It baffles my mind that there are still trainees out there who think that every time you enter the gym you will be able to hit PRs and lift heavier weights than in the previous session. Anybody who has trained seriously for a number of years has probably hit some kind of strength plateau at one point and knows that strength gains can be very tedious to come by. Rather than getting frustrated with this inevitable lack of short-term progress, I want to stress the importance of pursuing your strength goals for the long run. Slow & steady will always win.
Knowing that significant progress from session to session is unrealistic and physiologically impossible, how is it possible to know whether you’re still progressing in the long-term? Besides using more weight, what methods can you employ to still see small steps of progress in each session?
Getting More Work Done
If I feel like my strength progress has stalled for a few weeks, I like to focus my efforts on the basic concept of increasing the work capacity of my body. The idea being that by letting your body perform just a little more work than in the previous session, slowly but steadily the body will adapt and become more efficient at handling the work to lift the weights. Below is a list of methods that I found to be effective at increasing my work capacity:
1) One method of getting more work done without burning out is to hit repetition PRs. So, for example on the incline barbell press: if you hit 80 kg for 5 reps and hit that same weight for 8 reps three weeks later – guess what, you have just increased your work capacity. You achieved this by not adding more weight to the bar but simply by being consistent and patient and by not letting your ego influence this principle.
2) An increase of your work capacity can also become apparent in the speed you move the weight at. Let’s take our 80 kg incline press from above and assume that the 5 reps felt heavy and you had to grind them real hard. Again, rather than slapping more weight onto the bar and thereby surrendering to your ego, you could stay with the 80 kg for a few weeks and try to increase the speed of each rep. So, you may still hit 80 kg for 5 reps after three weeks but if the bar moves considerably faster than before – you have just increased your work capacity.
3) Another effective method is to decrease the rest periods in between sets. Let’s assume you do a 5×5 scheme (5 sets of 5 reps) on the incline press with a rest period of 2 min in between sets. If you can cut your rest periods down to 1 min and still hit the same weight for 5 reps in each set, you have effectively increased your work capacity. Your system has adapted and become more efficient at lifting that weight while not requiring 2 min rest. At that point, it would make sense to add more weight to the bar.
4) Another tool for ramping up your work output is to use different equipment. The best example I can give is doing pullups on gymnastics rings as opposed to a rigid straight bar. Nothing wrong with doing pullups on a straight bar, but ring pullups are so much harder for anybody who is not used to the movement of the rings. If you do ring pullups for a few months and go back to the straight bar, you will most definitely hit more reps than ever before. Your body had to work harder on the rings for some time but it eventually adapted.
This led to an increase of your work capacity. You could also use a fat barbell (or Fat Gripz) for a while. You will have become considerably stronger when switching back to a barbell with the regular diameter.
The idea of increasing your work capacity can also be seen in the light of increasing your overall workout volume. Volume with heavy weights is arguably the most optimal method for muscle growth. Most bodybuilders do it. However, always keeping in mind that You Don’t Grow in the Gym is paramount.
Why Going to Failure Isn’t Necessary
When I first started working out seriously in Jan 2012, I started out with High Intensity Training (HIT). The core principle of this HIT is to take one set to positive muscle failure instead of performing multiple sets for each muscle group. I followed HIT philosophy almost religiously by never doing more than was necessary. HIT worked well for me for 8 months and it definitely made me stronger with considerable gains.
However, I believe that any workout protocol you put a newbie lifter on will make him grow. So, for me this happened to be HIT but I probably would have grown just as fine on a classic push, pull, legs split or any protocol for that matter.
I mention my experience with HIT because I think that using it to increase your work capacity can be counterproductive. Work capacity is not built by briefly doing one exercise at maximum intensity. Work capacity is built with repetitive exposure to this exercise while staying relatively fresh by not going to failure.
Let me give you this real-world example I have experienced over and over again: have you ever shook the hand of a manual workers (carpenter, bricklayer, mechanic) ? Do you think that their steel grip and massive forearms were built by moving stones or equipment to failure for one set once a week?
Of course not! Their strength and size was built through years of daily exposure in their job. If you want to grow and get stronger, I honestly think that it’s not necessary to take your body to failure. Leaving a few reps in the tank will still make you stronger because you previously made small incremental changes to your work capacity.
If your gains have stalled, try one of the above methods to make your body perform a little more work during each workout. Eventually, after a few months of not going to failure, you will reap the benefits of your accumulated work capacity and smash through your plateaus.