Plateaus come for everyone. As nice of a thought as it is that we can outsmart our body at every step of the way and keep riding the gain train all the way to the world stage, long term growth is anything but linear. Even if you aren’t trying to become the next goat, recreational lifters still have to be vigilante if they want something to show for their hours of ‘personal time’ in the garage.
I can get into the ins and outs of programming (which I will eventually) to explain why stagnation happens and what to do about it, but many early lifters have much simpler explanations as to why they can’t put more weight on the bar. These are the 5 things you need to address before you go shopping for a different coach or a new program.
Not Training Consistently
Whether you commit to a 2-day per week minimalist program or a 5 days per week bodybuilding split, growth won’t happen if the work is sporadic. Training works because an increase in environmental stresses sparks an adaptive response, the same way your skin gets calloused when it’s repeatedly worn. Once the stress is removed, things slide back down to normal.
There are a ton of potential splits that can fit your goals and lifestyle, so don’t think that there is no point in even trying unless you can live in the gym. Whatever base line of work you commit to, it just has to have a consistent presence in your week.
I know that having a mildly stressful work day or an imperfect mood can make skipping the gym this one time seem like a justified move. When that impulse strikes, count the number of things that you would prioritize if they resulted in immediate gratification. If gym time continuously goes on the back burner because it’s inconvenient, you have to concede at some point that it just isn’t that important to you. No programming wizardry or veterinary hormones will make up for that.
Not Having a Plan
Early lifters (white belts, as I routinely refer to them) can get strong by accident. It happens all the time; overeager teenagers or newly single gym goers will see gains immediately, even though there is no logical thread that ties all of their training together. Something I saw on IG one day, a Men’s Health workout another day, the start of a linear progression another day…. it seems that effort and consistency make up for a lot in this stage.
But stagnation eventually comes and a plan is required if you want all of your efforts to materialize in some tangible progress. Even if you are currently in the “I can increase strength by taking the stairs and playing with my dog” phase of training, following a rudimentary plan will teach you how to keep track of your efforts, think in terms of the program as a whole instead of individual workouts and help you get a feel for different organizations of training and how they effect the outcome. This will give you a massive head start when you do slip into the intermediate stage of training where strict adherence to a plan is the only way you will continue to grow.
High Stress/ Low Recovery
Crazy work hours, manual labor, poor sleep, high anxiety and inconsistent diet can rob you of progress. Life has to come first and sometimes the circumstances aren’t going to be perfect for meeting your gym goals. However, that doesn’t mean that you are helpless.
Make sure your caloric intake is consistent. This is the one you bear the most responsibility for since food is the most abundant resource available in the first world. If you have to get up early to meal prep, do that.
Do everything in your power to get a minimum amount of sleep. Medical professionals and night shifters will have a struggle here, but skip funner activities if it means you can catch up on sleep.
Save the heaviest workouts for when you are fresh; it’s better to run your deadlift workout on a Sunday than after a 10 hour landscaping shift.
As programming advances for stronger lifters, you will find that most of the decisions are simply based around recovery ability. Connect with the minimum environment your body needs to grow and you will have a ton more insight down the road.
Low Effort/Pain Tolerance
Going from a sedentary lifestyle to physically demanding strength training is a hard adjustment. Some former athletes (and natural maniacs) adjust to the physical pain just fine, even thriving off of it. A lot of new lifters, however, have to go through a certain trial by fire before they acclimate to the heat. First workouts are horrible; those who considered themselves capable are quickly humbled when burning limbs and crippling nausea take their will to do another set. This does get better over time but only if effort levels are consistently high. The hesitation that comes with fear of work keeps the load light, the workouts short and the stress low until your workouts aren’t any more demanding than walking your dog. Remember that strength won’t come unless you force your body to do things it isn’t used to; that can only be done by tempering your mind to last through hard efforts.
Frequently Changing Goals
This is one of the most common hindrances to consistent progress with the white belts. There are a lot of things to blame here; lack of any hierarchy of authority (note my use of ‘white belts’), an industry saturated with gimmicks, attention dominated by IG antics, the list goes on. The result is that individual lifters float around without anything to tether them to the ground. Since the world is now solely oriented by click-driven advertising dollars, you can guarantee that outside companies will be doing everything they can to steal your attention away from whoever had it before.
What you need to know is that shiny object syndrome is the quickest way to spend a lot of time, money and effort going absolutely no where. Your impulse will be to give into the recency effect, which happens when your decisions are influenced by the most recent thing you were exposed to. There’s a time to experiment and try new things and that’s fine; if you find something isn’t for you then move on. But strength won’t come if every month is dominated by a new obsession. Once you determine that a goal is important to you, commit to it.