Half of the fun of being a strength sport athlete is setting personal records (PRs). Whether it’s in training or on the competition platform, PRs are something we all strive for. However, depending on how long you’ve been in the game, the consistency of your PRs will change. Remember, strength gains don’t happen overnight.
At this point, we have all heard and likely experienced the newbie gains, but what are they really? People who are new to lifting (< 6 months) get incredibly strong and seem to PR every single week. They also likely undergo a period of body recomposition as their body puts on new muscle and in turn that muscle burns fat. This recomp can, in some cases, even lead to a bit of weight loss.
So what is actually happening?
When someone starts lifting, their body must adjust to the new stress put on it. Whether you realize it or not, whenever we put a barbell in our hands, we are putting stress on our body. In the case of strength training, we are putting physical stress on our muscles and bones. So what does our body do? It adapts in the only way it knows how to…it puts on strength.
Not literal strength, but it repairs the damaged muscle tissue and bones which in turn makes them stronger. So the next time you have a training session, you have to push your body just a little bit more to put enough stress on it so that it has to adapt again.
& This creates a cycle: stress, repair, adapt, repeat. As you can imagine then, as time goes on and your body is continually adapting, it takes more and more stress to push your body into an adaptation state.
The Plateau: Transition from Beginner to Intermediate
After about 6 months of consistent strength training, the PRs will become less frequent. They will still happen, but at smaller increments and less frequently. Some increases in strength will likely not come from strength alone, but improvements in technique.
The transition from beginner to intermediate can be mentally tough. You go from being able to PR by 20lbs every meet or after every cycle to only being able to add maybe 5-10lbs or less. This is where social media can be helpful and harmful at the same time. Lifters like Jen Thompson and Kimberly Walford have been training specifically powerlifting for years to even decades. They might have big numbers now, but it wasn’t always that way. Yes, in the beginning they likely saw huge PRs, but as time has gone on, they are ecstatic with even 1-2lb PRs. Even weightlifters such as Cortney Batchelor and Jenny Arthur, who have been in the sport for years, only PR by maybe 1-2kgs once a year. All that work for such a small PR is a true testament of their love for their sport(s).
However, even if you have been lifting for more than 6 months and are no longer experiencing beginner gains, there are still things you can and should be doing to optimize your strength potential.
How to optimize your strength potential
Let’s get the obvious one out of the way: you have to follow a structured training program, consistently. By this I mean and regimented, structured training program. Not some random workouts you have strung together to make up a full week. No, an actual program written with proper macro and micro cycles, one that takes into consideration the entire year’s training and competition schedules, one that was written by someone who knows a thing or two about programming.
Next is something a lot of us do without even realizing it: doing too much. Having a training program written by a coach who knows what they are doing is more than enough to get you where you need to be. Yes, some days will be easier than others. Yes, some days will make you question your sanity, but the program was written that way for a reason. If you decide to do more than what is written or add in extra cardio, you might be jeopardizing that PR you were hoping for. By doing too much you might be pushing your body past what it can reasonably recover from, and that will get you nowhere in the long run.
Then there is nutrition. If your main goal is to get strong, you should be eating in a caloric balance and prioritizing your food to enhance your athletic performance (learn more HERE). Most elite athletes advocate for no cutting unless you are trying to make an international team or go for a national record…something big. Otherwise you are missing out on significant strength gains if you are constantly trying to cut weight.
Get your nutrition in check. Whether you hire a coach or handle it on your own, making sure you are giving your body what it needs to train at its full capacity and what it needs to sufficiently recover will be essential for longevity in the sport.
Finally, prioritize prehab and recovery on a daily basis. We all want to do it all, but we forget that sometimes it’s best to take a step back. Training and nutrition are essential if you want to get stronger, but so is rest. Without proper rest, your body will always be in a state of under-recovery. Overtime this can lead to symptoms of overtraining. If you never let your body recover and don’t actively pursue recovery (yoga, prehab/rehab, stretching etc.) you’re going to either 1) burn-out or more likely 2) suffer some kind of injury from training.
We don’t want that. Stay strong and rest!
Factors that will limit or impede your strength potential.
- Cardio. Increasing the amount of cardio you do (especially if it is high impact) will also increase your recovery time from both training and cardio. If strength is your main goal, keep cardio limited to low-impact activities such as hiking,casual biking, walking etc., and try to keep it away from training or on rest days. The more you add on top of your strength training the more time you will need to recover.
- Recovery (or lack thereof). Many injuries come from overuse or overtraining. Make sure you are sleeping, eating, and drinking enough water on a daily basis. If you have some nagging pain, don’t hesitate to find a physical therapist who can help you fix the issue before it becomes a much larger issue. Take the time to help your body recover.
- Alcohol consumption. As we’ve discussed previously, alcohol impedes recovery, limits fat loss, and even increases fat gain. Alcohol on occasion won’t hinder your strength, but chronic consumption of alcohol will.
- Constantly cutting. Without repeating too much of what was said above, we will just say this: If you are constantly in the caloric deficit, you will never, ever reach your full strength potential. Not to mention the damage you are likely doing to your metabolism. Avoid all of this nonsense, just get strong!
- Recovery. Didn’t we already mention this? Yup. It’s just that important.
- Nutrition. Even if you aren’t in a caloric deficit, just eating to eat, unfortunately, is not the most optimal way to gain strength. We’ve covered what you need to be doing for protein, carbs, and fats previously, so go check those resources out. This is something we teach in Eat for Strength: how to get strong while staying in or responsibly going up a weight class.
Getting really, really strong takes a lot of time. This is why some of the top lifters in Powerlifting and Weightlifting have been around for 10+ years. Getting strong takes time, and becoming the best takes even more time. If someone has been around for less than 5 years and is making exceptional strength gains in that short amount of time, it’s likely they are taking some kind of performance enhancing drug. There is nothing wrong with that as long as they are competing in a federation that allows it.
Getting strong takes time, and the time it takes is unique to each of us. So don’t get caught up in numbers and don’t compare your numbers to anyone else’s numbers. This journey is unique to you. Put in the work, be patient, and fall in love with the journey.