Personal Trainers like myself who go through a formal certification process are educated during their coursework on a model of training that virtually eliminates any chance of a plateau occurring. Each nationally accredited fitness council has their own name for it, but one is the Optimum Performance Training Model™, as trademarked by the National Council of Strength and Fitness. They each follow a strategic path from start to finish, beginning with several weeks of exercises that emphasize joint and skeletal stability, followed by muscular strength, and ending with power.
It’s an excellent exercise regiment to follow, and it capitalizes on what we know about the human body, particularly how it tends to “lose it” if you don’t “use it”. Just like taking time away from an instrument you used to play, your body will lose skill with each passing day that goes by without playing. Eventually, it’s like you have to start from scratch. For elite athletes there are some exceptions to their training style, but for most people it is recommended that you cycle your exercise modality to target stability, then strength, then power, and cycle back through again and again to avoid losing anything gained from the previous cycle(s).
Stability training works to isolate each side of the body, challenging joint control, strength, balance and overall movement control. Since virtually everyone reading this spends most their day sitting in a chair, car, etc., rather than sitting like our ancestors did in a natural squat position, most have lost partial joint movement from their hips down to the ankles. Squatting is an innate human movement, and you can see this anytime you find a room full of toddlers. Instead of sitting in chairs or kneeling down to the floor, they drop their hips between their knees and rest in a squat. To most adults this seems impossible to be comfortable at their age, but you can actually see adults performing this same movement in some Asian cultures, as well as primitive social groups in South America and Africa. A full range-of-motion squat is a perfectly normal human movement, it’s just been so long since most adults had to perform it that they’ve lost the ability to do it.
Other common instabilities that need to be improved are weakness in the lower back, poor core activation and control, and improper postural alignment of the shoulders and neck. Training the body to overcome these issues makes it much more prepared for the traditional exercises many think of when they imagine a gym environment. Trying to execute heavier, bi-lateral movements with a body full of weak-links sets the body up for excessive damage/soreness, possible serious injury, and most certainly poor performance. It is crucial for every person to prepare their body before throwing it right into intense resistance training.
Strength equates to force production. Once the body is stable, i.e. has fewer or no weak points in its kinetic chain, it will be more efficiently able to transfer energy throughout the musculoskeletal system, equating to greater force production potential. This means you will be able to move more weight in a way where your muscles are your limiting factor, rather than your joints, allowing you to stimulate muscular hypertrophy and improved motor control.
Why does enhanced stability increase strength? For the same reason pushing the end of a piece of string produces a different outcome than pushing the end of a straw. Unstable joints and poor motor control means there are weak links in the kinetic chain. These weak points leak energy, rather than transfer it, either due to poor force closure (mis-alignment of skeleton and/or compromised ligaments) or insufficient form closure (muscular control during joint flexion/extension).
Strength training doesn’t necessarily mean trying to lift as much weight as possible every workout. In fact, research has shown that strength can be efficiently increased without having to sustain maximal or near-maximal strength efforts in your training sessions. Working with approximately 70% or more of your 1-rep max can still increase your maximum force production, so taking time to focus on tempo, range of motion, the eccentric contraction, or rest interval can all create endless workout options for exercise variations.
Power adds speed and acceleration to your movements. Power training improves the efficiency and synchronicity of muscle fiber contractions, and it can lower the threshold for depolarization (allows muscle fibers to contract) and post-activation potentiation (recovery ability for repeat efforts). Power takes the improved motor control and force production produced from strength training and decreases the time it takes to produce those contractions. This creates a more responsive, efficient and, well, powerful neuromuscular system. Signals travel faster, stronger, reach more motor units, fire more fibers, and improve the order with which those fibers are recruited.
There is no template to this model that is inherently better than another. Exercise selection, modality, intensity, tempo, volume, duration and frequency all make for endless variation, trial and error, and customizability for individual needs or preferences, all while achieving the intended result of the current training phase. I recommend everyone I speak to who has never walked through this training model to try it with professional guidance for at least 1 cycle so they can see how it works, how it progresses, and how to adapt it to your training style. Knowing how to do this can help you successfully manage your fitness for the rest of your life!