Improving your workout is an endless quest—and we know that constantly making progress can get frustrating.
That's where the tried-and-true method of progressive overload comes in. A popular training principle among bodybuilders, progressive overload is designed to force your body to constantly adapt to higher weights, and then giving your body the chance to recuperate with a "deload week" every 5-6 weeks.
This principle of progression states that your training intensity must ramp up at a rate that continues to be an overload for your body's current fitness state. By staying one step ahead of your body's adaptability, the theory goes, you'll continue to see progress toward your fitness goals. In a perfect world, we'd all just get stronger and leaner forever until we all look like Phil Heath or one of the other physique idols. And in the beginning of your gym career, progress can seem that quick: You're adding weight to the bar pretty much every session while getting leaner and more muscular at the same time.
But all good things come to an end, of course, and your progress will eventually get much more incremental and gradual. This happens for a variety of reasons. Mainly, progress stops because the human body is naturally disinclined to get too lean and muscular. From an evolutionary standpoint, it doesn't make much sense to carry around 200+ pounds of lean muscle since it is much costlier to feed. That's why our bodies love to shut down and keep us small and chubby. Depressing, right? But there's good news.
BEATING YOUR BEST
The key to breaking through any plateau is change—but not change for the sake of change. First, check your nutritional intake. If you're not putting on muscle, add another 300 calories a day. Secondly, how's your sleep? You should be getting 7-9 hours of good quality sleep each night to give your body time to rebuild itself. Sleepcycleapp is a great way to monitor the quality of your sleep via your phone. Mediating before bed can also very helpful to improve the quality of your time in bed.
As for training: It makes sense to add certain advanced techniques to overcome a plateau. This includes training methods like drop sets, cluster sets, or the two-for-one method.
The two-for-one method combines two exercises in one motion. Think of it this way: During the positive (a.k.a. "concentric") phase, you're doing the easier exercise. The more difficult exercise, on the other hand, is done during the negative (a.k.a. "eccentric") phase. (In a bicep curl, for example, you raise the weight during the concentric phase, and lower it during the eccentric phase.)
The theory behind the two-for-one method goes like this: You can handle about 30% more weight in the negative phase of a motion than during the positive phase. (That's why it can be difficult to fatigue a muscle during a set when you're only emphasizing the concentric phase). By fully exhausting the negative phase, you're setting the stage for further growth down the road, since you're priming the nervous system for higher loads.
Here's a list of exercises that can be used for the two-for-one method.
Zottman Curls (Biceps)
Perform a regular curl on the way up. Then turn each hand—one at a time, please—and lower the dumbbell in a reverse curl fashion. You'll be able to overload during the eccentric phase, when you can handle heavier weight.
Skull Crushers (Triceps)
On a bench, lower the dumbbells in a skullcrusher motion next to your ears. When you push the weight back up, bring your elbows along your body, and then raise the weight in a close grip press, using your pecs to help lift the weight. You should be able to use a weight that is 20% heavier than the weight you'd use for your regular tricep extensions.
Set up as if you're going to do a bent-over parallel row. Bring the dumbbells up alongside your body, as you would normally. When you've raised the weight all the way, turn your elbows out so your arms are perpendicular to your body, and then lower the dumbbells for a four-second count.
This exercise combines a chest flye with a press. Lower the dumbbells in a flye motion. At the bottom of the flye, and then bring them together and push them back up in a press. That way, you can overload the flye and maximize the muscle stretch. The additional fiber damage will then result in strength gains.
Poliquin Side Raises (Shoulders)
Poliquin side raises are nastily difficult but very efficient, since they allow you to do a heavier side raise. Here's the setup: Hold the dumbbells next to your thighs. Do a hammer curl until your forearms make a 90-degree angle with your upper arm. Then rotate your upper arm at the shoulder until your arms are parallel to the floor. Then, move your forearms outward until your entire arm is extended and parallel to the floor. Finally, lower the weights for four seconds.
Leg Press (Legs)
As for the legs, the choices more limited. Don't try changing your foot stance during the squat. Instead, work with a leg press. Drive the weight up with your feet in a wide stance and set high on the sled. Then, at the top, carefully bring your feet together so there's only about a two-inch gap between your heels. Lower the weight for five seconds.
Leg Extensions (Quads)
Push weight up with both legs, lower with one leg. Alternate legs on each rep.
Conclusion: Use 2-For-1 Sparingly
In closing, don't do the two-for-one method for an entire workout. Instead, pick one or two lagging body parts and finish the workout with the the exercise I have listed.