Breaking Through Plateaus

I have been busted by the Form Police! Just recently I’ve posted a video update of my training progress. While the weight might seem impressive for some of you (190kgs), the form wasn’t. I completely understand why I received the critique. My glutes lost contact with the bench, so the lift would have been given a red light in competition. So why did I lift a weight that I couldn’t do with proper form?

The reason I do this is to get my body comfortable with a heavy weight first. Before you can make the progression to this sort of weight, you have to be confident in racking it and lowering it. Just this part of the lift alone will increase my strength.

The other reason is purely and simply psychological. You sometimes need to break down the mental barriers, too. Now that I know I can cheat the weight up, I am confident that I am not far away from getting it up using proper form.

It is all part of getting your Central Nervous System (CNS) ready to break your PB’s. Fairy tales do happen occasionally – on comp day your stars might align, and you perform the perfect lift.

Instead of relying on a miracle, there are things that we can do to break through these plateaus.

What does CNS do?

The Central Nervous System sends signals to your muscle fibres. It organises which muscle fibres to contract from the weakest to the strongest ones. It can create high-powered and skilful movements in athletes. However, it will only do that if it considers the movements as safe.

When the brain senses that damage or injury might occur in the body, it will down-regulate the power to the muscle.

So, if you are training with a weight you have never trained with before, chances are it will feel super heavy, even if it is just 2.5kg above your current personal best.

Your body is instinctively protecting it from potential injury.

The other instance is where we subconsciously send signals to the CNS that we think we will struggle with the lift. This is our own psychological barrier – the doubts that exist in the back of our mind no matter how hard we try to challenge them.

These are the barriers that we must break through to take our lifts to the next level.

We have all heard about how someone who has been placed in a situation of extreme danger and displayed super human strength. Ice addicts in hospitals often require many bigger bodies to hold them down when they are off their chops.

When the CNS is overridden – whether it be by fear or drugs – we can see that we are not using the full potential of our strength. But we don’t need to put our life in jeopardy or fire up the crack pipe to overload our CNS.

When you are bench pressing next, use a lighter weight and really focus on your form. Lower the weight nicely and with control, then push hard. Try and make it explosive. This method will recruit more fast-twitch muscle fibres.

Although the bar won’t seem like it is moving any quicker as you progress up through the weights, these fast-twitch fibres will help you get the bar out of the hole.

The other technique is to overload your CNS by exposing it to the heavier weight in a controlled fashion. With a training partner, use a weight heavier than your PB and do a slow controlled negative, then get your training partner to assist you when you’re lifting it back up.

190 kg bench press
Even with spotters bars and Matt around, I did not feel safe. But then again, most people don’t.

This was what I was effectively doing in my 190kg lift. By lifting my bum off the bench, I was giving myself assistance in pushing the weight up. This is a technique that I would only recommend to advanced lifters.

If you are training by yourself and don’t have a spotter, even lifting a heavier weight off the j-hooks will get your body comfortable with the heavier weight. Make sure you do this in a power rack or bench press that has adjustable spotter bars.

Joint stability is another area which can trigger your CNS to limit your strength signals. If your shoulders or knees have weaknesses, your CNS will throttle your strength. So instead of trying to chase big bench numbers, it might be worth working some rotator cuff exercises if you have a shoulder issue.

Breaking through Mental Barriers

You have worked through your program and you are on track to beat your PB. But in the back of your mind, you remember how hard you had to grind through your last max lift. You wonder if you could even repeat that same lift let alone better it.

These nagging thoughts often rear their ugly heads in competition when a lifter crumbles under pressure.

To break these mental barriers, the simplest approaches are often the best. Simple things like safety are the low-hanging fruit we should look to first. When squatting or benching, make sure you do it with the appropriate equipment. If you are training alone, do it in a power cage or squat rack with spotter bars. That will eliminate one cause of apprehension.

Don’t go for massive increases in PBs. Don’t try and smash it, just creep up on it. Adding 1kg to a lift might not seem that impressive, but if you can keep accumulating them, they start to add up. I have seen many a lifter stuck at a plateau while chasing a 5kg or 10kg increase.

It might seem like mumbo jumbo, but things like meditation and positive affirmations do work – many a world champion have used these techniques, so they are worth a try. You only have to look at the growth in sports psychologists to realise that unlocking the brain is an increasingly important aspect of improving athletic performance.

CNS Fatigue

Now that you know how to hack the CNS, you are probably plotting your path to a 300kg bench press. I hate to disappoint you, but these techniques do suffer from diminishing returns. Otherwise we would be running 100ms in 5 seconds and doing vertical leaps of 4ms.

You can’t keep overloading your CNS. Just like your muscles, the Central Nervous System will fatigue. This can be caused by a variety of factors – over training, lack of sleep, poor nutrition, stress.

People often forget that your body will recover much faster than your CNS. As soon as the pain in your muscles disappears you think that you are ready to go again. I’ve learned it the hard way. I ran two training cycles back-to-back without getting appropriate rest. As a result, my performance was impaired during my last competition.

When your CNS is fatigued, you generally feel weak when training. It is hard to get a pump. You struggle to find the motivation to train. Your recovery takes longer, and the niggling injuries start to accumulate.

Sometimes with training, less is more. If you are feeling fatigued, then listen to your body and back off. Strength programs nearly always incorporate a deload week where you lift weights that are roughly 50% of your maximums.

They also cycle the intensity in your workouts, so you build up to your max lift over several weeks or even months. It only takes a few weeks to work out that you can’t keep bettering your PBs back to back, even if it is only 0.5kg. You need to cycle up and down to refresh your CNS.

Techniques of Overloading in Powerlifting

  • High Pin Bench Press
  • Low Pin Bench Press
  • High Pin Shoulder Press
  • High Pin Squats
  • Low Pin Squats
  • Chains and Resistance Bands
  • Board Press
  • Squats to a Bench
  • Un-racking Heavy Weight
  • Negative Bench Press
  • Assisted Deadlifts

Each of these techniques is designed to overload the muscle, allowing you to lift a heavier weight. Try to choose a weight that wouldn’t compromise your form.

If you are just an average gym-goer or only been training for a couple of years, I would give them a miss. They are designed to get you out of the plateau. I don’t think you’ve reached the plateau if you’ve only been training for a few years.

For those of you who have only been training for a few years, over the next few weeks, I will be sharing with you some training tips to help you keep progressing through your plateaus.