5 Tips to Break Through Weightlifting Plateaus

Everyone who trains in one sport long enough will eventually reach a plateau — that point where no matter what you do or how hard you work, nothing seems to improve. It can be frustrating and discouraging, but there is a way out. The solution isn’t always easy, but often times, making simple changes can produce the best results.

Athletes today can be so wrapped up in what they see on social media that I find they are always looking for a quick plateau fix. In reality, when you reach the point in your career when plateaus are a real and regular thing, there is no fast remedy. All you can do at that point is make slight modifications to your program.

When you stall, it usually can’t be pinpointed to one exact difficulty. It could be a technical problem, a strength deficiency, an imbalance front side to back side, left to right. It could be a mobility issue, or it could be something related to sleep or nutrition. It’s best to address the issues a few at a time and see how things progress, rather than attempting to change everything all at once.  

Every athlete I’ve worked with responds differently, but there are few things I have found to work well for many athletes.

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1. Ignore One Rep Max Benchmarks

First and foremost, take away the idea that athletes have to frequently attempt a one rep maximum in order to know that they are improving. Currently, I have an athlete that competed at the Junior Nationals in February and doesn’t plan to compete again until September. She has fantastic upper body strength but needed work in her squats, so we did a heavy strength focus mixed with high volume (5 rep, 3 rep, 2 rep) sets in her Olympic lifts. In addition, she has a slight strength imbalance between her right and left leg, so we added in single leg exercises (step ups, split squats, and weighted pistol squats) to address the imbalance. Right now, it’s about building strength. We will attempt 1 rep maxes later and see how all the strength work translates to her lifting.

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2. Tweak When Necessary

Another lifter came from a track and field background and had great lower body strength, but was not as technically efficient in the Olympic lifts, so he could not properly use his strength. For him, we used positional work from the hang/blocks and put a higher emphasis on technique under heavier loads.

Unfortunately, the numbers he hit at the National Championships were a poor reflection in comparison to his training numbers, so we went back to the drawing board. While we could completely throw the program away because the results were undesirable, we decided which aspects of the program worked for him, which needed modification, and took those into into the next phase of training.

By changing his ideology, from 1 rep max attempts to lifting with efficiency and consistency, the lifter actually ended up having a major breakthrough in those 1 rep maxes.

Just work. #WednesdaySoloSesh . . . . Last of literally a billion sets of technique doubles at 120kg/265lbs. #Vibin

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3. Focus on the Quality at High Percentages

Many advanced Olympic Weightlifters or even CrossFit athletes are past the point of needing 5 repetition, medium weight sets in the Olympic Lifts. Focusing on improving the 3 repetition and 2 repetition maximums takes the pressure off the need to PR a 1 rep max, but also allows the athlete to push the limits while still continuing to work technical flaws. Furthermore, two or three rep maxes gives athletes an opportunity to compete with themselves week after week, since they’re more likely to hit these numbers than to PR every week.

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4. Incorporate Weightlifting Blocks

I also like using block work to try and break through an athlete’s plateaus. Blocks allow athletes to focus on different positions of the pull, and it forces athletes to get comfortable with positions that might be uncomfortable or feel unnatural for them. It serves as a reminder of where an athlete needs to be during certain areas of the lifts, and doesn’t allow for them to throw the weight around from the floor and pray that it finishes in the correct position.

The major difference between attempting lifts from blocks rather the hang position is that the hang allows the athlete to generate a dynamic movement from the hips, back and legs, while lifting from blocks eliminates doesn’t allow for extra power. According to Jim Schmitz, lifting from the blocks “really works your second and third pull to the max by teaching you to accelerate as soon and as fast as possible.”

Blocks are also useful for athletes with minor injuries. It can put them in positions to still train the Olympic lifts while working around the pain point.

5. Get Complex

Lastly, I’ve found that complexes are also a good way to help athletes who are stalling. Complexes retrain and reinforce proper movement patterns at a lower weight. They can also be used week after week to allow the athlete track progress throughout the training program. Lastly, complexes allow athletes to address positional problems if they don’t have access to lifting blocks, or if there are multiple athletes lifting at the same time.

If you’re looking for complex inspiration, Greg Everett posted a program used by National Champion and American Record Holder, Jessica Lucero, that I have used as reference for complex ideas. Remember, though, that most programs are written with a particular athlete’s goals, strengths, and weaknesses in mind. Therefore, it is not always wise to grab one online and follow it exactly. Rather, use it with a coach and tweak it to your specifications. 

While tweaking your program to account for weaknesses and problem areas can lead to strength improvements and technical improvements, I also believe that the little PRs you can build from performing other exercises or multiple rep maxes can also build the confidence needed in performing competition maxes. In the end, you have to accept that you are pushing boundaries and limitations, but don’t be afraid to let yourself break through them.

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Featured Image: Sam Poeth on Instagram (@sam_poeth)/Lifting Life (@liftinglife)

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.