Episode 331 – Breaking Through Your Infuriating Plateaus

Written by Jonathan

I like visiting other fitness websites and watching videos to see some of the different perspectives people have as it relates to fitness, strength training and weight loss. Maybe I’ll learn something new that I can apply to how I’m training or how I explain things to a client I’m working with, while doing one of these searches I came across this question that someone had asked on the fitness sub-reddit. I think it’s an issue that affects a lot of people and it would an interesting topic to cover.

Here’s the question:

I started hitting the gym back in September 2017, I was very weak back then so I started with 30 lbs overhead press and now have made very little progress, that is after 11 months I’ve reached 80 lbs now and the progress seems to have halted . What should I do ? M 19 Started at 140 lbs now after 11 months am 150 lbs Height – 175 cm

I think most people can relate to this in some way, where you start exercising and you feel week at first, but you stay relatively consistent, then over time you get stronger and stronger, but eventually you get to a point where you stop making progress or hit what I would call a plateau. The real question this person is asking is, What do I do when I plateau? In this case it’s about the shoulder press, but the same principles always apply regardless of the specific exercise you’re doing.

I think we’ve all heard this saying – What got you here, won’t get you there. This is especially true when it comes to strength training.

When most people start a strength training program, they start doing an exercise and they do that exercise over and over again, adding more and more weight and/or doing more and more repetitions to get stronger. If you’re untrained or not very strong this will always make you stronger at first and it’s where most people should start. The problem is that at some point this will stop working, depending on the person and how good their program is, it usually takes somewhere between 3 months and a year for this to happen. Which is the first thing you need to consider, having the proper expectations. This is going to happen, within this time frame. When you have the proper expectations, you know what to expect, when you know what to expect you will be less discouraged when it happens and it will be easier or you will be more accepting in realizing that you need to change something. The person asking this question increased his strength by about 2.5 times in the shoulder press. In my professional opinion that is a very substantial increase and is a very good start to building a solid base, but of course there are probably some things that could be improved.

Now, what are these ‘some things’ I’m talking about?

If I were working with this person or doing check-ins with them, the first thing I would look at is their form. Is it still good? Are they activating and overloading the correct muscles? Are they going through their full range of motion? In the case of the overhead press are they bringing the barbell all the way down to their chest and then lifting it straight to having locked out elbows above their head? If not, then we go back to the basics of the lift, if they are we go to the next part, are they activating and overloading the correct muscles, in the case of the overhead press are they feeling the muscles in the front top of their shoulders working and do the feel it in the middle to middle upper part of their back between their shoulder blades, this is where they should feel this exercise. Or, do they feel it in their upper traps and into their neck, if they feel it in the upper traps and neck, I would have them lighten the weight until they feel it in the correct spots and increase the number of reps they’re doing to retrain those muscles to fire properly again before increasing the weight, often beginners get a little overzealous and try to increase the weight faster than their body is capable of handling and they end up recruiting the incorrect muscles which makes you temporarily stronger in the moment, but leads to early plateaus and injury. If you’re recruiting the incorrect muscles it will show up in a couple of different ways, you will notice that you have to shorten your range of motion, in the overhead press this shows up as not bringing the bar all the way to your chest and in joint injuries in this case you may get upper trap and neck pain.

Once form is covered and looking good, I would look at the person’s overall training schedule, how much volume is this person doing on a given day, week and month? Is it enough to stimulate change is it too much and you’re not allowing yourself enough time to recover. If you’re trying to get stronger and you’re consistently exercising I find the 5 day split to be most effective for most people, where you train a movement for 4 to 8 sets during a workout, then take 4 days off, then on the 5th day hit that movement again. There are some nuances here, because it depends on the number of reps, if you’re going to failure, are you already following a 5 day split, maybe 3 weeks of 3 day splits, with a 4th week of recovery is what you need, are you doing high reps with lower weight or lower reps with higher weight? The truth is it doesn’t matter that much, what matters is you look at what you’re currently doing, then change it and use trial and error to figure out what works for you, everyone’s a little bit different. If you’re not sure how this would apply to your situation then finding a good coach can be really beneficial or just experiment on yourself. In most of these cases the problem is either not enough volume which is the amount of overall lifting you’re doing or not going to true failure often enough.

For most people I like true failure to happen in the 4 to 8 rep range, using a spotter to help you just that little bit, or just enough that it allows you to do an exercise through your full range of motion on your last one or two reps. This needs to happen for at least 2 sets preferably 3 or 4 sets of a given movement during a workout, for 3 to 6 weeks then you will need a week of none failure/recovery work. I like this to happen in the 4 to 8 rep range because it’s enough weight your muscles really have to work, but it’s not too much that you will recruit the incorrect muscles within the first 3 reps. Of course the more advanced and technically sound you get the lower the number of reps can be. You can also look at your tempo, you might want to practice lifting slowly on the way down and explosively on the way up, or shortening the rest you take between sets, this will make you weaker during that workout, but usually helps you gain strength for subsequent workouts, because you’re stimulating the muscles a bit differently by not giving them enough rest. Again you have to go back to trial and error to see what works for you. I wish there was a formula and a way that you should do something to guarantee results, but there isn’t a set way, everyone needs to take a slightly different path.

Once we know your form is good and you’ve started using trial and error to change up your sets, your reps, the amount of rest you take or the split days you follow and everything is top shelf there, then we look at the support and secondary exercises you’re doing. To be fair I would probably do this simultaneously when reviewing the type of program a person is following from the very beginning, but I want to tackle one thing at a time here, anyways. In the case of the overhead press, are you doing shoulder mobility exercises, to make sure you have a good range of motion, are you doing rotator cuff and scapular stabilization or shoulder blade stabilization exercises to make sure the shoulder girdle is well supported with the secondary muscles you’re using? This is very important if you’re trying to get stronger at any exercise, the secondary and support muscles used during an exercise need to be strengthened as well. Overhead press secondary exercises to increase strength and practice movement patterns would be things like shoulder blade retractions, external shoulder rotation exercises, shrugs. For mobility the snow angels, wall slides and behind the back band pull would all be good exercises, I will put a link in the show notes giving you a dozen or so good support exercises you could do for your shoulders, if you’re trying to get better at the overhead press.

You will probably also want to add in other overhead pressing exercises to target your muscles a little bit differently like dumbbell overhead press and pike push-ups, just hitting your muscles in a slightly different way can make a huge difference in how strong you are.

The last thing I would look at is how close is this person to reaching their potential based roughly on their size. The unfortunate truth of the situation is that based on your current body size and genetic predispositions or bone structure can affect how much you lift. People with shorter arms have a mechanical advantage when it comes to pressing exercises like the shoulder press and bench press, people with long femurs tend to be naturally better at squatting, if you weigh 150lbs. there’s a good chance your peak strength is going to be lower than the peak strength of someone who weighs 200 lbs. I mean there’s a reason the strongest men in the world weigh 400 lbs. If they didn’t no matter how hard they worked there’s no way they could ever get strong enough to be competitive. If you weigh 150 lbs. Like the person asking this question the maximum they will be able to shoulder press with good form is likely around their body weight for a 1 rep maximum, I’m just basing this on experience, but for men that’s roughly where it would fall, for women it’s probably about half that, maybe a bit more. If you’re doing everything more or less perfectly, but you’re not willing to eat more food to gain more weight you will be capped at a lower weight for how much you can lift and the question you ask yourself will likely have to be something to the effect of, is getting bigger and stronger what’s important to me, or do I just want to maintain my current strength, because I’m strong enough? There’s no ‘right answer’, but it is one that anyone who exercises will have to ask themselves at some point.

I realize that was a long winded answer to what appears to be a really straightforward question, but these are all things I would look at when trying to help someone break through a plateau and in this case it happened to be the overhead press.

If you’ve hit a plateau or if you want to minimize your plateaus going forward, following these steps when you’re looking at your program is really important.

Is my form on point and am I able to activate and overload the correct muscles?
Am I using trial and error to change up my exercise program to stimulate my muscles in new and challenging ways?
Am I doing the proper secondary and support exercises to make sure my joints are properly supported?
Am I doing other exercises that are a similar movements, but use different equipment or no equipment allowing me to stimulate the muscles at different angles and different intensities?

If you ask yourself those questions and follow those steps, you’ll be able to minimize your plateaus, continually get stronger and reach your maximum strength potential.



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