensity: If you were training at around a ~3 RIR generally and only bringing the last set to failure, try bringing more sets to 0-1 RIR.
- Try new exercises. If you’ve been doing a majority of compound exercises (that hit multiple muscle groups) for your workouts, try adding some more isolation exercises that focus on a single body part. You won’t want to completely overhaul your routine, but instead, add a single exercise every few weeks or swap out one of your other exercises for a new one. If you’ve been doing the same exercises for years, but only adding weight, your body has likely adapted physiologically to those exercises. While muscle confusion is indeed a myth, muscular adaptations can be stalled if the body has been doing the same exercise for a while. For me, it’s a matter of slight tweaking; I’ll add in a new variation of a bicep curl (doing wide curls instead of hammer) or I’ll try using a new machine.
Let’s classify trainees in the advanced phase as those who have consistently followed a resistance training program for a minimum of 5 years. This is where you’ve likely hit a genetic ceiling and palpable changes in your physique might be incremental at best. You’ll likely run into what feels like plateau, after plateau, after plateau. You’ve added more volume, added more sets, swapped different exercises, so now what? What else could we possibly do to continue building muscle? Well, there are some strategies available that once again, are not a matter of overhauling our entire training plan (unless you want to), but include a series of minor tweaks. Experiment, observe the results, tweak again if needed, and repeat.
- Manipulate the tempo. Decreasing the tempo increases the time under tension, which can contribute to muscle growth. One study by Burd et al. showed that slower tempos with the leg extension machine increased muscle protein synthesis, which ultimately led to more muscle growth. Increasing the tempo has also been shown to induce greater muscle growth, but the study’s conclusions vary. You can also increase the tempo and do higher reps, faster. However, some trainers won’t recommend this strategy to build muscle as it could wear out your cardiovascular system first, and may subsequently make it harder to hit technical failure. It seems science lacks a definitive answer as to whether slowing down the tempo is more effective from an hypertrophy standpoint vs. increasing the tempo. Personally, I like to do both—tackle some sets with lighter weight and higher reps (with less rest between sets), and slower reps. As always, I advise you to try both and see what works best for you.
- Put yourself in a caloric surplus: when you’re in the advanced stage, there is a high likelihood of encountering difficulty in building muscle in a slight caloric deficit or eating at maintenance. While body recomposition (losing fat and building muscle at the same time), may still be possible for those in this stage, it will may be painfully slow. The fastest way to build muscle is to adjust calories by putting yourself in a caloric surplus (10-20% above maintenance). If you’ve been in a 10% surplus for a while but aren’t seeing results that quickly, you can bring up slowly to 15% and then perhaps to 20%.
- Adjust your training splits: If you’ve been doing a full body split, try a push/pull split. If you’ve been doing push/pull, then try full body. Try different days (4 day vs. 5 day split), etc. Experiment with rest periods.
- Experiment with training frequencies: Similar to the above, you can also test our different frequencies. Say you only have one dedicated “back day” once per week––try doing two back days in the same week. If you’ve been doing two back days, try breaking this up even further with 3 or test out a full body split.
- Specialization phases: Nippard suggests dedicating specific periods of time to developing 1-2 parts of the body, then ramping up the volume during those periods (+20-40%). For example, say you want to further develop your back muscles and are currently doing 20 sets/week. You could increase the numbers of sets to 24-28 sets per week. Keep tabs on your recovery. If your recovery is very slow after the increase and affecting your performance during other training days, it may be wise to be a bit more conservative with the increase in sets. Maybe start with 22 then increase to 24 the next week, etc. Remember to always listen to your body. Self-observation is equally as important as self-experimentation.
- Test new intensity techniques: Another way to experiment with the variables of progressive overload is intensity, specifically with tempo and periods of rest. Nippard provides a few strategies here that I’ve personally used in my training for years and have found to be very effective.
- Drop sets: Drop sets are when you perform a set regularly, then when you hit muscle failure, you drop the weight and extend the set further until you hit failure again. Theoretically, drop sets should induce increased hypertrophy because 1) it increases time under tension and 2) drops sets fatigue muscles to a greater proportion. However, the current research is limited and the existing literature suggests, according to one article titled How Drop Sets Affect Strength and Hypertrophy, “[drops] sets [are] not idea for increasing strength. Drop sets might help [induce hypertrophy] if they allow you to do more volume.” I personally do quite a few drop sets in my workouts and have been for years. I’d suggest giving them a try if you haven’t and see if they make a difference for you.
- Myos-reps: Myo reps are where you shorten the rest between sets significantly. Like the drop set, it’s another way to further fatigue muscles by extending your set beyond failure. To perform myo reps, instead of taking longer periods of rest, you take mini rests (a few seconds) between your sets, then trying to squeeze out a few more rep of the same exercise at the same
Plateaus are annoying and can feel demotivating, but also present an opportunity for us to grow and adapt––to learn new techniques in the gym, new exercises, and change things around again. Minor tweaks or even a full refresh can breathe fresh air into our training––especially if we’ve become bored with the monotony of our routines. Whether you decide to change things up significantly or marginally, is up to you. I personally prefer the latter. I like to make slow changes to my routine vs. changing things up entirely. By experimenting with different variables of progressive overload, you too can continue making progress in all three training stages. I hope this article provided a few hot tips to take away. Remember to look at fitness as an ongoing experiment…one that is continuously evolving as you evolve.
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Great stuff! I’ve never been one to overthink things, but my body has been at a steady plateau for years now (not that I’m complaining, I kinda like it). Still, it’d be great to get some strength gains, and while muscles aren’t my goal, this looks like it’ll help in my pursuits. Thanks for sharing, Emily!
Thanks so much for the feedback, Stuart! Glad you found it helpful 🙂