4 Strategies for Breaking Through Muscle Building Plateaus

Travis Pollen
Written By: Travis Pollen
December 21st, 2015
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Training
23.4K Reads
4 Strategies for Breaking Through Muscle Building Plateaus
Your beginner gains are a thing of the past, so now what do you do to gain strength and size? Add these plateau-busting strategies to your training today!

There’s no arguing that the two simplest and best ways to apply progressive overload to strength training are by going heavier and doing more reps.

And, as every experienced lifter knows, when you’re first starting out, it’s pretty much a guarantee that you’ll be able to do at least one of those two things every single workout.

Unfortunately, those linear gains don’t last forever. Eventually, progress stalls, and that’s when frustration tends to ensue. To avoid that frustration and break through those pesky plateaus, shift your focus to these four new progressive overload strategies.

1. Increase Range of Motion

Mechanical work is the product of force exerted and the distance over which that force is exerted. Adding weight to the bar is the obvious way to increase work. But when progress there inevitably stalls, it’s time to start increasing distance or range of motion (ROM) instead.

Now, many ego-driven lifters have a nasty habit of short-changing ROM in order to perform more reps. These folks will skimp on ROM on everything from squats to push-ups to pull-ups, performing what would be better described as “pulses” than reps.

If you’re one of these people, stop reading here. Reel your ego in and perform the exercises as intended. Then return to this article.

Of course, even if you’re already exercising through a full ROM, as you should be, there are still a number of ways to increase ROM further on exercises like squats, deadlift, and bench press.

Deep (ass-to-grass) squats are, perhaps, the quintessential example. But not every lifter has the requisite anatomy or mobility to bury an ass-to-grass squat with proper form.

Break through Plateaus: Squat with a full ROM

Two other great options for increasing ROM are cambered bar bench press and deficit deadlifts. If you have access to a cambered bar, the greater ROM it affords on bench press will translate to increased strength off the chest with a straight bar. As an alternative to the cambered bar, you can also use dumbbells.

Likewise, the added ROM in the bottom position of a deficit deadlift will boost your strength off the floor from normal pulling height. To progress the deficit deadlift, simply elevate the feet atop an additional weight plate each week. 10-pound bumper plates allow for the best micro-progression.

2. Increase Density

The word “density” may bring back pangs of anxiety from high school chemistry, but don’t worry. We’re not talking about mass per unit volume here.

Instead, we’re dealing with reps per unit time – surely something we can all get behind. Increased density equates to more reps in less time and, consequently, more muscle.

To determine density, compare the total number of reps to the amount of time it takes to do them. Consider the following two scenarios:

  1. 6 sets of 10 reps at 205 lbs every 2 minutes
  2. 10 sets of 6 reps at 205 lbs every 1 minute

In terms of density, which is more productive? In option (1), 60 reps are completed in a total of 12 minutes. In option (2), those same 60 reps are done in 10 minutes. Clearly, option (2) is the winner.

Related: Burn Fat with This Giant Set Density Workout

Apply progressive overload either by performing the same number of reps in a shorter period of time (as described in the example above) or by doing more total reps in a specified period of time.

For the latter case, you might devote one training session per week for four weeks to 20 minutes of 315-pound deadlifts. Each week attempt to increase the number of deadlifts you do in those 20 minutes.

3. Decrease Mechanical Advantage

From a biomechanics standpoint, the degree of difficulty of an exercise can be boiled down to mechanical advantage, which is the ratio of load to muscle force.

A subtle change in body position via bar placement, stance width, or grip width can have a huge effect on mechanical advantage.

Break Through Plateaus: Decrease Mechanical Advantage

Take bar placement in the back squat, for instance. Due to mechanical advantage, it’s much harder to high bar back squat the same weight as you low bar back squat.

This is because the high bar position results in a more upright torso and, therefore, decreased mechanical advantage for the quadriceps. Compared to the low bar position, the high bar requires more muscle force from the quads to lift a given load.

When it comes to high performance, you want to position yourself in the way that allows you to lift the most weight. A classic illustration of this principle is the aforementioned low bar back squat, which shifts the load onto the hip extensors, a more powerful muscle group than the quads.

When it comes to training, though, the reverse approach – of positioning yourself in the way you’re weakest – is sometimes the best one.

If you’re a strong low bar back squatter, spend several weeks working on the high bar back squat or even the front squat. Similarly, swap out your deadlift stance in favor of whichever one you’re weaker in (conventional or sumo). Each week, pull with a slightly narrower (or wider) stance.

Devoting time to this opposite variation will shore up weaknesses in your preferred one.

Changing up your grip is another way to decrease mechanical advantage. Snatch-grip deadlifts will strengthen your upper back, and close-grip bench press will increase front deltoid and triceps strength. Just don’t go any closer with the bench grip than twelve inches, as you still want the wrists and elbows stacked.

4. Vary Tempo

In order to grow, muscles need time under tension.

A set of 10 push-ups can be beneficial if the reps are slow and controlled in both directions, or it can be a complete waste if it lasts all of 10 seconds and the body just drops uncontrolled into the bottom position.

Luckily, there are three ways to challenge your muscles using tempo:

1. Accentuate the eccentric, or negative, phase of the exercise

For example, perform five squats taking five seconds to lower on each rep. Over the coming weeks, make it eight seconds, then ten.

If you’re really ambitious, use a near-maximal load and get help from your spotter on the concentric phase of the reps. Just be sure to avoid performing negatives on heavy deadlifts, as this can put undue stress on the low back.

Related: How to Add Eccentric Training to your Program

Break through Plateaus: Vary the Tempo

2. Add an isometric pause, or static hold

Pause for a few seconds in a strategic position like the transition between the eccentric and concentric phases, at your sticking point, or both.

For example, in a double paused bench press, you can pause for two seconds with the bar just off your chest and then again for two seconds when the bar is halfway up. Then work up to a five-second pause in each position.

3. Be maximally explosive on the concentric phase of every rep

Using a light load, lift the weight as quickly and powerfully as possible (with perfect form). The increased speed will stand in for the lighter weight and carry over upon returning to heavier loads.

Break Through Your Plateaus

To break through plateaus and continue building muscle and strength, dedicate an entire training cycle to the strategies discussed above.

These methods will allow you to progress without ever adding a plate to the bar or a rep to a set. In fact, these tactics can be so demanding that you may actually have to decrease reps or weight.

And that’s perfectly okay, because when you return to your regularly scheduled programming at the end of the cycle, you’ll be bigger and stronger than ever.

Branimir Pinjatela
Posted on: Thu, 06/03/2021 - 06:58

I disagree with second and third strategy or at least with explanation. Increase Density: If you are able to increase dramatically volume in less time time it means that you were preety lazy before. There is no person training hard to be able to raise number of sets while cutting rest and all that with same load. Decrease mechanical adventage: If you perform lift in the way that is more demanding you will not be able to raise same weight. Period. All that may works but as consequence of changing tempo or as change in biomechanical motion, different angles etc but thats it.

Posted on: Mon, 08/07/2017 - 03:29

Hello Mr Pollen i read your DTS)Damage,Tension and Stress= approach for weight training and also read it in one of my favourite books from Vince del Monte called Living Large the questions is what kind of methods do you recommend to include them in every approach?? i am still doing the classical approach of 4x8 reps for mechanical tension,doing drop sets on my stress days and heavy negatives for my muscle damage days.

Posted on: Sun, 12/27/2015 - 22:26

Totally agree with your thoughts on varying tempo and specifying the eccentric. Maximizing the eccentric part of the movement. I would go so far as to us static contractions. Example, using a smith machine, pile on weight using the interior supports to hold the weight and perform a bench press by pushing the last three to four inches. I would put the pins so high that all I could perform is a three to four inch push to locking out elbows. I would use a hundred pounds over my max bench press. Two or three sets of 6-8 reps. Heavy partials, whatever you want to call them.

Now I totally disagree with increasing the density. Most staleness comes from TOO MUCH work. Rest for one to two weeks, then go to a heavy, eccentric workout for 3-6 weeks. Or go heavy with dumbbells. Overwork is the killer and cause of much staleness and lack of growth. Taking a week or two off would quell much of this dilemma. Most of us would have a very difficult time with rest, but think about it.

Travis Pollen
Posted on: Wed, 12/30/2015 - 09:23

Good call on the static contractions, heavy partials, and implement change to dumbbells, Dennis. I also agree that staleness often comes from too much work. In the article, I'm going on the assumption that the readers are intelligent enough to be taking appropriate deloads. With this in mind, incorporating a few weeks of density training would likely be something different from what they've been doing, which should pack on new size and, consequently, strength. Thanks for reading!