How to Break Through Strength Training Plateaus

Strength training programs require constant adjustment in order to challenge muscles and sustain growth. If you keep with the same program day in and day out, you will invariably find yourself hitting a plateau where muscle growth has all but stopped.


If you are new to strength training, you will usually find yourself getting stronger relatively quickly. However, after six months or so, your body will adapt to the volume and intensity of your workout. In short, it will no longer be challenged by the routine and will consider it your "new normal."

In order to reset the baseline, you need to do more than just increase your weights or the number of reps; you need to challenge your body in whole new ways. By doing so, muscle growth can start anew, providing you the emotional incentive to carry on.

If you are exercising diligently but not making the gains you'd like, here are 6 tried-and-true techniques that can help:


Increase Your Training Intensity

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One of the easiest ways to overcome a plateau is to make your muscles work harder rather than longer. To break out of a rut, aim for a program with high weight and low reps rather than one with low weight and high reps.

If you have been doing three sets of 10 to 12 reps, decrease to three sets of 6 to 8 reps with a heavier weight. Ultimately, the "right" weight for your training level should be challenging but not undermine your form. If you are able to maintain proper form but start to struggle by the end of a set, the weight is pretty spot-on. By the end of the third set, you may even need help from a spotter.

If you are doing lunges or an abs workout, challenge yourself by carrying weights rather than increasing the reps. Let the intensity of an exercise challenge your muscles rather than the volume of exercise you do.

Always lift weights in a slow and controlled manner. Bouncing or swinging the weight does little to build strength and may end up causing injury.


Vary Your Exercise Routine

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You'd be surprised how quickly a muscle group adapts to a specific exercise. While varying the intensity of an exercise can help overcome a plateau, varying your exercise routine is just as important.

A 2014 study from the University of Tampa reported that a 12-week course of varied exercises was far more effective in building muscle than maintaining the same exercise routine throughout.

According to the research, varied exercises involving the quadriceps translated to increases of between 11.6% to 12.2% in muscle mass, while constant exercises achieved gains of as little as 9.3%.

Varying your program or incorporating cross-training into a workout plan can stimulate your body in whole new ways.

If you always use machines, try free weights or a stability ball instead. If you use a bench press for chest exercises, try doing pushups. Changing things up keeps your program fresh and recruits an entirely different set of muscles.


Change the Order of Exercises

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 Another way to overcome a plateau is to change the sequence of exercises you normally do. For example, if you do the same biceps exercises in the same order, your muscles will fatigue in the same way every time.

By switching the order of exercises, your muscles will fatigue in a different way.

In some cases, you may find it more difficult to get to the end of a workout if you start with an easier exercise and end with the harder one. Most gym-goers do just the opposite, getting the harder exercises out of the way first and leaving the easiest for the end.


Stop Exercises You've Outgrown

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There may be exercises in your routine that you've outgrown or have become redundant as you've expanded your workout.

For example, if you've been doing toe raises to build your calves, the growth potential is limited, even with weights. (After all, there is only so much weight you can carry). To reignite muscle growth, you would be better served to do toe presses on a leg press, which can carry far more weight.

Take a critical eye to your current routine, replacing outdated exercises with ones more appropriate to your training level.

Look for redundancies (such as doing chest flies on both cables and a bench) and switch things up to target a muscle group in different ways.

You might also consider scheduling a session or two with a personal trainer who can look at your current program and recommend changes. However experienced you may be, a fresh set of eyes always helps.


Get More Rest

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If you train too hard for too long, you will undoubtedly hit a plateau. Adequate rest and recovery are essential for growth.

If you have fallen into a rut, physically or emotionally, take a few days off to recharge your batteries. Don't worry about losing muscle mass or strength; you won't. It is far better to rest than to push through and risk injury or burnout.

Overtraining can take back many of the gains you've made by placing your body under constant stress with little time to repair.

By working out too much, you reduce your capacity to exercise, fatigue quicker, and risk insomnia, stress, and loss of appetite. Sometimes, taking your foot off the accelerator is the best way to move forward.


Improve Your Nutrition

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Proper nutrition will help your muscles grow and fuel your workouts. If you don't get the carbohydrates, protein, fats, and nutrients you need, you could very well undermine your training efforts no matter how hard you work.

Carbohydrates are the body's primary source of fuel and should not be avoided if you want to build muscles. Although low-carb diets have their benefits, cutting out too many can reduce your exercise capacity and leave you fatigued.

Make sure you are getting enough protein. It is a very important part of muscle growth, maintenance, and recovery. Its benefits max out at 2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day—but many people do not hit that target.

If you don't feel the vigor needed to power a workout, speak with your doctor or a qualified nutritionist. Oftentimes, a change in the balance of your diet can set your right and help you overcome any short-term plateaus in your training.

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8 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cotter S. Kettlebell Training. Human Kinetics. 2013.

  2. National Academy of Sports Medicine. Bust through training plateaus (and boredom) with these programming swaps. March 2016.

  3. Fonseca RM, Roschel H, Tricoli V, et al. Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2014;28(11):3085-92.  doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000000539

  4. International Sports Sciences Association. Breaking through those workout plateaus.

  5. American Council on Exercise. Find an ACE pro.

  6. American Council on Exercise. Overtraining: 9 signs of overtraining to look out for. June 2017.

  7. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. How to fuel your workout. July 2018.

  8. American Council on Exercise. 9 things to know about how the body uses protein to repair muscle tissue. March 2018.

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