While you can always adjust your reps and sets, adding more weight to your workouts is a necessary step to catapult your progress forward.
If you've hit a strength plateau and can't seem to break through, try using one of these tips to give you the extra ammo to destroy your PR.
Tip 1: Serve Yourself a Shot of Caffeine
If you're not training with any sort of pre-workout supplement or caffeine, you are definitely missing out. Caffeine is one of the most highly used ergogenic aids, and can provide a physical energy boost as well as improve your mental performance.
For best results, start with 200 milligrams of caffeine taken 30 minutes prior to your workout session and increase the dose as needed. Your ideal caffeine dosage will partly depend on your sensitivity level and whether you consume it on a regular basis. Play around with what seems to work best for your tolerance.
Warning: Too much caffeine will interfere with sleep and could lead to CNS fatigue. More is not always better.
Tip 2: Do One Light Set Prior to Your Heavy Set
A big mistake a lot of lifters make is going straight for their heavy weight without properly priming the muscles. While a general warm-up may feel adequate, it won't be enough to get your muscles ready for heavier loads.
Try doing one lighter set at around 40-50 percent of your max load prior to your first heavy set. As you do this, focus on engaging the muscles you're targeting. Your mission here is to ensure optimal muscle activation is taking place.
Every single muscle fiber in that target muscle needs to be fired up and ready to contract before you can lift heavier sets. Avoid jumping straight into your PR or trying to get there through gradual increases; the first won't prime your muscles properly, and the second will fatigue you way before you reach your target weight.
Tip 3: Visualize a Successful Rep
Every truly great athlete in the world practices some form of visualization strategy, so this might be one bandwagon worth jumping on. Top athletes find somewhere quiet to prepare themselves mentally before a big event—taking time to actually "see" themselves executing their goals to perfection. They walk themselves through what they need to do and visualize the end result.
Try this with your next PR set. Before you hit the gym, or even before you step up to the bar, take a few minutes and visualize yourself getting the weight up. By doing this, you hard-wire your brain for success and build confidence in your own abilities. The more often you take the time to visualize your results, the better this technique will work.
Visualization alone will not magically add plates to your squat overnight. However, if you've been struggling to make that 10-pound jump from your previous PR, visualization could be what you need to get it done.
Tip 4: Find a PR Song
Music is a fantastic motivational aid during workouts, so why not make use of it for packing on more plates? The trick here is to choose one song that pumps you up and makes you ready to take on anything.
Once you choose a song, save it for your PR set. Don't listen to it during the rest of your workout, and definitely avoid it when you're not at the gym. The idea is to create a kind of Pavlovian response, whereby hearing your song triggers an automatic strength response that could help you break through your PR plateau.
Never underestimate the power of good music. For many hard-training athletes, it can make a significant difference.
Tip 5: Dial in Your Pre-Workout Nutrition Strategy
You probably already know pre-workout nutrition is a critical component for optimal results. But have you perfected your pre-workout nutrition, or are you just following standard protocol and eating some combination of protein and carbs an hour or two prior to your workout session?
While vague macronutrients are fine for an everyday training session, when it's time to really step up to the plate (no pun intended!) and blast your PR, your pre-workout nutrition must be on point. Otherwise, your body won't have what it needs.
Many people may actually feel better by skipping carbs in the hour or two leading up to their workout. For these individuals, the hit of carbs causes them to feel slightly sluggish, reducing their chances of generating maximum force.
Try playing around with your pre-workout macros. See for yourself how you react. Carbs are still essential for muscle building and recovery, but consider cutting back slightly right before the session and then gauge whether this improves your maximum strength output.
Redistribute your carbs to earlier in the day, with a large carb and protein breakfast, carbs and protein at lunch, and then a protein-only snack midafternoon before you hit the gym. Provided you are still eating quality carbs in sufficient amounts, you shouldn't have any issues with low blood glucose levels. You may even see a jump in your workout performance.
Tip 6: Train the Negatives
One of the best ways to gain strength and get past a sticking point is by focusing more attention on the negative, or eccentric, portion of your reps. Have a partner help you lift the slightly heavier weight, then, with your partner spotting you, slowly lower the weight back to the starting position. Most people are stronger during the negative portion, so you should be able to complete this step without issue.
Once you've completed the rep, have your partner assist you again for each additional rep until you've completed the set.
Training this way will help you gain more strength. When you finally feel ready to go back to an unassisted set with your target weight, you should be able to lift it.
Tip 7: Try a New Gym
A final tip you might consider is trying out a new gym. If you've been training at the same gym, doing the same thing over and over again for the last few weeks, months, or years, the novelty of a new environment may help get your brain out of its strength-plateau funk and get you stacking on more weight.
Or simply switch up the order of your lifts, the days you work out, or the time you hit the gym. It may sound silly, but sometimes a small change is all you need to get yourself psyched up and breaking through to that next weight level. It doesn't always work for everyone, but it's worth a try.