Most of us have set procedures and routines for the days, weeks and months that we have been training. And odds are, many of you haven’t done much to change those routines, either. “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” right? If the routines you’ve been using the last few months work well, and you have been seeing results, why change things?
Here's why. Consider that the human body is an adaptive machine. That means, unfortunately, that the very fact that a routine has become second nature and comfortable is an indicator that your level of fitness is starting to drop, and with it, your hard-won results. But as much as we mourn the loss of fitness, we're equally likely to grieve over having to give up a beloved routine. This can literally bring with it a sense of sadness, of loss. No one really likes change; it’s uncomfortable. But, look— just because you must change, doesn’t mean that change needs to be drastic. There are minute ways that you can alter the favorite routines you’ve come to enjoy and still retain the body’s wonderful growth properties. These plateau busters are what many fighters use to make sure that negative changes in their game plan do not occur. Here are three simple suggestions.
One of the simpler and more popular ways to bust plateaus is with varying numbers of repetitions within a set. Changing rep ranges is a well-tested method to focus on anything from endurance to strength. Athletes often work in the rep range of four to six, which is typically used to increase strength because of the higher weight used in that range. But, for the last couple of months before a competition or event, they will switch to more repetitions (and thus lower weights) to give their muscles and joints a “rest” while beginning to train towards endurance.
A simple way to change your routine in a month’s time and still maintain your fitness progress is to add a repetition at the end of every set, but without varying exercises or weights, every consecutive week. For example: say you train doing six reps of pull-ups at the beginning of the month. The next week you do seven reps, and the week after that eight. Most often, athletes find the range at which they “stick” or past which they have trouble moving, and get stuck there. But if you're following a program, you will struggle to get past that range—which can lead to a break in your plateau.
Vary Speed of Repetitions
Another, less obvious approach is changing the speed at which you perform repetitions of a given exercise. In my experience, even experienced weight trainees tend to push, pull and lift their weights at the same speed regardless of the number of repetitions or the larger fitness goal. Sometimes busting a flat-lined path to our goals means simply taking a closer look at how fast we do both the concentric (contraction, or the motion towards a squeezing of the muscle) and eccentric (the motion away from the squeeze and towards the stretch of the muscle) phases of the exercise.
Typically when I lighten the load of a weight-bearing exercise so that a client can reassess their performance, I hear, “Aaaawww….!”. Of course, that quickly changes when I then explain they will need to perform said exercise with a repetition cadence of two seconds of contraction; one second squeeze/pause; four seconds return to resting position. (Four seconds is as long as it takes to count to six). It quickly becomes apparent, if their open-mouthed gasping and bugged-out eyes are any indication, that what they thought was going to be easy is in fact just the opposite.
Don’t believe me? Take a weight you could typically manage for 10 repetitions, while struggling to make the last rep, and lighten the load by 25 - 30 percent. Now, perform the cadence I stated above (two up; hold one; four down). If you are really hard-core, try with four seconds to contraction and six seconds to return. (In this case, please make sure you have a spotter). If you can perform more than six reps, the weight you had been using for ten standard reps was way too light.
Vary Number of Sets
Now I’ll talk about a favorite training practice of fighters universally. Fighters often want to increase their power and strength without making gains in body mass, gains that could upset the rest of their training or create problems given that these are athletes that will usually drop down in weight to fight. One way to accomplish this is to increase the set range that a fighter will perform with a particular exercise. If a fighter who has been performing a routine like my recent circuit can typically improve his power output and make additional strength gains by simply adding an extra set to his routine.
As an example: instead of stopping at three sets of each exercise in your circuit, tack on an additional (and very grueling) fourth set of all the exercises in the circuit. Sometimes athletes will do this for their entire macro-cycle (say, a month), or only for one week within that cycle. Either way, it can easily shock the system back into movement towards a goal. Understand that this can also easily make inroads to recovery, so it is best used when weight training is already shortened by the effects of training outside the weight room, such as mixed martial arts fight training, or when weight training has for a while been limited to one or two sets. For the more typical bodybuilding or weightlifting routines, adding a set works well when done with only one of the major muscle-group exercises in that day's program.
Any of these training principles can be used to varying degrees and even altered to plug into just about any routine you can dream up. They’re simple, which is exactly the point. Making a change is difficult enough without making that change complex in implementation, too. I’m sure many have heard of the KISS principle? Literally, it means "keep it simple, stupid." Instead of a critique, think of this as a form of mantra. Many times we over-complicate things. Making small, easily-noted and remembered changes more often than not creates just the right amount of adaptation for us to continue growing, without losing something we find comfort in. We all have many similar reasons for exercising, and making too big a change for the sake of progress can get in the way of that fire that fuels the workout.
Know the term “baby steps”? What an interesting way to phrase one of the most applicable strategies for making and cementing change in our lives. Everyone knows you have to walk before you run, right? Maybe a small change can lead to more easily-embraced bigger changes? I guess you’ll just have to try it to find out. As always, know yourself enough to be safe while you implement these changes, no egos please. Be a warrior, train smart and safely, and reap the rewards.
About James Parker: James Parker is a certified personal trainer, mixed martial artist, mixed martial arts conditioning coach, and freelance writer in Los Angeles, California.