Busting Plateaus with Specialisation Routines
One of the most common things to happen during a prolonged period of training is that you will reach a plateau. A plateau can be in your strength, endurance or body composition and is second only to injury is probably the most annoying thing to happen to any serious trainee.
Oftentimes the causes of these plateaus are fairly straightforward and can be fixed so lets get them out of the way before we look at some methods I use to crack the really entrenched plateaus in programs.
Common causes of plateaus
Lack of progressive overload – I see this one all the time at the commercial gym I go to. It’s the guy who has been training for months or years and who isn’t making any progress simply because they have reached a level of strength or endurance and then haven’t challenged themselves with more weight or more challenging exercises.
If you have actually reached a level of fitness you are happy to live with for the rest of your life then that’s fine (not that I think anyone reading this blog falls into that category!) and you can continue to use the same loads pretty much indefinitely however if your progress has stalled just because you aren’t trying to add load on a regular basis then you need to perform a reality check and slap another plate on the bar.
Lack of variety in programming – Now, this does not necessarily mean that every 4, or 8 weeks you need to change every exercise in your program however if you are doing exactly the same program with the same exercises, sets and reps as when you started 6 or 12 months ago then you can’t expect much progress. For the record my own programs tend to be hideously boring. I squat, I bench, I deadlift and I perform a handful of accessory exercises like pullups, rows and kettlebell stuff HOWEVER what I do every 8 weeks is vary the sets, reps and loading parameters for the major exercises and I will rotate specific exercises such as the snatch grip deadlifts described below, in and out of my program to achieve specific goals.
If you’ve been doing a 5km run on Mondays, pushups and some 400m intervals on Wednesday and a 10km run on Friday every week for a year you might want to consider mixing things up and seeing if you can get some progress in your fitness.
Lack of effort and diligence – easy one this one. If you are not putting in a serious effort to train hard at least 3 times per week or if you are missing sessions and being sloppy with your diet then you will never make progress.
Solution? Harden up and get stuck in. If you can’t do it yourself recruit a friend, pay a trainer etc.
So with the straightforward stuff lets look at some more advanced strategies for dealing with plateaus.
Note that once you’ve addressed the issues above you will only plateau after you have moved from being a novice and intermediate level athlete to being an advanced athlete.
Generally this process takes at least 1 full year and may take several years of consistent training.
Typically if you are serving in the military you will be at an advanced level of fitness suitable for Infantry service and you may run into plateaus in the transition to SF preparation training. If you compete in sports then chances are you will be at the state rep level and competing at the national level.
At both these stages progress is slow regardless of how much effort you put in so be aware that no program at this level will have you improving 10 or 20% in a matter of weeks. As an example elite weightlifters are happy with gains of 2-3% per year once they get to the national/international level.
Plateau buster #1 – Specialised Specialisation.
This method is pretty simple. Fundamentally if you want to get good at something the most logical thing to do is to do it a lot. This approach works well for most aspects of training and assumes that currently you are probably doing quite a lot of different exercises or training methods in your program and that each exercise or method is only performed a limited number of times (say 1 – 3) each week.
Essentially what we want to do here is pick one thing you are stuck on and vastly increase the volume of training on that exercise or method. So say in a typical program you might only perform bench press or squats once per week in this kind of program you would increase this to 4, 5 or even more sessions of one of those exercises while holding the volume of other exercises constant.
This method is often used by people when they get stuck with a plateau but they end up with the opposite effect as they confuse “doing more” with “doing so much you get worn out”. This means that instead of doing one heavy bench session a week or two hard interval training sessions per week they add progressively more maximal sessions until an injury or overtraining stops them dead in their tracks. The key therefore is to increase the volume of training but to moderate the intensity of most of the sessions and cut back accessory work for the duration of the specialization you also need tounderstand that just doing a large volume of training will have a positive impact on performance even if the training is not all maximal.
This method works best if there are no major technical flaws or weak points in your technique.
Let’s look at a couple of examples.
You’ve been training for a solid year and you are now pushing some respectable numbers in the basic powerlifts but after your last 3 months of training none of the powerlifts are budging.
Your program might look something like this
Monday – Bench press 5×5 with 75-80% of your max + core and lower body accessory work.
Wednesday – Deadlift 5 x 3 with 80 – 85% of your max + core and upper body accessory work.
Friday – Squat – 5×5 with 75-80% of your max + core and upper body assistance work.
Each day consists of 4-5 exercises in total and the assistance work comprises things like dumbbell bench, rows, overhead pressing, pullups and lunges etc.
Now deciding that you want to focus on your squat for a cycle here is what you might do.
I’m going to pick a classic powerlifting specialization program here called “Smolov”
Smolov involves squatting pretty hard 4 days per week so basically everything else needs to be backed right off to the minimum volume and intensity required for maintenance!
Monday – Squat 4 x 9 with 70% of your max + Barbell bench press 3 x 5 + 1 core drill
Tuesday – Squat 5 x 7 with 75% of your max + Pullups for 3 x 5-10
Thursday – Squat 7x 5 with 80% of your max + Overhead press for 3 x 5 + 1 core drill
Friday – Deadlift 3×3 with 60% of your max + 1 core drill
Saturday – Squat 10 x 3 with 85% of your max
Repeat this cycle 2 more times adding 5-10kg to each set of squats in week 2 and 3.
No fancy squat variations here just lots of volume on the core lift.
After 3 weeks take a light week, retest your squat and then switch the volume focus to another one of the core lifts.
Recently I used this approach with my bench press and added 7.5kg to my competition best in 4 weeks (a substantial gain considering how long I’ve been training)
The same approach can be used with something like running where you add more running sessions but vary the pace and length.
Monday run 5km
Wednesday run 5km
Saturday run 8km
Monday – Run 4 x 800m maximal pace
Tuesday – Run 5km moderate pace
Thursday – Run 2 x 1.6km fast pace
Friday – Run 6 x 400m maximal pace
Saturday – Run 10km easy pace
With the second program the volume of running has increased but the addition of some harder and easier sessions means that burnout will be avoided.
Plateau buster #2 – Varied Specialisation.
The second method of busting a plateau calls for a similar increase in the volume of training but adds a lot more variety of exercises.
There are a few good reasons for doing this.
1. Sometimes different exercises are needed to target weak points in a movement such as the lock out of a bench press or the start of the deadlift.
2. Using more variety can avoid overuse injuries that might be caused by doing the same thing 4 or more sessions a week
3. If you are used to standard exercises then more variety can provide a novel stimulus which can have a significant effect on breaking through a plateau.
Here is an example from my current training plan.
Normally I deadlift 2 x per week, once is heavy conventional (narrow stance) deadlifts and once is a lighter session of conventional deadlifts.
At the moment I am experimenting with deadlifting up to 6 times per week using 4 different variations of the deadlift
Monday AM – Heavy conventional deadlifts 5 x 3 or 5 x 2 @ 85 – 95% of max
Monday PM – Moderate Sumo Deadlifts 5 x 3 @ 65 – 75% of max
Tuesday AM – Snatch grip deadlift off blocks 6 x 6 @ 50-60% of max
Thursday AM – Moderate Sumo 5 x 3 @ 65 – 75% of max
Thursday PM – Heavy band deloaded deadlift 5 x 3 or 5 x 2 @ 90 – 105% of max
Friday PM – Snatch grip deadlift off blocks 6 x 6 @ 50-60% of max
As you can see this is a lot of deadlifting however many of the sessions are sub maximal and are designed to work on things like my lower back and core strength and my lockout.
If you’ve reached a plateau in your training and want some advice on how to bust through it try implementing some of these strategies or, if you want a custom designed solution shoot me an email and I can put together one of my Elite programs to take care of it!