I've been working out at the gym for a fair few years now (around 6). Started by just going with a friend doing random weights. Then progressed to muscle groups. For the last 6 months I have been trying the strong lifts method.

My squat has increased immensely so I definitely know the system works (for me). My question is that I'm hitting walls all over the place at the moment. Squats 100kg, bench press 90kg, standing rows I am still progressing, standing press 57.5kg, deadlift 135kg. I'm getting half way through my 5x5 sets and failing at everything but rows so far. How can I overcome this? is it a question of perseverance and I will slowly be able to pass my walls?

My goal is to gain lean muscle mass. I'm currently around 80kg, 5ft.10", BF 15%. I do MON/WED/FRI at the gym (my big days) then TUE & THURS some shoulder work and abs / whatever takes my fancy. Also do martial arts 2/3 lunchtimes per week. I eat well and take protein supplements after workouts.

Thanks james

  • 7
    How has your bodyweight been trending during this plateau? Have you tried just eating more? Stronglifts is a strength program, and reduction in body fat percentage may or may not happen, depending on what your body needs in order to get stronger. You're also not giving your body the rest that stronglifts prescribes. If you go big on M/W/F, no need for shoulder work on T/Th.
    – user4644
    Feb 28 '13 at 8:19
  • 1
    What does StrongLifts say to do when you hit a wall? (It's definitely in the program.) Also, note that you're not doing StrongLifts: that program is 3 times a week. You've added extra workouts. What does StrongLifts say about that? (The answer to that is also definitely in the PDF.) Feb 28 '13 at 13:55
  • hey Kate, my body weight has been hovering around the same (80kg) but my body fat has gone from around 18% to about 16.5% which I'm very happy with. I can understand what you say about not giving my body enough rest but I don't do any large muscle groups on T/Th, I just do light work and cardio / abs. Nothing heavy.
    – james508
    Feb 28 '13 at 21:50
  • 4
    If you're hitting walls, I'd suggest lifting in a bigger room. :p
    – JohnP
    Mar 1 '13 at 17:53
  • 3
    The abs/cardio/"whatever takes my fancy"/shoulder work could be the problem; it doesn't sound "very light". So could martial arts. You need to post a more complete history of your lifts for us to have any clue. We need your workout log: what weights you were at when you stalled, the dates, when the martial arts workouts were, the weight you deloaded to, progression from there, and so on. A food log is called for as well; this is a lot of work you're doing and it's likely you're not eating enough. Mar 1 '13 at 18:26

I ran across an article that has a lot of very good basic knowledge about increasing your work capacity--however you define it. "Increasing Your Work Capacity" by Greg Nuckols.

Definition of a Plateau

A plateau is when the amount of training stress you put your body under matches the recovery your body makes. For example, if you are stuck at a 185lb bench press, and can't seem to get over that number, the amount of work you are doing is good enough for a 185lb bench press.

You've essentially hit equilibrium. To break a plateau, you have to change the training stress in such a way that it helps you lift more.

SAID Principle: Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands

Your body responds to the demands you place on it. Do understand that martial arts places different demands on your body than any form of weight lifting. Even within weight lifting, the disciplines of bodybuilding, power lifting, and Olympic weightlifting each have different demands on the body.

While General Physical Preparedness (GPP) is important to all goals in life, some avenues to achieve GPP may conflict with more specific goals you may have. GPP encompasses your level of conditioning, strength, and mobility to do most athletic tasks. That said, your GPP is developed over time using the SAID principle.

Example: Endurance activities like running and cycling improve your conditioning, but do so in a way that your body works more efficiently to use less energy to move relatively light weight for long periods of time. That is the opposite of what is needed for lifting weights, where you need to move heavy weights for short periods of time regardless of the energy required.

The point of even bringing this up, is that a plateau in one area can be due to conflicting activities you may be involved in.

Breaking the Plateau

You have to change the adaptation and training stress relationships. When you look at training stress, think of it in terms of volume.

Volume = Weight * Reps * Sets

Lets say you put in 1000 lbs volume of training stress. No matter how you split up the components of weight, reps, and sets, as long as the total volume doesn't change your body is used to that level of work. That doesn't mean you'll be able to bench press 1000 lbs if you can do 40 lbs for 5 sets of 5 reps.

You will need to increase the volume of work over time. Even adding one rep per session is increasing the overall volume a little bit. Let's say you take that 40 lbs and increase the reps per set to 10 over time. When you suddenly reduce the volume of work back down to 60lbs 5x5, your body is still used to compensating for the 5x10. So you get stronger.

Add, rinse, and repeat. The specific rep ranges and number of sets you do depend on your current specific goals. Are you trying to add muscle mass? More sets in the range of 8-12 reps is in order. Are you trying to get stronger, varying the rep ranges is very helpful.

  • thanks Berin, I'm currently trying to add more muscle mass. I have started adding creatine into my supplement regime, and taking your advice of increasing my reps. I found that I am able to do more reps on 90kg, which is definitely progress for me. thanks
    – james508
    Apr 10 '13 at 23:27
  • Good job. The idea is to increase the volume (overreaching) and then reduce it while increasing intensity. Wave loading with more and more weight over time. When you look at all the programs that work to make you stronger, they follow the general framework outlined in that article. Apr 11 '13 at 1:58

The first thing you have to keep in mind is that when you just start seriously lifting you are going to find significant gains right away no matter the program, and you are going to have some slowdown in your gains after the "honeymoon" stage is over. When you have more to gain, you will gain more. It is the same in fat loss, when you have more to lose you will lose it faster. But that slowdown shouldn't come to a plateau.

I was a football player for 16 years, including 4 at PLU and I started heavy olympic lifting in sixth grade, with over a decade of experience now. I have encountered numerous plateaus as well as numerous extremely long periods of steady, albeit gradual, gains. What I have seen over and over again is if you are hitting plateaus, but steadily lifting, it is almost always the program to blame, not the little extras you do on tuesdays/thursdays. I would always recommend doing little extras on "off-days," so long as the little extras are low weight, non-failure exercises.

It is fairly well known that when you lift heavy you are causing micro tears in the muscle fibers, mostly to blame for soreness. These micro tears are healed during rest periods, mostly sleep, and the muscle comes back stronger than before.

When your body runs out of stored ATP (anaerobic energy source) it produces lactate (lactic acid) in the muscles to help with the synthesization of glucose, which is involved in the creation of energy, with the purpose of extending your exercise. This lactic acid is the source of the "burn" you feel towards the end of a hard lift. The pain is actually a defense mechanism intended to cause you to stop the hard anaerobic exercise before you cause permanent damage to your muscles. (1 a lactic acid explination) And in the rest period between lifts the creatin stored in your muscles take the responsibility of creating more ATP to use the next time you demand anaerobic exercise from that muscle group (2 a creatine simple explination) (3 a creatine study).

What causes you to feel "stiff" the day after a hard lift is not due to soreness, or to the tears in general. It is caused by the pooling of lactic acid in those new tears. The lactic acid that was created during the initial lift, unless explicitly worked out, will pool and sit in the newly opened "pockets" that are the micro tears. This pooling of lactic acid is actually a hindrance to your muscular recover. The side effect is essentially the same as that of swelling in a newly injured body part, the reason for the RICE mnemonic (Rest Ice Compression Elevation) you are supposed to follow immediately following an injury; to reduce the swelling and get the pooling fluid out of the injured area (4 RICE explination). The micro tears are a minor injury to the muscle fibers that the body needs to heal. A pooling of fluid in the injured area is going hinder the flow of fresh blood to the injured area, causing a slower rate of recovery.

So doing these little extras on tuesday/thursday is actually beneficial to your muscular recovery because it is causing an increase in your blood flow and helping to flush out the pooling lactic acid from your sore muscles. This is only the case if the exercises you are doing are infact light weight. Lifting to failure in the same muscle groups 2 or more days in a row may in fact limit your ability to properly recover. What I would recommend is that you add foam rolling to your daily routine.

From what I can tell about the Stronglifts 5X5 is that you do mostly 5 sets of 5 on your lifts for most of the time. This is going to cause plateau's because you are not "shocking" or "confusing" your muscles (5 a great offline paper source) (6 a simple explination of the principle) (7 some easy to follow guidlines). Doing the same number of sets and reps daily or even weekly is not going to cause continual gains, you will hit a plateau as your body is continually trying to reach a point of homeostasis. This I have seen over and over in my own experience. The great programs I did where I saw gradual but continual gain in every area were the ones that switched up components of the routine every week. I have never seen any real benefit come from doing the same number of sets/reps every week. You can not expect continual gains to come from the execution of the same routine week in and week out.

I am sure I will receive flack for that statement because there are a lot of people out there with "proven results" for their specific workout routines but what I can tell you is that I have never gotten a workout routine from a website that promises results. All of the programs I have been on the past 11 years have been created by athletic training experts in the fields of Kinesiology, Personal Training and Sports Medicine, designed for maximum continual gains. There is no such thing as a sustainable "Get Ripped Quick" program. And any program that promises "You'll add 100 pounds to your lifts every month...." like the StrongLifts 5X5 program, is a lie. It isn't sustainable, and is not possible to make a claim that someone is going to gain an arbitrary amount of strength.

If you are looking to get stronger and more athletic without a plateau I would suggest finding a college's sports training routine because they are going to have the most research and science behind them, with the least amount of flair and promises. Here is a guideline from the University of Florida made for it's football program which gives a good explination of how a proper fitness/lifting program should be outlined.

If you are serious about wanting to be fit and strong, which it appears that you are considering the 5 days a week in the gym and 2 days a week of martial arts, which is awesome by the way, then it isn't a matter of just following a set routine and there you go. It is a lifestyle of fitness and nutrition that you adopt and live. Not a workout program that gets you ripped and strong in a matter of weeks.

  • I'd like to recommend this answer regarding DOMS. (I didn't downvote you)
    – Daniel
    Apr 10 '13 at 18:13
  • I did not mention DOMS in my lactic acid pooling explanation because I am aware that it is not connected. But pooling of fluid in an injured area is directly correlated to a reduced effectiveness of muscular recovery due to the increased pressure causing a blockade effect which reduces the amount of fresh blood contacting the injured area.
    – mcdonasm
    Apr 10 '13 at 18:34
  • 5x5 is the antithesis of homeostasis when the weights increase every workout, as they do in this program. Of course eventually this linear progression will fail, but that's not due to a lack of "muscle confusion". Apr 10 '13 at 21:10
  • @DaveLiepmann can you explain then. Because that sounds exactly like the lack of muscle confusion to me. You get into a state of homeostasis and you no longer progress. Adding muscle confusion, a break away from the 5 sets of 5 reps, would defend against getting into the state of homeostasis.
    – mcdonasm
    Apr 10 '13 at 23:21
  • @mcdonasm The reason for plateauing when properly following stronglifts or starting strength is due to moving past the novice stage of strength training. At this point, the amount of stress necessary to cause an adaptation is more than can be recovered from with a single day of rest. At this point, you can't simply add weight to the bar every visit to the gym. One must switch to a weekly periodization, but not for purposes of muscle confusion or being stuck in homeostasis.
    – user4644
    Apr 11 '13 at 0:19

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