Q: I'm 19 years old and have been training for four years. While I've made steady progress, my gains have now ceased. I mean zero. I think I train properly and follow a good diet. My question is simple: How do I blast out of this rut?
A: Every bodybuilder sooner or later encounters the dreaded plateau, wherein he or she falls into a seemingly insurmountable training rut characterized by no gains. Since gains of some kind, whether in muscular definition or size, are a primary motivating factor in training, the bodybuilder's enthusiasm soon fades when stuck on a plateau. Without knowing how to deal with such ruts, some potentially great bodybuilders decide the sport is not for them and quit training.
A training plateau differs from training burnout, although symptoms of both often overlap. Burnout is more of a psychological problem, as you lose all desire to train. The most likely cause of burnout is overtraining. Burnout is best handled through either a short layoff or a careful evaluation of your training.
When you hit a plateau, you may still be mentally enthusiastic but your body just doesn't respond. You have to be realistic, however. While some experts say that you should make gains after every workout, this belief is more fantasy than reality. There will be days when you just can't push as hard because of low energy levels or other reasons. On such down days, it's probably best to consider what a top champion said a few years ago: "My bad workouts make me appreciate the good workouts."
THE BODY'S BALANCING ACT
The basic cause of a training plateau has to do with what's called homeostasis. This refers to the body's tendency to reach a certain level and remain there. Unless you push the body or apply controlled stress, the body won't change. This is the basis of the progressive-overload training system, wherein you add small increments of weight to coax a muscle into adapting to the new stress (weight) through increased growth.
Eventually, the body recognizes the new stress, adapts to it, and then nothing happens. Of course, if you stop training, your body will revert back to its natural structure. For example, if you started out thin, you'll again become thin if you remove the stimulus of regular exercise.
A misunderstanding of this concept causes some people to believe that muscles turn into fat if training ceases. Actually, fat and muscle are two distinct types of tissue; they cannot convert into each other. In the usual scenario, an athlete stops training, causing his muscles to atrophy or shrink. If he doesn't reduce his caloric intake, the excess calories will be stored as bodyfat. To the naked (and uninformed) eye, it may appear
as if his muscles have transmogrified into fat, but physiologically and biologically, that is impossible.
To overcome a training plateau, the first thing to consider is the volume of your training. Are you doing too much to permit adequate recovery? Unless you provide yourself with sufficient rest, you may easily slip into an over trained state exemplified by no gains. The solution is to reduce your training volume by cutting back on the number of sets and reps you do.
Another problem may involve training frequency. Most advanced bodybuilders find that as they get stronger, they paradoxically must train less. That explains why Dorian Yates trains each muscle group only once every six or seven days. The reason Yates continues to improve and stay ahead of his competition is because of his keen analytical sense of the correct amount of training needed to promote continuous gains in size and strength.
Another way to blast out of a plateau is to simply rearrange the sequence of your exercises. For example, let's say you usually begin your shoulder routine with some type of pressing exercise. Commencing your training with lateral raises may inject just enough variety to wake up complacent delts. You must consider, however, that by beginning with an isolation exercise (laterals), you'll lose some strength when you get to the presses later in the workout. This requires a downward adjustment in your pressing weight. Always be aware of any necessary new adjustments if you change your workout.
Even just switching the days you train your muscle groups can be effective. For example, if you usually train both biceps and triceps during a single training session, try working these two muscle groups on alternate days. Or you can use the popular "push-pull" split system, wherein you train pushing muscles (chest, shoulders, triceps) one day and pulling muscles (back, biceps) the next.
If you're used to doing straight sets, using a technique such as super-sets, trisets or giant sets may shock your body into new growth patterns. A superset involves training two opposing muscle groups, such as biceps and triceps, back-to-back with no rest. A triset involves three exercises done without rest between exercises; a giant set is four or more exercises done the same way.
Many bodybuilders, such as Yates and former Mr. Universe Mike Mentzer, advocate the "training to failure" system, involving minimum training volume coupled with maximum intensity. The basic belief of such training is that if you train a muscle to failure, you are training that muscle to its maximum. This, the theory states, promotes muscular growth in anyone regardless of genetic factors. Along with high intensity, the system also mandates allowing enough rest time for recovery to occur.
Simply changing the angle of an exercise can also kick start your gains. While this theory is controversial, most bodybuilding experts say that varying the angle of an exercise produces enough varied stress to involve different muscle fibers. If such fibers have previously remained dormant, the added stimulation will produce increased gains. An example of this is doing incline barbell presses instead of flat-bench presses.
If you've consistently utilized a repetition range of 8-12, try boosting your reps to 15-20. This technique is particularly effective with larger muscle areas such as legs and back. I once interviewed a bodybuilder who claimed to have added three inches to his calves after commencing a calf routine that averaged 60 reps per set. He correctly noted, however, that most people didn't have the pain tolerance for this type of training.
Try the periodization method of varying your weights, sets and reps at regular intervals throughout the year. This system of training evolved in order to prevent inevitable plateaus by never permitting the body to fully adapt to one particular training pattern.
In essence, the key to busting out of training ruts is adding some kind of variety into your training. The technique you choose is a matter of personal preference; they are all effective. So don't grouse about not making any gains. Make some changes in your training and you'll definitely see some progress in your physique.