Building muscle while simultaneously losing body fat is a delicate balance.. We stop making progress and think we’ve hit a plateau.
This article will address both small errors that require a simple change, and more complex solutions from our bag of tricks for busting any fat loss-muscle building plateau. We’ll start with simple answers and finish with more complex solutions.
#1: Use Correct Training Technique
Unless you’ve been taught how to train by an experienced coach, your training technique is probably lacking and it’s the reason you’re not making progress. Bad technique can mean a lot of different things:
- You could be haphazardly raising and lowering the weights without any awareness of the speed of the muscle contraction.
- You could have wacky training posture that leads you to use muscles you’re not intending to train.
- You could be doing partial range-of-motion exercises when you need to do full range training at this stage.
- You could be using too light a weight to produce any change in your body—ladies, this means you.
Your best option is to learn from an experienced trainer. For this reason, we’ve developed technique videos to show you basic form of some of the big lifts:
#2: Plan Your Workouts in 2 to 4 Week Phases
Avoid boredom and stagnation by planning your workouts in 2 to 4 week phases. This is a very basic principle of strength training because the body responds rapidly to the stress of training loads.
Solve It: There are two basic parameters for planning your set/rep schemes for fast results:
First is accumulation, which requires doing more reps and sets so that you spend more “time” under the weight. The primary change to your body with accumulation training is more muscle and less fat.
Second is intensification, which refers to lifting heavier weights that are closer to the maximum amount you can lift so you get stronger. The primary change to your body is greater strength.
Even if your only interest is a killer physique and you can’t care less about strength, you need to alternate between these phases in order to avoid the dreaded plateau. You’ll get better body comp results in the end because the intensification phase will allow you to use heavier weights once your back to pushing volume.
#3: Get Strong In the Big Lifts Before Doing Isolation Training
Isolation and other “plateau busting” lifts can help you make progress once you’ve put in the sweat and tears and achieved a threshold of strength in the big lifts like deadlifts, squats, and presses.
We’re talking a strength threshold of at least 1.5 times body weight for full squats and about the same for bench press, although the bench press number may be lower for women.
First, focus on free weight multi-joint lifts and avoid machines or isolation training.
Second, use proper form, and plan your training using the parameters listed in #2.
Third, track your progress by writing it down. This will allow you to be honest about where you are and get tiny victories, like an extra rep or an extra kilo, which can sustain motivation during the hard times.
#4: Do Short Strongman or Sprint Workouts To Promote Fat Loss
Prioritize cardio and you will never be satisfied with your physique. If you’re doing regular cardio, it could be a primary cause of your lack of progress. Instead, do brief strongman or sprint workouts for optimal leanness.
It’s a well-known fact in sports science that aerobic-type cardio “turns off” muscle building pathways, inhibiting muscle growth. It’s also possible that when you pair weight workouts and cardio in the desperate hope that you’ll lose body fat, the high volume of exercise elevates cortisol, further impairing muscle growth.
Ditch anything that resembles steady-state cardio in favor of interval training or strongman workouts. Workouts should be less than 25 minutes long and metabolically taxing with short rest periods and intense work bouts.
#5: Vary Your Lifting Speed & Always Count Tempo
Tempo refers to the speed with which you perform the up and down phases of any lift. A general principal for improving your body comp is to favor moderate eccentric (3 to 6 seconds) and fast concentric tempos for a longer time under tension.
This is because slow-speed lifting bring about more metabolic adaptations, such as increases in muscle glycogen, creatine phosphate, and ATP, which is what you want when trying to change your body.
In contrast, explosive ballistic contractions such as Olympic lifts bring about more central nervous system adaptations.
Yet, if you’re a savvy trainee, you’ve probably learned that always training for a metabolic effect will lead to stagnation, so periodization is key.
A combination of high- and low-velocity training produces greater strength and body composition results than either one alone. Try a fast tempo for both the eccentric and concentric phase of the lift to maximize the peak loads experienced by the body.
Lowering the weight fast coupled with an explosive upward motion activates gene signaling and produces greater protein synthesis, while recruiting distinct type II muscle fibers that aren’t used during slower movements.
#6: Use Partial Range-of-Motion Training
Full range training, such as deep squats or deadlifts on a platform, is a basic principle of proper training for strength and body composition. But, training partials in which you break down a rep into individual parts is an incredible tool for overcoming a plateau.
Often, plateaus are about sticking points, which is the part of a lift where you are weakest. For example, the sticking point in the deep squat or bench press is typically right around midpoint, although, the entire bottom segment (bottom to parallel in the squat) can give lifters trouble.
When performing partial-range-of-motion training, always incorporate full-range-of-motion sets within the workout. Many people make the mistake of doing just partials, but research shows this leads to diminished returns and less muscle development.
For example, a study that compared full squat training with a combination of full and partial squats in trained men found that including partial-rep squats led trainees to increase their full squat max by 3 percent more. Training over multiple ranges also increased strength more at the “sticking points” in the lower half of the squat.
#7: How To Use Deadlifts To Reach Your Genetic Potential
Stalled progress in the deadlift is maddening, especially after you’ve made rapid gains as a novice. Here is a program from PICP coach Jeff Banda that will help you bust that plateau:
A1) Top 1/4 deadlifts in rack, 4 x 4-6 reps, 2210, rest 100 seconds
A2) Lying leg curls, feet neutral, 4 x 4-6 reps, 4010, rest 100 seconds
B1) Top half deadlifts in rack, 4 x 4-6 reps, 2210 tempo, rest 100 seconds
B2) Lying leg curls, feet outward, 4 x 4-6 reps, 4010 tempo, rest 100 seconds
C1) Full-range deadlift, 3 x 6-8 reps, 4010 tempo, rest 90 seconds
C2) Lying leg curl, 3 x 6-8 reps, 4010 tempo, rest 90 seconds
Here’s why it works
Top ¼ deadlifts are where you’re strongest and they offer the most advantageous leverage. Use a super heavy weight, which you could never even think of getting off the ground at this point, to recruit the highest threshold motor units in the muscle.
It also desensitizes components of the tendon that inhibit strength (your body’s built-in attempt to protect you from yourself), giving you both a physical and mental advantage.
Top half deads overload a common trouble spot, and since you’re performing them after the ¼ deadlifts, you’ll get the benefit of having activated muscle fibers with the super heavy load. Full range deads overload the most common sticking point, which is the pull off the ground.
#8: Use Isometrics To Target Weak Links
Isometrics are unique for their ability to produce high levels of muscle tension without a change in the muscle’s length or joint angle. You’re probably familiar with the classic but not very useful isometric, the plank.
Using isometrics within a dynamic or “moving” contraction increases neural drive to maximize the strength potential of newly developed muscle.
One-and-a-quarter contractions are a highly efficient strategy for overcoming plateaus. The most well known version is one-and-a-quarter squats in which you go all the way down, come up 20 to 30 degrees, pause for a second, descend back to the bottom and come up quickly.
The one-and-a-quarter method can be used for other lifts such as leg curls, bench press, or even bicep curls.
More advanced trainees should try two to three pauses during the concentric contraction so as to hit all parts of the muscle for growth and strength.
#9: Use Chains
Training with chains is a surefire way to bust plateaus because it matches the resistance curve to the human force curve.
For example, if you put chains on the ends of the barbell when squatting or bench pressing, the chains will pile up on the floor during the down portion of the lift, decreasing the weight.
As you come up out of the squat, the weight will increase as the chains come off the floor and contribute to your load. Your load gets heavier at the point where you are weakest, requiring you to train through the sticking point of the lift.
In one study of D1 college football players, those who trained with chains increased maximal strength by 42 percent more than those who trained with traditional lifts. Researchers note that weighted chains supply the added benefit of training the stabilizer muscles because they swing and oscillate throughout the range-of-motion of a lift.
Chain training can be used when training the extensor muscles in lifts like the bench press or squat. Research suggests the use chains weighing 10 to 15 percent of the barbell weight, rather than a lighter 5 to 8 percent. So, if the loaded barbell weight is 100 kg, each chain should weigh 10 to 15 kg.
#10: Do Complex Training With Fast Eccentrics
Have you heard of the stretch-shortening cycle? It’s the elastic component of the muscle and tendon, which makes you springy.
Research shows that being strong is not enough. To achieve your athletic potential, you need to actually train the SSC.
Solve It: An example of complex training is to do a heavy strength exercise followed immediately by a fast power exercise, such as squats at 95 percent of the 1RM followed by vertical jumps.
For upper body, doing a heavy bench press followed by a bench throw is standard, but you could also try doing the heavy lift prior to a combat sports that require peak upper body.
#11: Use Nutrition To Support the Immune System
Nutrition will make the most difference if you’re nearing your body’s physical limit from training. If all you need to do is work harder, the benefit of nutrition is negligible.
Here Are A Few Tricks
Increase your fat intake. Try butter (it supplies butyric acid, which feeds beneficial but bacteria), coconut oil (it provides a quick fuel source and is anti-inflammatory), and fish (omega-3 fats that are anti-inflammatory).
Eat probiotic foods to give your gut some love. Try sauerkraut, pickles, kim chi, pickled ginger, high-quality yogurt, and the beverage kefir.
Bump up calories once a week as high as 150 percent. Adequate calories are essential for recovery and eating enough tells the body that resources abundant, making it more responsive to pack on muscle and give up body fat. It’s the opposite effect of “starvation mode” in which calories are restricted and your body ratchets down your metabolic rate.
If your plateau is more diet and fat-loss related, check out this article for specific tools to help you take it to the next level.