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Want to build strength and confidence by breaking through a plateau? Read this advice…

2021 challenged our relationship with exercise in new ways. For many, it was a chance to put their new-found fitness levels and workout routines to the test – completing the marathons they trained for or the PBs they missed out on in lockdown. For other people, training took a backseat as we returned to commutes, offices, dinner plans and holidays.

I fell into the latter camp: having got through 2020’s restrictions thanks to a home workout routine that got me out of bed and sweating each morning, I let myself ease off for the most part of 2021. I still went to the gym, but the goal of my workouts was to feel energised and support my mental health, rather than hit any huge goals. 

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That meant it was often repetitive. I stuck with the moves I knew and loved and often lifted the same weight each session – I know many people who stuck with home workouts using their limited dumbbell selection felt the same. Training would also often end up being sidelined as I’d spontaneously decide to go to the office or an event or to meet a friend. I valued that flexibility, nursing care plans for coumadin therapy but it meant my routine lacked consistency.

In 2022, things are going to change. I’m one of the many who are feeling itchy for a new challenge. Building some serious strength in the gym is a popular resolution, and I want in on it. I’m aiming to finish the year lifting more than ever before. That means pushing myself beyond my comfort zone, breaking through plateaus and progressively overloading. The question is how.

How to build strength, according to PTs

“Set the bar low” – Alice Liveing, personal trainer and founder of Give Me Strength

“I absolutely relate to those who were out of routine last year – I found that I was using the upheaval of Covid as an excuse myself. But I got to the point where I was fed up and I want to get my act together and really achieve some stuff this year. 

“When it comes to strength, the most important thing is consistency. The body responds well to a consistent stimulus, so that means hitting the same lifts every week for a minimum of eight, but ideally up to 12 weeks. Those sessions could be broken down into push/pull movements, upper/lower or individual muscle groups that you want to try and target. But however you do it, creating that kind of clear programme is the most important place to start. 

“I always start my sessions with the same weight I ended on in the last session. So say today your last and heaviest set of back squats was 40kg, the next week you start on 40kg. Really take stock of if it feels difficult or like you could squeeze out a couple of extra reps. Then add small increments – a maximum of 2.5kg on each side.

“To stay consistent requires realistic goals, so I always say set the bar low. If you think you can do four sessions a week, programme three. That fourth session then becomes a bonus, rather than a failure. Planning on overachieving isn’t helping you. In fact, many people do better with less training – they feel more energised and more motivated.” 

“Focus on weight not reps” – Sarah Lindsay, Olympian, trainer and owner of gym space Roar Fitness

“Plateaus happened with lots of people in lockdown including myself – everyone found creative ways to work out and made do with what they had to maintain their strength and fitness, but this only works for so long. After some time of training submaximally you also become mentally accustomed to the reduced intensity and forget what you’re really capable of. 

“You have the conditioning and routine sorted, so you now just need to build on it by pushing the lifts. A very easy way to measure progress in the gym is to make the load the priority rather than focus on more reps. The stronger you are and the more you can lift the harder you can train and the more intensity you can create.

“For a few weeks, try keeping the number of reps the same but challenge yourself to lift more every session. This doesn’t mean lift less than you’re capable of but instead set a rep range in mind and if you complete all of them then you must increase the weight the next session. Continue that pattern, so every time you manage to lift your chosen reps with your weight, you increase the weight again. Don’t underestimate yourself, it’s a very rewarding and satisfying way to train.” 

“Seek out expert tips” – Farah Fonseca, three times winner of England’s Strongest Woman and women’s health coach

“When you’ve not been able to train for a set period of time it’s then very difficult to get back into things. That’s why it’s important for people to know what movements they can do and the appropriate alternatives or regressions that can make things easier – taking things back to where you need them isn’t bad. 

“But to break through plateaus and build strength, you need a new programme. A lot of people end up going to the gym and doing the same workouts all the time – for years and years and years. However, there are so many different ways that you can tweak what you’re doing in terms ofreps, tempo, and sets. That’s why I think it’s crucial that people who are stuck get some help and guidance from a proper strength coach who can give them a little bit of a push.

“Seeking out help and advice also builds confidence, and I really encourage that you ask even the team of your gym floor to check your form and ask for tips. I know a lot of women struggle with that, but I promise you that as coaches we’ve all been there and we’ve seen it all. It’s our job and it’s what we’re there for.” 

The takeaways:

  • Find a proper programme that is designed for progression. That sounds expensive, but luckily these days there are so many online options out there that, while not individually tailored, are a more affordable way to work with experts. I’ve got my eyes on the Strong Women Training Club, Liveing’s Give Me Strength app, the nobs guide by Lucy Mountain and Tone and Sculpt.
  • Log lifts to ensure they’re getting heavier. It’s easy to gravitate towards the same weight each week, but really I should be reaching for last session’s weight and then adding some.
  • Set realistic goals for the week. I’m following Liveing’s advice by starting with a minimum of three days in the gym a week and letting myself be pleasantly surprised by my own bonus days.
  • Ask for help. Just because you know how to lift doesn’t always mean you can do it by yourself. When I get too nervous to add on the extra 2.5kg, I’m going to ignore my ego and find a friendly PT to spot me.
  • Be compassionate. There’s a fine line between excuses and flexibility. I’m aiming for the latter, allowing myself to rest and change my schedule when needed, but not just giving up for a lack of confidence. 

Images: Alice Liveing/Farah Fonseca/Sarah Lindsay 

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