The Dynamics of Muscle Mass Plateau Summary
Increases in skeletal muscle mass and strength are hallmark resistance training adaptations; however, resistance training seems to result in a muscle mass plateau. This plateau, often referred to as a muscle growth plateau, is due to maxed genetic potential, changes in anabolic signaling pathways, and anabolic resistance. Varying your training program, increasing your training volume, proper nutrition, and getting enough rest and recovery can aid in preventing this muscle building plateau and help in building muscle.
Understanding Muscle Mass Plateau
Muscle growth, or hypertrophy, is a fascinating physiological process that all fitness enthusiasts, bodybuilders, and weekend warriors strive for. Interestingly, many individuals starting a new resistance exercise program often notice a rapid increase in muscle size and strength during the initial stages of starting a workout. This initial surge is before they encounter the muscle mass plateau, which can hinder further progress.
A good rule of thumb when trying to build muscle is to constantly progress in your workouts and exercises every week. The progression doesn’t have to be much, but it does have to be enough to trigger new growth. This could be an extra couple of reps on your bench press or even adding 5% extra weight to your bench press and completing the same reps as you did previously with a lighter weight.
Moreover, many have experienced or at least heard of the dreaded “muscle gain plateau” – a point where, despite consistent efforts, muscle growth seems to stall. This is a common question: why does muscle growth plateau? In resistance-trained individuals, there are no changes in muscle growth despite increases in training loads and volume. (Alway et al., 1992; Kataoka et al., 2022) A recent article, “The Plateau in Muscle Growth with Resistance Training: An Exploration of Possible Mechanisms,” delves deep into this phenomenon, offering insights into its possible reasons. (Kataoka et al., 2023) I am going to summarize some of the key findings from this paper.
The Phenomenon of “Newbie Gains” and Overcoming the Muscle Building Plateau
“Newbie gains” is a term popularly used in the fitness community to describe the swift progress beginners experience when they start working out. Typically, this phase can last anywhere from a few months to a year. Several factors contribute to these gains:
When an individual begins exercising, their previously untrained muscles are exposed to a new stimulus. This sudden challenge prompts a swift response, leading to rapid growth. Most individuals experience a muscle mass plateau within the first 3 months of training, while strength may continue to increase. (Counts et al., 2017)
Exercise-induced muscle growth is traditionally considered a slow process relative to strength gain. This purported slow process is often used as a reason why strength gains are driven by neural adaptations, followed by larger contributions from muscle growth later into training. (Sale, 1988) In essence, before muscles grow in size, the nervous system improves its ability to activate muscle fibers. This enhanced coordination results in noticeable strength gains, even before significant hypertrophy occurs.
Reasons for the Slowdown in Muscle Growth and the Muscle Mass Plateau
As individuals advance in their weight training they will eventually experience a muscle building plateau, the rate of muscle growth tends to slow down due to:
It is recognized that there is a finite ability for muscle to grow. It is also likely that the physiological upper limit of muscle mass accumulation will be different for everyone. (Sale, D. G. 1988). Some studies have found that the range of muscle growth can vary between -2% gains to a 59% increase in muscle growth and strength gains between 0 and +250%. (Roberts et al., 2018) As mentioned on Evidence Based Muscle, hyper-responders are genetically blessed and have a 30% greater increase in muscle growth than normal resistance-trained individuals.
Over time, muscles become accustomed to the same training routine. This adaptation means the stimulus is no longer as challenging, leading to reduced growth and a muscle mass plateau. For example, there are changes in protein synthesis that result in a dampened anabolic response. For example, protein synthesis is elevated early on due to muscle damage, but as the muscle becomes more resistant to muscle damage, the anabolic signal becomes dampened. (Mitchell et al., 2014)
Another example of anabolic signaling pathways becoming lesser with training is a study documented in a study involving healthy, untrained males engaged in leg training. The research revealed that muscle size saw a noticeable increase within the initial 3 weeks, but no further growth was observed over the 6-week duration. Similarly, the researchers saw an uptick in muscle protein synthesis during the first 3 weeks, but this trend did not continue from weeks 3 to 6. Despite the study being a progressive resistance training protocol in which the weights were gradually increased, there was a decline in the anabolic signaling pathways (i.e., mTOR, p70SK1, and rpS6) after the third week. (Brook et al., 2015)
This suggests that muscles can experience growth within the first 3 weeks of a resistance training regimen. This indicates that muscles might quickly adjust to external stimuli, becoming less affected by mechanical and metabolic stress as they get accustomed to repeated exercise sessions. This aligns with another study that indicated that the anabolic benefits of resistance training might become less effective swiftly after only three consecutive exercise sessions. (Wilkinson et al., 2014)
Keep in mind that the ability of exercise-induced muscle protein synthesis to predict muscle growth has been debated, and the exact relationship between acute responses and slowed muscle growth remains unclear. (Mitchell et al., 2015)
Studies comparing resistance training responses between older and younger individuals found that older individuals generally experienced reduced muscle growth in response to the same resistance training program. The sensitivity of muscle to anabolic stimuli might be dampened in older individuals. (Cuthbertson et al., 2005; Markofski et al., 2015) This can be another contributing factor to muscle mass plateau with training.
Overcoming the Muscle Growth Plateau
Importantly, while a plateau in muscle growth is expected but not impossible. Some strategies to reignite growth include:
Changing the Workout Routine: Avoiding a Muscle Gain Plateau
Introducing new exercises or training methods can provide the muscles with a fresh stimulus. For example, over an 8-week training period, adjusting training factors such as load, volume, muscle contraction type, and rest intervals enhanced the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis. This was compared to traditional progressive resistance training, which did not modify training factors and used 8 total sets of leg exercises at 9-12 RM, especially among those with prior resistance training experience. By incorporating the concept of time under tension, where you focus on the total amount of time you keep your muscles under stress, you can further optimize your muscle growth and overcome plateaus in muscle mass. (Damas et al., 2019)
In a systematic review of advanced resistance training techniques and methods to maximize muscle hypertrophy. The review suggested incorporating advanced techniques and exercises, such as eccentric training and cluster sets, which can provide additional stimuli to break through plateaus and enhance muscle growth.(Krzysztofik et al., 2019)
Rest and Recovery to Avoid a Muscle Building Plateau:
Overtraining can lead to a tmuscle building plateau or even regression in muscle growth. By allowing muscles to recover fully, one can ensure they’re ready for the next training session, potentially breaking through growth plateaus. Getting enough sleep, proper nutrition, and knowing when to use less weight and few reps is one of the best ways to ensure proper recovery. Some scientists have found that taking a break from exercise can result in a re-sensitization of muscle tissue to protein synthesis, avoiding a muscle mass plateau.
Nutrition and Supplementation:
Consuming a balanced diet of protein, vitamins, and minerals supports muscle growth. However, when considering muscle growth over the lifespan, there likely comes a point when the anabolic response is blunted by ‘aging’ itself, regardless of whether individuals have reached their muscle growth potential. Indeed, the relative protein intake (g/ kg) required to stimulate muscle protein synthesis in older individuals is significantly greater than that younger individuals need. (Moore et al., 2015)
One factor that may be contributing to your struggle to build more muscle is not eating enough protein. You need adequate protein to help your body rebuild muscles after intense workouts, forging bigger and stronger tissues. Without enough protein, you’re likely to be putting in a lot of work for only a little return.
Intriguingly, scientists don’t know why muscle mass plateaus with age, but it may be due to: Decreases in satellite cells, reductions in circulating anabolic hormones, Impairments of amino acid delivery, Insulin resistance, or age-related physical inactivity may exacerbate the above factors. (Kataoka, R, 2023)
Seek Expert Advice:
If one has been following a consistent training regimen and is still experiencing a muscle building plateau, seeking advice from fitness professionals or physiologists might be beneficial. They can provide personalized recommendations based on individual needs and goals.
In conclusion, muscle growth plateaus are a normal occurrence when it comes to strength training. It is important to understand the causes of these muscle building plateaus and implement effective strategies to overcome them. Working with a knowledgeable personal trainer can provide valuable guidance and support throughout this process. Consistency in your exercise routine, proper nutrition, and progressive overload are crucial for continuous muscle growth and avoiding a muscle building plateau.
Overcoming plateaus requires patience, perseverance, and a willingness to make necessary adjustments to your workout program. Remember to prioritize adequate rest and recovery, and don’t be afraid to make small changes to your routine to stimulate new muscle gains. By staying committed and making the necessary tweaks, you can push through plateaus and continue progressing towards your fitness goals.
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