Nick Mitchell is a leading body composition expert and the founder of the Ultimate Performance global personal training gym. He is based in Los Angeles.
Let’s get one thing straight. We have all hit a plateau when trying to add lean muscle mass. No matter how good your training programme is, how intense you train, how well you eat, how much rest you get, how many drugs you take, you will eventually reach the point when the gains stop coming.
Why? I have a theory but have no scientific data to back this up, so before any keyboard warriors get their knickers in a twist over my lack of citations, it is just my theory, based on more than 20 years in the gym.
My theory is that muscle building comes in waves. It is possible to put on a lot of muscle mass relatively quickly then the gains stop. I think this is your body telling you that it needs to take some time to consolidate these gains. You need to give your body time to see that your new muscle mass is the norm. Once it does and is comfortable again, you can then push on.
This theory dovetails with how we operate mentally too. No one can mentally push it 52 weeks a year. After intense focus or effort, your brain needs time to consolidate. Think about trying to learn a new language: you need to learn a little, allow your brain to process and accept this new information, then learn a little more and build from there. I believe the same is true for your body. Therefore, hitting a plateau is normal, so don’t fear it. And because there are ways to overcome it.
First things first
The first thing you need to work out is whether you have actually hit a plateau. Muscle-mass accumulation is a painfully slow process. An advanced lifter may only add 6lb of lean muscle mass in a year, which is not great, but he’s still growing. So unless you are a beginner, a plateau is actually more about how you are performing in the gym. If you are still moving forwards with your sets, reps, tempo and weight then you are still advancing and will still be gaining muscle. However, if your progress has slowed to an unacceptable rate – and, crucially, you are not just being impatient – then you need to find the root cause so you can correct it.
Paralysis by analysis
More often than not, the simple solution is often the best. Are you doing everything right? Are you training hard enough, often enough? Are you eating enough food, and not skipping meals? Are you getting enough sleep each and every night? Or are you even suffering from paralysis by analysis, or over-analysing every aspect of your training, diet and lifestyle to the point at which you can no longer see the wood for the trees.
You’d be amazed by how many people get to this stage and worry so much about everything that they can no longer see they are getting the simple things wrong. If this is you, take a step back, get some perspective, and focus on quality training, nutrition and recovery. It’s amazing how quickly you can start growing again through a consistent approach to these three elements.
Take a time out
If you are sure you are doing all the little things right but have stopped growing, my first recommendation is take a week off. That’s right, a whole week away from the gym. It’s fine to do some active recovery, so walk more or go for a swim, but don’t count calories or worry about hitting your macro ratios. If you are doing everything right it might just be that your mind and body need a little time out. This ties in to my theory that your body sometimes needs a breather to adjust and get comfortable with the gains you’ve made before it can grow anymore.
Food for thought
Another likely cause of a plateau is that you are simply not eating enough food, specifically protein. If you’re currently eating 1g/lb of protein per day, try a week at 2g/lb from real, high-quality food. If you feel stronger and put on weight then great. You won’t know whether it’s down to the extra protein or just additional calories, but that really doesn’t matter because you’re growing again and that’s what counts.
Spike it up
If you are naturally lean but struggling to add size then having one or two high-calorie spike days per week can work wonders. I’ve never seen it have a positive effect on those predisposed to carrying excess weight, but if you are an ectomorph then it’s worth trying. It’s really easy. Just bump up your daily calorie intake by 50% once or twice per week, sticking roughly to the same macronutrient split you usually follow. Try to keep it as clean a spike as possible from real food, but the leaner you are, the dirtier you can go.
If you were hoping I had the magic training programme that would kick-start your muscle gains, then I’m about to disappoint you. It’s impossible for me to give you a plateau-busting training plan because it would need to be bespoke to you. I don’t know your training age, your current programme or any of the other essential information needed.
However, there are some things I have tried on myself and clients over the years that have always had some degree of success. The first is focusing more on specific body parts that are failing to grow. You either increase the frequency you train that muscle group from once a week to once every five days, or even three times a week, while backing off on other muscles – or increasing intensity by doing twice-a-day sessions, with heavy, strength-based work in the morning, and lighter, hypertrophy-work in the afternoon or evening.
Another option is to do two or three weeks of eccentric-only training, but a good spotter is essential. Overloading the muscles eccentrically – when they are about 30 per cent stronger than during the concentric phase – can really help blast through a plateau by shocking them into growth. But this is an intensive solution on both the muscles and central nervous system and is only worth trying if you have first properly addressed any concerns over your diet and recovery strategies.