I've hit my share of plateaus. They're frustrating. They make you question what you know. In a sense, they provoke the same reactions as seeing Donald Trump run away with the GOP nomination.
On the flip side, my most rewarding workouts have been those where I've busted through to the other side. I've also learned much more from missing my goals than I have from achieving them. But seeing the forest through the trees is easier said than done.
If you think your program is the reason you're stuck on your squat/deadlift/press, there are plenty of general programs that'll help get you over the hump. I'd highly suggest 5/3/1 or some Westside Barbell templates. They might appear different but they're based on a simple principle - more practice, at varying weights, will help you improve.
That said, programming often gets too much credit for breaking plateaus. In reality, the secret for 99% of us comes down to good coaching and great execution. Below are three tips to help exactly that.
1. Technique. Technique. Technique.
With spring around the corner, I'm constantly keeping my eyes peeled on runners to figure out how they're compensating. And let me tell you, my wife Lindsay loves when I share my thoughts out loud.
But even if you don't know what you're looking for, we know bad running form when see it. Conversely, there's a certain effortlessness and mastery that accompanies elite runners (at least before mile 20). The same is true with lifting.
In any deadlift/squat/Turkish Get Up, great form is easy to spot when you see it. But in order to know how to get there, in person coaching is the best solution. You have to know what to look for, lest you look like this.
But if you don't have access to a great coach, I'd highly suggest using video and recording yourself. Video is a great tool and it's what I credit with many of the goals and milestones I've reached. By taping all of my reps (and I do mean all), I've been able to go back and correct small flaws in between sets. Weight acts as a magnifying glass and gets more intense as it increases. Little flaws may not look like a big deal with 135 pounds, but it will with 405.
A good lift should mirror good writing - simple, effortless and nothing extraneous. The truth? It was anything but.
2. Hone in Your Mental Game.
Mental toughness and sports psychology is a topic that is far deeper than one blog post - or one section of a blog post - could cover. And frankly, I'm only qualified to tell you what's worked for me. If you'd like anything more than the Cliff Notes I shell out below, I recommend reading Psych by Judd Biasotto or this post from Joel Jameison.
Anyway, here are the Cliff Notes I've learned from the past few years:
- Unless you're 100% sure you'll make the lift, you won't.
- If you ARE 100% sure, there's still no guarantee you'll make it. In which case, see "Technique" above.
- Positive self-talk is undervalued, even if it makes you seem like you've escaped from an insane asylum. I can't tell you how many times I've gone to a separate room to tell myself how good I was at squatting, deadlifting, or pressing. It works.
- Use positive self-talk to overcome any negative thoughts as soon as they creep into your mind.
- Learn the skill of complete muscle relaxation. It took me a few months to learn but was a game changer. When you have it down then vividly picture your goal. What does the bar feel like? What music is playing? Where are you planting your feet? Going over the scenarios in your head - while completely relaxed - helps immensely when it comes time to perform.
- Incorporate complete muscle relaxation again shortly before you attempt your goal. Along with positive self-talk, it'll assuage the anxiety.
These tips illustrate how seeking physical strength often increases mental strength. It's also why I'm so addicted to strength training :)
3. Fix Your....Pelvis Position?
It's easy to associate technique and psychology with plateaus. But it takes a leap to associate the position of someone's pelvis with being stuck at a plateau. Let's take that leap together...
If our pelvis is in the wrong position - and we're battling extension - it changes the function of our muscles. If we're utilizing our quads, hip flexors, and rectus abdominus (the 6 pack muscle on our abzz) to hold up our pelvis, it's going to limit the amount of force we can create. Because instead of creating force and power, these muscles first need to do their job of holding us up and stabilizing. It's a lot like trying to fire a cannon from a canoe.
On the other hand, if we're using our obliques and hamstrings to hold up our pelvis, we're now freeing our other muscles up do their own job more efficiently. And that's really the goal of many of the positional breathing drills I speak about on here. The benefits don't just end with the drill, they proceed to make everything else 107% more sexy.