Why Did I Plateau?

I have always had a special love for the weight training side of football. Toward the end of my college career I considered myself fairly strong among football athletes, but in the last year or two I felt like I had plateaued. I had started to make the false assumption that I was close to my genetic limit for strength. It made sense, after all I had been training rigorously for about 8 years at that point.

I was wrong, and in hindsight I shutter at the false limitation I unknowingly set for myself. It was only by going to other programs where I learned the holes in my understanding for strength and conditioning. That said, my prior weight programs were outstanding and laid a great foundation in both knowledge and strength, but nothing can replace a new perspective on a problem. The “principle of diminishing returns” illustrates that the most rapid improvement to a stimulus is always in the beginning, followed by less rapid improvement until reaching stagnation. There are definitely micro-ebbs and flows for improvement, but over the long-term it follows this general pattern. The most robust way to break the stagnation is to change the stimulus. The Chinese Weightlifting team understand this concept and implement a coach and gym rotation every 4-5 years. There is also a danger of switching stimuli too quickly before truly reaping the benefits, but I will save that for another article.

After college, I spent time at Westside Barbell learning the Conjugate system from Louis Simmons, and spent time at the Jacksonville Jaguars, which employed a hybrid Westside Conjugate system carefully adapted for NFL players. All conventional exercises had a unique twist; instead of just trying to complete my set of squats, I was now trying to beat my previous reps’ average velocity (measured by Tendo units) with various bands and chains attached to the barbell. We used a variety of barbells, bench pressed from the floor (floor press), and started doing a lot of accessory work. And I started breaking all-time PR’s again… The 3 major take-aways in my S&C understanding:

  1. Accommodative resistance – Grind/Accelerate through sticking points
  2. RFD – Improve starting strength/power
  3. Plyometrics – Translate force strength curve

Accommodative Resistance: Everyone should know that at certain lengths our muscles are stronger than other lengths. For exercises like squat, the sticking point is at the bottom of the lift when we are compressed, and we are strongest just below full lockout (shout out to all the partial squatters). With the use of bands and chains, the resistance from the barbell increases as the lifter ascends due to the bands stretching and more chain links lifting from the floor. This provides an appropriate resistance given the force-length relationship and forces the lifter to maintain maximal force production throughout the lift. Velocity-based training is based on the same idea; trying to ascend from the lift with max volitional velocity to extend the duration of high-force throughout the lift, more appropriately stimulating the entire muscle length and not just the sticking point. But accommodative resistance, in my opinion, is a superior layer to velocity-based training because the lifter worries much less about decelerating the barbell at the end of the lift, because the increasing resistance from the bands and or chains will keep the lifter from leaving the ground. After implementing this for a few months in my training, I noticed significant improvement in my ability to accelerate/grind through sticky spots in weightlifting and win stalemates in as a lineman blocking.

Rate of force development (RFD): This may be one of the least talked about principles in strength and conditioning, but essentially it is the equivalent metric to a car’s 0-60 mph time. “How fast does it take the athlete to go from relaxed to max force output?”, is another way to say it. For me being a lineman, this is everything, and it still blows me away that I first heard about it after my college career… Westside improved this by implementing floor presses and box squats with the emphasis of relaxing major muscle groups at the bottom, followed by max volitional effort to accelerate the barbell to max speed. Of course, this was implemented with the accommodative resistance, which added an additional incentive because you would get buried at the sticking point of the lift if there wasn’t enough velocity on the barbell. After training with this method for a few months I noticed a significant speed increases on my first step in football and felt like I could rip a deadlift from the ground as hard as I could, but still maintaining a rigid posture. I gained understanding to one of my favorite Weightlifter’s quotes: “Pull the bar like you’re ripping the head off a god-damned lion!”- Donny Shankle.

Plyometrics: I would generalize plyometric as any unloaded explosive-power exercises such as any jumping variations or med ball throws.

Above is the (concentric) force-velocity curve that summarizes that near isometric conditions are needed to apply maximal concentric force, and at higher speeds less force can be applied. This curve maintains shape relatively well, but either translates up or down on the y-axis depending on the athlete’s overall strength. In hindsight, my theory was that I worked 90+% of my time at peak power or above, and occasionally through in max speed training. This distorted my force-velocity curve, where I was above average in max strength, strength speed, and peak power, but was embarrassingly bad at max speed types of exercises. By reallocating more time in my training to improve max speed, mostly in the form of box jump variations, the whole curve seemed to shift up again on the y-axis. I do want to make the disclaimer that as a lineman strength-speed should be where most of my training time goes, and as I get further from that force-velocity relationship I should devote less time in training to it, but nothing should be neglected either.    

Plateaus are frustrating, but I think the key take-away is to never assume you’ve figured it all out. The world is massive, and there are endless methodologies in training. So, have some humility and try something new. There’s a ton of great excuses to not get out of your comfort zone such as not running because it sucks or thinking a certain training style is based on hocus-pocus, but good or bad, nothing replaces a new perspective on a problem.

About the Author

Jack Rummells, PhD Candidate, NFL

Lifting is my religion. My interest for the iron began at age 13 doing strongman out of my first mentor’s garage. This evolved into competing in Olympic Weightlifting and Strongman through high school and college. At the University of Northern Iowa, I received a B.A. and M.A. in kinesiology, as well as All- American honors on the football field as a left tackle. In 2015, I was lucky enough to join the Jacksonville Jaguars roster for 6 months. After I was released from the Jaguars, I had the opportunity to train for a month learning the conjugate method from Louie Simmons at Westside, and a month later I placed 12th overall in the 105+ division at the American Open in Olympic Weightlifting. Currently, I’m back at school pursuing my PhD in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Iowa… And yes, the fire still burns strong.