You’re eight years into your training life, and even though you’re stronger than you were eight years ago, progress these days feels few and far between.
Gone are the days where you show up hungover and hit an accidental 30-pound back squat PR like you did in your first year of consistent strength training…
On the one hand, plateaus are natural and part of the process of training, but on the other hand, if you’re following a great strength program that caters to your individuality, you should be largely able to push through those unwanted plateaus.
Before we get into how to do this, however, let’s talk about two concepts:
The Strength Life Cycle
THE STRENGTH LIFE CYCLE
The concept of the strength lifecycle effectively breaks athletes into five categories: novice, intermediate, advanced, master and grand master.
In short, the novice athlete is someone with 0 to two years of training experience, while the intermediate athlete has more than five years of experience and the advanced athlete has been strength training for a number of years. The master athlete, on the other hand, is someone in their mid-30s or 40s with 15 years of training experience, while the grand master is an older athlete, let’s say in their 60s, simply looking to stay fit and healthy for life.
As a coach, in order to create an effective strength program for an athlete, you must first and foremost consider which category the athlete falls into.
Because the type of program that’s right for the individual will largely depend on their training age and their actual age.
A novice athlete’s strength program should focus largely on motor control and on full body movements at higher repetitions.
An intermediate athlete’s strength program will likely include moderate repetitions at slightly higher loads and will also focus on building muscular endurance.
An advanced athlete’s training program will start getting into higher loads and lower repetitions still, and will focus somewhat on maximum contractions.
A master athlete’s training program will be more about maintaining strength and will look similar to an intermediate program, with a focus on moderate repetitions and moderate loads.
A grand master athlete’s training program will look more like that of a novice, with the focus being on maintenance and longevity through low loads, higher reps and preserving movements.
This concept breaks training into three distinct stages: learn, grow and express.
The learn phase involves slow contractions and is all about lower loads, high quality and motor control (aka the novice and the grand master will spend their time here)
The grow phase is about higher reps, moderate speed, hypertrophy-style training and “getting your pump on” (the intermediate will spend a lot of time here)
The express phase involved heavier loads and lower reps. It’s hard on the nervous system and requires a lot of time for recovery (only the advanced athlete should spend much time here)
With those concepts in mind, let’s consider:
FOUR WAYS TO AVOID A PLATEAU IN STRENGTH DEVELOPMENT
1. Not Ready to Be Strong
The biggest mistake both athletes and coaches make is pushing clients too soon to a place they’re not ready for. In other words, it means you’re not honoring the natural strength lifecycle.
In short, it takes time and hours of training to earn the right to move from being a novice athlete performing higher reps and lower loads to an intermediate athlete to an advanced athlete.
Thus, pushing heavy threes and singles on a novice or intermediate athlete too soon can often backfire and cause a plateau. This athlete is still in the learn phase and needs to spend the requisite time in the gym earning their right to lift heavier and get stronger.
2. Not Honoring Physiology
This largely comes down to what’s happening in the 23 hours you or your client isn’t at the gym.
At OPEX, we refer to this as the BLGs—basic lifestyle guidelines. In other words, how is your nutrition? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you drinking enough water? Are you stressed out?
The bottom line is your central nervous system needs to recover in order to make strength gains, so if you’re stressed out because you’re going through a divorce, or your nutrition has fallen to the wayside, this could be affecting your performance in the gym more than you think.
This is where a lot of coaches fall short: Sleep, stress, nutrition etc isn’t talked about much when we’re trying to come up with the best strength program to maximize strength gains, but this needs to be discussed, especially if a client is plateau-ing.
3. Doing Too Much
I need to get my pump on and train for hypertrophy. And I need to get the volume and intensity in. And I need to go heavy. I need to squat every day. I need to do it all!
This way of thinking is a common one that leads to athletes doing too much, or coaches programming too much for their athletes.
The bottom line: It’s counter productive to be in both an accumulation phase and an intensification phase at the same time, and can cause a plateau.
When it comes to strength training, sometimes less is more. Getting as strong as possible for as long as possible doesn’t require doing it all. And it doesn’t mean you need to be sore and wrecked all the time.
As OPEX CEO Carl Hardwick put it: When you’re following an effective strength “your muscles should feel absolutely fine.”
Note: The less is more approach applies not just to an individual training day, but also to a training week or a training cycle.
The ultimate take home: If the goal is to be as strong as possible for as long as possible, you do not need to squat every day to improve your squat.
4. Doing the Wrong Program
This comes down to failing to honor the individual.
This is where getting a coach can be valuable, as the coach can troubleshoot with you to figure out what’s working and what’s not working.
Is it the program that’s not working, or is it a lifestyle issue?
While there are a ton of good templated strength programs out there, a template or an AI can’t dig into what is truly going on in your life that might be leading to a plateau.
What did your sleep look like last week? You got fired from your job? How is that affecting your stress?
“A isn’t asking that stuff,” Hardwick explained.
A coach, on the other hand, who knows you and your goals, priorities and lifestyle, can receive your feedback—My performance has been suffering for the last four weeks—and work with you to tweak your program to get you back on track and off the plateau.
Final thought: There’s beauty in simplicity. Your goal as a coach should always be to find ways to get the best results with the simplest prescriptions.
What is the simplest thing I can do and still get my clients results?
That’s the true coaching master: The one who can use simple methods to get good, sustainable results.
LEARN HOW TO WRITE TRAINING PROGRAMS THAT GET RESULTS
As a fitness coach, you’ll be met with clients with different capabilities and a wide variety of goals—not only strength. It’s your job to deliver them a program that meets them where they are at and gets them the results they desire.
This may sound daunting, but with a knowledge of fitness principles and a system to deliver them, it doesn’t have to be.
In our Free Coaching Course, you’ll be introduced to our comprehensive system of coaching: the OPEX Method.
Start now and see how to personalize both strength and energy systems training, as well as prescribe nutrition and lifestyle program design.
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