How to Break a Plateau

by Dr. Jacob Wilson, Ph.D., CSCS*D

July 17, 2017
exercise-variation-hypertrophy

Introduction


We have all gone through periods during your training journey where you felt that you couldn’t make gains. You may feel that you’re not getting any bigger or stronger. This can take a toll on your individual mentally. This plateau will often lead to an individual training heavier or longer. In fact, that’s the first thing we do. If our bench press is stalled we do more sets. If your squat isn’t going up, we increase the load. But is this the best strategy?

types-of-muscle-contractions

A common theme found when someone is stuck in a rut is that they are not providing enough variety in their workouts, rather they are just completing the same exercise routine repeatedly. The only changes that you may make are adding more sets and more reps. I am here to tell you that changing up the exercises or the way that you perform an exercise may be a better alternative than increasing exercise intensity or volume!

There are many ways that you can switch up your training routine to maximize hypertrophy. This includes changing up exercise selection, type of contraction, the speed of the contraction, or your range of motion. You can also implement training variables such as Blood Flow Restriction Training (BFR) to maximize gains.

Changes in Exercise Variation


changes-in-hypertrophy

In 2014, we completed a study that was conducted on 49 healthy young males looking at the effects of varying exercise intensity and exercise selection on hypertrophy (muscle growth). Subjects were divided into groups which varied exercises or varied the intensity. The part of the study I am addressing is the comparison between people who increased the volume and load with one exercise versus another group that increased volume with new exercises. Below is an overview of the study!

Results showed that all groups that trained saw increases in the size of their quadriceps; however, there is more to the results than meets the eye! Only the groups that changed their exercises saw an increase in the size of ALL the quadriceps muscles, while the other groups failed to grow in all areas of the quadriceps! Additionally, it is interesting to note that the group that saw the greatest increase in strength was the group that only changed their exercise selection!

Contraction Type


There are three primary types of muscle contractions including concentric, eccentric, or isometric. Concentric contractions are when the muscle is shortening and eccentric contractions are when the muscle is lengthening (Mayhew et al., 1995). However, isometric contractions are slightly different because the muscle is not moving, but the muscle is contracted. What is interesting about isometric contractions is that they cause a restriction in venous blood flow, therefore blood can enter the muscle, but no blood can leave. This causes a buildup of metabolic by-products in the muscle, which we know that can lead to hypertrophy!

Fast vs Slow Contractions


slow-muscle-contractions

What about slowing down your contraction? Many advocate to slow down the concentric or eccentric portion of the lift because it is claimed to cause muscle growth. However, that is not the case. Research shows that slowing down a contraction leads to less muscle growth than performing the repetition fast (Shepstone et al., 2005). This is because when you slow down the contraction you lose tension in the muscle. This loss of tension causes less hypertrophy than performing the rep fast. Therefore, on the eccentric portion of a lift, do not slow a rep down because you want to maximize gains. Use a fast, but controlled, speed.

Conclusions


Research shows that varying exercise selection may be more important for muscle growth than changing exercise intensity. Put this information to good work by switching things up to push past your plateaus and continue to grow! So how can you do this if all you like to do is squat and bench? Well, realize that there are multiple variations of each. For example, you can squat using a high bar, low bar, wide and close stance. You can also squat with free weights, machines, or by adding bands or chains to the bar. You can also switch up the type of contractions that you are performing and optimize the eccentric portion of a lift by performing it fast, but controlled.

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