Those first couple months of pumping iron, you feel unstoppable. Whether you’re looking to build muscle or torch fat, an untested body reacts rapidly to the slightest exertion. But next thing you know, you’re pulling a Wile E. Coyote: hitting a wall as your progress flatlines.
And it can be just that frustrating — the definition of plateauing is not unlike that of insanity: “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” says Vince DelMonte, a Toronto-based trainer and fitness model. “The problem is your body’s already adapted to your workout routine. It needs a new challenge to grow from.” DelMonte would know. Before he reached his current physique — the man’s a dead ringer for Superman — he was an Urkel-esque beanpole. By making smart adjustments, he managed to smash through every plateau he inevitably reached. Here’s how you can do the same.
Give your workout an expiry date
“Never follow the same program for more than six weeks,” says DelMonte. “That’s the usual length of time it takes the average guy to adapt to a workout.” Once that happens, switch things up. If you’ve spent the past six weeks training for size (high reps, low weight), spend the next six training for strength (low reps, high weight). Your muscles will need to adapt to keep up with the changes.
Do more — slowly
“A lot of guys try changing too much at once,” says DelMonte. “Then the body doesn’t know what the hell to adapt to.” The truth is, adding too much weight too fast disrupts your muscles’ adaptation process, which should be gradual. A shrink might call it baby steps, but we prefer the cooler technical term: micro-progressions. “If you do two sets in week one, do three sets in week two, four sets in week three and so on. Then, on the final week, reduce it back to two sets but increase the weight.”
Tweak your diet accordingly
If you’re plateauing, your first instinct might be to bulk up. But it depends. “If you have over 12 per cent body fat” — or can pinch more than an inch of flab on your lower abdomen — “there’s no point adding more calories,” says DelMonte. “You’re at a hormonal disadvantage: the fatter you are, the less testosterone you produce, the less able your body is to store carbohydrates in your muscles.” Get lean first. Only then will you be in optimal shape to use extra calories (read: cheat meals) for muscle growth.
Do a Hulk-worthy set
Try doing three exercises for the same body part, back-to-back-to-back, in one gargantuan set. This will trigger both muscle fibres responsible for growth. For instance, do a back squat for six reps, then a hack squat for 12 reps, followed by a leg extension for 25 reps. “You’ll exhaust your fast-twitch muscle fibres first, so that during the final reps, your slow-twitch fibres — which typically go untrained — will be forcibly recruited.”
Haul ass, then do nothing
“Building a physique is like digging a ditch,” says DelMonte. Weird analogy, yes, but hear him out: “If you spend four weeks pounding your body, you’re actually making yourself weaker and skinnier in that period. You won’t see the benefits until you fill that hole back up with dirt — the dirt being food and rest.” Recovery is just a vital as training to achieving results. So for every 12 weeks in the gym, take a week off. Don’t worry — you’ll manage.