Ever have one of those days where nothing seems to go right?
You spill your shaker bottle mixing pre-workout, rip your boxers while warming up, and your attempt at a new deadlift max leaves the bar stapled to the floor.
Not to mention, your gym is expecting you to pull some big numbers while blasting “My Heart Will Go” by Celine Dion . Yeah, not gonna happen slick.
If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably been training for a few years and you’ve got a bit of experience under your belt. Maybe you’ve done a powerlifting meet or a local bodybuilding competition but regardless of the title, you’ll inevitably hit a plateau if you train long enough.
So, what happens when you do? Well, look no further, this article is going to delve into 11 topics that might be holding you back from attaining the physique you desire.
1. You prioritize fatigue over fitness
For some reason there’s a very disturbing trend within the fitness industry: some trainers have become obsessed with absolutely crushing clients. In the end, some folks would rather be laying in a pool of their own sweat gasping for breath wondering why they can’t feel their legs.
Truth be told, if your idea of “programming” consists of walking into the gym and doing whatever pops into your head, you’re going to have a tough time making consistent progress, if any.
Any coach who is worth their weight will tell you that the best athletes plan out their training in advance. This is the entire idea behind periodization; you should know what you’re doing tomorrow, next week, and a month from now. Drop the mindset that you’ve got to destroy yourself every session and put some thought into your long-term progression under the bar.
2. You’re eating like a teenage girl
The age-old saying still rings true, “You can’t out train a bad diet” but it goes both ways - muscle gain or fat loss. You will NEVER gain mass unless you eat more calories than your body needs to maintain its current weight. You can’t somehow outwork the first law of thermodynamics; it takes calories to build muscle and not just protein!
Learning to eat big is a process. Having put on a fairly lean 65lbs in 18 months and now routinely eating over 4,000 calories a day to maintain that newfound mass, I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes you’ve got to consider eating a part-time job.
You have to accept the fact that there are going to be times when you’re not hungry. Adapt and conquer: make a smoothie and incorporate more liquid calories, eat foods lower in fiber, carry around a bag of homemade trail mix along with a whey shake, or just eat more frequently if you can.
3. You think more is better for everything
It’s funny, I see lots of articles and workout splits written by professional bodybuilders emphasizing INCREDIBLY high volume. I’m not talking about a simple 4x10 either. I’m talking about some serious rhabdomyolysis, the stuff that prevents you from brushing your teeth for two weeks.
If you take nothing else away from this article, remember that context is key in all situations. The next time you read one of those articles, keep in mind that those guys are sipping a different “Kool-Aid” than you and as such, they can handle quite a bit more training stress.
4. You’re impatient
We live in a culture obsessed with instant gratification. Overall, I think we’re doing a disservice to the character development and work ethic of our youth, but that’s another topic in and of itself.
I hate to break it to you, but you’re not going look like Rich Froning overnight. As much as supplement companies want to make you believe you can gain 20lbs of solid muscle in 2 months, it’s pretty much physically impossible barring you’re not sipping some of the same Kool-Aid as our bodybuilder friends mentioned above.
Strength is built sub-maximally over weeks and months, not by trying to hit a new single every session. Remember, like Joe DeFranco said, “Learn to build strength, not test it.”
5. You don’t understand proprioception
Proprioception is essentially the ability to sense changes in motion and the positioning of your body segments.
Here’s an easy example to help you visualize things: think of an airport, the traffic control center (i.e. your brain) may lose sight of the planes (i.e.your limbs) that are landing and taking off (i.e. moving), but they are always aware of their positioning. The same can be said for your body, proprioception is essentially your internal radar.
For example, close your eyes and touch your kneecap with your index finger. Now touch your nose with your pinky finger.
How did you know which finger was touching your face? How did you know if you were actually touching your kneecap versus your shin or your quad? Proprioception is the name of the game.
However, I’ve worked with a number of athletes who lacked kinesthetic awareness, which in turn affected their ability to respond to coaching cues and improve their lifting mechanics.
In order to optimize technique, you must first understand how to implement small changes within each individual bodily segment.
6. Your “technique” resembles a new born giraffe trying to stand for the first time
By nature, I’m a technician; biomechanics is my thing. If I can make you better with a few simple tweaks to your setup and breathing, then we’re in business.
Technique should be thought of on a spectrum: on one end, there are guys preaching, “Just grip it and rip it bro!” On the other end, there’s the form police who won’t pull anything over 225 because they can “sense the shearing forces on their spine”.
Listen, I’m not the type of guy who’s going to hate on you for hitting a big PR simply because your knees buckled slightly or you didn’t prevent your neck from hyper-extending. But, at the same time, you’ve got to remember that physics still applies to you - squat, hinge, push, pull, and press things in crappy positions and your joints are going to let you know about it.
7. You’re too comfortable
It’s Monday afternoon, you’ve just gotten off work, and you’re heading into the gym to get a good lift after a long, relaxing weekend. So, what are you going to hit? Let me guess...chest, right?
If you’re like most males, you love your “mirror muscles”. You know, the ones that everybody seems to flex nonstop - aka your pecs, abs, and biceps.
Cool it bro, they’re really not that big.
We’ve got to get past the idea that you should always fall back on what makes you comfortable. Ditch that thought and reverse your psychology, growth occurs outside your comfort zone.
You have 2 choices: either do what is necessary in order to improve or remain satisfied with the status quo.
8. You fail to understand the importance of rest
If you’re like most Americans, you’re sleep deprived. The National Sleep Foundation recently updated their recommendations on sleep recommendations and suggested that young adults between the ages of 18-25 get anywhere from 7-9 hours of sleep a night. However, they also mentioned that there are some folks who actually require as much as 10-11 hours per night!
In an ideal day, we’d all be able to wake up as the sun was rising and begin to fall asleep as night was falling. However, with the invention of wonderful things such as electricity and technology, we’re now faced with some new problems, which can hamper our shuteye.
If you find that you’re constantly looking for that caffeine “pick me up” during the day, then it’s time to start shutting down a bit earlier each night. Experiment with a few sleep hacks and begin to learn your body’s internal signals. It’s usually right, you’re just not listening.
9. You fail to admit that you don’t know how to “shut down”
We live in a fast paced world that essentially never turns off. If you’re like most people, you battle commuter traffic, stress yourself out over work, and live off caffeine in order to improve your productivity despite poor lifestyle choices.
Stress is individual and context dependent, meaning that training isn’t the only situation that generates the “fight or flight” response from your sympathetic nervous system. If you’re screaming at the guy in front of you on the interstate because he’s doing 55 in a 60 and riding with his blinker on, odds are you’re going to be pumping out quite a bit of adrenaline even though you don’t really need it.
Your nervous system is designed to initiate certain anabolic recovery processes when your parasympathetic system comes online; this is typically referred to as the “rest and digest” state. However, if you constantly allow your lifestyle to dictate your stress levels, you will live in a chronic sympathetic state and have a tough time recovering from training stressors.
Bottom line, you’ve got to learn how to reframe your stress response and adapt to whatever life throws at you.
PRO TIP: Bonus points if you utilize some of the breathing drills posted in the Hacking Your Sleep 101 article.
10. Your rest day consists of cardio and additional work for “weak points”
You know that guy, the one who posts pictures of his lunch on instagram every day and overuses #nodaysoff? Yeah, that’s the one who’s also going to burn out and hit a plateau before he reaches any sort of appreciable level of strength.
Look, I’ve got nothing against cardio, go push a sled, jump some rope, or crush a barbell complex but save the ellipticals for some other time. Some light walking, rowing, or a little time on an Airdyne can help to enhance the removal of metabolic waste and improve recovery between training bouts.
But, if you’re idea of “light cardio for some blood flow” is 60 minutes of hill sprints, you’re going to have a tough time squatting tomorrow or feeling any semblance of recovery.
Lets be honest, if you’re not pulling at least double bodyweight, you don’t need extra hamstring work or a specialized glute circuit to target your weak lockout, you just need to focus on getting stronger in general and putting in some work at the dinner table.
11. You focus on perfection rather than excellence
If you’re constantly fixated on finding the “optimal” training split or trying to perfectly time your post workout shake, you’ve already missed the point.
Sustainability is the number one variable, which will determine your long-term success in and out of the gym. If you can’t maintain your lifestyle in the long run, then the results won’t last.
Worry less about the perfect training program; instead, just pick one and stick to it for 4-6 months while focusing on progressive overload at every single session.
Regarding your obsession with protein perfection - the debate is still out on the whole “anabolic window” but I’d be remiss to say that you shouldn’t get in something after you’re done training. That doesn’t mean you need to throw down 3 scoops of whey with half a tub of dextrose, just make sure you eat a well balanced, whole food meal with a solid dose of protein.
Stop majoring in the minors and learn how to build your training and nutrition around your lifestyle. Remember, perfection is the enemy of progression.
So...It’s Your Choice, How Bad Do You Want It?
If you’re a strength or physique athlete, plateaus are unavoidable. But, your reaction to adversity determines the outcome. The fact that you’re reading this article means that you’re unique, it means that you’re not content and you're constantly striving for progression. Good, don't ever lose that mindset.
This article should provide some excellent food for thought but now it’s up to you - either make the change or remain satisfied with the status quo.
Omg,this site is so useful I like it.
Great article...after taking too long to get back into lifting I've made the decision to make changes. watching my diet etc. This site has given me a lot of good information. For me my goal is to get in shape and put on some muscle...I was given probably not too good advice on more weight to get bigger and form was sacrificed. I guess now that I'm older my thoughts are proper form variation in movements target more than the mirror muscles. So far so good! I have a little arthritis in one shoulder but it has subsided now that I'm working out. Its articles like this that sharpen my focus and fuel my drive....thank u
for years I have done the football workout
weights and cardio its not working for me I need some help to trim some excess weight while still allowing for muscle training
Well if your goal is weight loss then the most important variable that you can manipulate is your nutrition (aka caloric intake). Weight gain or loss (in a simplistic sense) comes down to calories in vs. calories out so if you seem to have hit a plateau, then it's time to examine other variables besides training.
If you're looking for a solid training program, I would start here: https://www.muscleandstrength.com/articles/train-like-an-athlete-look-li...
Hi mike, I am under weight and have been for sometime, I am eating about 3000-3300 calories a day 50/40/10 CPF. Is this a good or bad ratio? Also I started taking kre alkalyn and I seem I've lost even more weight while on it and can't lift as much as I was before taking it, do you have any ideas why this is? I am doing a push/pull/leg routine doing chest/shoulders on push, rows and dead-lifts on pull and squats on leg day.
Macro ratios are fairly irrelevant in most cases. For the majority of athletes and lifters I work with, I make recommendations based upon their bodyweight:
> 1-1.25g/lb of protein
> 0.4-0.5g/lb for fat (Could be as high as 1g/lb depending upon the person's lifestyle and training)
> Rest of your calories can go to carbs if you're fairly active, young, and handle glucose fairly well.
Also, your fat is EXTREMELY low, I would definitely increase that if I were you. For calories, if you're not gaining weight and that's your goal, then it's time to increase the amount of food you're eating. Weight gain or loss comes down to calories in vs. calories out (for the most most part) so if you're training hard and you're fairly young (or still growing), you might be surprised how many calories you need. I've recently been maintaining around 4,000 calories a day so your intake can definitely climb up there if you're training frequency is high or you have a high basal metabolic rate.
Regarding creatine, many companies will try to market other forms of creatine as being more effect for different reasons but the majority of research that has shown the multitude of benefits around creatine has been conducted on creatine monohydrate, not any of the creatine kinases.
Great article Mike! Some very valid points in there for most lifters.
Thanks Simon, glad you enjoyed it my man!
+65lbs in 18 months?! I'm listening...
Good, no nonsense, well balanced article. Pay attention to bio-mechanics guys, like Mike says, or you'll end up that 40 something year old guy with braces and strapping on every single joint. Trust me, i'm half way there and it's no fun!!
Thanks for the feedback, I always appreciate comments from my readers...As Ronny Coleman says: "Everybody wants to pull 6 plates, but nobody wants to visit snap city." Or something along those lines. hahah
Thanks for the advice Kirk...I've actually been going to a gastroenterologist for the past 4 months, took every type of test they had, and they still can't figure out what the hell is wrong with my disgestion. (according to them I dont have any food intolerances that they can detect, but all I know is I definetly don't feel fine). It's very frustrating!!
Josh, when you say "don't feel fine", what exactly are you referring to in terms of symptoms?
Yeah the past couple months I've been making sure to get in 5,000 cals. And as far as workouts I keep them under 45 minutes and I don't do any cardio....and I always try to get at least 8 hours of sleep per night, so Im kinda at a loss as to why my strength hasn't gone up. I feel like my strength SHOULD be going up, and yet it doesn't
What do you do for a job? Aka what is your activity like outside of training?
Thank you for taking the time to write this article, quote "great food for thought".
Hey Jonathan, glad you enjoyed it my friend.
Hey Mike,...I agree with this article but what if Im already eating 5,000 calories and im still not getting stronger?!! Because that is exactly what has happened to me...I've been trying to gain weight so im eating 5,000 cals a day which is all I can stomach, and yet my strength still hasn't gone up at all ( and actually it feels as if somehow my strength has gone down! )
Well the first question is, are you tracking your calories? If not, that's where you need to start. Many guys think they're eating alot simply bc its a large volume of food but the caloric density of the food is actually low.
The second question is, what's your training like? If you're training 6 days a week with cardio before/after every session or you lead an extremely active lifestyle in your hobbies/job then that is something else to take into consideration.
However, if you're getting weaker eating 5000 calories then you've got a programming issue you need to address.
Check your gut health and food intolerances. I plowed in food as an ecto & made modest strength gains but little muscle development. Turns out all that pasta was ruining my gut as i'm gluten and lactose intolerant. Damage your gut and you get poor nutrient uptake = poor recovery = poor muscle growth.
Mike, I'm looking for a training program for getting stronger and fat loss. I'm 54 so I'm not trying to be a bodybuilder. Thanks.
The most important thing to remember with fat loss is that you can train as hard as you want but if you don't have a caloric deficit in your nutritional intake, it won't make any difference.
So, the first step is to nail down your nutrition and then move forward with a periodized training program. I recently wrote a program that would work quite well for you, you can check out the article here: https://www.muscleandstrength.com/articles/train-like-an-athlete-look-li...