The introduction to why getting strong is hard began with the idea that the beginning of the journey toward strength is easy. No matter what you do, you will almost certainly get good results, which leads to internalising incorrect conclusions. You only get to be a novice once. By the time you become an intermediate lifter you will experience many occasions where the rule determining your progression is unmet.
For example, say you need to lift a certain weight successfully 10 times in a set to raise the amount you lift next time by 5%. Your progressive training will come with a series of rules which determines what you should lift next time. The purpose of progressive training is to get stronger by progressing the weight lifted i.e. we expect that the majority of the time we will meet the conditions to progress and lift heavier weights. But this doesn’t always happen; consider only lifting our target weight 9 times in the key set. The rules will tell us what to do next time.
Generally speaking if there’s a near miss (and 9 is 90% of the way to 10) then we usually try again at the same weight. Missing by more may mean using the technique of “de-loading” i.e. dropping the target weight by up to 10% where we’ve previously been successful, and working our way back to the higher target weight again with the expectation that we’ll be successful next time. There are other techniques that help ensure we’re constantly pushing ourselves to make faster progression, one of which is called AMRAP, ‘as many repetitions as possible’. When exercising you will have a target number of reps you want to hit, but if your body is able to go beyond it, do so. Lift 11, or even 12 reps if you can.
De-loading and AMRAP, and more importantly patience, will see you progress again after temporary pauses. There are times though when you reach a ceiling you cannot progress beyond ― you follow the rules of your training system but enter a cycle where the target weight eludes you despite trying for several weeks. This is known as a plateau. For a progressive lifter, a plateau is a troubling problem. You are spending time, expense, pain and sweat merely to maintain a level of fitness; you want these efforts to give you increased abilities. What is going wrong then?
Some lifters recommend “mixing it up a little, try different workouts, shock the body”. Opinion is divided on this approach. Again, if you reach a plateau perform your own research, but making large changes throws out the opportunity to make a scientific comparison because you change too many variables. If the rules around your progressive training are sound, there may be many other reasons for the plateau. They are literally the lessons learned over the previous chapters:
- are you getting enough rest, sleep, water, food? The right kind of protein to repair muscle; carbohydrates to fuel your workout; minerals and vitamins to heal the body?
- are you focusing on the workout sufficiently? Getting your mind and body into the right state of preparedness?
- are you exercising at an appropriate cadence? Not too frequently or infrequently?
- were your previous lifts counted with poor technique? Is your current target a fiction that needs to be recalibrated to how much you can lift correctly?
- are you trying to maximise one specific lift at the expense of others? Are the ratios of your abilities further out than they should be?
Be skeptical and question yourself harshly. If the source of the plateau cannot be determined, research just how well you’re lifting compared to the average lifter. Novices can generally repeat their workouts over a short period of time, and intermediate lifters may have longer cycles. By the time you become an expert, your training routine might be complex and take several weeks to hit a new target weight. Reaching this stage should have hopefully seen you read many more books on the subject of fitness, and talked to countless more lifters.
Before coming too despondant though, consider that experiencing a plateau is generally a nice problem to have because it means that you’re no longer a novice. Reflect on how far you have come in either your lifting or understanding of lifting; both are achievements to be celebrated. It is here where I must leave you, there is nothing more I know that I can teach.