A very common problem amongbodybuilders, especially advanced body-builders, is hitting a plateau. What to dowhen you hit a plateau is one of the mostfrequently asked questions I receive. Theanswers are highly individualized depend-ing on the specific problem, but I can giveyou some general guidelines to help youtroubleshoot the difficulty. The main pointis that if you’re not making progress in yourbodybuilding goals, then you’re not doingwhat it takes to make you better. As obvi-ous as that sounds, many people fail torealize this. A lot of people stick with thesame program month after month, some-times even for years, without seeing anyreal change in their physiques. They keepwaiting for it to start working – for some-thing to happen. A good rule of thumb isthat you should see some improvement onat least a monthly basis. Take inventory ofyour progress at regular intervals, say atthe beginning of every month. If you likewhat you see and you’re making goodprogress, keep doing what you’re doing.On the other hand, if a month goes by andyou haven’t made some noticeable im-provement, it’s time for a change.
The big-gest mistake you can make is to faithfullystick to a program that’s not giving you goodresults.These suggestions to “take inven-tory” and “look for improvement” lead di-rectly to the second major concept, which isthat you need to be scientific about analyz-ing your progress. You cannot achieve great-ness in any field by guesswork, includingbodybuilding. You need to have some spe-cific, objective goals and keep records to de-termine if you’re making progress towardachieving them. The basic goals for body-builders are to increase muscle mass, to de-crease body fat, to increase strength in thebasic lifts, and to improve overall size, shapeand symmetry. To know if you are makingprogress toward increasing muscle mass orlosing body fat, you need to periodicallymeasure your body composition and keeprecords. To monitor your gains in strength,you need to keep a training journal andrecord your performance on basic lifts likesquats, deadlifts, bench presses, shoulderpresses, and rows. Set some specific goals,such as to gain a pound of muscle per weekfor the next 12 weeks, or to reach an all-timepersonal low body fat percentage, or to geta new personal best in the bench press. Ifyou don’t have specific goals, and if youdon’t monitor your progress toward reach-ing those goals, then it’s hard to know ifyou’re really making any progress or not.
Most people in the gym don’t ever bother toformulate specific goals, don’t keep a train-ing journal, and don’t measure their bodycomposition. They’re the ones who lift thesame weight month after month and whosebodies never change. One of the best waysto set a goal is to pick a date six to twelveweeks in the future and to plan for a certainbody weight and fat percentage at that time.For example, “By next I want to weigh 220pounds at 6% body fat. This means that byMay I need to gain 10 pounds of muscle andlose 8 pounds of fat.” This gives you somespecific goals to shoot for, and a timetableto monitor your progress. Of course, youcan’t do it without measuring your bodycomposition. The Parrillo Performance BodyStat Kit was made just for this reason, andincludes a manual with detailed instructionson how to modify your program to keep mak-ing progress.Bodybuilding is not really all thatcomplicated. If you’re not making goodprogress you need to make some kind of achange, and the two places to makes thesechanges are in your training or your nutri-tion. Don’t be afraid to change one or bothof these. Let’s consider the muscle gainingplateau first. The most common problem hereis with nutrition – people just don’t eatenough calories to sustain further musclegrowth. Consider this: your body’s dailyenergy expenditure – the number of caloriesyou burn in a day – is determined by yourmuscle mass, among other factors (1,2).Muscle is metabolically active tissue – apound of muscle requires 25-30 calories aday to maintain and up to 100 calories tobuild.
This means that as your muscle massincreases your daily calorie requirement in-creases at the same time. As an example,let’s consider a hypothetical 180 poundbodybuilder whose maintenance energy re-quirement is 2500 calories a day. This meansthat during an average day, his body burns2500 calories total. If he consistently con-sumes less than 2500 calories a day he’lllose weight, and if he consistently consumesmore than 2500 calories a day he’ll gainweight. If he consumes 2500 calories a day,his present body weight will be maintained,and that’s why we call this his “maintenanceenergy requirement.” Now let’s say he wantsto pack on some mass, so he starts eating2800 calories a day. For several weeks he willgain at about a pound a week, but then thegains stop. Why? Well, if each pound of newmuscle burns 30 calories a day just for main-tenance purposes, and he gained 10 pounds,that’s 300 more calories he burns every dayjust to maintain his body. That means hisnew maintenance energy requirement is now2800 calories a day, not 2500 like it used tobe. So for awhile he was making good gainson 2800 calories, but the added muscle hasincreased his metabolic rate so that now heneeds 2800 calories a day just to maintainhis new weight. So the gains stop. To add the next 10 pounds of muscle he would haveto increase calories again.
This is pretty basic stuff, but you’dbe surprised how often it’s overlooked. Formany people, gaining more muscle is assimple as eating more calories. Many body-builders are afraid to try it because they’reafraid they’ll gain fat. The key is to eat clean,lean bodybuilding foods. The Parrillo Nutri-tion Manual describes how to increase yourcalories from foods which are more prone tohelp you build muscle and which are diffi-cult for your body to store as fat. What’s thebest way to increase calories to gain moremuscle?Generally speaking, an increase in complexcarbohydrates is the best way to go. Youalso need to increase your protein intake asyou gain weight, so that you’re getting atleast one to one-and-a-half grams or more ofcomplete protein per pound of body weighteach day, but the bulk of your calories shouldbe derived from carbohydrates. By increas-ing your carbohydrate intake, this will in-crease your ratio of insulin to glucagon andincrease the anabolic drive to build moremuscle (3). Increasing your carbohydrateintake actually provides a more potentgrowth stimulus than increasing protein.Remember this as a general rule: as yourbody weight increases, increase your pro-tein. As your energy requirement increases,increase your carbs.
A growth plateau gen-erally means you need more calories, notmore protein (as long as you’re meeting yourone to one-and-a-half grams or more perpound per day requirement). And those calo-ries are best supplied as carbohydrates. Besure to use complex carbs and stay awayfrom sugar or refined carbs, which are easilyconverted to fat.A brief word on supplements here:provided your protein requirement is beingsatisfied, the most potent supplements forgaining weight are probably Pro-Carb Pow-der™ and CapTri®. A couple scoops of Pro-Carb® taken with or between meals will initself be enough to help most people packon several pounds of lean muscle. If youfind that you’re putting on fat, consider us-ing CapTri® instead. It supplies calories in away which is almost impossible for yourbody to convert to fat (4,5). And if you don’ttolerate carbs too well, CapTri® can give youthe added calories and help maintain a morefavorable glucagon/insulin ratio.As you continue to gain lean mass,your metabolic rate will increase, so you’llhave to gradually increase your caloric in-take to support further weight gain. It’s notuncommon for big bodybuilders to eat 6,000calories a day or more.
Don’t make the mis-take of increasing calories too fast, however.You might be tempted to say that you wantto gain 40 pounds, and try to do it all at onceby upping your calories by several thou-sand. If you do that all at once, you’ll gain alot of fat along with the muscle. You can onlybuild muscle so fast, and if you push yourcalories up too fast you’ll get fat. On theParrillo Performance Program, we recommendgaining at a rate of about a pound a week.That way, you know you’re adding solidmuscle mass, instead of possibly packingon fat. It’s best to increase your calo-ries in increments of300-500 a day.Although ittakes around 30calories a day tomaintain a poundof muscle, it takesmuch more to actu-ally build thatmuscle. That’s whyyou can’t just add 30extra calories a dayand expect to gain apound of muscle in aweek. Just doesn’t hap-pen that way. And as your maintenance levelchanges, so will the number of calories youneed. Your body just doesn’t gain ten poundson 300 to 500 extra calories then stop, wait-ing for that next 300-500 calorie increase.Your growth and caloric needs are constantlychanging.As you eat more you provide yourbody with the nutrients to gain more muscle,and as you gain more muscle, you’ll need toincrease your calories to maintain the muscleyou’ve already gained plus the extra calo-ries your body needs to make new muscle.
That’s why it’s so important to record whatyou’re eating on Diet Trac Sheets and checkyour body composition regularly using theBodyStat Kit. A lot of people think this toolis used only during the pre-contest period.But in actuality, the BodyStat Kit can tellyou a lot about your lean mass and body fatand how these percentages change accord-ing to your diet and training.The other possible problem if youhit a plateau could be in the area of training.Within this category, you could be under-training, over-training, or not training in-tensely enough. Just as your nutritionalneeds change as you gain more muscle mass,you will find that periodic variation in yourtraining will help you break through plateaus.Although it’s hard to make generalizationsabout this, probably the most common mis-take here is not training intensely enough.Intensity is the key to productive weighttraining exercise. Increasing or decreasingthe volume of exercise you do won’t makemuch difference if the exercise you’re doingis not intense enough to stimulate musclegrowth in the first place.
The key principlehere is progressive resistance—you have to lift heavier weight if youwant to get bigger and stronger. This is whykeeping a training journal is so important.On a monthly basis you should be gettingstronger on the basic lifts. Certainly now youshould be benching, squatting, and press-ing more weight than you were this time lastyear. If you’re not, you need to make achange. Every workout you should try to lifta heavier weight than you did the last time,or else do more reps with the same weight. Itmay not be realistic for an advanced body-builder to increase the weight at everyworkout, but if a month or two goes bywith no improvement, that’s a sign it’s timefor a change.What do you change? The vari-ables to play with here are endless, butthe bottom line is that you want to increaseyour strength on the basic lifts. This meanslifting more weight on squats, bench press,shoulder press, rows, and deadlifts. Train-ing for strength and training for size arenot the same, but they do go together. Thebest way to train for strength is to lift veryheavy weights in the 3-6 rep range andkeep the volume fairly low. To train formuscle size it’s better to do 8-12 repeti-tions and to do a higher volume of exer-cise. It’s important to train to positivemuscle failure, so that you can’t performanother repetition.
When training for size,it’s also very important to emphasize the ec-centric phase of the muscle contraction. Thatmeans you need to resist the weight as youlower it while the muscle is lengthening.When you can perform 12 repetitions in goodform, it’s time to increase the load. This iswhere many people fail in the gym. They dothe same 3 sets of 10 reps with the sameweight every week and never increase theload. They never get any stronger and theirmuscles don’t grow. You have to continu-ally push yourself. You have to continuallychallenge yourself with heavier weights.Regarding the issue of whether youshould train in the 3-6 rep range or the 8-12rep range, I think you should do both. In lastmonth’s article I suggested a program whereyou do “powerlifting-style” training (3-6 reprange) for one month, then “bodybuilding-style” training (8-12 rep range) the nextmonth. Alternatively you can do low repsone week and moderate reps the next week,or even incorporate both into each workout.Any of these approaches will work, just soyou remember to try and increase the load orthe number of reps as often as possible.
Isuggest making some alterations in yourtraining program every 4-6 weeks to presentyour muscles with a fresh stimulus. Yourmuscles seem to adapt to a given trainingregimen after about a month.Regarding the questions of specific trainingroutines, training volume, and training fre-quency, I would have to write an entire bookto cover these issues. (Actually, I wrote threebooks about that – The Parrillo PerformanceTraining Manual, John Parrillo’s Fifty Work-out Secrets, and High Performance Body-building.) What I can tell you here are justsome basic concepts. Everyone seems to besearching for the “ultimate” workout routine,as if it were some sort of holy grail. The truthis, there is no single ultimate routine, al-though some are better than others. The keyconcepts are to emphasize the basic exer-cises, train hard, train to failure, continuallylift heavier weight, and periodically alter yourworkout to get some variety. Many body-builders rotate their body parts five or sixdays a week, training only one muscle groupat each workout. Others do better on a threeor four day rotation and training two or threemuscle groups at each workout. Experimentwith a six day split, training six days a week,one body part per workout, versus a threeday split, training two body parts per work-out. See what works best for you. The onlymistake you can make is to stick with a pro-No Limits: How To Break Through Plateaus, Part Igram that’s not working. Check out my train-ing books if you want more details on de-signing routines and on exercise perfor-mance.
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2. Wilmore JH and Costill DL. Physiologyof Exercise and Sport. Human Kinetics,Champaign, IL, 1994.
3. Westphal SA, Gannon MC, and NuttallFQ. Metabolic response to glucose in-gested with various amounts of protein.Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 52: 267-272, 1990.
4. Baba N, Bracco EF, and Hashim SA. En-hanced thermogenesis and diminisheddeposition of fat in response to overfeed-ing with diet containing medium chain trig-lyceride. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 35: 678-682, 1982.
5. Bach AC and Babayan VK. Medium chaintriglycerides: an update. Am. J. Clin. Nutr.36: 950-962, 1982.
6. Maughan RJ. Creatine supplementationand exercise performance. International Jour-nal of Sport Nutrition 5: 94-101, 1995.
7. Greenhaff PL. Creatine and its applicationas an ergogenic aid. International Journal ofSport Nutrition 5: S100-S110, 1995.