6 Ways to Get Past a Weightlifting Plateau

What causes a strength training plateau and how to break through it

Strength training programs require constant adjustment to challenge muscles and sustain growth. If you keep doing the same program day in and day out, you will invariably hit a plateau where muscle growth has stopped.

What Is a Weightlifting Plateau?

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

At this point, you may have hit a weightlifting plateau, which means you seem unable to progress even if you increase the weight lifted or the number of repetitions you do with a particular weight.

Why Weightlifting Plateaus Occur

Weightlifting plateaus occur because your body has made adaptations to your exercise. This is a good thing, because it means you've already made progress. To continue seeing results you need to make further adjustments to your training.

Plateaus can occur because you haven't been providing enough challenge to your muscles, you aren't performing the exercises with correct form, or you aren't properly recovering from your previous workout sessions.

Another reason could be that you are not pushing yourself enough. But it's important to know the difference between not working hard enough and needing to recover instead.

A weightlifting plateau will last until you make the necessary changes to overcome it. How long this takes depends on your fitness level and training program, as well as your nutrition and recovery habits.

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, for example, decrease to three sets of 6 to 8 reps with a heavier weight. The right weight should be challenging but not undermine your form.

If you can maintain proper form but start to struggle by the end of a set, that's a good sign that you've chosen the right weight. 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 training 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, changing 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 about 9.3%.

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

Try free weights or a stability ball if you always use machines. If you use a bench press for chest exercises, try doing push-ups. 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 usually 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 challenging 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 more strenuous 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 there may be some that 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, 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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You will undoubtedly hit a plateau if you train too hard for too long. Adequate rest and recovery are essential for growth.

If you have fallen into a rut, physically or emotionally, you may wish to 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 push through and risk injury or burnout.

One smart way to avoid overtraining and burnout is to program de-loads into your weight training routine. These are intentional breaks, usually lasting a week, where you back off the volume, intensity, weight, or all of these factors.

Working out too much reduces your capacity for exercise, fatigues you more quickly, and increases the risk of insomnia, stress, and loss of appetite. Sometimes, taking your foot off the accelerator is the best way to move forward.

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


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 undermine your training efforts no matter how hard you work.

Carbohydrates are the body's primary fuel source and should not be avoided if you want to build muscles. Although low-carb diets may benefit some people, cutting out too many carbs can reduce your exercise capacity and leave you exhausted.

Make sure you are getting enough protein. It is an essential part of muscle growth, maintenance, and recovery. Its benefits max out at 2 grams per kilogram of body weight 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. Often, a change in the balance of your diet can help you overcome a weightlifting plateau.

A Word From Verywell

Weightlifting plateaus can be frustrating, but they are also very informative. Once you hit a plateau, you know you need to make changes. Passively waiting for a plateau to end will not likely work. Your body is letting you know you've reached your potential under the current training conditions and it's time for a change.

To prevent plateaus from occurring, plan out your program to include regular changes in intensity, volume, weight, and exercise variation. Be sure to de-load every few weeks and allow time for recovery. Before you know it, you'll be back on track making progress. If you're confused about how to make these adjustments, a personal trainer can help.

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.
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By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.