Ways To Push Past a Muscle-Building Plateau

Few things are more frustrating to a dedicated weightlifter than stalled muscle growth. Even if you don’t plan on becoming a bodybuilder, it’s nice to see (and flex) the results of all your hard work in the gym.

Thankfully, there are a few simple training tweaks you can make that will get you back on your muscle-building path.

INCREASE YOUR VOLUME

One of the best ways to encourage muscle growth is to add training volume (also known as workload), as shown by a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Sports Sciences. The authors found that as training volume increased, muscle gains increased as well.

You can increase volume by adding more sets and reps of an exercise, and/or adding an entirely new exercise. Just make sure the increases are gradual to ensure safety and confidence, says Chris Ryan, certified strength and conditioning specialist, former Division I athlete and owner of Chris Ryan Fitness. Try adding one set to every exercise in your workout; see how you do at that volume for at least two weeks before increasing again. Or, add an entirely new exercise, and wait at least two weeks before adding sets or reps.

Finally, keep in mind you can’t continue adding reps, sets and exercises forever. (Otherwise, you’d never leave the gym.) You should also add weight as you feel able, and look to additional training methods (below) to challenge your body.

CHANGE YOUR EXERCISES

If you’ve been doing the same routine for months, consider switching things up. “If it’s the same boring stuff, your body’s going to get bored physically,” Ryan says. Give your muscles (and your brain) a new stimulus to pay attention to, and you may encourage new muscle growth.

That said, don’t think this means making drastic changes to your training plan. If you usually do Bulgarian split squats, for example, you could simply swap these for another single-leg squat variation, like skater squats or even deficit Bulgarian split squats (front foot elevated roughly 2–4 inches). If you’ve been doing bent-over dumbbell rows, use a barbell instead, or try seated cable rows.

SLOW YOUR REPS

Another important component of muscle growth is time under tension or how long your muscles resist weight during a given rep or set.

Research published in The Journal of Physiology suggests slowing your reps — thereby increasing time under tension — leads to greater increases in muscle protein synthesis (the process of building and repairing muscle fibers) after a workout than lifting at a normal pace.

This is because lifting at a slower tempo is more challenging and creates more damage to the muscle tissues: “Ten reps done fast, versus 10 reps done slowly with the same amount of weight, is a totally different ball game,” says Mike Clancy, a certified strength and conditioning specialist. “The more tension you put into a muscle, and the more that you continue to rip the fibers, that’s when they continue to grow and build in strength and size.” (Provided you’re refueling with the proper nutrition, of course.)

Slow your reps by lowering the weight on a two- or three-count and raising it on a two- or three-count. If you’re doing a back squat, for example, take 2–3 seconds to lower into the bottom position and 2–3 seconds to stand back up. Don’t be surprised if you find you need to reduce the weight.

INCREASE YOUR CALORIES

“One of the main principles of putting on muscle is you have to have a surplus of calories,” Clancy says. The reasoning: You need not only enough calories to fuel the lean muscle tissue you already have, but a little bit leftover to fuel the growth of new tissue.

In general, consuming 250–500 additional calories per day should be sufficient, Clancy says. The only trick here is ensuring those extra calories don’t go to your waistline, so make sure they’re coming from quality food sources — not cupcakes and pizza. “Think healthy foods with a concentration of healthy fats and proteins like nuts, meats, avocados, lentils and assorted beans,” Ryan says.

TRY DROP SETS

Drop sets (where you drop the weight as you perform an exercise to failure) are a common bodybuilder strategy for fatiguing target muscles more completely than a standard, or straight set, thereby encouraging greater muscle growth during recovery. That said, a recent paper in the Strength & Conditioning Journal suggests any muscle-building benefits provided by drop sets may simply be due to the fact they add volume to a training session. In other words, you may see the same muscle-building benefits if you add more straight sets to your routine, though drop sets can save you time.

To do a drop set, complete one set of a given exercise to the point of muscular failure, or the point where you can’t do another rep with good form. Then, immediately reduce the weight (typically by 20–25%) and perform as many additional reps as you can with good form. It’s usually best to limit this technique to isolation exercises (e.g., biceps curls, triceps extensions, leg curls) to reduce the risk of injury — especially if you don’t have a training partner.

For example, if you typically use 20-pound dumbbells for 12 reps of biceps curls, you’ll stick to that weight for 12 reps, then immediately reduce it by 4–5 pounds; continue curling with the lighter dumbbells until you can’t complete another rep with good form.

Don’t over-rely on drop sets, however. The authors of the recent paper warn that while you can incorporate this technique into your routine multiple times a week, continuous use increases your risk of overtraining.

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