Smashing through plateaus

Board presses (benching heavier with a reduced range of motion), is an often overlooked method to break a bench press plateau.
Board presses (benching heavier with a reduced range of motion), is an often overlooked method to break a bench press plateau.

This article is written to a more advanced audience than some of the others. 99% of the time overcoming plateaus means more fine tuned peri-workout nutrition, better diet, being more detoxed, or getting more or better quality sleep (if you are lifting correctly). Do not take it as an insult if you ask your coach about breaking a strength or diet plateau, and the response you get has more to do with steak and chicken breast than actual exercises. This is for the crowd that knows they are eating within the macronutrient range that will promote fat loss and muscle gain. And for this article to be useful you must have your basic dieting concepts down, because a lot of “plateaus” aren’t actually plateaus and are simply the athlete being deficient in protein[peri-workout or throughout the day, either way it’s a deal breaker], to where it inhibits hypertrophy.

The key to consistently breaking through plateaus is variety in training. I am of the opinion that it is best to have a routine, and focus on progressing (more weight, more reps, or more sets) every time you hit the gym. I don’t bench press one day and incline press the next upper body day…. I bench for 6 weeks to 4 months, followed by doing incline for a similar time period.

When you swap lifts with this type of regularity, it allows you to always stay in “beginner gains” mode, despite having experience… Once the beginner surge of strength stops, you move on to a different variation of the same lift. While being in a state of consistent “beginner’s gains”, you can FOR CERTAIN add weight or reps every workout. Therefore, this allows you to always expect measurable progress. Likewise, measuring progress is only possible if you have a routine, you can’t measure progress with precision if you switch exercises every time.

IMPORTANT THING TO REMEMBER WITH VARIATION: Tiny things, as miniscule as hand placements, or the orientation of the palm can change the exercise completely. Every exercise has a pronated palm, neutral grip, or supinated palm variation. In addition, there is angle (ie bench press/decline/incline press, as well as (pulldowns/leaning back pulldowns)). And lastly there is dumbell vs barbell as well as grip width (self explanatory).

The individual who has been doing wide grip puldowns for years would grow the most with supinated grip military style pullups, or neutral grip pullups. Anyone who has never done neutral grip bench press would gain more muscle in their triceps from that exercise, than continuing to do barbell bench press as they have for the past 3 years (with the same weight sometimes in the most depressing cases).

Switching it up to a different exercise that works the same basic movement usually does not cause the athlete to lose strength in the variation of the movement that they switch away from (and have been doing for way too long). You can stop barbell benching for 6 months to do a cycle of close grip bench, a cycle of dumbell decline bench, and a cycle of dumbell neutral grip flat bench, and you can do this without barbell bench decreasing. The novelty of the exercises will pack muscle on previously untouched parts of your body.

Here’s a list of a few exercises, and variations:


barbell back squat (what most people think of as a “squat”)
barbell front squat
bulgarian split squat
weighted lunge
barbell back squat starting at bottom of movement
hack squat
trap bar deadlift
1/2 squat
1/4 squat
box jumps
dynamic effort squat
leg press
1 legged leg press
bulgarian split squat foot forward stance
bulgarian split squat with high degree of flexion in knee joint
leg press with feet at the bottom of the plate
narrow stance leg press
weighted lunges
Any of the above, with added static pauses
any of the above, super fast (and with/or without cheat-form)
any of the above in slow motion
any of the above, in dynamic effort mode
any of the above with chains
any of the above with bands

sumo deadlift
Rack Deadlift
Deadlift off of box
Stiff legged deadlift
stiff legged deadlift with posterior pelvic tilt
hang clean
Stiff legged deadlift off box
power clean
Any of the above, with added static pauses
any of the above, super fast (with or without cheat-form)
any of the above in slow motion
any of the above, in dynamic effort mode
any of the above, with changed foot placements
any of the above, with chains
any of the above, with bands

dumbell curl
barbell curl
dumbell curl pronated grip
hammer curl
barbell curl pronated grip
dumbell preacher curl
barbell preacher curl
dumbell hammer preacher curl
barbell preacher curl pronated grip
dumbell preacher curl pronated grip
curls in cable crossover machine
concentration curls
machine curls
any of the above with isometric (static) pauses
any of the above with super slow concentric and eccentric phases
any of the above in dynamic effort mode (probably not worth risk of injury in this particular exercise)
any of the above with chains
and of the above with bands

(I feel compelled to add the fact that neutral grip pullups are better at strengthening the part of the bicep worked by hammer curls, and regular supinated grip pullups are better than bicep curls, for building bigger biceps)

The purpose of the list, is for you the reader to pick the exercise you have been doing for way too long (out of each category). I could come up with lists like these for every exercise, but it would take too long, and I think the reader will get the point (alter hand orientation, angle, barbell/dumbell, bands/chains). If you have done barbell back squats first in your legs workout for 5 years, pick that exercise. AND CROSS IT OFF THE LIST. Force yourself to replace the exercises you do ALWAYS with the exercises you NEVER DO. In most cases you will have more ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT on your neutral grip bench than your barbell bench, or more room for front squat improvement than back squat.

Keep getting those begginner gains by varying your routine (altering every exercise) every 6 weeks to 4 months. Just make sure that you are following a routine, so that linear progress is measurable. Every 6 weeks to 4 months have a “reset point” where you rotate exercises.

It is really the OCD of the fitness enthusiast that will have them doing barbell back squat first on legs day, for years and years, and barbell bench press first on upper body day. Usually it is severely reducing the indivudual’s potential for growth.

Another thing, for another article, is indicators of progress. Part of the reason people stick with certain lifts for so long is an overemphasis on those lifts by the powerlifting community (where literally the entire sport is bench, squat, and deadlift). Does the dumbell row matter in powerlifting? No, it only matters as much as it can increase the lifter’s bench press or deadlift. However, from a building strength standpoint, dumbell rows are equally as important as bench press (building strength and building an impressive physique are basically synonymous).

Have a routine, but vary your routine, on a regular shedule, to avoid hitting plateaus. When a lift significantly plateaus, it is time to try a different variation of that lift. Frequently, USUALLY, when you return to the original variation you will either already be stronger, or immediately start progressing rapidly, due to the gains you have experienced in a similar, but different, variation of that movement.


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