Like death and taxes, strength plateaus are inevitable. It doesn't matter if you are a beginner, intermediate or advanced trainee; plateaus are simply part of the training process and must be strategically dealt with. Once you hit a plateau, how you choose to manipulate your sets, reps, and training loads will dictate whether or not you remain stagnant or move forward to new PR's.

With the above in mind, I want to present some of my favorite plateau busting set and rep schemes. Before I get into the nuts and bolts, a couple of things:

These schemes are meant to be used on the big multiple joint exercises: squat variations, deadlift variations, pull-up variations, chin-up variations, rowing variations, overhead pressing variations and bench pressing variations. These schemes do not lend themselves well to single joint exercises such as curls, leg extensions, pressdowns, leg curls, etc.

Ideally, you should begin your workouts with one big multiple joint exercise targeting whatever "region" (upper or lower) or body part you are focusing on that day. It doesn't matter if you are a strength athlete, physique athlete or recreational lifter: I'm a big believer on focusing on one main movement to begin your workouts. Depending on your goals, the rest of your workout can vary to suit your needs, but I firmly believe EVERYONE needs to focus, first and foremost, on getting stronger.

You should perform several ramp-up or warm-up sets before getting into the actual schemes I'll outline below. How many warm-up sets to perform is an individual thing, but, as a general rule, keep the reps very low: don't waste your energy performing unnecessary "junk reps" which serve to do nothing more than wear you out and take away from the main strength building scheme. As an example, if your first real work set of the day calls for 200 lbs., your warm-ups may look like this:
  • 100 lbs. x 5 reps
  • 150 lbs. x 3 reps
  • 175 lbs. x 1 rep
Ok, now onto the meat and potatoes...

The 1/2 + 1 Scheme

This is one of my favorite "go to" plateau busting schemes. As the name implies, you simply take a given rep max, cut it in half, and add 1 rep. This is a 4 week progression. You'll work with varying theoretical rep maxes, dropping the reps and increasing the load each week (assuming you've hit the target sets and reps). Here's how to do it:
Week 1: Find your 12-rep max (the most weight you can lift 12 times). Perform four sets of seven reps.

Week 2: Add 6% to the load you used in Week 1 (this is your 10-rep max, roughly). Do four sets of six reps.

Week 3: Add 6% to the load you used in Week 2 (eight-rep max). Do four sets of five.

Week 4: Add 6% to the load you used in Week 3 (six-rep max). Do four sets of four.
At this point, you should repeat the 4 week cycle, beginning at Week 1, but you'll add weight to your 12-rep max (5 lbs. for upper body movements and 10 lbs. for lower body movements).

You'll want to rest about two minutes between sets. On the fourth set, attempt to do more reps than the prescribed number, but don't go to failure. As long as you get the goal number, you are free to progress to the next week. If you get stuck, stay put until you achieve the recommended number of sets and reps.

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The Percentage Plateau Buster

For this scheme, you'll need to know (roughly) your 1 repetition maximum for whatever exercise you are performing. I'd recommend low balling this figure a bit. If you know you could bench 300 lbs. if your training partners were slapping you in the face before your set, Pantera was blasting on your IPod, you had 10 hours sleep the night before, and you hit the smelling salts, you might want to figure your max on a  more "typical" day more around 285 lbs. Get it?

This is a 5 week progression. You'll rest 3 minutes between sets of each exercise:
Week 1: 65% x 5 reps, 70% x 5 reps, 75% x 5 reps, 80% x 5 reps (if you can get more on this last set, go for it, but don't go to total failure)

Week 2: 70% x 4 reps, 75% x 4 reps, 80 x 4 reps, 85 % x 4 reps (if you can get more on this last set, go for it, but don't go to total failure)

Week 3: 72.5% x 3 reps, 77.5% x 3 reps, 82.5% x 3 reps, 87.5% x 3 reps (if you can get more on this last set, go for it, but don't go to total failure)

Week 4: 75% x 2 reps, 80% x 2 reps, 85% x 2 reps, 90% x 2 reps (if you can get more on this last set, go for it, but don't go to total failure)

Week 5: 80% x 2 reps, 85% x 2 reps, 90% x 1 rep, 95% x 1 rep (if you can get more on this last set, go for it, but don't go to total failure)
At this point, you should go back to week 1, add 5-10 lbs. to your estimated max, and adjust the percentages accordingly before going through the 5 week cycle again. Also, I like to perform 2-3 higher rep back off sets after the scheme to add a little volume and pump. Try 2-4 sets of 8-10 at 60% of your max.

Wrap Up
As the old saying goes, doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. This holds true in the strength training world as well. When it comes to punishing a plateau and progressing, continuing to do the same set & rep scheme which got you to the plateau in the first place won't cut it. Give these two plateau busters a shot and reap the rewards of your new found strength!

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