Here's the scenario: You've been following one workout routine for weeks now-maybe even one of our awesome MF programs - and you've made great progress. But lately, something isn't right. You couldn't get all your reps on the bench press last week, so you had to lighten the weight. You don't look any bigger now than you did last month, and, perhaps worst of all, you're not even looking forward to going to the gym for your next session. You've done the same exercises so many times, they're just not fun anymore.
It's time to admit the inevitable: You've plateaued. Don't worry; it happens. But it can also leave you wondering, "Where do I go from here?" You know you need to change things up in your workouts to start making gains again, but where do you start? The good news is you don't have to start from scratch. In fact, abandoning a program you've been successful with for something very different can be counterproductive, causing you to lose the adaptations your body has already made. Instead, your best option is to take what's been working and tweak it, one step at a time. It's a process called "periodization," and strength coaches have used it for years to keep athletes making steady progress and avoiding plateaus. Read on, and we'll break down for you exactly how to keep your workouts alive-not forever, but for much longer periods-helping you adapt them to your evolving goals and needs.
Workout Extender #1:
Rearrange Your Reps
If you're like most guys, you're probably performing three to four sets of eight to 12 reps for each exercise, regardless of your goal. But did you ever stop to ask yourself why? Instead of three sets of eight, why not try eight sets of three, or five sets of five? Despite how different these combinations look (and feel to perform), all three are very effective for building muscle. Including each one in your program is a surefire way to reap maximum gains.
That's because the first workout variable your muscles adapt to is the number of reps you perform. You see, once your central nervous system has learned to recruit all the muscle fibers it needs to complete a given number of reps, it stops adding new muscle, because it can do the job you've asked of it with what it has. Therefore, if you train in just one rep range, such as the moderately heavy eight to 12, you'll improve in that range only up to a point, and then plateau.
Unless you train with lower reps-and therefore heavier weight - you'll never get very strong and you won't stimulate those stronger muscle fibers to grow. Conversely, if you don't alternate low - rep lifting with occasional bouts of higher reps, you won't build muscle endurance or stimulate the increase in the accumulation of fluid within your muscle cells (an adaptation to higher-rep training that also accounts for muscle size). By regularly changing the number of reps you perform, you train your body to recruit every possible muscle fiber during every lift, extending the life of your routine and allowing more gains in strength, size, and endurance.
Workout Extender #2:
Vary Your Sets
As we just mentioned, three sets per exercise seems to be the intuitive prescription we all follow when we start lifting-and it works just fine for a little while. But ultimately, it's too conservative a volume to base your training on, and there are better methods for gaining size and strength.
A workout's volume correlates with its intensity - how heavy you'll be lifting. The heavier the weights you use, the fewer reps you'll be able to perform, and therefore the fewer sets you'll have to do to work your muscles thoroughly and build strength. For the best gains in size - which, as you'll recall, come from the six-to-12 rep range - your volume should be higher, since each set isn't that taxing by itself. As for gains in endurance, only a very small volume is needed (as each set will last a long time).
Understanding volume is especially important when you're trying to lose fat. Contrary to popular belief, heavy weights and a low volume of sets is probably the best method for fat loss. A small number of sets ensures that you won't overwork yourself. When you cut calories from your diet, you endanger your ability to recover - especially if your workout intensity remains high - so performing fewer sets prevents overtraining. At the same time, the heavy weights you're using will keep your muscles fully stimulated, so you won't lose strength and muscle mass. The result is that you "trick" your body into burning fat instead of muscle-which is your body's survival instinct when calories are down.
Workout Extender #3:
Rest or Rest Less
You can alter the effect of your workout tremendously in a matter of seconds. In fact, you can change the entire goal of any program simply by adjusting the length of your rest periods. Longer rests are needed when your sets are heavy, as your muscles must be almost fully recovered in order to lift a heavy load for successive sets. Greater muscular endurance comes from keeping rests to a minimum, which forces your muscles to adapt to longer work bouts with less recovery. In the middle lies the key to muscle gain and fat loss: short-to-moderate rest periods that elicit the greatest release of the body's testosterone and growth hormone.
While fat-loss training can be organized in many different ways, one particularly effective method is circuit training, in which you perform one set each of several exercises back-to-back with little or no rest in between. In this case, the lack of full rest keeps your metabolism stoked, so you burn calories at an accelerated rate. Circuit training also saves time, moving you through your workout much more quickly than performing straight sets.
Workout Extender #4:
Change Your Tempo
It's easy to race through a set. If the weight is heavy, you get psyched and want to punch it through the roof on each rep. If the weight is light, you get into a groove and "pump out" your reps like you're dancing to a club beat. While both methods do allow you to move the weight from point A to point B, neither fully stimulates your muscles, because you're using momentum. To promote the most muscle and strength, you need to keep tension on the working muscles and ensure that as many muscle fibers as possible are recruited.
Studies have shown that sets lasting between 40 and 70 seconds are best for achieving muscle growth. Shorter sets imply heavier weights, so those are best for pure strength. Longer sets, naturally, would benefit endurance goals. In general, the portion of the lift in which your muscles shorten (usually the "up" part, such as pushing the barbell off your chest on a bench press, or raising the barbell on a curl) should be done fast to maximize the activation of your strongest muscle fibers. The portion of the lift in which your muscles stretch (the "down" part) should be done more slowly, as the muscle is actually stronger in this phase than in the upward one. But exercise scientists have discovered that regimenting a rep further can enhance muscle activation even more.
The technique is called "tempo," and it's usually represented as a three-digit number. The first digit is the number of seconds you should take to perform the lowering portion of the lift. The middle digit is how long you should pause in that bottom position (when the muscles are under the most tension), and the third digit indicates how long you should take to lift the weight to the "up" position. Occasionally, you'll see tempos with an "X" in place of a digit, which means you should perform that portion of the lift with explosive speed. Furthermore, a "0" means to move immediately to the instructions of the next digit. So, for example, a tempo of 311 on a bench press would mean to take three seconds to lower the bar to your chest, one second to hold it there, and another second to press it back up. Tempo may sound tedious, but it's a great way to keep your form in check, especially when you're performing a number of reps (when your form is most susceptible to falling apart).
Workout Extender #5:
Whether you're just bored by the lifts you've been doing or you've plateaued with them, swapping out the main exercises in your routine for similar moves can be an excellent solution. Many times, a plateau is the result of an overused movement pattern-in other words, your nervous system has recruited the same muscles in the same way for so long that it can't do it any better. For example, if you've been doing the squat for ages, try switching to the front squat for a few weeks. This variation hits essentially the same muscles, but in a slightly different way - just enough to get your nerves to recruit muscle fibers a little differently and get you growing again.
Other times, stagnation is the result of a weak point in your range of motion, which, once addressed, will send your poundages soaring. For instance, if you've gotten your deadlift up to 350 pounds but can't budge 360 off the floor, you might benefit from deadlifts done on a platform for a few weeks. Stand on a box and use a moderate weight for a few explosive reps-that will build the pulling power you need to overcome inertia in the opening seconds of your deadlift. Afterward, you'll be able to get 360 with no problem.
You can also rearrange the order in which you perform exercises. For example, if your upper-body days pair bench-press and row movements, but they start with benching, spend the next few weeks doing the rows first in the pair so that they get the priority.
Putting it all together:
Now that you understand the basics of program design, you can start applying it to your own routine, periodizing your progress. Let's assume you've been following a three-day-per-week, full-body routine that contains two separate workouts alternated back and forth. (For example, you do Workout A on Monday, Workout B on Wednesday, Workout A again on Friday, then pick up with Workout B on the following Monday, and so on.) Exercises are paired and performed as alternating sets with one-minute rests between sets. So far, you've been doing three sets of 10 reps and using a 201 tempo. Your goal is muscle size. As a template, we'll use this:
2A Romanian deadlift
1b Incline dumbbell press
2A Dumbbell stepup
2b Bentover row
After six weeks, switch up the sets and reps. First, take an "unloading" week. This means drop the reps, weights, and volume so that the workouts are almost easy-the idea is to keep working out but allow your system to recover before you impose any tougher demands on it. Afterward, vary your volume so that you stay in the range that builds maximum muscle but also takes advantage of contributing qualities like more heavy strength work and lighter, higher-rep sets. So the next four weeks might look like this for both workouts:
Week 7: One set of 10 reps, 201 tempo, 60 seconds rest.
Week 8: Five sets of six reps, 201 tempo, 90 seconds rest.
Week 9: Eight sets of three reps, 201 tempo, three minutes rest.
Week 10: Four sets of 12 reps, 201 tempo, 90 seconds rest.
At this point, you have a good base of size, strength, and conditioning, and now you can alter the sets, reps, and tempo every workout for even faster gains. Try starting the week (say it's Workout A again) with a "heavy day" in which you perform a few low-rep sets. In your next session, Workout B, go lighter and do sets of higher reps. Finish the week with a moderately heavy Workout A for a moderate number of sets. The next week would begin with a heavy Workout B. For example:
Workout A: Eight sets of three reps, 201 tempo, three minutes rest.
Workout b: Four sets of 12 reps, 311 tempo, 90 seconds rest.
Workout A: Five sets of six reps, 301 tempo, 90 seconds rest.
Workout b: Eight sets of three reps, 201 tempo, three minutes rest.
Workout A: Four sets of 12 reps, 311 tempo, 90 seconds rest.
Workout b: Five sets of six reps, 301 tempo, 90 seconds rest.
From here, anything goes. Take another unloading week and then re-evaluate your goals. If you've been eating enough, you should be plenty big by now, and you may want to switch to a fat-loss protocol. In that case, you could drop your rest periods to 30 seconds, or perform the exercises as a circuit. If you're bored with the exercises, you could replace a few at a time. For instance, put a shoulder press in place of the dip and a seated cable row in place of the bentover row. Another option is to prioritize certain exercises-probably the toughest, most muscle-involving lifts like the squat and deadlift - by giving them more sets and using fewer sets for the easier exercises (such as the stepup).
After a few more weeks, you'll probably find that you've milked your workouts dry and your body is ready for something new. (So keep buying MF!) But you'll have accomplished months' worth of training with "one" deceptively simple program.