When resistance training, we’d like to think that increasing training volume will lead to greater gains and improvement in body composition. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Do more work and see more results? Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. You may have heard of the “law of diminishing returns” as it relates to economics. Here’s a definition:
“An economic principle that states that as investment in one goal increases, but other variables stay the same, the return on investment will eventually decline.”
The law of diminishing returns also applies to resistance training. When you first begin training with weights or resistance bands, you first see results in about 6 weeks and feel gratified that your training is paying off. Ultimately though, you reach a point where your body doesn’t respond as quickly or at all. Most people make the most substantial gains during their first year of training. Inevitably, the gains slow as you reach a point your body has adapted to the stress you’ve placed on it, what we think of as a plateau.
Here’s where the law of diminishing returns comes in. When you reach the dreaded plateau phase, it’s tempting to up the volume of your workouts, invest more time in training – but based on the law of diminishing returns that’s not necessarily an effective strategy. Increasing training volume is one form of progressive overload, but one that won’t necessarily pay off with gains and a strategy that can zap your motivation and leave you feeling exhausted.
More isn’t always better when it comes to resistance training. Just as cutting calories more when you’re trying to lose weight can work against you, so can increasing your training volume to try to jumpstart your results. The same applies to fat-burning cardio workouts. What you shouldn’t do when you reach a weight loss plateau is substantially increase the length of your cardio sessions or start doing a HIIT workout every day. That’s how you get over-trained, injured, frustrated and burned out.
Train Smarter, Not More
If you’re not making gains and you’re taking reps to failure on some sets, try changing the tempo of your reps rather than the volume. Super-slow training is an approach where you slow down the speed of each repetition – 10 seconds for the concentric or lifting phase, pause for a second at the top, and 4 or 5seconds for the eccentric or lowering phase. Don’t go too heavy – keep the weight at around 50% to 60% of your one-rep max. Super-slow training increases the time your muscles are under tension and eliminates momentum. Other strategies to challenge your muscles differently without increasing training volume: drop sets, supersets, partial reps, rest- pause, pyramiding, reverse pyramiding and pre-exhaust sets.
Sometimes something as simple as changing the order of the exercises you do or altering the angle with which you work a muscle can re-trigger growth. If you typically do three sets of each exercise, drop to a single set and increase the intensity. If you usually work with dumbbells, change over to barbells or resistance bands. Add more bodyweight sets where your body serves as the resistance. You can’t keep things the same and expect muscle growth to keep happening. Sometimes, change is good.
If you’ve already gotten into the cycle of increased training volume and are feeling frustrated and exhausted, the best approach is to step back and take a break from high-intensity exercise and heavy resistance training. Do circuit training using lighter weights and high reps and fill your workout slots with relaxational forms of exercise like yoga or flexibility workouts. Don’t keep upping the volume hoping it’s going to lead to better results.
How do you know when you’re pushing it too hard? Your performance is dropping, you’re exhausted and you no longer feel the same degree of motivation. It’s best not to let it reach this point rather than try to undo the damage.
One way to prevent plateaus and the law of diminishing returns and avoid overtraining and burnout is to periodize your training. During each period, you focus on a particular goal. During one phase, you could work on strength and hypertrophy. During the next phase, switch the focus to building muscle endurance using lighter weights. Then work on power during the subsequent phase by focusing on rapid velocity movements using lighter weights. You can also alternate weekly or bi-weekly cycles of heavy resistance, low reps and lighter resistance, high reps.
A number of studies show periodized workouts lead to greater loss of body fat and strength gains than non-periodized training. Your risk for injury is lower since you’re not completely hammering your muscles every time you work out. Plus, the variety of a periodized workout schedule keeps your workouts interesting.
Focus on Good Nutrition
Needless to say, nutrition can be a sticking point when it comes to making continuous gains. If you’re trying to lose fat and build muscle at the same time, you’re probably keeping your calories too low and not getting enough total energy or protein. Keep a food journal for a few weeks and make sure you’re getting your macros. Remember, if you’re increasing training volume without upping your calorie intake, you’ll have more trouble losing body fat as your body tries to hold onto storage fuel. You’re also going to lose muscle, the opposite of what you’re trying to achieve.
The Bottom Line
After you’ve been training for a while, the gains usually slow, but that’s not a sign you need to ramp up the volume and frequency of your workouts. Instead, add some plateau-busting variations to your resistance training routine. If you’re already in the “death spiral” of too much volume, take a break or do lower intensity workouts. When you return, consider periodizing your workouts. Don’t forget about the importance of adequate recovery time between workouts. Your muscles need rest as much as they need stimulation. Don’t pound them to death and expect them to keep growing. Give your brain a rest too by taking a rest day each week.
IDEA Health and Fitness Association. “Beat Training Plateaus”
“Super Slow Resistance Training” Jeff Nelson, M.Ed. and Len Kravitz, Ph.D.