by Bill Sonnemaker, MS, PES, CES, CSCS
2007 IDEA International Personal Trainer of the Year
2007 NASM Pursuit of Excellence Award Winner
IDEA Master Trainer, NASM, NSCA, ACE, ACSM

If you have been training using the traditional methods (you thought were tried-and-true), you may have encountered the similarly traditional plateau.  Have you recognized that the two seem to go hand-in-hand? There are ways to defeat the plateau—first you have to learn how to train untraditionally. Traditionally designed programs often result in a plateau because they are incomplete and scientifically inadequate. In order to achieve consistent long-term success in your weight training program, you must take the time to plan an integrated and comprehensive training program that includes the components of flexibility, cardio-respiratory, core, balance, reactive, speed, and resistance training.

Methods of training that mimic the procedures your coaches taught you in high school or college should be replaced with a more scientific approach.  Let go of the 1980’s and the “Bike” coaching shorts with the optional 6” waist band.  It is time to transition from customary lifts, squats, and stationary machines—sticking with a comfortable routine will limit your performance.  Look into learning a scientific approach, such as the OPT (Optimum Performance Training) model by The National Academy of Sports Medicine (www.nasm.org).

Below are some fundamental tips and knowledge you can implement today to make your workout more integrated, efficient, and effective at overcoming your current weight training plateau.

An integrated training program should utilize a multiplanar training approach since all muscles function in three planes of motion (sagittal, frontal, and transverse).  Every action should also use the entire muscle contraction spectrum (eccentric=reducing force; isometric= stabilizing force; concentric=producing force) in all three planes of motion.

When focusing on the resistance training component of an integrated program (with the goal of increasing maximal strength and power), it is important to differentiate your program through 4 phases of resistance training: stabilization, hypertrophy, maximal strength, and power. It is imperative to the success of your program that you first develop adequate levels of stabilization strength prior to beginning maximal strength or power training. “By performing stabilization exercises you are developing pathways from your brain to your muscles that will make you more efficient during your workouts as well as in daily activities” says Jeff Ball, CSCS of Catalyst Fitness.

Before proceeding it is important to recognize the principles of Overload, Variation, Specificity, Individualization, and Progression and the role they play in governing the physiological adaptations that occur in our bodies. A review of these principles will help you understand how your body will respond and adapt to exercise stimuli.

To elicit optimum physical, physiological, and performance adaptations, “you must introduce your body to new physical stimuli frequently. Our bodies adapt quickly to the demands incurred during training (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands).  Overload can best be achieved through proper manipulation of Acute Variables (repetitions, tempo, sets, rest, intensity, exercise selection, duration, and volume),” says Lauren Bryan, CES of Catalyst Fitness.


Tips to Apply Today

  1. Hit the drawing board and start over at the beginning. It is likely that you may have missed a key step or two in your overall program design. Even if you did not, cycling back to stabilization after periods of hypertrophy, maximal strength and power training allows the body to rest from more intense bouts of training (to prevent overtraining) and helps to maintain a high level of core and joint stability (allowing you to perform better and lift more weight). Don’t forget to include flexibility, core, balance, reactive, and speed training in your program.
  2. Switch phases (1. stabilization, 2. hypertrophy, 3. maximal strength, 4. power) approximately every four weeks. The last thing you want to do is remain fixed in the same routine. The body is extremely efficient and adapts quickly. Performing the same routine over and over leads to diminished results (plateaus) and can increase your risk of injury (muscle imbalances). See Table 1 for a detailed list of Acute Variables.
  3. Stabilization Training: This method focuses on increasing stabilization strength and neuromuscular efficiency (communication between the nervous system and muscular system) by training in a proprioceptively enriched (unstable yet controlled) and multi-planar environment (sagittal, frontal, and transverse). When you increase neuromuscular efficiency and the ability to stabilize your joints and posture, you will be able to recruit more motor units and activate more muscle fibers, thus increasing the amount of weight you can lift.
  4. Reactive Training: In order to perform quick movements with safety and precision, forces must be reduced (eccentrically), stabilized (isometrically), and then produced (concentrically). Including reactive training in your program will increase the rate at which you can reduce, stabilize and produce force. On a daily basis this includes being able to react to danger and improve your athletic performance.
  5. Core Training: The core is defined as the central section of the body consisting of the cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine, pelvic girdle, hip joint, and all the muscles that attach to these areas. The body’s spinal stabilization system (deep core) must be operating with maximal efficiency to utilize the neuromuscular control, muscular endurance, strength, and power that have been developed in the prime movers (major extremities).
  6. Balance Training: Whether you are on the tennis court, dance floor, or performing a heavy squat, maintaining balance is crucial to your success. Balance training fills the gap left by traditional training. It focuses on improving functional movement patterns in a multisensory, unstable environment, without which leads to muscle imbalances, proprioceptive deficits, joint dysfunction, and decreased neuromuscular efficiency (decreased performance and increased risk of injury).
  7. Nutrition: Since your goal is not weight loss but strength and power; it is important that you meet your BMR (Basal Metabolic Rate), the rate at which your body burns calories at rest, plus your ADAL (Adjusted Daily Activity Level) each day and follow the Food Guide Pyramid, including 7-9 daily servings of fresh fruits and green vegetables, or else your body will sacrifice lean body mass and performance gains and hoard fat instead. To determine the amount of calories you need to consume each day, try this Caloric Requirement Calculator.
  8. Ensure that you are receiving adequate rest (both sleep and time off between workouts) to ensure optimal results and prevent overtraining. If you are training intensely six or seven days per week (and you are not a professional athlete) you might want to consider giving your body a day off. Overtraining is another common reason why people reach plateaus.
  9. Reduce the amount of (“Concurrent”) Aerobic Training. Research has shown that Aerobic Training (Long Slow Distance) can have a negative impact on resistance training programs which have the goal of strength and power. The total volume of training (aerobic + anaerobic) can be too much for the body to handle and can lead to overtraining. Instead of your long run or a 60 minute spinning class, try 15-20 minutes of high intensity interval training on the treadmill or outside; jog for 1 to 2 minutes and then sprint for 30 seconds to 1 minute.
  10. Seek guidance from a qualified fitness professional. When looking for a personal trainer seek out individuals who have a 4 year degree in exercise science or a health related field and possess current certifications from at least one of the following four nationally accredited and medically recognized organizations: National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), American Council on Exercise (ACE), American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

Acute Training Variables

Training Intensity
Training Volume
Repetition Tempo
Rest Interval
Exercise Selection
Exercise Order
Training Duration
Training Frequency

Resistance Training Acute Variables

Desired Training AdaptationSetsRepsIntensityVolume
(total reps / ex.)
(in sec.)
Rest Interval
Stabalization1-312-2540-70%36-754/2/2-4/2/130-60 s.
Hypertrophy3-48-1270-85%24-363/2/1-2/0/245-90 s.
Maximal Strength4-61-585-100%4-201/1/1-x/x/x2-5 min.
Power3-61-1030-45% or up to 10% of body weight6-30x/x/x
x=as fast as possible
3-5 min.