Three Alternative Methods to Build Strength and Size When Progress Stalls

Follow a great program and these three steps and you'll be well on your way to a bigger total!

For many strength athletes, progression is a straightforward concept and looks like the following:

  1. Start with linear progression (e.g., StrongLifts)
  2. Implement periodization (like in my 12-week intermediate program)
  3. Add advanced concepts (DUP, conjugate methods, etc.)

Those three steps will take most lifters pretty close to their ultimate potential. In my experience, the ones who end up spinning their wheels don’t spend enough time on steps 1 and 2. They’re so overeager they go straight to step 3 without a proper strength and experience base, and as a result, progress stalls.

That’s a pretty simple problem to overcome, of course; it only requires patience. But when it comes to powerbuilding — training for both size and strength — progression becomes a bit more muddled.

Differences In Strength & Size Progression

Now, there are a lot of differences in training if (and only if) you’re aiming to compete at the highest levels in either bodybuilding or powerlifting. This video shares some of them:

However, for most lifters, the only meaningful difference comes down to methods of progression. This is very important, but also very overlooked, and here’s why:

  • When you’re training for strength, and are past the beginner level, you’re going to need to implement some form of periodization to maintain progress. That means over time, you’re lowering your training volume and increasing your training intensity (weight on the bar).
  • When you’re training for size, and are past the beginner level, you need to increase your training volume to maintain progress.

Obviously, those two are not mutually exclusive. To get stronger you need to (at least temporarily) decrease training volume, and to get bigger you need to increase it.

Now, that’s an oversimplification, and some advanced methods like block periodization can help to account for it.  But remember what I wrote above: the biggest pitfall for most lifters to moving to advanced methods too quickly. So, to avoid that, we need some alternate methods of progression.  Fortunately, I have some suggestions. 

1. Change it Up

One time-tested way of making continual progress involves movement rotation. Simply put, you don’t do the same exercises every workout. Maybe one week you deadlift from the floor, and the next you pull off blocks, for example.

Here’s why it works. Some marketing gurus will refer to this as “muscle confusion,” which is not a real thing — but central nervous system adaptation is. That just means the more you practice a movement, the better you get at that movement — to a certain point. Those neuromuscular adaptations are not necessarily indicative of progression, but they can be, if you choose movements in your rotation that benefit the competition lifts. Check out this video for more:

2. Eat More

This one is pretty simple: bigger muscles move bigger weights. And everyone likes to eat more!

Of course, nothing worth doing is ever really that simple. When it comes to eating more to build size and strength, there are two things to keep in mind. First, you can’t just become a garbage gut.If you eat a caloric surplus from a bunch of junk food, chances are, you’re going to add a lot more fat than muscle. While that fat might seem to make you stronger, it’s an illusion created by improved leverages and shorter ranges of motion (particularly on the squat and bench) that come from having a “power belly.”

Furthermore, if you’re a strength athlete, you have to be mindful of your competition. Adding 200 pounds to your total by gaining 100 pounds of bodyweight is unlikely to improve your placing at meets! That’s an extreme example, but it further highlights the need to be conservative and patient when it comes to eating more.

3. Work Harder

Okay, I lied. This one really is simple – it’s just that no one ever wants to truly work hard enough to see the results they claim to want. Trust me: no matter how hard you’re working, you could push harder. Shoot, here’s an example from my own training:

One caveat here: you have to balance training effort, volume, and intensity together — going all-out on a high-volume program is an easy way to end up overreaching!

If you need more help with powerbuilding, don’t hesitate to reach out to me or to my coach, Justin, for more advice!

Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page. 

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack is a professional powerlifter and holds the all-time world record raw total of 2039 in the 198-pound class. He has won best overall lifter at the largest raw meets in the world, including the US Open, Boss of Bosses, and Reebok Record Breakers.

Ben earned his Ph.D. in the history and management of strength and fitness from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018, and has published articles in a number of scholarly publications, including The Journal of Sport History, The Journal of Sport Management, and Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture. He also coaches strength athletes of all skill levels, including several internationally-elite powerlifters and world record holders. You can contact Ben through his website (phdeadlift.com) or via email at [email protected]

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