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Routines by Rote: Busting Through Plateaus

by StephenKelly

Some things in life that are inevitable: death, taxes, Angelina Jolie adopting children. The same goes for fitness, and for people looking to gain muscle mass or lose weight the prospect of hitting frustrating plateaus is almost as inescapable as Sanjaya.

You know you’ve hit a plateau when your muscle gains stop, your weight doesn’t change and you stop feeling sore after workouts. Boredom may also set in. No matter your experience level, you can expect the telltale symptoms of “hitting the wall” to pop up about 6 weeks after starting a new routine.

Plateaus can be frustrating, especially for beginners who have never worked through them and find their strength and weight gains compromised. Plateaus are one of the biggest reasons beginners sometimes quit, as the lack of advancement can make working out feel like a waste of time.

There are many reasons your body reaches this state of suspended animation where things suddenly stop moving forward. Overtraining is one sure way to hit the wall fast. When the body is given little chance to recover from intense workouts, it will eventually stop cooperating. Lack of proper sleep and nutrition will also keep you from getting the next level.

But the main offender is repetition. I see many guys doing the same routines with the same exercises in the same order every time. There’s such a thing as too much familiarity and its little wonder these guys never change. After a few weeks, the body adapts to the stress, the muscle and weight gains stop and you’re left with routines by rote that stopped being effective long ago.

Fortunately there are ways of working through burnout and a good start is by shaking up your routine every six weeks or so. Change the intensity, weight, and training method. If you usually use machines, try free weights. If you always use an EZ curl bar for biceps, switch to dumbbells. Change the order of your exercises. The possibilities are endless.

Pyramid sets are a great workout to shock your muscles back into submission. Basically, pyramids start with one set that uses a lighter weight for many reps, let’s say a set of dumbbell bicep curls for 15 reps using 20-pound weights. Rest for a minute, then move on to the next set using higher weights at lower reps (12 reps using 25 pounds), and so on. The point is to add weight while dropping reps. Pyramids sets can also be done in reverse.

By challenging you to lift a wide variety of heavier weights then you may be used to, pyramids push you out of your strength comfort zone and let you maximize your strength potential. Because they force you to push past your limits, pyramids are also a great confidence booster.

Beginners should start with three sets for each exercise, but intermediate and advanced weightlifters should be aiming for at least five sets. Don’t go any lower than six reps. Work with the intensity and focus this program needs to be effective, but pay close attention to good form and technique.

The idea is to keep the muscles constantly challenged. So working through plateaus is also a good time accent the weak links that may also be holding you back from weight advancements. Weak triceps will affect your chest performance, just like a weak lower back will compromise your ab workout. Strengthening the secondary muscles goes a long way to overall strength and size gains.

These principals also hold true for aerobic exercises. Most gyms have a wide variety of cardio machines, so mix it up. If you are a treadmill runner, work the elliptical or Stairmaster machines into your routine, although those with knee issues may want to avoid the Stairmaster.

Interval training, which is a series of minute sprints followed by a minute of rest, is also a great way to lively up your cardio workout. This 20 to 30 minute workout can be used on any of the cardio machines and is also a great fat burner.

Another way to break out of a plateau is to take a week off from the gym and engage in exercises like biking, hiking, yoga or running. This concept of “active rest” will break you out of your gym routine and make you use muscles that may not be engaged during weight lifting.

Constantly introducing new exercises and technique will keep your routine from becoming routine. Working out is like being in a relationship, without the bickering and couples therapy. It needs a little spice to keep things exciting and fresh. Think of it as a relationship with the person you should love the most: yourself.