How to Break Through Weight Lifting Plateaus

Posted by Norse Fitness on

If you have been training for a while, odds are you have hit a plateau at some point along your path. Maybe you are in one right now and in dire need of reading this very article, or you are new to training and nutrition and can get set off on the right foot saving yourself from an abundance of future frustrations down the road.

Many people do not know what to do at the point of a plateau. In fact, most will take the “more is better” approach when coming across one, but over the years I have found that hitting that wall is typically due to the person trying to accomplish too much at once. For example, trying to get leaner and healthier while attempting to train for a deadlift PR, or in other words: simply not eating enough for the performance goal they are trying to achieve or the style of training they are currently doing.

What it comes down to is what I call the triangle of awareness.

Within this triangle we have 3 goals:




These are 3 categories that all require different training and nutritional protocols.

Now, this can be difficult to explain to the beginner. Within their first year or so of training and cleaning up their nutrition, they can typically achieve all 3 of these goals at once by getting up and actually doing something other than sitting around, eating like shit and/or drinking all the time.

If you take a sedentary individual and get them moving more and making better nutritional decisions - I guarantee they will look better, perform better and become healthier. It is 100x more than they had been doing in the first place. Now, as humans, we are highly adaptive creatures and have the amazing ability to adapt to stresses and stimuli. This a good thing for health & survival, but not when it comes to intentionally presenting ourselves with stresses such as intense training, calorie deficits or changing the body. We must become aware of what is going on and how to re-route when needed. This is where the problem lays. What you were doing up until now may no longer work and you may need more structure and/or help. Not a new more intense program or a “new diet”.

You have simply adapted when hitting a plateau. In the case of cutting to get lean and hitting a wall at an already very low amount of calories, the fix will not be cutting more calories and working out more as you have already been eating less and moving more to an extreme. This state is called adaptive thermogenesis, or metabolic adaptation. For example a 6’0”, 200lbs, muscular, active male that is 12% body fat with a BMR of 1900 calories that has been eating 2300 calories for several weeks and not seeing further progress - should probably not go down much further in caloric intake if he still wants so fuck his girlfriend, perform in the gym, recover, feel good and most importantly, not fuck himself up for sustainable future progress. He needs to return to base and recover from the stresses he has put his body & mind through.

The guy that is maxing out his dead lift all the time is most likely going to fry his CNS, (central nervous system) & adrenals which leads to poor performance, recovery and can even lead to a state that is called HPA Axis dysfunction, otherwise known as adrenal fatigue. This is a tired and wired state.

That is a shitty thing to do to yourself.

For example, cutting calories to get shredded requires an exit strategy to avoid body fat overshooting, which is a rapid accumulation of body fat. When we lose fat our fat cells actually shrink, we do not lose them. The bad thing is we do have the ability to gain new fat cells. When dieting hard, then going straight back to our old habits, we increase the size of the shrunken fat cells and can gain new ones. This is body fat overshooting.

When we have solidified a base to work with, we will then need to carve paths from that base towards the battles we choose to venture into. A very similar path should be taken back to base once the battle has taken place. This path may need to be walked several times before accomplishing certain goals. This is why setting realistic expectations and short-term goals is crucial to long term success.

This base is called HOMEOSTASIS. When we are at this homeostatic point our hormones are optimized and functioning properly, we are healthy, stress is low, we are sleeping good, gut health is good, neurotransmitter production appears to be good and we have an understanding (or awareness) of how we built this base. Homeostasis is the middle of the triangle and is typically called maintenance.

Let’s just say that we have built a solid foundation and are ready to go. The land of fat loss & aesthetics lays to the north and we must carve a path towards it to attack. This is the entrance strategy that will leave us with a similar exit strategy back towards base. Jumping straight into battle without strategy is a bad idea.

Performance goals are to the southeast and they too need a path carved towards them. This path will require a much different strategy of battle than our other enemies as they are a completely different beast, yet this still needs an entrance and exit strategy.

If the goal is purely health-based due to things like poor labs or fighting genetic threats that run in your family, we can head to the lands of longevity and health that lay to the southwest. If this is truly the long-term goal we may never return from here, however, the path has been carved to return towards base one day where we can solidify and prepare for a new goal.

It is clear that each one of these battles requires a different strategy and plan of attack, or different training & nutritional approaches. Each one of these goals must be attempted by leaving from and returning to base for continual progress.

Want to leave the base to attack a 600lbs deadlift? That is going to look much different than getting down to 5% or even 10% body fat.

Wanting to train and eat for that 600lbs deadlift while focusing on longevity is not going to work too well long term. You will be thrashing your body and feeding it a lot more calories and different macronutrient ratios than a longevity protocol require.

Have you neglected to build a foundation and are lost out in the woods? This is a common case when it comes to many people and their goals. We compare ourselves to others that we want to be like an attempt to do what they are doing when in reality you may not be ready for anything of the sort.

Trying to stay at peak performance forever does not work. Science and physiology have proven this, and you can’t beat science. Attempting to do so is how we fail over and over again.

When I start working with a new client, for example, they often just want to know what workouts to do and how to eat.  After a thorough dietary, training, health, and lifestyle assessment I often find they are running around in the woods naked looking for a new diet or training program with no base what so ever to work with.

So, is it possible that you are this wild nomad hopping from one thing to the next without any solid place to return to so that you can recover and strategize?

Are you pushing peak performance for too long with minimal progress?

Are you pushing for a certain level of fat loss for too long and too hard and aren’t quite where you’d like to be?

When was the last time you prioritized a recovery period from all of this stimulus?

In a sense, this is all closely correlated to periodization. Which is essentially peaking, recovering, strategizing, preparing and attacking again.

An athlete will be at peak performance during the IN-SEASON phase. Food is simply fuel & recovery during this phase. Nobody ever got on the winner’s podium for having abs (unless you are physique or bodybuilding which is aesthetics). IN-SEASON is always followed by a POST-SEASON phase where calories come back to maintenance, training volume & intensity is low, mobility and corrective exercises are incorporated for long term sustainability and health of the individual.

Following POST-SEASON an athlete will go into an OFF-SEASON phase to develop new strengths and acquire new skills.

After an OFF-SEASON phase PRE-SEASON takes play where the individual is taking those new skills and strengths and preparing to leave the base to attack the goal at hand which is again the IN-SEASON phase.

This applies to everyone, not just athletes.

Doing this on our own requires a good amount of patience, experience & an understanding of ourselves and the model we are using.

This is another skill that takes time to develop.

Many who become too eager and excited will rarely allow themselves to recover properly, in turn hindering their own results and leading to the dreaded plateau. It shouldn’t take too much time to realize this, and that what we do as lifters, athletes and general gym rats is not normal. Cavemen would probably think that we are stupid for intentionally exerting the amount of energy that we do. What we need to realize is the body will at some point fight back and we need to listen to that in order to continue doing what we love long term.

There is a time to train harder, but don’t let it get in the way of training smarter.


Written For Norse Fitness by Ethan Buck | @iron_will_pt