When it comes to breaking plateaus, there’s usually a reason why they occurred in the first place. If building strength was as simple as choosing different exercises, then you’d see no end to your progress, year-round. Choosing too many different movements can often take the emphasis off of the more important primal movement patterns that should always be the hub of your training, regardless of what phase you’re in.
Our body’s prime source of energy when lifting weights comes in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). It fuels us for explosive, intense work for no more than 15 seconds and usually takes a couple of minutes to completely restore ATP once we’ve drained the available supplies. But if we partially restore those ATP stores mid-set, that boost can give us just enough juice to squeeze out a few more reps than we originally would have.
Use the following tactics to lengthen your sets and perform more reps. The result: stronger, bigger, and more conditioned muscles.
Here’s how to break through plateaus in strength, size, or muscular endurance by tampering with your rep schemes of the same movement.
1. 4+2 clusters
Put your five-rep max on the bar for squats, deadlifts, overhead press, or bench. Take the bar off the rack and perform only four reps. Rack the weight, rest for 10–15 seconds, then take the bar off the rack again, and go for another two reps. The mini break to restore your ATP allowed you to get an extra rep that you wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. The net result is more exposure to the heavy load over the course of your workout.
2. Single-rep clusters
With a spotter, load to 95% of your max effort, and perform one rep. Rest for 10-15 seconds, and repeat. Use this method to change a one-rep set to an extended set of three or four reps.
3. Ladder sets
Put your 10- to 12-rep max weight on the bar and perform two reps. Rack the weight and rest for 10 seconds, then perform three more reps. Rest for 10 seconds, then do five reps. Rest for 10 more seconds, and finally perform 10 reps. Once more, taking advantage of ATP (our body’s instant energy source) only partially being able to restore is the golden ticket to squeezing more juice into muscles.
4. The rest-pause method
Pause for a few seconds once you’ve reached fatigue at the part of the lift where you’re under the least stress (for example, with the legs straight during squats or leg press or arms fully extended during bench press). Once you’ve taken a second, try to squeeze another rep out. Not only is this a great reps booster, but it's also an awesome way to realize how much mind over matter there really is where weight training is concerned.
5. Monitor your breathing
This one isn't exactly a rep scheme, per se, but it is an ultra-valuable skill set that too many lifters neglect. Every serious lifter must learn how to breathe when lifting heavy, because an air-filled chest will help support your core as you handle heavy loads. Experiment with your breathing schemes when attempting big sets; if you're doing sets of 12 reps, for example, experiment with breathing every other rep, every third rep, or every fourth rep and see how it affects your ability to finish the set.