TL/DR: This article is just as much about motivation than it is about overcoming gym plateaus. You want to get to a point where you want to go to the gym the next week. For me, it’s because I want to see how much more I can lift. If I change the input (any of the below suggestions), what happens to the output (my repetitions). It’s amazing when you can lift an extra two repetitions from one week to the next, week after week. It really feeds the motivation you have to continue going to the gym. This is also why I recommend you never weigh yourself except at the gym. Whether you’re trying to lose or gain weight, this is part of the motivation, to measure the changes and you do that at the gym.
This article has an interesting backstory.
In February, I was eating 1,900 calories per day. I weighed 172lbs (78kg). Five months earlier, in September, I weighed 190lbs (86kg). In March, I decided to do a slow bulk, raising the number of calories I ate by 100 per day each week (ie the second week I ate 2,000 calories, the third 2,100, etc.). It was my assumption that calories are the magic to overcoming plateaus in the gym and gaining weight. At the beginner weightlifter level, this is mostly true.
What I discovered blew my mind.
After the following nine weeks, I was eating 2,800 calories per day, that’s 900 calories more per day, every day of the week. I had made zero gains in the gym and even more surprisingly, I gained zero weight. I was still 172lbs (78kg). Maintenance calories, the number of calories needed to neither gain nor lose weight, at 172lbs is around 2,400 calories a day. After I got over the fact that this is intensely frustrating as I am a ‘eat to live’ person (ie I want to eat as few calories as possible), I decided to list all the ways I can overcome a gym plateau and experiment.
At the end of the day, my weight matters less to me than my performance in the gym. I focused less on how to gain more weight as this is “easy” to do. Also, your weight will generally follow your gym performance. You lift more, you gain more muscle, you gain more weight. That is how it works.
What’s not so straight forward is how to lift heavier in the gym week after week, year after year.
Over the following weeks, I made one change to my diet or routine at a time to see what got me over the plateau.
I realize this recommendation is unspectacular, but I am adding it here it’s most likely to have a positive effect on the most amount of readers. I only use hand-wraps for my deadlift. I do not use a weight belt, lifting shoes, or anything else though at one time I did and I do believe they work.
About five years ago when I started lifting heavy, I got to about 275lbs in the deadlift before my forearms would give out much faster than my back.
I attempted to work through it, but when I noticed things weren’t changing quickly enough, I made a change. I also realized that the deadlift was an exercise for the back so I should be trying to maximize how much I could lift with that muscle group, not my forearms.
I tested out numerous hand wraps and found these weight-lifting grips to be the most superior, by far. In fact, three years later, I still use the same hand wraps with almost no signs of visible wear.
This change had a profound effect on my lifts. More profound and immediate than anything else I’ve ever done (though I’ve never tried steroids). I went from 275lbs to over 400lbs over the following months with my deadlift.
You can also use a weight belt as this could increase your strength.
Or, you could use knee sleeves.
Or, weight lifting shoes.
The first thing I did was change my eating schedule. I practice intermittent fasting. I’m sure there are health benefits, but it really fits nicely into my lifestyle. What that means is I eat for 8 hours per day, between noon and 8pm, and fast for 16. I eat lunch around noon, just after my workout, and dinner around 8pm. I do not snack in between these two meals or eat breakfast, opting for two large meals. This is very easily doable until I started to hit 2,600 calories per day. Eating 1,300 calories per meal was a bit tough. At 1,400 calories per meal, I figured that this probably was not healthy, hitting my body with so many calories within about the hour it took me to eat.
I decided to eat 10% of my calories as a portable snack I could bring with me: nuts, dried fruit, protein bar, beef jerky, a piece of fresh fruit, etc.
This had a mild effect on my gym performance and was necessary from a health perspective. As mentioned, I don’t believe it’s healthy to ask your body to process 1,400 calories at once.
I find this strategy works very efficiently. Eventually, you’ll max out with your current routine. I do 4-6 reps primarily. My current plateau on the deadlift is 455lbs (205kgs). I just cannot seem to get above this weight. I’m even eating 4,500 calories right now. What can I change? In addition to anything from this list, I’ve decided to lower the weights (a little) and increase the reps (a lot).
I have decreased the weight by 10% to 405lbs (180kgs) and increased the number of reps by 100% to 12 repetitions. When I hit 12 repetitions which I did on the first day, I will increase the weight by 10lbs and go for 12 repetitions at 415lbs. I will do this three more times at 425lbs, 435lbs, and 445lbs.
Once I am doing 2 repetitions at 445lbs, I know without a doubt that I can do more than 6 repetitions at 455lbs, my old gym plateau. I also know that weight lifting is also a mental game. I’m going to skip 455lbs and go straight to 465lbs. I will attempt to do 4 repetitions.
This strategy also works if you’re working with higher reps. Increase the weight and decrease the reps for a few weeks.
I then started to have a light pre-workout meal. For me, that consists of a banana and one scoop of casein protein. As casein protein is slow digesting, I had it about 45 minutes before the gym while I ate the banana about 10 minutes before.
This did seem to have a greater effect on the second and third sets. In other words, I could not lift more weight on the first set, but I could lift more reps on the second and third sets. This makes sense as I had extra energy in my body instead of working out after a 16-hour fast.
Creatine is one of, if not the only, supplement to be scientifically proven to work. I had not taken a creatine supplement in three years. I took 10mg for the first seven days, then 5mg per day after my first meal post-workout.
This had a profound effect on my strength. I added 2 reps onto my heaviest sets right away.
After a few weeks of creatine supplementation, I decided to add more calories into my diet, but at 2.5x the rate I did in the past. The last thing I want to do is eat more with zero effects on gym performance or weight. At the prior 100 calories per day extra, I think my body easily could adapt real-time for this change, thus no noticeable effect on my weight or performance.
I am sure if I continued this 100 per day extra each week, eventually, I would start to gain weight, but again, any extra calories I eat needs to have an effect on either my weight or gym performance.
Are you training for three days per week? Then, why not add a fourth?
If you’re training six days per week, why not decrease to four or five?
If you workout your whole body each day, why not change your schedule to workout one muscle group or upper and lower body on separate days?
Or why not adding on one more exercise? Or adding one more set? Or decreasing either of these?
If you workout in the 4-6 rep range, why not take a week or two with less weight and work in the 8-10 rep range so measure if this has an effect on your performance?
If you’re not used to going to failure, why not try it out. Or vice versa.
From January to June 2019, I was eating the following:
I decided to change to the following diet:
Personally, I did not notice a change in my lifts based on this change. Though if you’re in a restricted calories diet, I believe this would be one of the major changes you can make to ensure your body is getting the minimum amount of protein.
The point of this article is to make you understand that there are many ways to overcome a gym plateau in addition to the common ways.
If you practice Intermittent Fasting on an 8/16 schedule, why not strength this out to a 12/12 schedule? See how it works, you may be surprised how your body reacts to a simple change like this.
This is not a meal, but a supplement that gives you energy. Basically, anything to get you amped up. This could be a caffeine pill or NO-Xplode.
For me, there seems to not be much of a change if I rest two minutes or five minutes between sets as long as my body has adapted. In other words, if I rested 5 minutes per set one week and only 2 the next, I would get tired quicker. But if I kept with the 2-minute rest, my body would adapt and it would account for no change in performance. I think my body adapts rapidly and I can lift the same amount of weight with varied rest times. But for you, this may make a world of difference.
Your plateau could very well be the result of you unconsciously ignoring something. For example, maybe your bench press sucks but you’ve been neglecting triceps?
Or your deadlift is weak, but you don’t do any core exercises? Same with your squat.
Any flexibility or imbalance issue.
Am I missing one? How have you gotten over your gym plateau?
Digital nomad, minimalist, entrepreneur, author. Danny, the man behind dannybooboo, travels the world and sleeps in Airbnbs (1,000 nights). He’s the author of three books, Airbnb employee #700, Airbnb property manager, and Superhost. Danny has visited 34 countries and 57 cities. Follow his journey on Instagram.