Training Expectations: Understanding Stalls

Leah Lutz
August 28, 2020
Reading Time: 8 minutes
Table of Contents

    The process of strength training is not a linear one where every workout allows us to realize a new level of performance, although improvement early on is often quick and rewarding. This article addresses what to do when that enjoyable forward momentum is blunted or seems to have stopped altogether. This is frequently referred to as a “stall”, although that concept is a nebulous one. We will discuss how to identify whether you have actually stalled and if that warrants a change in your training.

    A stall refers to a situation where a particular metric (working set weights, rep-max weights, endurance performance, etc.) is not progressing as planned or as expected. An important caveat is that this observation must occur over a time period long enough to demonstrate a clear trend. In the context of strength training this typically requires at least three weeks, sometimes longer. Performance can vary from workout to workout for a variety of reasons. One or two workouts where performance declines does not automatically mean you have stalled, because there is a degree of normal variation in performance that is to be expected over short time periods. We want a longer period to examine before making that declaration. We will arbitrarily define a “regression” as a marked reduction in performance (e.g., greater than 15%) across a sufficiently long time period.

    Since we all care about our training outcomes, it is easy to interpret our experiences through an emotional lens. It is common to focus on a small part of our training and incorrectly judge our efforts as a whole based on this limited or even incorrect view. This is  particularly true when training or competition becomes an important aspect of our identity. But in order to respond appropriately to these situations, we must approach the situation with some objectivity. So what do we do?

    Training Expectations

    You may expect to improve on a weekly basis–but exactly what this improvement is, or how much improvement you see in one week, is likely to be variable. So while we can’t provide universal numbers for “expected progress”, we can lay out some guiding principles for understanding progress and a stall.

    Stalls or regressions can prompt informed and objective changes to your training. However, it is essential to keep in mind that exactly how much your performance can realistically be expected to improve over a three-week period will vary based on your training history, programming goals, recovery, and many other outside stressors. Furthermore, attempting to “force” progression when it is unrealistic or unfeasible comes with risks of frustration, burnout, and potential injury. Adding 5 lbs or 2.5 kg over three weeks to your working weight on a lift can represent outstanding progress in certain contexts, even if someone on the internet says you “should” be making more rapid progress or are wasting time by not progressing faster. Setting reasonable training expectations helps to avoid seeing a “stall” with every perceived problem.

    If you depend solely on measures of constantly rising bar weight, new personal records, or feeling like you “crushed” each session, you are probably setting unrealistic goals for a long-term training career. You will be left with too little to look back on when you’re wondering about your progress, whether a programming change is in order, or trying to pull yourself out of a training funk.

    No one can keep adding weight to their training sessions week in and week out. There will always be ups and downs in life and in training because we are human beings and not machines. In contrast to a machine, we have the ability to adapt to stress and improve, but there are always limits to this. Eventually, progress always slows, meaning more progress takes more work and more time. This also means more fluctuations along the way, and you must mentally prepare yourself for this. Training shares many features of other pursuits in life: it has its slow times, ups and downs, and the really fun moments when everything is progressing like wildfire.

    Quantitative measures like weight, sets, and reps often earn the most attention around stalls and plateaus because they are the easiest to observe. However, they are not the only measures that should be considered when assessing progress. We generally suggest that lifters enter a training session planning to increase the load from the last time they saw the same exercise, unless they observe evidence that this should not happen. This is where qualitative metrics show their worth.

    One of our favorite qualitative measures is the Rate of Perceived Exertion Scale (RPE). Applied to training, RPE helps you to describe the difficulty of a given performance. This fills in an important gap that results from relying on bar weight alone. We discuss these concepts in greater detail in several articles, but simply put: if your training log shows “Week 1: 225 lbs x 4 reps” and “Week 2: 225 lbs x 4 reps”, you might review this several weeks later and have no real memory of what may have been different between those sessions. Indeed, they would appear to describe the same exact performance. But if the week 2 session involved faster bar speeds, less effort to execute the set, and/or less time between reps, there was clear improvement. Applying the RPE scale can help you track this qualitative aspect of performance as a way to track progress in more detail. For more detailed information and a helpful chart on RPE, see our article, Returning to the Gym.

    Evaluating a Potential Stall

    If you feel like you have stalled, try to objectively assess the situation in context rather than make premature assumptions or alter your programming based on unsubstantiated feelings.

    1. Review your training goals. Are you using a program with a particular focus? You should be, and it’s helpful to explicitly identify this focus, since it provides context for what we should expect from the program. For example, the goals, expected outcomes, and metrics of progress will vary with a strength-biased program versus a hypertrophy-biased program. Review the aim of this training block: the training blocks long before a meet will differ from the “peaking” phase close to a competition date. General strength and conditioning or “powerbuilding” should aim for progress across several outcomes, but the individual’s ability to demonstrate these at any one time will vary.
    2. Expand your time frame. Look for trends over 3-4 weeks or longer, not just a single “down” session or even a week. The trajectory of training over a longer period is more useful and helps to smooth out inconsequential variation, helping to moderate negative feelings and put things in better context when evaluating your progress.
    3. Compare similar efforts to provide a more objective analysis of an apparent decrease in performance. For example, a one-rep max effort (1 rep @ 10 RPE) cannot be compared to 5 reps @ 8 RPE unless you consider something like the estimated 1-rep max (e1RM) for both performances — which has some error in its estimation anyway.
    4. Be honest about any movement changes that could be affecting the numbers. For example, an injury, changes in technique, depth differences in a squat, and pause length in a bench press can affect the weight on the bar and difficulty of the movement.
    5. Assess your life situation and training context. Has your life changed in a way that training is no longer your primary goal? Are you juggling training with family, work, and additional cardio goals like running a marathon with your partner? Or are you rehabilitating a tendinopathy or some other injury? The demands each of these place on your training time in the gym, on your recovery, and on your mental focus will affect the trends in your training.

    Based on the conclusions drawn from these factors, you may have not truly stalled. However, if you have, making a programming change may be beneficial. How to make those changes is a rather nuanced discussion that is beyond the scope of this article. For more information, listen to our programming podcast series. [3 part podcast series] The e-book that accompanies the Beginner Template may be helpful here as well.

    Tracking your Training

    The use of training data is essential to assess your progress objectively. This helps avoid overly emotional, catastrophic interpretations of normal performance downturns and fluctuations. Don’t rely on intuition here. Because you are highly invested in your training, you may be motivated by the external outcomes of that effort. You want to know you are improving, so it becomes easy to make incorrect judgments if you are not certain that things are working “optimally”.

    If we can’t rely on bar weight alone and we know that assessment is valuable, what can we practically do to increase objectivity?

    1. Maintain a training log. If you aren’t recording your training consistently, you have no information to guide current and future decision making. Keeping track of performance trends may reveal correlations with exercise selection, training volume, intensity, or frequency. These can be used in designing a program based on what your prior training responses.
    2. Use comparable data. An example will illustrate this best: training your bench press almost exclusively with a pause will select for the specific skill adaptations for this lift. You could attempt a touch-and-go bench press thinking it should be heavier without the limitation of a pause, and discover that it is not. This is likely because it is a less-trained variation, without the benefit of those specific skill adaptations. As coaches we see this confusion frequently in comparison of variations like paused squats and regular squats, deadlifts and rack pulls, etc. The principle of Specific Adaptations to the Imposed Demands (SAID) holds that you will see greater improvement in the specific tasks you train directly or in the variations that are very similar to that task. The less specific a movement is from the main lift that you train, the more divergence in performance you’ll likely see. In short: don’t do a mid-shin rack pull for the first time and despair because you handle less weight than the deadlift from the floor that you’ve been training for years.
    3. Note important form alterations and corrections. To further amplify comparable data, it is also important to note form adjustments that require a reset of your training weight and expectations. For example, if you were previously squatting above parallel depth, and now you are squatting to full depth, the change in range of motion limits the comparison between these data points. Likewise, if you improved your bench press pause from something that was a bit looser without completely stopping, do not attempt to compare those training numbers directly. With these types of changes, you changed the standard in a way that increased the difficulty of the lift. This also applies to individuals preparing for competition who do not always train under competition standards with typical judging and commands for their lifts. Know that you’re building up from this new training standard.
    4. Keep track of lift variants, but be reasonable. There is no denying that new personal bests are enjoyable and meaningful. You can measure personal best performances in 1-rep max efforts AND in multi-rep performances. Of course, it is possible to take this too far by measuring every possible variable, like setting a PR low bar back squat with one knee sleeve, belt one hole looser, horrible music at the gym, and 3 people walking in front of you. But keeping track of some notable movement variations and rep ranges has definite assessment value, and can reveal evidence of progress that may not have been apparent otherwise.
    5. Record your effort ratings and do your best to be honest about them. If you lift 315 lbs for 1 rep at RPE 9 one week, and then lift 315 for 1 rep at RPE 8 a week later, this represents an improved performance. Conversely, if you bench 135 lbs for 1 rep at RPE 8 on week 1, then bench 145 x 1 the next week and it is an RPE 10 effort, this does not represent an improved performance. You lifted more weight on the bar, but the effort needed was higher. It’s likely that on week 2 you simply attempted your current max bench press, while week 1 was a sub-maximal bench press repetition. Keep an eye on your RPE 8 reps drifting into RPE 10 territory.
    6. Note improvements in mindset and confidence. While this dovetails with RPE ratings, don’t underestimate the progress in growing confidence with weights or even movement variations. That first time you squat 315 lbs is a major accomplishment. However, 315 lbs becoming an “everyday weight,” even while feeling under the weather or distracted by life stress, represents another accomplishment. Knowing that you can lift a load that was previously difficult or intimidating with less anxiety, more confidence, and more consistently is something to note and appreciate. If you are new to barbell training and nervous to routinely squat a set to below-parallel depth, and then you nail it, confident in your strength and ability to the very last rep, appreciate this progress too!
    7. Allow for altered programming due to injury. This seems obvious, but without adequate training notes you might think back, recall little or no progress, and forget that you were training around an injury. In altering your programming for two or three weeks, then working back up to previous training loads you can feel like you’ve stalled if you’re only thinking about lifting more weight than you did previously. 

    The normal ups and downs of training can be frustrating if we aren’t tracking and analysing data, and that feeling of a stall can be discouraging. It is normal to desire that ever forward progress. Unfortunately, reality is that long-term forward progress is never a neat, straight line. When it gets messy, avoid the temptation to respond emotionally. Understand the factors that affect your training progress, learn how to objectively track your training, and use this data to thoughtfully stay the course or make reasonable programming alterations, then be patient and give these changes time to show their effects.

    Thanks to Tom Campitelli and Austin Baraki, MD for their contributions to this article.

    Leah Lutz
    Leah Lutz

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