The Muscle Growth Plateau: A Troubleshooting GuideJan 07, 2024
We’ve all been there.
Reading books or articles, listening to our favourite experts or podcasts online, trying that new program which is supposed to be working for everyone - at least if you go by the glowing testimonials…except for yourself.
You might have a few weeks of progress, followed by - best case - weeks or months of little to no results, or - worst case - setbacks, regression or injury.
Looking for solutions, you try it all:
- Advanced periodisation strategies with programs created by advanced algorithms, “based on science”. NASA approved.
- Lengthened partials and extreme stretching protocols.
- “Spamming” lateral raises (endless sets several times per day of high rep training)
- Some weird exercise where you twist and contort your body to look like a pretzel to “optimise the resistance curve”.
- Permabulking, because you “need to increase the body’s set point weight” and getting fat is just part of the process.
- Magical muscle math (see my podcast with Paul Carter).
The years go by and when you review your training log (you do keep one, right?) you see that you’re pretty much in the exact same place.
While some lack structure and motivation to get going, a major part of what I see in both men and women is struggling to break through stagnation and plateaus in their strength and muscle building programs is how they are managing the complex interplay between training, nutrition and recovery. It should be possible to keep gaining even after a decade of training, as a recent review showed.
Here are the categories people fall into when they try to solve the problem:
- The Dabbler: Also goes by: Program Hopper or Fuckarounditis. Enthusiastic at first but quickly loses interest as the novelty wears off. Jumps from one thing to another in endless loops, looking for the answer “out there”.
- The Obsessive: Driven by results, pushing hard to overcome plateaus. Trains harder, adds sets, adds exercises. More, more, more. Often leads to burnout or injury.
- The Hacker: Reaches a basic level of skill and then stops progressing, uses all kinds of “tricks” all promised by marketing gurus to be total game-changers. Finally concedes failure and is content with mediocrity.
- The Master: Embraces that achieving goals is a PROCESS. It requires commitment and consistency. Acquires better knowledge, applies focused practice, adopts strategic and systematic processes. When we embrace mastery, we stay dedicated day in, day out, month after month, year after year.
I want to show you how you can become The Master.
Understanding and Overcoming The Plateau
Strength and muscle growth plateaus are a complex interplay of physical and psychological factors. By understanding and strategically addressing each aspect, you can continue to make significant gains.
I’m going to break it down into the following main categories:
- The constraints
Covering all of these in-depth would require a whole book (I promise I will write that book one day), and in this article I primarily want to provide you with the most important and practical takeaways, so let’s dig in.
Let’s look at what we can do in the gym to solve plateaus.
We can subdivide this topic into 3 parts:
- Stimulus - are we applying a sufficiently strong stimulus for the body to initiate an adaptive response?
- Fatigue - when applying a stimulus, we will inevitably be adding fatigue to the mix. Fatigue is defined as a temporary, but reversible reduction in performance, and the mechanisms involved limits our ability to stimulate muscle growth again.
- Adaptation - we can apply a stimulus and manage+recover from fatigue, but there can be limitations that prevent us from translating it into actual muscle growth.
Solving Stimulus Plateaus
Stimulus plateaus occur when:
- The growth from each workout becomes insufficient to allow progress from workout to workout, i.e the stimulus is insufficient to cause progress.
- When your expectation of progress is higher than the realistic, physiological rate of progress and you try to push beyond what is reasonable - i.e. the growth stimulus is sufficient but not subjectively noticeable.
Let’s address these separately.
The ability to lift a load is dictated by 2 factors:
- The neural drive or (power and coordination of) the electrical impulses that tells the muscle to contract
- The size and strength of the contracting muscle
Motor unit recruitment limitations
Here’s a conundrum: It is possible that training status affects which muscle fibers in a muscle are capable of growth.
Muscle fibers have different “thresholds”, where the lowest threshold and most endurance, oriented fibers are easier to activate than the highest treshold and most explosive fibers.
Thus, when beginners become intermediates, the lowest group of high-threshold motor units reaches a plateau in size.
When intermediates become advanced, they reach a plateau in the middle group of high-threshold motor units, leaving them only with the ability to cause growth in the highest group.
Since the highest group is the most susceptible to mentioned calcium ion-related fatigue, high volumes are unlikely to be productive for advanced lifters. Instead, they need to maximize motor unit recruitment levels to reach the highest of the highest-threshold fibers that still have the potential to grow.
The solution to adaptation plateaus is to increase motor unit recruitment, and there are both physiological and psychological ways to achieve that:
The more you have to coordinate and balance during the performance of an exercise, the less motor unit recruitment.
The solution is to use machines or to sit or lie down for better stability. I’m not saying you should never do free weights and compound movements, but from a motor unit recruitment perspective you should add more stability.
The CNS will have to distribute the neural drive to more muscle mass in a compound movement vs. an isolation movement.
The motor unit recruitment of your quadriceps will be higher on a leg extension than on a squat or leg press, and this the mechanical tension stimulus will also be higher.
Of course we compromise our ability to stimulate the number of muscle groups when we use single-joint movements instead of multi-joint movements, but for the goal of maximising MU recruitment it is absolutely essential. And it’s not a question of either/or, we will use both in our programming - but I suggest we emphasize more isolation movements the more advanced we get.
When you use both sides of the body at the same time, there is less overall recruitment - called the bilateral strength deficit.
This is easy to confirm for yourself: compare your strength on a leg extension with both legs to what you can do one leg at a time. It’s on the order of 5-10%+, meaning that if you can do 10 reps with 100kg on both legs, you should be able to do 55kg for 10 reps on each leg separately.
The CNS tends to send signals to the muscle or parts of the muscle it deems to have the best strength and leverage to do a movement.
This has both advantages and disadvantages.
The disadvantage is that you may not fully stimulate a muscle group if it has less leverage. Activating motor units and maximizing growth in the highest threshold muscle fibers would require you to not only use more stable, unilateral, isolation exercises but also exercises that align the resistance curve to that specific muscle’s strength curve.
Exercise selection is a complex topic beyond the scope of this article, but my recommendation is to implement more exercise variation as you get more advanced.
The common advice to “stick to the basics” works well from the beginner to intermediate stage, but moving beyond that requires that you begin to understand and experiment with how different exercises stimulate different parts of your muscles and how well they work for your biomechanics.
Just to give you an idea - I have ONLY experienced better gains in strength and muscle mass while suffering from fewer pains, aches, and injuries since I stopped doing regular bench presses, squats, and deadlifts.
Be smart, and avoid dogmatic thinking.
Other strategies that will enhance motor unit recruitment will be addressed in the next chapter on fatigue management: Proximity To Failure, Longer Rest Periods, Lower Rep Ranges (and heavier loads), and Explosive Lifting/Faster Eccentrics.
Psychological factors also play a significant role.
Complete coverage will have to wait for another time, so let’s focus on the most important strategies to maximize motor unit recruitment:
Autonomy in Exercise Selection:
Allowing lifters to choose their favourite exercises can significantly boost motivation and thus motor unit recruitment.
Ensuring that the lifter enjoys their training is important.
If you like high-rep training and hate low-rep training, it probably doesn’t matter how physiologically optimal it is, you won’t achieve long-term results if you start to lose motivation and dread going to the gym.
A progression model that shows tangible results is essential for sustained motivation. The Patient Lifter’s strategies outlined earlier provide more tangible and observable numbers than just grinding endlessly without any direct feedback that what you’re doing is working.
Internal focus (on the muscle) will increase motor unit recruitment, but only during isolation movements.
External focus (on the movement or outside environment) improves coordination.
For example: focusing on your quads during leg extensions will enhance motor unit recruitment. Focusing on your quads during squats will tend to disturb your coordination and worsen your performance.
The realistic and expected rate of progression
Building muscle takes time, for someone with decades of training experience, gaining more than 2-3kg (4.5-6.6lbs, the conversion from kg to lbs is *2.2) in a full year is considered great progress.
This is the equivalent of 200g of muscle mass per month, hardly noticeable even with the most accurate methods or instruments, and since fluid shifts from various causes can cause swings of up to several kilos from day to day.
It’s possible to gain strength rapidly in the short term by improving technique and coordination, learning a new exercise (the more complex, the more learning is required before we can stimulate muscle growth fully) or by using stimulants - so there is no perfect correlation to muscle growth.
If we constantly switch things up, we will never know if we’re progressing in muscle mass or just (re)learning an exercise.
However, if we’re consistently able to add reps or load or both to a given exercise, over several months we can be fairly certain that there will also be measurable gains in muscle mass.
First, you need to have both realistic expectations for muscle growth and strength gains. At the advanced level, we can’t expect to add 2.5-5kgs of load to the bar every week. Even 1kg per week is often too optimistic.
Just imagine adding 52kg to your lateral raises or biceps curl from year to year?
Not going to happen.
The solution: Match the progression model to a more realistic strength expectation.
Consider the following analogy: You’re driving in the city and approaching the traffic lights at an intersection.
If you’re impatient type, you will accelerate hard out of the intersection, and brake hard as you approach a red light at the next intersection. The light turns green and you repeat the process. This increases the wear and tear on the car and risk of accidents.
If you drive too slow, you will create a congestion in traffic and not get anywhere.
If you adapt your speed just perfectly, the light will turn green just as you approach it and you don’t have to slow down at all. You may even be able to hit a “green wave” where all you see are green lights throughout the entire journey. Probably won’t happen in practice due to how traffic lights are programmed, but you get the idea.
Here are 4 ways to implement the Patient Lifter’s Strategy:
1. Use micro weights. There are several options to be found, from fractional weight plates of 100-500g (magnetic ones to attach to dumbbells are also available) to ankle/wrist weights. Adding 100g per week to your lateral raises is still 5.2kgs in a year, and 26kgs in 5 years.
2. Spread out the rep increments over more time.
A rep is approximately the equivalent of 2-3% gain in strength, and might not be achievable every week, depending on the exercise. If you spread that rep progression over several sets, you now have a longer runway to progress from. Example: 3 sets of 5 reps, adding 1 rep to each set (5,5,5 - 6,5,5 - 6,6,5 - 6,6,6) until you reach 7,7,7 or 8,8,8 - you now have 6-9 weeks before adding load and dropping back down to 5,5,5 again.
3. Spread out load increments over more time by adding more exercise variety to your workout rotation.
At the beginner level, it’s not uncommon to train bench press two times per week, adding load every time. At the intermediate stage, you could alternate between bench press and incline bench press, and now only add load to the bench press once per week. At the advanced stage, you could add flyes to the rotation (we will discuss exercise variety later), or different grips, machines and so on - repeating the “regular” bench press only every 2-3 weeks.
4. Repeat the same reps and load several workouts in a row.
This might not be everyone’s preference, as it tends to reinforce the impression of a plateau, but still viable if you just accept that it may take a few workouts before gains manifest into an ability to add 1 rep or your chosen load increment.
This approach ensures continuous, albeit gradual, muscle growth.
Now we have a flow chart:
Now, let’s consider the unavoidable fatigue that goes along with any growth stimulus.
Solving Fatigue Plateaus
A fatigue plateau manifests as a (reversible) reduction in performance.
The short-term causes of fatigue, such as metabolic stress and glycogen depletion, tend to dissipate rapidly after a workout unless you do more training (doing cardio will also add metabolic stress) or eat a low-carb diet.
The long-term (spanning 1-2+ days) causes of fatigue are caused by the influx of calcium ions into the muscle during muscular contractions, and this accumulation will cause muscle damage and inflammation.
Calcium ion-related fatigue is essential to understand because it reduces the tension produced and experienced by muscle fibers during a workout, and therefore reduces the stimulus for muscle growth such that later sets are less effective than the first sets.
The research indicates that 1 set (close to) failure achieves 50% or more of the maximum available growth stimulus, but you need 6 sets to get close to 100%.
This added volume also comes at the cost of more fatigue, which can be long-lasting and require more days to recover from if not managed properly.
One final thing to remember about this fatigue is that it not only affects a muscle locally, but also the Central Nervous System (CNS).
CNS fatigue means that you will be unable to maximally stimulate ANY muscle, so if you did a highly fatiguing leg workout on one day, it could very well affect your ability to stimulate muscle growth in your biceps the next day!
Here are the primary factors that increase fatigue:
- Training to failure.
The final repetition where rep speed slows down to the point of barely moving, is where the tension inside the muscle becomes so high that it dramatically increases calcium-ion-related fatigue.
Staying at 1, even 2 reps from failure will avoid this.
This becomes a fine balance, because training volume recommendations needs to be applied within the context of working to a certain proximity to failure, at least on lighter loads.
With heavier loads it doesn’t seem to be as important to train close to failure, because we’re inherently already close to failure by lifting heavy loads, and rep speed is low from the very first rep.
Going close to the point of failure only seems to be required when you’re lifting lighter loads. Which brings us to the next point:
- Higher reps cause more fatigue.
As just mentioned, you need to train closer to failure for lighter loads to stimulate muscle growth, and doing more reps is more metabolically demanding and requires more effort. The longer time under tension also increases calcium-ion influx, so we add both short- and long-term fatigue by doing higher reps.
As I will get back to later, I still think there is value to higher rep training, but the best stimulus: fatigue ratio is achieved with lower reps (4-8 is a good range).
One of my preferred workout structures is to start with 1-2 sets of 4-6 reps at 1-2RIR to achieve a high stimulus:fatigue ratio when you are fresh, and place the higher rep training at the end.
- Shorter rest periods increase the metabolic cost and perception of effort, and the fatigue accumulates more rapidly from set to set and exercise to exercise.
And before you ask: the reason Myo-reps still works is that you manage fatigue by not going to failure (at least not until the very last mini-set) and by limiting it to a single set. I also recommend several minutes of rest between exercises.
- Full range of motion and exercises where the load is highest and where the muscle is the most lengthened opens up “stretch-activated ion channels” and increases calcium-ion influx.
Even though this is all the rage these days, I tend to doubt that it makes a major difference long-term and I tend to think it’s more of a “new, shiny object” syndrome. You see, one of the adaptations is that the muscle grows longer (by adding sarcomeres in series), hence diminishing the effect over time. Even if some claim that other mechanisms makes lengthened-biased exercises more effective, it’s still important to keep in mind that there’s a fatigue cost.
- Training more muscle groups and larger muscle groups adds more fatigue.
There’s a trade-off, though - so if you replace a set of squats with a set of leg extensions, leg curls and hip thrust you just did 3x the number of sets, even if these sets were less fatiguing individually. There are certainly other reasons to do more isolation exercises, though - as we will discuss later.
- Eccentric repetitions.
On the lowering phase of a repetition, fewer muscle fibers are engaged. Thus, the tension experienced by these fibers are higher, and the strain may cause more calcium-ion influx, especially if you slow down the tempo.
Since you’re also way stronger on the eccentric, it’s possible to lift supra-maximal loads as an advanced training technique (heavier than you can lift concentrically), and this becomes even more fatiguing. Even if slow or overloaded eccentrics can be an effective stimulus, the added fatigue might not be worth it for some, so as you get more advanced you should probably slightly speed up the eccentric.
Not to the point of letting the weight free fall as that may compromise safety and increase injury risk, but the cue “control the lowering” should be sufficient, or - if you want a specific number - a 1-2sec eccentric should be a good range.
As you can see, the more ambitious we are in applying a stimulus, the more fatigue we have to deal with. It’s a constant balancing act where we will have to consider the stimulus:fatigue ratio of all these training variables. The more stimulus and the less fatigue, the faster we can recover.
I’m a big proponent of Autoregulation in your training.
This means adjusting your intensity and volume based on how your body feels on any given day. On days when you feel strong and energetic, you might push harder.
On days when you're feeling fatigued, you would ease off a bit. If your performance significantly drops off from set to set, it’s an indicator that you should consider stopping there move on to the next exercise or body part.
A special note: I couldn’t write this article without stating that I strongly believe Myo-reps can be an incredible plateau buster.
I don’t have any solid evidence to back this up, it’s something I’ve seen consistently in the 18 years since I created it, so you’re just going to have to decide to take my word for it or not.
I’ve used it myself, in a majority of my 5000+ clients, and it’s spread as a wildfire throughout the training world.
I’ve seen advanced bodybuilders and powerlifters who have been stuck for a long time implement Myo-reps in their training programs, and after only a few weeks see not only visual progress in the mirror but also their strength numbers going up.
From the research we have on rest-pause training (there’s also a soon-to-be-published study on Myo-reps from University of Tampa), it’s one of two outcomes:
Rest-pause is most likely superior to traditional when the study subjects end up working close to failure, thus supporting the Effective Reps model.
The major disadvantage is that due to its nature of short rest periods and working closer to failure, there’s a higher fatigue cost from it - so keep that in mind.
In my upcoming Myo-reps book and program templates I’ll provide the full theoretical and practical framework to get the maximum benefits out of this time-saving and effective training technique that I’m extremely proud of!
Moving forward, how do we determine the optimal balance between stimulus and fatigue?
By your ability to progress.
If you’re able to consistently add reps or load or both, we can be fairly sure that you have applied a correct stimulus and recovered from the associated fatigue.
I outline a systematic process of how to figure this out in The Last Program, but here’s a brief summary:
- Start with 1 set to failure and a moderate to high frequency
- After a couple of weeks, switch to 1-2RIR and add one set
- Strategically change volume and frequency, while keeping an eye on the other variables (rep ranges and exercise selection) and evaluate your progress…or lack thereof.
- Remove any recovery constraints (later in the article)
If you have plateaued for more than 3-4 weeks, or even started to regress, it ultimately means you’re not managing your fatigue properly.
The solution: More rest days.
The primary way to solve a fatigue plateau is simply to add a day or two of rest. This should allow recovery and thus restore your performance and ability to stimulate muscle growth again.
- If you now begin to progress, you have your answer - you have accumulated excessive fatigue.
- If you don’t, or even begin to regress - it’s a stimulus and not a fatigue problem.
If 1., you should address one or more of the factors that caused the fatigue in the first place, or you will be going around in circles.
Change one or more of the above fatigue factors, or permanently reduce your training frequency.
So there are two primary roads to solving the stimulus: fatigue ratio problem:
- More volume per muscle group per workout, but lower frequency
- Less volume per workout, but higher frequency (up to every other day)
Many professional bodybuilders seem to gravitate towards bodypart splits or "bro-splits" (training 1-2 muscle groups per workout) or push-pull-legs splits, as it directly circumvents the fatigue problem by resting more between training each muscle group again.
This will also allow more training volume per muscle group per workout if that is desired - but if this is an avenue you want to explore, adjust your proximity to failure to manage fatigue better.
We can only speculate if it’s a "nature vs. nurture" paradox when it comes to what approach works best, as there are certainly great bodybuilders, both natural and enhanced, that have seen success with both lower volumes and higher frequencies and higher volumes with lower frequencies.
It just requires that you manage the other training variables - with proximity to failure probably being the most important lever.
However, there is still the CNS effect and it’s almost impossible to avoid overlap.
Training your chest will also directly or indirectly train your shoulders and triceps, your back training will train biceps and rear delts etc.
Exercise variety has the benefit of training different parts of a muscle, so that can be one way of reducing overall fatigue. Alternating between incline, flat, and decline pressing can train certain parts of the pectorals while adding less fatigue to the other parts. Not perfect, but a good compromise if structured correctly.
Let’s look at another reason why exercise variation becomes even more important as you get more advanced.
Solving Adaptation Plateaus
We have applied a stimulus, and we have managed fatigue, but we are still not seeing the expected adaptation - the actual muscle growth.
Credit goes to Chris Beardsley (@chrisbeardsley) who came up with this term in a recent podcast with Paul Carter (highly recommended listen).
There are many possible causes of a lack of adaptation response, but the most common ones are:
- Nutrient and oxygen supply
- Recovery limitations (stress and sleep management)
- Genetics and hormones (primarily the balance between testosterone, estrogen and cortisol).
Genetic limitations are generally solved by "go back in time and pick different parents" - i.e. not really possible, so you can only work with the hand nature has dealt you: Your muscle insertions, biomechanics and response to training.
The field of epigenetics is still in its infancy, where certain genes can be activated or deactivated determined by your actions and environment - as the saying goes: "Genes load the gun, the environment pulls the trigger". You have limited control over your environment, and just have to do the best you can with what you have.
Hormone function is a complex interplay of genes and lifestyle and beyond the scope of this article.
Resolving the common constraints
As a muscle grows larger, it will at some point be limited by its supply of oxygen and nutrients.
Mitochondrial function is also essential for recovery from resistance exercise and subsequent muscle anabolism.
A simple analogy for mitochondria is to think of them as the "powerhouses" or "batteries" of our cells.
Just like a battery provides energy to run a device, mitochondria generate the energy that cells need to function properly.
This energy is essential for everything from muscle movement to brain activity. So, in the same way that an electric car needs batteries to work, our cells need mitochondria to perform their various tasks.
Post-workout, muscles undergo damage (due to calcium-ion influx) and inflammation, necessitating recovery and repair. Mitochondria are intimately involved in regulating and managing this inflammatory response. They can influence the activation of calpains, enzymes that are activated by calcium ions.
Mitochondria play a vital role in this process by providing the necessary energy (ATP). Efficient mitochondrial function supports quicker recovery, enabling more effective muscle protein synthesis – the key process in muscle anabolism.
PS: Slow oxidative, type I fibers have a higher mitochondrial density, which means that any individual or muscle group with a dominance of type I fibers will recover faster since calcium-ion accumulation is lower and is handled quicker. This explains why training frequency can be way more variable than training volume.
I have underestimated the value of cardiovascular conditioning for many years, afraid that it would impair my muscle growth. Even though there is something to this “interference effect”, where a high volume of high-intensity cardio will interfere with the anabolic signaling from lifting weights to build muscle, it’s easy to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
Cardiovascular exercise is known to significantly enhance mitochondrial health and oxygen supply to the muscles, through promoting mitochondrial biogenesis and turnover. This leads to better mitochondrial function and overall metabolic health, especially as one age.
Low-intensity and high-intensity cardiovascular training lead to different adaptations.
Low Intensity Training:
- Primarily improves endurance and efficiency in using fat as an energy source.
- Can increase capillary density and mitochondrial density, enhancing the ability to utilize oxygen.
High Intensity Training:
- More effective for increasing VO2 max, especially in already trained individuals.
- Leads to significant improvements in aerobic and anaerobic systems.
- Enhances lactate threshold, allowing for better performance at higher intensities.
VO2 max is a measure of aerobic capacity, but only indirectly affects muscle building.
A higher VO2 max can improve overall workout capacity, enabling more intense and prolonged training sessions.
This increased capacity can contribute to better muscle endurance and potentially to hypertrophy, especially when combined with resistance training.
However, direct effects on muscle growth are limited as VO2 max is more about cardiovascular efficiency than muscle size, and doing too much of it will create excessive fatigue and interfere with recovery and muscle growth.
(Amazing overview of the different fatigue models and pathways! The fatigue research is enormous in comparison to hypertrophy research, yet completely underrated in figuring out how to optimally train!)
That’s why I quite conservatively recommend starting at a minimum of only 15-20 minutes of zone 1-2 cardio on off days from lifting (2-3x/week as a general rule of thumb).
You can theoretically and gradually work up to 45-60 minutes, 3-4x/week without interfering with muscle growth, but this is highly individually dependent on total training volume, intensity, and recovery.
As I’m now doing a bodypart split 5 days per week and experimenting with slightly higher training volumes per muscle group per workout, I limit my zone 1-2 cardio to 15-20mins 2-3x/week but also make an effort to get in some daily walking.
I’d like to emphasise Zone 1-2 - the “easy” kind, highly underrated by the HIIT advocates, where you’re below the lactate threshold and should not feel any burning sensation or accumulate metabolic stress. Subjectively speaking, it’s challenging to the point of breathing harder, but you could still maintain a conversation comfortably without gasping for air.
Even at the elite level, the best in the world spend 80-90% of their training time at lower intensities, whereas the amateurs who struggle to improve spend too much time at higher intensities.
Aiming for 7000-10.000 steps per day is also a good idea, preferably broken up throughout the day is highly recommended. I have an office treadmill - or walking pad - where I do some of my most productive work during a typical day while easily getting in this step count.
Walking outside is always preferred, as getting enough sunlight is essential for health and hormone production, but as I’m writing this it’s one of the coldest months of the Norwegian wintertime at -20C (-4F), so I prefer my indoor walking pad.
Another essential constraining factor is how you are managing your overall life stressors, both psychological and practical.
You focus on what you can control and what makes your life better, and let go of, delegate or eliminate what you can’t control or what drains your valuable resources and life force.
You also allocate time to rest and recharge, so that your physical and mental muscles can recover and become stronger and more resilient. Breathing and relaxation techniques, meditation, getting a massage - I highly encourage implementing rituals to wind down daily - don’t just postpone it until the weekend or whenever you have a vacation.
Ice showers and ice bathing - I used to do this regularly, but be aware that it’s another stressor and stacking stressors is NOT a good idea when the goal is to build muscle. Be aware of your sum of stressors (fasting, coffee, stimulants, lifestyle) where stacking self-selected cold shivering on top of that might not be such a great hack after all.
If you still insist, avoid it in the immediate post-workout period as it can blunt muscle recovery and anabolism dramatically.
Poor sleep quality and duration can impact muscle growth and fat loss efforts by as much as 60%, and I have outlined several strategies to optimize sleep in this Instagram post (click link).
Living with chronic stress will severely hamper your ability to recover and adapt from a muscle-building stimulus, so do an inventory and make the appropriate interventions if you want to achieve better results from your muscle-building efforts.
Solving nutritional constraints
I generally think we all can do just fine on a more intuitive approach where we just focus on eating whole foods to satiety, as outlined in my free Masterclass.
For various reasons, some are in a metabolic or psychological state where their natural hunger and fullness signals are unreliable, so I almost universally start everyone off on a meal plan where we have more control over calories, macro- and micronutrients, and food choices.
A complete overview of how to design a proper diet is thoroughly covered in The Last Program, so in this article, I will only address the most common limiting factors I see in my job as a coach - and which I have also been guilty of myself:
Ideal Body Fat Ranges:
I recommend staying within a body fat range of 10-15% for men and 18-23% for women. Factors like genetics, age, and eating + lifestyle habits will ultimately determine how healthy you are, but to ensure hormonal function and insulin sensitivity, this is generally the range most can maintain without suffering any negative consequences.
If you’re in the lower end of this range or below, you should be in a calorie surplus. If you’re in the upper end of the range or above, you should be in a calorie deficit.
Caloric Deficits and Surpluses:
The most common mistake here is being too impatient.
Employing extreme caloric deficits and extended fasting periods, because you want to lose fat quickly or eternally chasing those coveted six-pack abs is almost a guarantee for plateaus, regression and muscle loss.
Then, hungry and depleted from the diet, you switch into a 1000kcals+ surplus to (re)gain some muscle mass, and end up gaining a ton of fat in the process…which you later have to diet off.
An endless yo-yo cycle where you end up looking worse over time, or if you’re lucky - in the same place, year after year.
My clients consider me somewhat of a wizard in helping them achieve their physique goals, so let me share my “magic” secrets:
A moderate deficit of 10-20%, aiming for a sustainable weight loss rate of 0.5-0.7% of bodyweight will ensure you’re losing fat while preserving and even gaining as much muscle mass as possible. Use the rule of 2 when planning your fat-loss diet, which is simply this: When you think you need 12 weeks to get lean, multiply it by a factor of 2 and you end up with a more practical 24 weeks.
Conversely, excessive caloric surpluses lead to unnecessary fat gain.
Unless you’re a beginner-intermediate and have been chronically undereating or trying (unsuccessfully) to “maingain” - a slight surplus, perhaps 5-10% above maintenance calories, is usually sufficient for muscle growth. A recent study confirmed that a 15% surplus only lead to more fat gain, but the same muscle gain compared to a 5% surplus, so slow and steady wins the race (again).
A weekly weight gain of 0.1-0.2% or less, keeping an eye out on your body fat measurements, is a good starting point. Adjust according to objective evaluation of your progress, and add a healthy dose of Patience to your strategy.
Individual responses to carb intakes can vary based on one's metabolic flexibility and the intensity+volume of their training.
Although it’s certainly possible to adapt to low-carb diets over time and can be great for weight loss, they are consistently linked to less muscle growth over several weeks and months.
Some may perform well and even thrive on lower-carb intakes, but it may require the lifter to go through weeks and months of proper keto-adaptation.
It can be a worthwhile tradeoff if you achieve other benefits from this dietary approach, but I recommend some type of cyclic or seasonal approach to carbohydrate intake, dropping carbs when and only when the goal is to lose weight and body fat.
However, for optimizing muscle growth, I generally consider carbohydrates (150g minimum) essential for optimal performance, recovery, and muscle growth in a calorie surplus.
Muscle glycogen and blood glucose both decrease during exercise, and have been closely associated with the development of fatigue, most likely by increasing the perception of effort. It signals your brain that you are trying to do a workout with less energy availability.
Muscle glycogen takes longer to replenish when the muscle is damaged, and no amount of carbs is going to help if you don’t manage the stimulus: fatigue ratio according to what you have just learned. You end up chronically glycogen depleted which will increase your perception of effort, which in turn impairs stimulus.
The recommended protein intake of 1.6-2.2 grams per kg of body weight is a general but solid guideline. Some may find success in even higher intakes, and although there is no research to support this, individual factors such as age, training intensity, and recovery needs should always be taken into account.
Also, if you just like eating protein, then it probably won’t hurt but I haven’t seen a huge difference in muscle growth from the higher end vs. the lower end of the range.
I consider energy balance far more important in the grand scheme of things.
Fats play a crucial role in both satiety, nutrient uptake and hormonal health, particularly in the synthesis of testosterone and estradiol.
A general recommendation is to ensure that around 20-35% of daily calories come from fats, or a minimum of 0.5g/kg of body weight, with a healthy balance between saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
Yes, the latter is controversial in some circles, but outcome-based research generally shows that they are good for you and I have no reason to believe otherwise. I’m also not saying you should consume massive amounts of “seed oils” as that generally implies a ton of ultra-processed foods, but avoiding nuts and almonds “because of the PUFAs” is missing the forest for the trees.
You eat foods, and food contains calories. But foods also contain nutrients that are vital for health, recovery, and muscle building.
I’m not OCD about everything having to be organic and non-GMO, but I think it’s a good starting point to focus on whole, nutrient-dense foods as close to their natural state as possible, with the minimal processing you can do in your kitchen.
A good overarching principle is to eat seasonally from local foods and consider your ancestry as there might be evolutionary adaptations in what foods you will thrive on.
Up to 90% of Asians are lactose intolerant, just as an example of this genetic selection.
The concept of eating seasonally for micronutrient optimization, although ideal, may not be feasible for everyone, though. People living in areas with limited seasonal variety or those with budget constraints might find this challenging.
Aiming to include a variety of fruits, root vegetables, and greens in the diet, regardless of season, can help cover micronutrient needs. Whereas the Netflix generation seems to think a plant-based diet is the pinnacle of health these days, I firmly believe we should include meat, eggs, dairy (if tolerated, of course) and seafood (oysters are a staple food in my diet) into the mix.
Outside of covering any deficiencies, I don’t think any supplements will help you break through plateaus in your training. Sorry.
As is probably abundantly clear by this point, muscle growth plateaus are caused by a complex interplay of physical, psychological, lifestyle, and nutritional factors.
By understanding and strategically addressing each aspect, you can continue to make significant gains over several decades of your life.
I have systematically addressed the challenges in three main aspects: Training, Nutrition, and other constraints.
I have dissected stimulus, fatigue, adaptation, and nutritional considerations, providing a holistic approach to breaking through plateaus.
- Stability, single arm/leg (unilateral, single-joint (isolation) movements, more exercise variety and lower reps/heavier loads have a better stimulus: fatigue ratio
- Slow or overloaded eccentrics add more stimulus AND fatigue. I generally recommend lifting (with an intent to move) explosively, and lowering under control but not intentionally slowing down too much.
- Psychological factors such as autonomy in exercise selection and programming, enjoyment, visible progress and internal focus can influence your progress.
- Match the progression model to a more realistic expectation. The more advanced you are, the more time you should allow for an increase in reps or load. You can implement different progression models or microloading to accommodate this.
- To determine whether you have a stimulus or fatigue issue, add more rest days.
- If you start progressing again, it’s a fatigue issue and you should look at your training variables and/or frequency.
- If you don’t progress, it might be a stimulus issue and you should try training closer to failure, increasing volume, experiment with some lengthened-bias movements, or introduce some higher rep, shorter rest techniques such as Myo-reps.
- Cardiovascular conditioning (low intensity preferred) and daily movement (8000-10.000 steps) is important for removing constraints on muscle growth such as mitochondrial efficiency, oxygen and nutrient supply.
- Lifestyle factors such as sufficient daylight/sunlight, stress and sleep should be managed properly.
- Nutritional factors:
- Stay within appropriate bodyfat% ranges (10-15% for men, 18-23% for women).
- Avoid excessive calorie surpluses (>5%) and deficits (<10-20%)
- Get sufficient carbohydrates (150g+), protein (1.6-2.2g+/kg) and fats (20-30% of calories, a minimum of 0.5g/kg), and micronutrients from whole, nutrient-dense foods. Supplements probably don’t do anything unless you have verified deficits.
Hopefully, I have empowered you with knowledge and practical strategies to become 'The Master' in your journey, overcoming stagnation and achieving continual progress in strength and muscle development.
If you would like to delve deeper into the theoretical framework and learn all the practical strategies I have used in my 25+ years of coaching to get over 5000 clients to become their ultimate selves, The Last Program is for you.
To your success,