How to Break the Plateau on the Big 3 Lifts
by Josh Whitworth
We’ve all been to the gym and seen that one guy that is throwing around a ton of weight. The biggest guy in the gym is benching at least three plates on each side, and you’re sitting there with your measly 25’s thrown on the sides for your bench workout. Which is extra annoying because you can rep it out, but the moment you put on a 35 plate instead, you hit the wall, so to speak. It’s kind of demoralizing and, quite frankly, it sucks.
But there is hope yet! There are three main keys that will get your maxes to increase exponentially guaranteed. I have utilized these numerous times. My personal maxes flew threw the roof on the big 3 lifts (squat, deadlift, and bench press) simply by applying these rules. They are science backed and can work for anyone.
There are three main categories that are manipulated when building a strength building workout plan: volume, intensity, and frequency. Unfortunately, the introduction of anabolic steroids has manipulated the way the industry designed workout plans. Where bodybuilders used to do more full body workouts, steroids allowed for body part splits to take the reign.
The 3 variables
Volume is the amount of work you put in to a specific body part. An example of volume manipulation is doing 3 set x 10 reps one week then the next week adding a set to make it a 4 sets x 10 reps workout. Intensity is simply how hard you work. The only way intensity can be manipulated is by trying as hard as you can or not. Frequency is the forgotten variable though. It is easily manipulated by focusing on a body part multiple times a week. This avoids overworking and over resting the muscle. So, instead of following a body part split, you would do multiple full body workouts a week. This allows for the most amount of change with the least amount of work.
How to manipulate frequency
A typical body part split has a full day specifically designed for chest. That would mean you’re doing 3 to 5 exercises for just that body part. The downfall of the body part split is that it then gives that body part a full week to recover, but that muscle doesn’t need that much time to recover unless it being over trained. Instead, split up those exercises to have just one or two a day. This allows for your muscle to recover quicker, and it gives you the ability to hit that muscle again sooner. It keeps the same volume, but spreads it out over multiple days instead of putting it all in one day. The muscle building signal peaks at 24-48 hours, so a 3-day split will allow for you to maximize this muscle building signal to that muscle. A great example of this is the P/P/L workout plan. That stands for Push/Pull/Legs. It allows for greater frequency since opposing muscle groups are working on opposite days. For example, on ‘push’ day would do presses, such as bench press, followed by a ‘pull’ day where you would do bent over rows. Those muscle groups work the same plane, but exact opposite motions of the other, activating opposing muscles. Some of these routines work that into the leg workouts as well. They will do a leg extension to get the quads working, then they will follow up with a leg curl which is the same movement, but the opposite muscle worked in the hamstring.
This one is kind of a no brainer. Form is key when working out for multiple reasons. The top two though, are that it eliminates the likelihood of injury and that it maximizes the amount of muscles that are incorporated into a lift, which, in turn, maximizes the amount of weight you can lift.
Full range of motion
An important thing to keep in mind with form is that you have to hit a full range of motion. I’m talking doing a full rep. There are those big guys the gym that do half reps claiming they work better because of ‘more time under tension by never letting the muscle rest.’ That’s a bunch of nonsense. Doing a half rep works the strength in that particular range of motion. To really get the full benefit of the lift and get the most strength is to do a full rep. Plus, a properly done lift maintains muscular tightness at the top of the rep instead of relaxing. That’s really how you get the most time under tension. Full range of motion and taking your time with a lift of course.
Time under tension
You could get a lot out of going through a movement very slow. It definitely adds a whole new element because it allows you to really engage and feel the lift in every stage of the motion. This will also give you the opportunity to spot any weak spots in a lift and address it. What you should do then is squat all the way down. Break parallel. Don’t stop because it gets too hard. Initially, a full range of motion lift may lessen the amount of weight and reps you can do, but it will increase the look of the muscle because it brings in the most amount of muscle in a longer range of motion. This will, in the end, get you more strength on those big compound lifts. It will also increase the total time under tension. That means that the muscles gets worked for a longer amount of time than a typical powerlifting lift where the goal of the lifter to is to move as much weight as quickly as possible.
What? How does sleep make you at all stronger, you ask? Well, that’s easy. I just really wanted to use this cute picture of a sleeping puppy! Just kidding, sleep is incredibly important for muscle building and strength increasing. Sleep is the time when your body does the most recovery. Scientists still don’t know why humans have to sleep, but it is crucial to survival. It only makes sense that quality sleep, just like quality lifts, help build the most strength.
The better you sleep, the better your muscles recover, the more weight you can lift. It’s pretty simple really. If you’re still skeptical, test it out. Don’t sleep much one night, then get a good night’s sleep the next and see the outcome for yourself. The thing to remember here though is that quality is much more important than quantity. The best way to get a quality nights sleep is to not wake up in the middle of a sleep cycle. A fitness tracker that can track sleep helps here a lot. What you do is go to sleep without an alarm to see how long you actually sleep. The tracker will be able to tell you when you were in which cycle and how long they last. This makes it easier to get closer to ending your sleep when you’re closest to being awake anyway. That lets you wake up more rested and feeling better.
A few little tricks to help you fall asleep and maximize your quality of sleep. Get off the electrics at least 30-minutes before going to sleep. The artificial light will make your sleep more restless. Instead of watching some Netflix before going to sleep, read a book. That’s a small thing that helps enormously. Another quick tip is to sleep in the cold. There are numerous studies that have shown you get better sleep in colder climate. So, either move north, or turn the air down when you sleep. As long as you get good quality sleep, your maxes will explode through the plateaus.
The wrap up
Everyone is trying to break through that plateau, especially on the big 3 lifts. Shoot for these three factors, and you are guaranteed to add big numbers to your maxes. Simply by manipulating your training frequency, perfecting each lift’s form, and getting quality sleep, you can break new ground and eliminate plateaus. The beauty of these tips are that the same concepts can be applied to any lift, not just the big 3 everyone asks about at the gym. From Mr. Olympia Shawn Rhoden to movie star Chris Pratt, you can guarantee their workout routine focuses on these three key components, so why not yours?