If you’ve recently started a weight training program (like my starter workout plan) you’ve probably noticed a steady initial gain in the weight you can lift. But for every man there comes a time when the gains don’t come as easy. What then?
Being stuck at a specific weight can be perplexing. To gain muscle you also need to gain strength: if you use a 30 pound-dumbbell every time you do dumbbell curls, you won’t be building new muscle. So you need to move up—but how?
The answer is easier than you think: just lift the higher weight.
Perfect Your Form
First, be honest with yourself. Are you performing perfect reps at your current weight? If not, concentrate on lifting the weight in a steady motion, and returning the weight to its starting position smoothly in every rep. When you can do this with your full range of motion for at least 12 reps, you’re ready to move up.
Also make sure you’re approaching your workouts properly, getting adequate rest between workouts and proper nutrition. If you’re overtraining or tired, it will be harder to gain strength.
Kick It Up a Notch—But Just One Notch
The general rule of thumb is that you should increase your weight by less than 10 percent at a time, and in general I would keep that to five percent. Ideally the weight increase you choose should let you perform 8-10 reps with good form. If you can’t do 8 reps with good form, back the weight down a bit. Even a 1-2 pound increment is reasonable when you’re performing an exercise like dumbbell curls where your weight is likely to be under 40 pounds.
But what if there aren’t plates small enough to let you increase your weight by less? Look around—a lot of gyms have small blocks to put on a machine’s weight stack, or magnetic plates that stick onto dumbbells or barbells. If your gym doesn’t have these, or you’re working out at home, a fitness equipment store will likely have smaller plates that will let you adjust your weight precisely. They’re a good investment.
As a last resort, do as many reps as you can do with perfect form at the new weight, even if it’s 4-5 reps. Low reps will still build your strength, as long as they’re solid reps.
Change Your Exercise
Another way to improve your strength is to do an exercise similar to the one where you’ve plateaued. If you’ve hit a barrier on the chest press, try an incline or decline chest press to hit the muscles slightly differently. You might find that by the time you hit a plateau in the new exercise, you can lift more weight in the old one.
Take a Break
If you find you’re hitting a plateau at multiple exercises, and you’ve been working out on schedule for several months, take a break for a week. A good rest will help your body recover fully so you’re at 100 percent when you get back to it. Eat and sleep well on your rest week.
When I hit plateaus, I find that simply raising my weight anyway gets me unstuck. Part of the issue with plateaus is the mental factor: you might get it stuck in your head that you can’t lift more, and if you can’t visualize yourself lifting more your body may just have to agree with you. By increasing by less, performing fewer reps and varying your exercise, you should be able to bust almost any plateau.