When progress stalls….

My phone buzzed today and it was from an unnamed source we shall call The Carpenter. The Carpenter asked me:

For intermediate to advanced lifters, how do you keep expectations realistic? A year ago I was putting 10# on my squat
every month. That level of gain has slowed, which is normal. But, how do you determine whether your slower gains are normal vs you need to make a change?

Well, Carpenter, this can be answered rather simply, or complex, depending on how annoying I want to make this.

Simple is this:

Beginners/novices progress faster based on the fact that they have the “novice effect”, plus the fact that your body isn’t nowhere near its strength potential. You can see this rather easily on the GOMAD heavy 5×5/3×5 lifting plans, where lifters are often slapping 5 pounds per week on their working weights for months at a time. Chugging milk, lifting heavy… blocky with bad gas… no bueno.

Anyway, on those beginner programs you have linear progression, still the best way for a beginner to get gains. Once you hit a weight for 5 across all sets, add 5 and do it again… over time your gains stall. Then what? The body cannot do the same thing over and over again indefinitely and expect the same results forever. If that was so, you’d be starting at 225 and deep squatting 800 after 2 1/2 years… shit isn’t happening.

So then what?

You have to adjust.

As you get stronger, the need for recovery is intensified, this is common training sense. Instead of me citing sources and getting all science-y on your asses (which you know isn’t my style), you can see this for yourself in every single gym you ever go to, and maybe with your training.

As you plateau from a beginner program, you enter the intermediate zone. No longer will linear work, that will now be your worst enemy.

You gotta adjust.

There are a few ways to do this and I will explain this as short-winded as I can.

Wave Periodization

Simple… go up 3 steps, come back one or two.


Week One: 2×8 @ 75%

Week Two: 2×6 @ 80%

Week Three: 2×4 @ 85%

Week Four: 2×6 @ 82.5%

Week Five: 2×3 @ 90%

Week Six: 2×2 @ 95%

Is a classic example of a wave program. As each week passes, you adjust intensity and reps, your body receives a different stimulus each week allowing for further progress. This also means instead of expecting PR’s every week, you have to know you will PR maybe once a month, or every 6 weeks. You have to start looking at the bigger picture instead of week to week progress, this can be difficult for those who are used to seeing numbers shoot up quickly, but you are no longer a novice.

A very well known program operates on this principle. You may have heard of it. 5/3/1. People progress for a very long time, slowly but progress is progress, using this simple and effective as hell system (see how I plug another program on a page I will be selling my own book at? That’s called integrity, kids).

Undulating Periodization

I will keep this real simple, because this can get complicated as shit with dozens of variables to consider.

Week One hypertrophy: 3×15 (using about 50-55% of your 1RM with short rest periods)

Week Two max effort: 3×5 (using about 85-90% of your 1RM with longer rest)

Week Three recovery week: 5×3 (using about 60% of your 1RM)

Week Four speed/power week: 7×2 (using 75-80% of your 1RM, short rests, maximum bar speed)

This is a very simple way to describe it.

Light – reps :: heavy :: light :: moderate – speed.

Again, there are dozens of ways to do this, but this is just a small example of one way. Same rules apply to wave, PR’s aren’t weekly because you aren’t planning weekly, you are planning mini-cycles of training to hit more infrequent PR’s.

After progressing past the intermediate stage, you enter into the advanced zone. I will be brutally honest here, most of us will NEVER see this zone. So you can probably stick to wave or undulating and call it a day.

If you are lucky enough to be in the advanced zone, now you have to look at your training in the light of not increasing weekly, monthly or even every six weeks. You have to look at it from the context of peaking, and the smallest twisted-up variable can throw that peak off.

Go heavy too often, ie maxing out too soon? Off

Too many light weeks? Off

Screwing up the smallest bit on form? Off…

This blog will take pages to write if I delved into advanced programs.

But you can see this by following pro lifters totals rather easily. One meet a lifter may pull 850 and in a meet three months later he may get 800. Why? Who knows for sure. Was he rested enough? Did he re-peak properly? Eat enough? Etc? Chances are the simple answer is a combination of all those factors. You may smash a 2300 total one meet and barely make 2100 the next time out. Even if judging is exactly the same. That’s assuming you aren’t sick, aren’t stressed, are well rested, well-fed and mentally ready to roll.

Advanced trainees look at progress over a several month period and sometimes in small increments. They know progress is slowed greatly due to the facts that I mentioned before. They plan training over mesocycles and macrocyles instead of microcycles.

Microcycle: a shorter training period of about 7-10 days.

Mesocycle: usually 4-8 weeks in duration and has a specific goal such as general preparation, specific preparation, competition.

Macrocycle: a period of time (8-12 months) detailing the available preparation time up to a major competition.

Without getting all Verkhoshansky on your asses about it, this is the quick and filthy of it.

So in order to progress as you move up the ranks from newborn deer to high school stud to Larry Pacifico, you have to mentally and physically adjust your mental expectations of what that word progress means.

Quite simply, if you stall, make a small change. If you are still using linear, drop back some pounds and reset the weight. Ride it dry until you stall again. Then you can either reset again or move into a wave or undulating. After that you will need to determine if you are ready for more advanced methods… but I do warn you, choosing advanced methods too early cam slow progress down dramatically. Don’t assume because you squat 45o weighing 220 you are ready for advanced shit, you aren’t. Be smart, set realistic long term goals that don’t change weekly, train with a purpose and enjoy the progress and look at setbacks as a challenge to improve more.

I hope this answered your question in the most long-winded annoying way possible.

Enjoy the ride, progress is progress whether its 5 pounds a week, 5 pounds a month or 5 every two months.


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