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S&C UnderGround >> what is the science behind strength plateaus?


1/14/13 12:38 PM
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turducken
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why do we hit strength plateaus and why do we sometimes regress and lose strength while still training?

for example, i usually follow a 5x5 lifting routine...i will continuously add weight for months at a time, but then one day ill just hit a wall and fail to progress. worse yet, sometimes i will actually regress and start failing at a lighter weight or fewer reps than i had already done in a prior workout. i of course switch my routine around so that i can continue to make progress in other ways, but it got me thinking...what is the science behind this phenomenon?
1/14/13 2:10 PM
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jeremy hamilton
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In for the answer. How do I also keep adding strength without slowing down?
1/14/13 2:23 PM
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turducken
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im not sure if you are being sarcastic...

its common knowledge that linear progression doesnt work forever, but i dont think many people really understand why. thats what im asking...what is going on at the cellular level? what is going on in the nervous system? why does progressive loading cause the body to make adaptations for those increased loads only up to a certain point? what changes occur in the body when you hit that point of plateau/regression? etc.
1/14/13 3:00 PM
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Taku
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Okay,
Here is my two cents.
 
1. We know that none of us will continue to make strength gains forever..There must be a limit. That being said, beyond a certain threshold for hypertrophy (either type) we can still make strength gains from a neurological perspective (GTG).
 
2. My experience has shown consistently that the limiting factor on strength gains is recovery. Based on your current volume and intensity, if and when you hit a wall, most often this  is due to too much training (or not enough recovery) in relation to all the factors involved.
 
3. Most of us lock our training into the calendar in some way. Example: Guy "A" trains on Monday and Thursday. Guy "B" trains on Mon-Wed-Fri, etc. As you get stronger, and you lift heavier and heavier loads, you place more stress into the system. More stress in = a need for more recovery.
 
4. Un-lock from the predetermined training days (Mon-Wed-Fri) and instead have floating recovery that works for you. In other words, take more days off between exposures and see what happens. Now, most will try to find out how soon they can get back into the gym. I prefer to do the opposite and see how long I can wait and still make progress. My experience has been that when lifting very hard and heavy people will require a minimum of two full days off to a max of 10-12 days off between sessions.
 
For a 5x5 guy this might mean that instead of doing your 5x5 on Mon-Wed-Fri. You do it on Mon - Thu - Sun -Wed... Or take even more days in between.
 
For a natural Power-lifter, I most often start with one day per week per lift. So DL only once, Squat only once, and Bench only once. This means 7-days between sessions for the same lift, with one full day of rest between any lift. Mon DL + assistance / Wed Bench + assistance / Fri Squat + assistance.
 
Anyway...hope that starts the gears turning a bit. Let me know if anyone has questions about any of that stuff.
 

TAKU 

1/14/13 3:03 PM
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jeremy hamilton
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Well I was being sarcastic, but it doesn't change my question...

Well maybe the obvious answer is it's too hard to keep increasing the imposed demand. You don't have an infinite amount of time to keep adding work.

If you did have an infinite amount of time do you think you could keep progressing forever? I do.

I don't know, ask Doug.
1/16/13 7:58 AM
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Wiggy
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I have a few off the wall anecdotal thoughts on this - will post more later.
1/16/13 1:04 PM
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disbeliever
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Lately I have been taking more and more rest days, and when I go back to the gym I make great leaps.

I use to go everyday at lunch from 10:30am-12:00pm M-F, in addition to lifting for 45 minutes each of those days I did 45 minutes of cardio afterwards. I hit a wall after about 6 months that I could not crack.

At the advice of Taku and vermonter and Wiggy, I took 10 days off and did nothing. Went back feeling better than ever.

Now whenever I feel burned out or over worked, I take that day off and go back in the next day, whatever day that may be.
1/18/13 10:00 AM
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vermonter
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This question has many answers, depending on the perspective you approach it from.

E.G. The evolutionary answer is that beyond a certain point getting stronger is a waste of energy, and wasted energy means a reduction in fitness (used here as a biological term, not an exercise term). As such, genes that promote continued strength acclimations do not exist in absence of other genes that promote reproductive success that are contrary to them.

However, i suspect you are mostly interested in this from a microbiological or exercise science perspective. The best answer I can give without writing an accidental Phd thesis is that the factors defining human strength potential are self-limiting.

The expression of strength is the concomitant of its factors: force production and efficiency. I'm using efficiency loosely here as it has both technical definitions and colloquial ones, and both are intended.

There is a limit to any fiber's force production based mostly on its present cross sectional diameter and enzyme density.

There are also several expressions of efficiency that ultimately limit strength. An example is when a muscle does equivalent work with less of it's mass. The greater this efficiency, the lower the potential for strength expression becomes despite that absolute workload becoming easier.

As such there are both plateaus that can be overcome and also limits to human strength that require ever more unnatural means of surpassing.
1/18/13 1:09 PM
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Taku
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Nice answer from Vermonter (verbose perhaps, but nice).

TAKU

1/18/13 2:42 PM
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Wiggy
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Ok, here are some of my thoughts. Fair warning - in typical Wiggy fashion, it will be almost purely anecdotal, based on my own experience (and that of helping/training others), and completely unscientific. So take it for what you will.

And some of this has been been already addressed by Taku, but I'm gonna take a little bit different spin on it.

Oh, and here's the obligatory FRAT warning as well. lol

The issue I think that ends up at play in a situation like this is that we (not pointing fingers at anyone in particular - just speaking in an abstract sense) fail to realize a few basics about progression. We all recognize that progression can't last forever. However, that's usually when the discussion ends - progression stops, you've hit a wall that means some sorta limit was reached and that's that.

However, I think we need to keep in mind that progression - of any kind - is never strictly linear. It will wave, change, fluctuate, and more. So while you might be able to progress at a certain rate for a number of workouts/months/weeks, eventually, that rate of progression is going to halt. Now I'm not (always) of the opinion that means that progression has halted, nor that you've reached a "limit", per se. Maybe you've reached a limit in terms of that rate of progression. But that doesn't mean you've reached a limit, period.

This is where the increased recovery Taku discussed comes into play. Because the greater training effect something has on you, the more it will take out of you. The more recovery it will need. The more CNS fatigue it can cause. And the longer it can take for your body to adapt (in whatever fashion) to and progress from that stimulus.

For example, take an untrained high school girl. She might only be able to bench 65 pounds for 5 reps. However, she can repeat that probably 3x/week as it's still only 65 pounds, and the effect it's having on her body (even though it's reaching the limits of her current capability) isn't so great that it can't be recovered from, therefore repeated, fairly rapidly.

In comparison, a guy who can bench 405 x 5 is gonna need some rest days after that, even if his strength, capacity, etc is greater - simply b/c 405 x 5 has places much more demand on the body.

The same could be said about a box jump. If you can only jump on a 24" box, you're probably going to have to do it several times in a workout. If you can jump on a 60" box, you might only need to do 2-3 total jumps in a workout b/c the stresses are that much greater.

Point is that once you get to a certain level, you won't be able to progress at the same rate. You'll not only need additional recovery, but your body simply just might need additional time to adapt. This is where intentionally slowing down your progression could lengthen the time you actually progress.

So instead of adding weight every single workout, once you get to a certain point (what that point is, I can't say - again, I'm just kinda speaking in the abstract here), you decide to only try to add weight every other workout. Or maybe every 3 workouts. Give your body longer to adapt.

Because if you keep hitting your body at it's maximum capability (e.g. - 5 x 5 with a certain weight you can't increase from, so it's your 5x5 "max"...if that makes sense), unless, again as Taku pointed out, unless you throw extra rest days in there, your body is going regress due to under-recovery. Basically, it's gonna give you the finger for treating it so badly and not backing off any.

I've been experimenting with smaller progression combined with moderate-length bouts of constant weight training off and on for longer than a year and had very good success with it. Progression has been constant (albeit much slower), I'm pretty much never beat up, and I feel much better in the process.
1/18/13 2:54 PM
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Wiggy
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As an add-on re the smaller progression combined with moderate-length bouts of constant weight training:

I feel that one of the main reasons that progression has been constant is that I'm never forcing my body into serious amounts of adaptation. As for me, that's when progression stalls - when adaptation can't occur. So what I do is try to ensure that I'm always able to adapt. I'll use a weight that I can handle without too much effort and get good with it over a period of time. I'll add a little bit, and spend some time there. And then just repeat this process. As it sits now, I only add weight to the tune of once/month.

This progression is much slower, but the thing is that I'm progressing in more than one fashion - some of which are intangible.

The tangible progression is the weight on the bar. (Sets and reps stay constant each week.) So this month is more weight than last month but not as much as next month. That's obvious.

However, the intangible progression is how "hard" or "easy" I have to work in order to complete the same sets and reps with that same weight over the course of a month. After a month (4 repeats of a workout), it's much easier than when I started. However, I don't add a crazy amount of weight each month - maybe 10-15 pounds (depends on the exercise). So while the weight is indeed heavier, I'm not having to work that much harder than I did the week before. 3 weeks later (at the end of that month), I'm not working nearly as hard as I did in week 1.

Repeat this over the course of several months and what happens is that there's a lot more weight on the bar - duh. However, you're never working beyond a certain range. So while it would seem that you're using a greater percentage of a 1RM, the fact is more likely that you're likely always staying within a certain range, but that max capability is going up all along the way.

Point is that going into the whole thing, you realize that typical progression can't last forever - that's why something (volume, loading, exercises, etc) have to be cycled, and that's why most people can't use linear progression in an "add weight every workout" basis for too long before they hit that point of "oh shit, I can't do my workout anymore".

What I've been toying with is trying to find a way to enable progression (of both the tangible and "intangible") to be constant for a longer period of time, even if it is slower. However, I'm still getting stronger, can move the weights faster, and b/c of this approach, unless other areas of my life get jacked up (additional stress, lack of sleep, eat like shit, etc), I don't ever really hit a point where I need the additional recovery time, as I'm building up capacity slowly along the way.

(I told you guys my thoughts were gonna be off the wall. lol)
1/18/13 6:23 PM
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Taku
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Wiggy must know what he's talking about, his arms are HUGE (check out the pick of both of our arms in the thread titled "Tell me about muscle bellies".

TAKU

P.S. Wiggy...You got a permit to carry those things?


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