There are times in your lifting career when it’s going to seem like you’re hovering around the same weight on the same lift for a long period of time. Experienced lifters are okay with this and understand it’s part of the game. They hold fast without panicking or making big changes to their programming. They patiently continue practicing their lifts. They get more and more comfortable with the load, and eventually move past the sticking point. A TRUE plateau is a different animal. When you hit a wall, it’s time to re-assess and troubleshoot.
First, let’s define what a plateau is for the purpose of this article:
You are a beginner or intermediate. You’ve trained (consistently) for 12+ weeks with the same numbers. When you retest, your 1rep max doesn’t budge – or it’s only gone up or down by 2-3lbs. For the advanced/elite lifter, 2-3lbs may be a great victory. For the remaining 95% of the population; a gain or loss of 2-3lbs can happen on any given day depending on what you ate a few hours prior, how much sleep you got the night before, and countless other reasons.
You are a beginner or intermediate. You’ve trained consistently for 12+ weeks with the same numbers. You can not get past a certain weight with one or more of your lifts. For example, let’s say your back squat 80%rm is 300lbs. Come 80% week, you find yourself unable to complete a set of 5 reps at 300lbs. This happens regularly over the course of several blocks, months, or possibly even years. You find yourself constantly changing or lowering your 1 rep max to accommodate your weak lift.
*If you’re an advanced lifter you’ll need a more targeted approach with a coach or mentor. Someone that can conduct an in-depth analysis of your training, nutrition, sticking points, and lifestyle. But you can still use the strategies below as a checklist of sorts.
This is NOT a plateau:
“I retested after 6 weeks and I didn’t gain 50lbs on my bench press like I did on my very first Operator block”
“I retested after 6 weeks and my squat stayed the same”
“I retested after 9 weeks and my lifts only went up by 5-10lbs”
In fact, any result involving less than 12 weeks (of consistent training) doesn’t count as a plateau in my book. Here’s another one:
“….by the way I’m cutting.” Enough said.
So, you’ve plateaued in one or more lifts. Now here’s what you need to do.
STEP 1 – Add A Set
Simply add one extra set every single session to your weak lift. Let’s say squats are your weak lift. They’re not improving. You’ve been averaging 3 sets per session using Operator Standard. Bump that up to 4 sets per session, every single session. Do that for 12 weeks and re-test or force progression. For most people, a slight but consistent increase in volume will do the trick. If it doesn’t, move on to step 2 of the troubleshooting process.
STEP 2 – Add 500
Increase calories, eat more. You’ve gone through Step 1. It hasn’t worked. Time for Step 2. Continue doing Step 1. Don’t drop back down a set.
First, know your Total Daily Energy Expenditure or TDEE. Now, on top of your minimum caloric requirements eat an additional 500 calories per day. This is roughly one meal. Your meal can be over 500 calories – it can’t be under. It must contain carbs/protein and fat. It can’t be low/zero carb, it can’t be a protein bar, and it can’t be a shake. Those are the only rules. You can eat 1 and a half cheeseburgers for all I care.
Clients that have never calculated TDEE are usually surprised to find they’re undereating when it comes to performance oriented programs like Tactical Barbell. If this is you, inadequate food intake is likely going to be the root cause of 90% of your training problems. I’m not telling you to count calories every day for the rest of your life. Far from it. You need to get comfortable enough with what the numbers look like translated into food on your plate. Then, at minimum, you need to eat that amount every single day. You have permission to over-eat. You do not have permission to under-eat. Do this for at least 12 weeks and re-assess. If this – in conjunction with step#1 – doesn’t work, I’m going to be very surprised. But let’s pretend it’s doesn’t and move on to step 3.
STEP 3 – Add Reps
Continue implementing Step 1 and 2. Add this next step. The maximal-strength work in TB is conducted within the 1-5 rep range using 70-95%RM for load/intensity. But we’re going to tweak that slightly for Step 3. You’ll do 8 reps instead of 5 for all of your 70% -75% sessions. Higher reps cause adaptations that can be beneficial for increasing muscle size, strength and work capacity. It might be the boost you need to get over the hump. I don’t recommend sticking with this long term if you’re a Green protocol athlete or in an SOF type role. Couple reasons; higher rep ranges can cause more soreness/require longer recovery – which might interfere with intense conditioning sessions or performance based activity. Higher rep ranges tend to be favorable for muscle hypertrophy, which you may not want if you’re Green/SOF. If Green/SOF, do it just until you get over the stall – then go back to no more than 5 reps for max-strength work. Do this for 12 weeks and re-assess.
STEP 4 – Micro-load
If Steps 1-3 aren’t doing the job, it’s time to go nuclear and micro-load. Drop the Re-Test method completely. Start using Forced Progression. Every 6-12 weeks, add 2.5 to 5lbs to the 1RM of your stubborn lift. Beginner/Intermediate lifters will likely be able to force with 5lbs, advanced-intermediates may need to play with 2.5. Calculate your numbers based off your new 1RM. Continue using Steps 1-3 in conjunction with this step.
Private Bloggins – What it looks like in real life:
Private Bloggins has been training for 3 years using Operator (Standard). His strength has increased considerably. However, for the past 2-3 blocks his bench press has been stuck at 250lbs. Bloggins trains consistently and rarely misses a strength session. It happens – but he takes it into stride and just picks up where he let off. He knows his TDEE and generally eats his daily minimum requirement or slightly more. He bench presses 3 times a week, 3 sets per session. Once in a while he’ll do 4 or 5 sets. He concludes his bench is stalling, and decides to implement the 4-Step Strategy.
Bloggins starts benching for a minimum of 4 sets every session. He uses the same bench numbers for 12 weeks. Scenario A; when he retests – voila he hits 260lbs, a new PR. Objective complete. He can continue with 4 sets a session or drop back down to averaging 3 sets/session with his new numbers. Scenario B; Bloggins retests after 12 weeks, but the needle hasn’t moved. He’s still got a BP of 250. On to Step 2.
Bloggins continues performing 4 sets per session for his bench press. Additionally he eats an extra meal containing roughly 500 calories every day. After 12 weeks, he retests. Boom – he hits a new PR of 265. Bloggins continues eating an extra 500 calories every day. Likely he has miscalculated his daily caloric requirements. He can continue doing 4 sets for his bench, or drop back down to 3 with his new numbers. Scenario B; Bloggins retests, and his bench moves up a tiny little bit – lets say 3lbs. His new one rep max is 253lbs. Still not good enough. A little blip like that after 12 weeks of training for an intermediate like Bloggins is not acceptable. He decides to bring in the big guns and moves on to step 3.
Bloggins continues benching 4 sets per session. He continues eating an extra meal every day. Additionally, he starts benching 8 reps instead of 5 during his 70-75% sessions. Like this:
Week 1/Day 1:Bench Press 4 sets x 8 (70-75%RM)
Week 1/Day 2: Bench Press 4 sets x 8 (70%-75%RM)
Week 1/Day 3: Bench Press 4 sets x 8 (70%-75%RM)
…..Week 2 &3: Bench Press x 4 sets, but back to the regular Operator rep scheme of 3-5.
Still no change? If Bloggins’ bench press continues to hover around baseline after all the remedial action he’s taken, he’ll start micro-loading. He’ll continue Steps 1-3. He’ll drop the Re-Test method completely and start Forcing Progression. Every 6 weeks Bloggins adds 5lbs to the 1 REP MAX of his bench press. He recalculates his weekly lifts using this new 1RM.
In the event the above strategy doesn’t work, then an individual assessment of your training is necessary. There’s a good chance there’s some fundamental flaw in your approach that you might be overlooking. It might be something simple like eating a low carb diet or training/testing in a fasted state. For the average bear, both of those approaches are sub-optimal for peak performance when it comes to multi-domain fitness. It could possibly be that you’re more inconsistent than you think you are with training and/or nutrition. Alternatively, you could be in a mild or serious state of overtraining. It’s rare, but it happens with more advanced tactical athletes. In that case rest and recovery need to be managed.
- Add an extra set to your stalled lift every session. Do this for 12 weeks. If no change move on to #2.
- Continue doing #1. Add 500 calories or one extra meal every day. Do this for 12 weeks. If no change move on to #3.
- Continue doing #1&2. Increase reps from 5 to 8 during 70-75%RM only. 12 weeks. If no change move on to#4.
- Continue with #1,2,3. Micro-load. Force progression every 6 weeks using 2.5-5lbs.
Maximal-Strength is a long term game, like the stock market. Sometimes it’s up, sometimes it’s down. But as long as the trend over the long term is upward, you are most definitely on the right track. So if you’ve stalled, give this strategy a shot. Leave your comments, questions, and concerns below or on the forum!
BONUS: you can start doing this right away. Use creatine monohydrate. Monohydrate. Not HCL, not Ethyl-Ester or any other version. MONOHYDRATE. Find a company that sells the ‘Creapure’ version of monohydrate (many big name companies do) and use 5grams a day. Do this for at least 12 weeks before making any judgements on whether you’re a non-responder special snowflake. You can simply mix it in with a glass of water any time of the day.