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Dave Thomas
CPT – NSCA, USA Weightlifting, RKC

Here are five workouts to do to help break various plateaus.  These can be applied within your class workout or on your own at open gym.

1. 8-Rep, Speed Deadlifts

Benefit:  Strengthening of the hamstring complex
For: Deadlift plateaus, weak posterior chain

Heavy, low-rep deadlifts will always be one of the better things that you can do for your strength.  However, they largely ignore the need to address muscle strengthening, in particular the hamstring complex.  There are essentially two components to strength.

  1. Central Nervous System
  2. Muscles Involved in the Movement


First, there is training the central nervous system (CNS), where we strengthen ourselves through neuromuscular development, the ability of the nervous system to properly recruit the correct motor units to produce force quickly.   It’s the brain becoming better at telling the muscles how they need to contract in order to pick up something heavy.   Anything in the 1 – 5R range at 85% and above will largely train the CNS and neuromuscular efficiency.  This is a vital process for achieving maximum strength. (This is also why you see small individuals who can lift mountains of weight in the gym).


However, this type of constant training will likely not target the second kinds of strength training we need; the individual muscles involved.  Low rep, CNS strength training trains the entire unit, not the individual soldiers and in order to become highly proficient in the deadlift you must step back, target the hamstrings and train them to fire quickly.  If all you ever do are heavy, heavier and heaviest you will plateau and stay there for a good long while.  You must also strengthen the different parts of the total movement.  By dropping load to roughly 50 – 60% of 1R max and performing fast, quality sets of 8 – 10 reps you train the hamstrings to apply force quickly, and you train your fast twitch muscles to be just that.  Fast twitch.

The folks who end up the strongest always seem to make sure they get a good foundation of muscular strength underneath them before applying it to low rep, CNS training.   Don’t ignore high volume sets at reduced load if you want to see your strength continue to climb.

Prescription: 8 x 10 speed sets @ 50 – 60% of 1R Max.  2 minutes rest or as part of a circuit.

2. 10-Rep Squats

Benefit:  Strength gains, muscle growth, an ass that turns heads
For: Squat plateaus, general strength

If you’ve been through a multi-set 10-rep squat workout, I don’t need to tell you how it made you feel the next day, and the day after, and three days after that.  It’s brutal and destructive, which is why you don’t want to do them all the time.  On the flip side, they are also incredibly beneficial for strength and lean muscle development which is why you want to do them.  Similar to the above point about getting away from the constant low rep form of strength training, you need to back away and get volume, as well.  There are few better ways to create time under tension than a heavy set of high rep squats, and few better modalities exist to pack on muscle quickly.   The longer you are under the barbell, the more tension your body will create in order to sustain your reps.  Learned tension that will later be used at heavier, near max squat attempts to apply more productive force against the barbell.


Movement pattern and repetition under heavy load are critical for strength.  High rep squats achieve that.  For those of you with muscle growth aspirations, there is no movement with greater recruitment of anabolic hormones and muscle breakdown like the back squat.  Nothing in the gym will challenge your mental capacity quite like it and ladies, nothing does a booty better than high rep back squats.

Prescription: 5 sets of 10R squats @ 60% of 1R max.  3 – 5 minute rest between sets as a stand alone workout.

3. Varied Holds

Benefit: Grip and trunk strength, posture, asymmetry correction
For: Plateaus on deadlift, clean and other grip reliant movements, a proper handshake

Remember all of that CNS/neuromuscular efficiency talk?  Well holds are pure, concentrated CNS strength training. Without a strong grip, there is absolutely no foundation for strength.  It’s like trying to pick up a cinder block with chopstix.  Grip work is probably one of the more under-focused aspects of training and the payoffs can be enormous with just a little extra attention.  Extended holds are one of the best ways we can accomplish this.  The risk of injury is almost non-existent, they have enormous strength carryover to many barbell movements and will strengthen your abdominals and give a kick in the ass to your posture like none other.

A grip that is capable of holding more weight than it used will all but guarantee a breakthrough in movements that require it.  Deadlifts, cleans, snatches and even kettlebell swings will feel weightless where before they felt heavy.  All based on the feel in your hands and transfer to the speed in the movement.

Some holds to choose from include:

  • Farmer Holds with Kettlebell
  • Farmer Holds with Dumbbell – A more challenging variety on the grip.  You’ll sacrifice load, though.
  • Double KB Holds (pictured at top) – Don’t use KB so big the weight sits on your wrists.  The KBs should be gripped, not rested.
  • Add Fat Gripz to Any Holds – Handle the 100# (men) or 75# (women) easy before adding additional challenge.
  • Farmer’s Walk Handle Hold – By far the most taxing on the back and body.  Most potential for weight capacity.
  • Pull-Up Holds – Hold for as long as you can at the top of the warp.  Thumbs underneath the bar.
  • Offset Holds – Hold a heavy KB/DB in one hand only but remain upright with the entire body.


Unless you are a competitor, you don’t want to overdo your grip training because if you fry it, you’ll see your lifts come down across the board.  Stick to class prescription and an additional session on your own per week.

Prescription: Pick one from the list above.  5 – 7 sets x 30 seconds.  Heavy. You can make these dynamic by walking with them for an extra challenge on trunk stabilization.

4. Loaded Negative Pull-Ups

Benefit: Eccentric strength work, lat strength
For: Plateaus on pull-ups, lockout strength on deadlift, bar control on Olympic lifts

Possessing deadly lats is beneficial to every single we do in the gym.  They are responsible for adduction, keeping the bar in tight on deadlifts, cleans and snatches where we know a drifting bar is often a virus for proper speed and technique.  Strong lats lead to strong pulls.  Negatives are essentially just working the lowering portion of the movement, called the eccentric portion, where we happen to be up to 175% stronger (1) than we are on the lifting/pulling phase of a movement.  You are really, really strong in the eccentric phase.  Knowing that you can bypass the more difficult lifting portion where we are weaker, we want to overload that back half of the movement and move very slow and very controlled back down to the starting point  This overload past what you would normally be able to handle leads to greater stress.  Greater stress leads to greater recruitment of muscle fibers and increased adaptation.


There is an old adage, “Train slow and be slow” that has spooked people into only training at rocket launcher speed at all times.  Bad move and only a partially correct statement.  If you were to perform negatives on everything you do all the time, yes, you would train your body to be slow.  But, eccentrics present an enormous opportunity for easy strength gains (hello, touch and go deadlifts) and should always be controlled on everything we do. All the time. Performing a few targeted sets of eccentrics only a couple of times per month is an excellent plateau buster on the pull-up rig.

Prescription:  Using an 8 – 20kg KB attached to a weight belt, perform 5 x 5 of eccentric pull-ups where you jump your chin past the barbell and take a full 5 + seconds to lower yourself back down to full extension.  Start the next rep by jumping back up. Beginners can do this without additional weight.

5. 5 x 500m Partner Row

Benefit: Conditioning, power, work capacity
For: Mile plateau and other conditioning needs

Rowing simultaneously challenges power and conditioning in a way not matched by any of its piers.  To be good at rowing is to be able to sustain power well past it’s typical rate of production.  Throughout the course of a high volume rowing workout you’ll also typically hit nine major muscle groups and leave them thoroughly fatigued afterwards.  It’s one of the few conditioning modalities that actually builds strength, as well.  Rowing also teaches the total body to work as a single coordinated unit incredibly well.  It teaches power and force up the chain, similar to Olympic lifting (which is why a lot of the cues happen to the be same such as straight chain/barbell, and progression of legs -> hips -> arms).


Rowing hard is painful. Very painful and a 500m all out sprint will make you question your existence.  Doing it five times is even worse but do this workout consistently and watch your conditioning go through the roof and your work capacity become animalistic. If you don’t have a partner, you can rest for as long as it took you to complete each set of 500m.  Don’t aim for a full, balls out effort, but think somewhere in the range of 80% on each set and make sure you keep your split the entire time.

Prescription: Grab a partner and row 5 sets of 500m only resting when it is your partners turn.  Must maintain your split for all five rounds. 

Breaking plateaus is largely about applying new stimulus and creating new stress that forces your body to adapt in a new way, aka getting stronger.  Go forth and mix it up.

Dave Thomas is co-owner and coach at Performance360 in San Diego, California.

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