It happens to everyone pursuing progress in the gym, the dreaded plateau. If you are new to CrossFit, you may not have experienced this phenomenon yet, but trust me, it’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when. There are many ways to bust through a plateau, but today I want to explore the road less travelled on the way to new strength gains in the gym.
Maybe it’s just me, but I find at times there is an overarching belief that to get stronger in a certain lift, you just need to increase the frequency, weight, or volume of said lift to get stronger. This approach works and works well, until it doesn’t, resulting in a plateau that can be frustrating and demoralizing. When this happens, many of us just continue doing what we have always done, hoping that by shear force of will, the plateau will be broken. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it can result in overtraining and usually involves plenty of negative self-talk.
What I would like to suggest is that we dig deeper into the plateaued lift to pin point the limiting factors that make up the whole functional movement and attack those factors with focused training to unlock new strength and keep progress moving. Let me give you an example from my training.
Overhead Squats –
I had been stuck at 145lbs for months and could not seem to improve my strength. I added more OHS to my weekly programing, I tried percentage based strength progressions that worked for my front and back squat, but nothing I did was making my OHS stronger. Until I stopped overhead squatting. Wait, what? Yes, you read that right, I stopped overhead squatting because of a shoulder injury. For eight weeks, the only things I could do on my shoulder were handstand holds and handstand taps. But the day I was released to lift overhead, I tried my OHS again and PR’d by 20 pounds. You see, what was holding back my gains on OHS wasn’t the complete movement itself, it was my ability to engage the right muscles in my back and shoulders to effectively stabilize and balance the weight overhead. I could not develop these muscles enough by just overhead squatting past a certain point – my 145lb plateau. It took focused time in a handstand and performing handstand taps to develop those muscles and once they grew stronger, they immediately “unlocked” pent up gains in my lift for a 20lb PR.
Once I experienced this alternate path to progress, I began evaluating my other lifts to see if there were other “component limiters” that were stifling progress. Here are a few common limiters and some training approaches to help you bust through the next plateau you experience.
- Deadlift – Lack of strength to keep shoulders back limits ability to maintain a good position to pull maximal weight.
- Add horizontal pulling to your weekly workouts such as bent over rows. I prefer using dumbbells or kettlebells to work both sides independently, but you can use a barbell, as well. Focus on pulling your shoulder blades together and down as you lift. Adding a 2-3 second hold at the top of the row will add more strength and reinforce the isometric hold needed to maintain your deadlift position throughout the lift.
- Squats – Many people have a dominate leg which often means one glute is not stabilizing properly during squats, leaving the other leg to do more than its fair share on max lifts.
- Add lunges and single leg squat work to address glute engagement issues on squats. You will immediately be able to tell which leg is your weaker one when you do these exercises, as balance and strength will be lacking on your weak side. Focus on slow controlled reps and you should see your balance and strength improve on your weak side with a few weeks of training.
- Overhead lifts (Push press, jerks, overhead squats) – Many of us have bad shoulder mechanics from poor posture and bad lifting habits. Often our traps and shoulders are doing the work that our lats and serratus anterior should be doing. The serratus is a stabilizing muscle that runs along our ribs and attaches to our shoulder blades. This is the muscle that keeps our shoulder blades from “winging out” into an unstable position.
- Handstand holds force the Serratus to engage and make it difficult to compensate with other muscle groups like you can with a barbell. Start by accumulating 2 minutes of handstand holds in as few sets as you can. Once you can do this, add handstand taps. For taps, keep your arms locked out and just shift your weight from side to side. It’s not important to touch your shoulder, its important to shift your weight from side to side. This will force your Serratus to stabilize even more. This will build the strength you need to lock into a good position with a barbell overhead, it will also help you gain stability for handstand walks!
So the next time you run into a plateau in the gym, stop and think about what parts of the lift could be limiting you. Ask one of our coaches to watch you and evaluate your lifts, often a second set of eyes can catch things you can’t. The answer to unlocking a new PR may not be as difficult as you think. Sometimes, taking the road less travelled can lead to amazing results!