Busting Vert and Speed Plateaus
You've hit the inevitable plateau. No matter what you do you can't get past it. Fortunately for you help is on the way and this article will go over some ways you can bust thru and start making gains again.
Plateaus - Sometimes They're Unavoidable
First, realize that plateaus are an inevitable part of the process. Vert and speed gains are finicky. They almost always come in bunches followed by a period of stagnation. Often you can predict when you'll make gains but sometimes not:
As I've discussed many times before, general foundational training, such as strength training, increases your potential or raw horsepower. Power training, speed-strength training, plyometrics etc. enable you to express that potential better, like modifying and fine tuning a race car. The foundation typically takes longer to develop and the modifications part responds relatively quickly, so in practice a person might spend several months building their foundation and only a month or so training to express what they gained. It's in the shorter phase where gains usually are realized.
This process is part of the reason why plateaus exist. Unless you're a beginner it's hard to optimally train all capacities at once. You go for several weeks or months without any gains then BAM - all the sudden overnite you see a nice increase. MOST of the time you will be in a plateau so you should accept that as part of the process. Using myself as an example my vertical jump increased about 20 inches over a span of several years but the vast majority of those 20 inches came in 4 separate very short bunches. My first initial increase was from 23 to 27 inches. Those gains literally came overnite. I didn't do anything special, but I had a spot on a brick wall next to my basketball goal that I would routinely jump up and try to touch. The next increase came almost a year later when I was able to hit 31 inches. That process continued for years and years. It shouldn't have taken me that long because most of the time I was either training poorly or not training specifically for vert at all, but I've noticed the same thing in everyone else I've trained or corresponded with as far as vert gains. The same is true for speed. Sprinters often train an entire year for .1 or .2 seconds of improvement.
So, - What's Typical
How often you can expect gains to come depends upon how long you've been training seriously, your physical maturity, and your potential. Generally speaking, the less time you've been training properly and the closer to the mid-teen years you are (~15-17) the more rapid you can expect initial gains to be. It's not uncommon for a beginner to get a 4-6 inch initial vert increase or .2 to .3 second 40 yard improvement within a month of any sort of proper training. Someone who's been training hard for a year might see 2 inches every 6 months. Someone who's been training hard for several years might only be capable of noticeable gains once every year. Someone who begins physically maturing at a very rapid rate might see substantial gains even without any targeted training at all. The video below is from a guy I correspond with who didn't start training until the age of 33. He started out with a 24 inch vertical jump and has been able to gain an average of a little over 3 inches per year. That doesn't sound like much until you realize he's been able to do that for 3 years straight and now at the age of 36 he's put nearly 11 total inches on his vert:
Age vs Vertical
A 35 inch Vert at 36 years of age is impressive for anyone, especially someone who didn't start training until the age of 33.
How many people would have quit after just a few months of less than earth shattering gains?
Haste Makes Waste
The point is, most trainees are inherently impatient with the process and want and expect overnite gains indefinitely. Before you identify whether you're in a rut or not you should assess whether your gains match up with reality. If you're a raw beginner and have been training for 6 months without any improvement at all I would call that a rut. If you've been training for 2 years and haven't seen improvements in the past year I'd call that a rut. But I got an email from one trainee that had been training hard for 2 months. He'd gained 3 inches in those 2 months and thought he was in a rut. Project those gains out over a year and he'd have gained 18 inches!
It's also worth noting that genetic limitations do exist and everyone has a ceiling to their performance that once reached will be difficult to overcome. For one person their genetic ceiling might literally be a 23 inch vertical jump and 5.0 second 40 yard dash. Another might be capable of a 50 inch vert and 4.2 40.
All you can really do is train properly. This site and my books are dedicated towards explaining what proper training consists of but as far as vert is concerned one of my very first articles explains the overall objectives:
1. Your weights are getting heavier over time
2. Your weighted jumps, plyos, or both are getting faster, higher, smoother, and more efficient
3. Your body-fat is where it needs to be.
Do those over a period of time and it's pretty hard not to improve, even though those improvements might not all come overnite.
One other thing I'd like to note before I get into the cure is that you should accept that it typically takes time for gains to stabilize. If you make a dramatic or personal record type improvement overnite it might be a while before you can duplicate that effort again. The typical scenario is you go out one day and hit a PR then you're unable to equal that PR for several weeks or months. That's a normal part of the process too. It's unlikely Usain Bolt could go out and hit his world record 100 m dash any day of the week. Even if your periodization is perfect the body operates on circadian cycles and biorhythms that inherently cause performance to wax and wane throughout the days, weeks, and months so keep that in mind.
Having said all that, here are some tried and true plateau busting techniques:
The Plateau Busters
1. Do the opposite
It's been said the best program for you is the one you're not doing. There is quite a bit of truth in this. Take a general look at your program and recent training history and assess what type of program it is. Is it a strength dominant protocol or does it have you doing more plyos or speed work? Whichever one it is take 4-6 weeks and do the opposite.
During a base/strength phase do enough plyometric work to at least maintain that capacity.
During a power/plyo/speed phase focus on that, but do enough strength work to maintain that capacity.
Here's a typical example of a base/strength workout:
Frequency: 2 x per week
knees to chest tuck jump 4 x 8
squat/deadlift 4 x 5-8
bulgarian squat 3-4 x 5-8
Power/Plyo/Speed dominant workout:
Frequency: 2-3 x per week
Depth jump onto box 4 x 5
Jump squat 4 x 5 with 45 lbs bar (stop and reset)
squat 3 x 3 with 5 rep max
Whichever one your current routine mostly resembles, do the opposite for a while.
2.Get more rest
As noted above, you can't expect to be at your best 100% of the time and if you try too hard all the time you're pretty much guaranteed of digging yourself a hole. The problem is too many people do exactly that. If you always go full bore and haven't taken any rest in months likely the best thing to do is take some time off. There's nothing wrong with taking a few days off or taking a low volume recovery week every 6-8 weeks. If you always feel more explosive and stronger after an extra day or 2 of rest that could be an indication that your training split is leaving you in a chronic state of semi-fatigue. In this instance consider reducing your training frequency to one hard workout every 5-7 days for a while.
Lack of sleep will also kill your progress. A night or 2 of periodic sleep deprivation is nothing to worry about but chronic sleep deprivation is another story. I personally haven't found any faster way to lose power than going a week or 2 straight with only 3-4 hour per nite. Well - with the exception of getting sick, but that's a no brainer. Most people function best off 7-8 hours of sleep per night. If you have trouble sleeping try taking 300 mg of magnesium before bed. Make sure the magnesium ends in an "ate" form, like citrate, gluconate, or aspartate. ZMA will also work but it's more expensive.
3. Put yourself in more competitive situations
Competition brings out adrenaline and if you read my Mentally Jacked article you know the importance of adrenaline. Try to involve yourself in competition with some regularity. It doesn't really matter if the particular sport you decide to compete in doesn't coincide 100% with your goals. Mma, tennis, volleyball, rock climbing etc. Anything short of triathlon training is all good. Competing on a regular basis has a general positive effect on the nervous system that will positively influence your overall training more often than not.
5. Incorporate some stimulation methods
Stimulation methods enable you to stimulate your nervous system with one exercise and take advantage of that stimulation with another exercise. you can see a variety of stimulation methods about halfway down in part 1 of my Psycho Factor article.
6. Get a physical evaluation
Contact a chriropractor, MAT practitioner or someone who practices something similar and get evaluated for muscle, postural, and structural imbalances. Sometimes people have inhibited muscles or misalignments that prevent them from performing optimally. A lot of people can benefit from custom orthotics. Keep in mind if you go to any of these guys there is no doubt they WILL find something wrong with you. It's their job. What they find wrong and whether it affects you or not is hard to say though so you'll just have to experiment and find out. If we had to wait for clearance from bodywork gurus to participate in sport the number of athletes on this planet would be cut by about 10,000%, but you just might have an area that needs some work you can benefit from that leads to immediate performance boosts.
7. Do some specific loading
By specific loading I'm referring to loaded plyo and speed movements, also called "sports specific training". By sprints I'm referring to "sleds" and jumps I'm referring to either a weighted vest or belt. Take a few weeks and do all your plyos with a 10-15 pound weighted vest or use a Loaded Sled for your sprints. If you're poor and can't afford a proper vest or belt you can even put ankle weights in your pockets. You "can" wear them on your ankles but it's not recommended because they put stress on the knee. Just don't be a real idiot like I was as a teenager doing workouts wearing ankle weights AND platform shoes at the same time. I was lucky, but that's an injury waiting to happen if there ever was one.
8. Drop or gain some weight
It's been my observations that MOST gains in performance that people make are also usually accompanied by noticeable changes in physical structure size/ via either muscle gained, fat loss, or a combination of the 2. Chances are good if you've been the exact same weight and body composition for a long period of time your performance probably hasn't changed all that much either. If you're skinny start keeping a better relationship with the refrigerator. If you're overweight start familiarizing yourself with macronutrients and what you're taking in on a daily basis and start keeping a food log. In my experience most teenagers can drop 5-10 lbs in a month just eliminating cokes and juices. Virtually everyone can lose all the body-fat they need just by keeping a food log and holding theirselves accountable to what they're taking in on a daily basis over a period of time.
9. Train more frequently
Assuming you're feeling fresh to begin with and assuming you don't normally hit the gym as often as a crack addict hits the pipe, you can often get some immediate improvements by increasing your frequency for a few weeks. You might have to cut back a bit on your volume per workout a bit but you'll make up for that with the increased frequency of training. Here is an example of a simple high frequency split I've used with several athletes with good success:
Depth jump: 2 x 10 from low (12-18 inch) box
Jump squat: 3 x 5 (stop and reset each rep)
Back squat 3 x 5 (same weight all sets)
Depth jump: 4 x 5 from high (24 inch) box
Jump squat: 3 x 5 (stop and reset each rep)
front squat or lunge 3 x 5
Depth jump: 3 x 5 from medium (18 inch) box
jump squat: 4 x 5 w/45 lb bar (stop and reset each rep)
Back squat 1 x 5 (work up to 5 rep max)
10. Learn how to periodize your training over longer periods
By periodize I mean plan out and train in somewhat predetermined cycles. When you master periodization as it relates to you it'll be relatively easy to set yourself up for and predict gains in advance. Periodization can be fairly complex because a lot of it depends on your unique profile as an athlete, but one simple way to introduce periodization is just try to plan out your training for the next few months based on your current knowledge base. You might decide to start off with a 6 week max strength cycle followed by a 4 week power/peaking cycle. That definitely works. As you grow in knowledge and training experience you might have a GPP phase, a hypertrophy phase, a max strength phase, a shock phase, and a peaking phase.
The more advanced you become and the greater your knowledge grows the better you'll understand your own body and the easier it'll be to set yourself up for and predict gains. Eventually, after many years of training, you'll hopefully be one of the few so in tune with their body that you can succeed in training in almost an instinctive fashion - You'll have a rough idea what your training will look like over a period of time but no really hard formal plan. You'll be able to listen and read your body on a daily basis and do what comes natural.
Search thru the site and you'll find plenty of fairly detailed examples of periodization cycles. My No bull Speed Development Manual also has several examples of intermediate term offseason periodization cycles.
11. Get Additional Help and Input on your training
This is the evil side of #10. Unfortunately, for reasons that have little to do with lack of knowledge, most people suck at putting together their own programs. I think it was Dan John who said the man who trains himself has an idiot for a client. There's a lot of truth to this. Although on paper anyone can easily learn to design programs and train theirselves there are psychological tendencies that make it difficult to put into practice in the real world. Ironically, the people that have the most difficult time with this are some of the more knowledgeable people. A beginner obviously can't coach himself because he doesn't know what to do. A lot of people can't coach themselves because they know too much. These people (and I used to be one of them) tend to overthink their own training to such an astronomical degree they can't help but get lost in details. The end result is they're constantly waffling back and forth between too many different trains of thought and find it about impossible to stick with anything long enough to benefit from it. Having a trusted outside source to lean on helps get and keep you on the right track, because they can see things from a perspective you can't. They see things from more of a big picture perspective, which tends to be more accurate than the myopic picture in your mind.
I'm not saying you can't progress unless you're spending $100 an hour for your own private personal trainer for each and every workout, but having someone you trust that you can routinely bounce ideas off of on a a regular basis certainly won't hurt anything, even if it's someone you can routinely throw a question at like, "Ok I was thinking about doing this. What do you think?"
Well, hopefully this all helps give you some insight on busting thru plateaus and keeping those steady gains humming along!
If your'e still stumped and need help figuring out where you're at and need help setting up a short or long term program feel free to take a look at my Program Design Services