How to overcome a lifting plateau. A neural perspective.

 

Mark Kovacs, B.Sc, ACSM HFI, CSN
Editor of High Performance Training

Email: mark@healthfitness.com.au

I often encounter experienced lifters who, after years of seeing consistent gains in muscle size and strength, see their improvements coming to a grinding halt. This obvious reduction in performance takes a serious toll on the athletes' psyche and attitude towards training. Most lifters have a regimen of lifts that they perform on a consistent basis. The typical compound exercises (squats, deadlifts, benchpress, etc) are usually combined with a host of other auxiliary exercises. These exercises will definitely provide substantial gains, especially in the first few years of training. However, after time, the muscles become accustomed to the same lifting patterns.

Our neural system, which controls our ability to lift weights, also needs to be stimulated. The functional connection between the brain and the muscle is termed the "motor unit" (1). A motor unit consists of a motor neuron and the associated muscle fibers it innervates (2). When the highest force is required from a muscle, as in lifting heavy weights, the activation of as many motor units as possible is required. However if the neural pathways are accustomed to certain lifting patterns, then the body will attempt to recruit the least amount of muscle fibers possible. This is referred to as the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). "GAS" can be seen in a situation when the muscles, after being exposed to a new stimulus, will adapt, allowing the lifter to lift the new weight with the same effort as done previously with a lighter weight.(3)

This neural explanation is one of a combination of reasons why your muscles stop growing and are stuck at these lifting plateaus. How are you able to overcome these lifting plateaus? If you are like the majority of lifters who perform typical resistance training exercises, there may be a whole style of lifting that is foreign to you. What is this different style of lifting that will definitely stimulate new muscle fibers, and will also lead to increased muscle size and power? I am talking about explosive lifting, commonly called "Olympic style lifting".

Explosive lifting describes a group of lifts that include the Snatch, the Clean & Jerk and Power Cleans. These are the same lifts that are performed by Olympic weightlifters. The great thing about these lifts is that they are whole body exercises that stimulate a very large number of different muscle fibers. The Snatch is an advanced exercise and there is a certain exercise progression of different lifts that should be learnt before attempting the harder more advanced lifts. Explosive lifts are relatively safe exercises, only if correct form is learned and used.

Explosive style lifting is a great way to change up your lifting program and stimulate your nervous system, as well as muscle fiber development. These lifts require very quick, powerful movements and correct technique must be emphasized. The very best way to learn proper form for these lifts is not through a book or a magazine but instead find a qualified coach who is trained in Olympic Style Weightlifting.

In Australia, the best way to find a coach is to look for someone who is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the NSCA (National Strength & Conditioning Association), or a Level 2 Strength and Conditioning coach through ASCA (Australian Strength & Conditioning Association). Another way would be to contact a weightlifting club in your area.

Keep checking back frequently to discover new and challenging ways to improve on your High Performance Training. I am available to answer any questions related to Training, Conditioning and Nutrition in the healthfitness.com.au Q&A Discussion Board. Feel free to contact me to discuss your training program.

Mark Kovacs, B.Sc, ACSM HFI, CSN
Editor of High Performance Training



"...experienced lifters who, after years of seeing consistent gains in muscle size and strength, see their improvements coming to a grinding halt. This obvious reduction in performance takes a serious toll on the athletes' psyche and attitude towards training."

Health Fitness Directory


Explosive style lifting is a great way to change up your lifting program and stimulate your nervous system, as well as muscle fiber development. These lifts require very quick, powerful movements and correct technique must be emphasized.

The very best way to learn proper form for these lifts is not through a book or a magazine but instead find a qualified coach who is trained in Olympic Style Weightlifting.

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References:

1) Sale, D.G. Neural adaptions in strength in strength and power training. In: Human Muscle Power, Jones, N.L., McCartney, N., and McComas, A.J., eds. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 1986. pp. 289-307
2) McArdle, W.D., Katch, F.I., & Katch, V.L., Exercise Physiology- Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance, Philadelphia, PA: Lea & Febiger. 1981 p. 255
3) Baechle T.R., & Earle R.W., eds. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, 2nd Ed. Human Kinetics. 2000. p.514

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