When Progress Stalls
As gym newbies, we can do no wrong. To one degree or another, everything we do comes off. You can deadlift six times a week and see your one rep max skyrocket. You could turn up to the gym once a week and still make persistent progress. There’s even the option of bingeing on pizza and alcohol through the weekend without completely sabotaging your efforts.
But there comes a point where the irresistible force of newbie gains loses its momentum, and big lifts begin to sputter. Now you have to fight to keep them moving. You need some semblance of a training plan, and you need the diet to back it up.
As you rack up the years, it only gets harder, and you stand a very good chance of staring up at a wall that you simply can’t break past or skirt around. No matter what conventional strength wisdom you throw at it.
You add more sets, more sessions, dial up the intensity, increase your calories, the kitchen sink. Nothing sticks. Your big lifts remain in purgatory, and you’re losing your appetite for training.
Unfortunately, common wisdom has plateau-busting backwards. The solution isn’t to do more. It’s often the opposite.
Big lift purgatory is what happens when you push your body to the point where you’re unable to recover from the unrelenting stress you’re inflicting on your muscles, tendons, and nervous system, week on week.
Is It Overtraining Or Under Recovering?
Many people these days go as far as to say overtraining is a myth for the layperson, only rearing its head at the extreme end of professional athletes, as a disastrous condition that sidelines the performer and takes months to recover from.
You’re not necessarily going to reach that precipice by training six days a week in your local gym while concurrently running a sidewalk jogging regime.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t flirt with the lower end of overtraining through excessive exertion, which still hosts plenty of nasty consequences.
Symptoms Of Overtraining
- Chronic fatigue
- No explosiveness
- Persistent muscle soreness
- No enthusiasm for bending barbells
- Strength plateau
Many people will still deny overtraining and point to a different culprit: under-recovering. In this scenario, those symptoms aren’t down to overexertion, they are the result of inadequate nutrition and lifestyle regimes.
And there is some merit to this. For example, you might not be getting enough protein to rebuild the muscle. Or you might be regularly making do with five hours of disgruntled sleep. Both can cost you in the long run.
That being said, you don’t get to make regular progress in the gym without being able to perform at peak capacity. Bad sleep hygiene can put a dent in that, but so can trying to tack on a three session of HIIT to your strength programme.
Both overtraining and under-recovering are culpable, and neither are going to be solved by adding more sets and reps to your bench press.
So with all that being said, here’s a selection of the most likely reasons why you’re not recovering on time.
1. Too Much Volume
In other words, you’re doing too many extra reps and sets, which is creating a boatload of extra fatigue that cripples you on two counts.
1. The fatigue suppresses muscle activation within the session – All those reps hasten the buildup central fatigue, which lowers the number of muscle fibers that can be stimulated.
2. That fatigue also comes along with muscle damage that slows recovery and lowers muscle protein synthesis – Muscle damage isn’t a driver of hypertrophy, despite what ancient literature might assure you. If anything, it impedes muscle growth by diverting some of that protein synthesis towards repairing damaged structures rather than building new ones.
Volume has no relation to muscle growth, and focusing on it can just cause your performance to nosedive and progress to screech to a halt. Working volume, as in the sum of reps taken close to failure, does lead to growth, but even that comes with a U-shaped curve.
There’s an optimal amount of working volume, which is surprisingly low, and going beyond that results in gradually depreciating results.
So in practice, I’d put that optimal volume as low 8-10 sets per muscle group, per week. As for the rep range, there’s not much point in going above 10 reps, and you’re best off spending most of your time in the 5-8 sweet spot in order to maximise effective volume.
The topic of why high volume training is a terrible idea deserves an article on its own, but in the meantime, you can head back to my article on muscle building mistakes for an overview.
2. No Deloads
Even if you have your volume load handled, you’ll still have to deal with the inevitable buildup of fatigue and joint stress that comes alongside intense strength training. That’s where one or two weeks of deloading can help reset that fatigue and get you back to peak capacity.
But there’s a big misconception about deloading. You don’t drop down to feather weights and go through the motions. That would only act to reverse all the adaptations you’ve worked so hard to put in place.
The best way to deload, is to continue to lift your heaviest weights, while lowering volume. This enables you to reverse fatigue while holding onto the adaptations. Get through a week or two of sub-volume lifting, and you’ll be coming back stronger.
3. Too Many Unstable Exercises
As much as I love barbells, I wouldn’t go as far as to call them your best options for building muscle. Don’t get me wrong, I still consider them essential in the grand scheme of achieving peak strength and shape, but you simply won’t maximise hypertrophy by sticking stubbornly to old school barbell work.
The issue here is that all barbell work requires an extra element of stability, which ultimately reduces activation in the target muscle by diverting some of that force away towards stabilising and co-contracting synergistic muscles. They also create a larger perceived effort, which increases the buildup of central fatigue.
Machines on the other hand, are typically far more stable, meaning that more of that force can be funnelled into the activation of the target muscle. They require less effort, which means less central fatigue.
So using machines in your routine costs less energy for the same amount of hypertrophy, letting you better manage fatigue across a training block. You shouldn’t dispense with barbells entirely, because the increased effort and stability gains naturally lead to machine exercises becoming even easier by comparison.
Excessive amounts of eccentric training create levels of muscle damage that impedes recovery. Whereas 48 hours would normally suffice to get the muscles back online after a session, too much muscle damage can stretch it to 72 hours and beyond.
You shouldn’t confuse this with slow eccentrics, which basically means extending the negative, or lowering portion of the rep. So rather than with a one second concentric and two second eccentric, you’re doing one and four.
That’s fair game, even if it can be considered abuse if you repeat it on every set across the session. Slow eccentrics can stimulate the Type 1 fibers and creates bonus stretch-mediated hypertrophy in a select group of muscles.
Eccentric training, on the other hand, describes exercises where you intentionally overload the negative. Such as with glute ham raises and forced reps on the bench press.
It may seem like a great tactic to make the most of the fact that the muscle is 30% stronger on the negative, but in reality the effect on hypertrophy is minimal, and the extra muscle damage and fatigue make them more of a hindrance.
It would be practical to moderate their use in your programme if you want to ensure quick recovery in between sessions.
Despite my biases, I wouldn’t go as far as to say cardio is without its perks. I do think it’s vastly overrated, but it can be a useful tool for stress relief and improving mitochondrial health. But the dose makes the poison, and plenty of lifters are indulging in way too much.
Cardio done to any appreciable distance will cause fatigue, which can in turn impede recovery. Which isn’t necessarily going to be game-breaking. The occasional 20 minute session on the bike won’t be a cause for concern, but running and HIIT classes will result in additional muscle damage due to their high impact nature.
So you can’t train for a half-marathon, and take on a strength programme without experiencing some conflicts of interest. Your recovery will inevitably suffer, and your performance in the gym will take a knock.
If you are going to juggle both cardio and weights, for some reason, then at least have the sense to make it low impact.
6. Lack Of Mindfulness
With that, we’ve covered the main issues that drive overtraining. Now let’s unravel the background factors that affect your ability to recover from stress. First up, is a catch-all term for stress management, which I’m going to take the liberty of labelling mindfulness.
This is simply, your awareness of the present senses, as opposed to being caught up in thoughts of the past and future. Which is mindlessness, and opens you up to a whole lot of grief and anxiety.
The ability to be mindful is critical to getting you into a parasympathetic state, where the body is able to settle down and funnel more of its resources towards resting and rebuilding. Two crucial components of recovery.
On the other hand, states of mindlessness keep you pitched up in the sympathetic state, where you’re constantly preparing for war and disregarding recovery.
In practice, this is a huge issue in the modern environment, which is primed to keep us stressed. We’re constantly assaulted by stimuli that can imply danger, even things as innocuous as the phone ringing.
To add to that, there are the ever-present threats of seemingly catastrophic events, such as missing out on your mortgage payment, or being fired for falling short on performance requirements.
The noise can be all too much sometimes, keeping you trapped in a mindless state that jeopardises your progress in the big lifts. Which may not seem like a big priority while you’re fighting for your existence, but that’s besides the point.
Being mindful means pulling yourself out of the mental spiral and back into reality, where you can better establish what is a threat, and what’s just a construct of your imagination. Chances are, you’re either fussing about something that’s either not going to happen, or something that’s outside your control. In either case, worrying does nothing.
As the Greek Stoic Epictetus once said: “It’s not things that affect us, but our judgement of things”. In other words, perception is everything. Exercising mindfulness allows you to de-escalate stressful situations and tell your physiology to calm the f down and get growing muscle.
I’ve realised I haven’t really touched on how to be mindful, and that’s another article in the making. But it’s relatively simple. Pay attention to your senses. The sights, the smells, the sounds, the sensation of the breath entering and leaving the body. When the ruminating rollercoasting inevitably spoils the party, recognise the thought, label it, then bring your focus back to the present.
Meditation is just one form of mindfulness. You don’t have to sit in a quiet room with the blinds closed. Anything you do has the potential to be mindful. Walking, talking, lifting, anything.
7. Scarcity Of Nutrition
We can’t talk about optimal recovery without tackling nutrition. You need to be able to fuel the high intensity lifts, and provide the building blocks to come back stronger. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be as simple as hitting your protein and caloric targets.
You also need to saturate your dinner plate with the micronutrients needed to maximise the utilisation of the macronutrients. In other words, you need to be gleaning your macronutrients from food sources that are also stacked with the vitamins and minerals that the body craves.
Fortunately, the solution is right there in front of you. Eat more red meat, eggs, and add in some liver if you fancy hyperdosing your micros. With three ingredients, you’ll be covering all bases and fuelling the body with everything it needs to thrive.
As for carbs, they are generally surplus to requirements, but there is the case of glycogen depletion that occurs during the heavy lifts. While being fat adapted will prevent the tank from being emptied, it only takes some localised depletion to negatively impact performance.
So to make sure your glycogen tank doesn’t get depleted, add in some workout carbs to sip alongside electrolytes in between your lifts. Those carbs will get instantly sucked up by the muscle vacuum, leaving none to trouble your bloodstream and upset ketosis in the aftermath.
Lastly, you’ll only be able to recover from so much while cutting down to the lower ranges of body-fat. So be smart and keep the volume low, or call it quits and begin the next bulk.
8. Caffeine Resistance
Being the world’s second most popular drug, after sugar, caffeine often enjoys devout protection from any criticism. But as a stimulant, it does come with consequences. Each time one draws from the caffeine well, there’s a little cost that can easily buildup when consumed nonstop over a decade.
Caffeine exerts its stimulating effects by blocking adenosine, the body’s chemical for getting you tired and sluggish. Adenosine is designed to start low in the morning, then gradually build across the day to get you sleepy right on cue for bedtime.
But for various reasons, the adenosine can start the day pretty high and throw the delicate cycle out of whack. One such reason, being caffeine tolerance.
The aforementioned cost of freewheeling caffeine, is that the body responds to the adenosine hack by adding more adenosine receptors, and that can build to an uncomfortably large tired signal that a heaped tablespoon of coffee can only put a dent in.
So what, can’t you just take even larger doses of caffeine? Well, there’s a reason some pre workout have over 400mg per scoop. And while they can briefly clear the cobwebs and increase your explosive capacity in the gym, you’ll still be well below 100% capacity.
Rather than diving in for a second scoop, accept that you may be due a painful detox.
9. Lack Of Quality Sleep
Finally, there’s the small matter of good sleep hygiene, being the key phase of recovery. Insufficient sleep has the ability to interfere with every bodily process.
You can only do so much if you’re not getting good consistent shuteye. And I have to underline that this is about quality more than quantity. Knocking yourself out with CBD oil doesn’t work, because the resulting sleep is chaotic.
There are so many variables that go into determining how great your sleep is, and it can be overwhelming to try and hack. But when you take a peek at your routine through an ancestral lens, it all starts to look a little easy.
The Wind Down – Avoid peppering the body with stimulants in the leadup to bedtime. That spans a wide array of stuff. Caffeine has all the potential to disrupt sleep, and has a half life of 5-8 hours. For that reason, I’d highly recommend cutting it out after midday.
Blue light, present in sunlight as well as electronics, also acts as a stimulant while also lowering sleep-inducing melatonin. So you’ll want to make an effort to dim the lights and restrict screen time during the post-sunset hours.
Digestion isn’t necessarily stimulatory, but it will take enough of a toll to detract from the quality of sleep. You’re best off fasting for at least 2 hours before bedtime.
Social life and responsibilities are also stimulating by virtue of being stressful, meaning I’d highly recommend putting your phone on flight mode and avoiding people as you embark on your bedtime routine.
The Wake Up – Make sure you get your fill of sunlight as soon as it’s available. And that doesn’t mean staring at the early rays from behind a window, but actually getting out there and letting the sun blast your retinas. This will help set the circadian rhythm and kickstart the process that’ll eventually get you sleepy in time for bed.
There’s still one thing that’s needed to bring all this together: consistency. An optimised sleep routine isn’t going to bring in miracles overnight, but if you keep hitting the same beats and the same times, the body will wise up to it, and the quality of your sleep will take a noticeable turn for the better.
Treat yourself like the confused computer you are.
There are plenty more reasons why you might be short on recovery, one of them being that you’re actually just not training hard enough to warrant progress. But regardless, these tips will still pull you up to a different stratosphere in your ability to build muscle and strength.