The True Reasons Behind Plateaus in Muscle Growth and Strategies on Jumpstarting it Again

Everybody has atleast one muscle group which, no matter how hard you try, does not grow. There is a lot of advise out there, which suggests you to increase volume of your workout for the lagging muscles groups, but let’s be honest, most of the time it does not work. In this article we will talk about the real reason behind the cause of lagging muscles and what can we do to overcome it and stimulate your lagging muscle to start to grow.

Generally there are two reasons for lagging muscle groups

  • Artificially Lagging Muscles
  • Naturally Lagging Muscles

Artificial lagging

It is caused due to the tendency of the athlete to ignore a certain muscle group. For example amongst men, there is a general lack of interest towards developing legs, due to which the workout for the legs is not carried out in the right spirit and leads to lagging leg muscle groups. For women it is the other way round, more focus is given to legs but the upper body is ignored leading to poor development of the upper body muscles. This type of lagging is easy to fix: as the athlete starts doing a well-balanced workout, which targets all the major muscle groups of the body equally, the lagging muscle will catch up. In the beginning the athlete might have to do some extra work on the lagging muscle group, but over a period of time things will equalize. This is the reason why the most common advise on developing the lagging muscle group is to increase the volume for that particular muscle group. The volume can be increased either by targeting the lagging muscle group twice or three times a week or doing more sets of the exercises targeting the lagging muscle groups.

Natural lagging

It is caused when despite working on the whole body certain muscle group does not grow. This is the muscle group which will not grow even when you are targeting this muscle group two or three times a week. Developing such a muscle group can be very frustrating, as all the normal advice that you get just does not work here. Don’t feel disheartened though, this happens to everyone and there are many techniques that can be used to stimulate these muscles.

We will go over many of those techniques later in this article, but before we do that it is first important to understand what causes naturally lagging muscle. Just as our personality is shaped by nature and nurture so are our muscles. The natural lagging muscles occur due to our

  1. 1. Genetics
  2. 2. Athletic History
  3. 3. Nervous System Adaptation


It is easy to understand; our genes determine our whole body structure, some of us are born to be runners while others are born to be swimmers and each one of us has a natural tendency towards some over and some under developed muscles groups. Whenever we do any intense workout, it is the over developed muscles which get engaged more and hence develop more while the underdeveloped muscles remain unutilized, hence do not grow. Another factor here is the capacity of our muscles to accumulate pump after a workout. If a muscles gets more pumped, it means it has greater supply of nutrients for recovery and hence recovers much faster than other muscles groups thus growing faster than other muscle groups.

Athletic History

It can also have a significant effect on out muscle and is slightly tricky to understand. To understand this concept lets consider the situation of two brothers, Will and Chuck. Will and Chuck start working out together in the gym. Both of them are coached by the same person and perform the bench press exactly the same way. Despite following the same program and having similar genetics we notice that Will develops a better chest than Chuck, while Chuck develops better triceps than Will.

The mystery is solved if we go a few years back in time. When Will and Chuck were young they used to do push-ups, but there was a difference: Will used to do wide hand push-ups and Chuck used to do close hand push-ups. By doing wide hand push-ups Will developed his chest in the beginning, Chuck on the other hand developed his triceps first by doing close hand push-ups. Now when Will and Chuck do bench press, a compound exercise which engages your chest, shoulders and triceps, Will engages his chest more than Chuck while Chuck engages his triceps more.

The result is that Will is developing his chest faster while Chuck is developing his triceps at a greater speed. Such differences in athletic history can have a significant effect on the muscle development later. If you played a lot of volleyball when you were a kid, you are going to have a much easier time developing your shoulders, while if you used to row a lot in childhood then it will be easy for you to develop a great back.

Nervous System Adaptation

This is the other effect to be kept in mind. Whenever we perform a movement, it is not just the muscles that get trained; our central nervous system is also learning to engage the muscles together to perform the movement efficiently. Over a period of time this learning gets pre programmed on our motor system and some muscles always get engaged more than others. This chronic muscle engagement causes one muscle group to develop better than other. Just by increasing the volume of some movement, which is not giving you results hence is not going to help you here. This brings us to the strategies that could be used to make lagging muscles to grow.

Strategies for Lagging Muscles

Before we get into the details of the strategies of improving the lagging muscle, you should realize that bringing a lagging muscle up to the mark is a process of trial and error. A strategy that works for one person might not work for the other and vice versa. Here we will be talking about different strategies, which might be contradicting each other, the only way of knowing if something works for you or not is to try it out for a few weeks and evaluate the results.

Increasing Volume: As mentioned previously, the most common strategy suggested to bring the lagging muscle up to speed is to increase the volume of workout for a particular muscle group. As an example if your chest is not growing than you can have two chest days or even three chest days. We highly recommend to give this strategy a chance as this strategy is very simple to implement and can be tested quickly if it is working for you or not. The problem is that it may not always hit the root cause of the problem. To target chest two times a week, you will be doing bench press two times a week. As we have discussed before, bench press might not be effectively targeting your chest, so the problem remains. One way to over come this is to include isolation chest exercises in your program. But the question is how should we implement these isolation exercises? This brings us to our next two strategies of pre and post exhaustion.

Pre-Exhaustion: As the name suggests in pre-exhaustion we exhaust our lagging muscle by doing an isolation exercise prior to doing a compound exercise. So going by the lagging chest example, while following pre-exhaustion strategy you will be doing the isolation chest exercise such as cable fly before doing the bench press. Of course since your chest is already exhausted your bench press lift is going to be significantly lower. We recommend not to completely exhaust the muscle and stop a few reps before failure so that you can perform the compound lift. If performed correctly, pre-exhaustion can stimulate the nerves for targeted muscles to force it to get engaged more during the lift and as a result grow.

However there is a flip side of it as well. In the process of pre-exhausting the lagging muscle, the muscle might fatigue to the level that it is not engaged at all in the compound lift and you end up engaging only the other muscle groups. If this happens than pre-exhaustion might actually have a negative effect on the lagging muscle group. The only way of knowing if pre-exhaustion works for you or not is by trying it out.

The general trend has been that pre-exhaustion is more effective in stimulating the smaller muscle groups such as biceps, triceps or smaller shoulder muscles and not as effective on the larger muscle groups such as chest, back or legs. This is because when you pre-exhaust these small muscle groups by isolation exercises, they have been stimulated to their full potential, when we perform compound exercises afterwards the bigger muscles are there to sustain the lift and smaller muscle groups get engaged in the process too through nervous stimulation. If on the other hand we pre-exhaust the larger muscle groups, then afterwards when we perform compound lifts, the larger muscle groups are already exhausted and cannot perform the compound lift and so everything just fails.

Post-Exhaustion: As the name suggests, here you first do the heavy compound movement and immediately follow it up with the isolation movement for the targeted muscle. As an example for your chest, in post-exhaustion you will first perform heavy bench press and then immediately superset it up with chest fly. The benefit of this approach is that, since your muscles are fresh while performing the compound movement you can lift heavier weight, also since you have performed isolation chest work right after the compound lift, in the next set your chest is primed to get more engaged in the compound lift. I especially like this approach because it does not restrict my compound lift weight as opposed to pre-exhaustion, where it is significantly decreased.

Negative Pre-Exhaustion: We realized above that pre-exhaustion for the large muscle groups may not be that effective because performing isolation exercises can exhaust them to the level that when we perform compound movement only the secondary muscles group end up getting engaged. We can turn this phenomenon on its head and can use this to our advantage. We can perform isolation exercises for the other muscle groups prior to performing the compound lift to more effectively engage the major muscle groups. For example to engage chest more during bench press, we can perform an isolation Triceps exercise prior to doing bench press. In this case since the triceps are already tired, chest ends up doing more work during the lift. Try this technique only after you realize that pre-exhaustion and post-exhaustion did not work for you.

Performing 100 Reps: This is another one of the great approach to target stubborn muscles; where you do an isolation exercise for the lagging muscle group and try to do 100 reps in as small time as possible. Going by the chest example while following this approach, you try to do 100 reps of chest fly in as short a time as possible. In order to perform 100 reps you will have to decrease the weight to the level where you can do about 35 reps in one go. Afterwards you take 5-10s rest and just grind through the rest of the 65 reps by taking 5-10s rests in between. You will only perform one set in a workout and will do it for only one lagging muscle group.

Unfortunately this approach has received a lot of bad press recently, because of the popular recommendation that to optimize muscle growth one should perform the workout in the 6-12 reps region. Although this recommendation is valid, the set of 100 reps provides indirect advantage, which could be helpful in breaking out of the plateau. Doing a set of 100s provides a strong muscle pump, which increases the blood supply to the body part. Generally the lagging body part of the body has a lower blood supply. By repeating the set of 100s for a certain period of time will make your body learn to increase the blood supply to that body part. Increased blood supply translates into increase nutrients to the muscle, which in turn means faster muscle growth and recovery.

Forced Repetitions: In this strategy you lift a heavy weight and perform one or two more repetitions beyond failure through the help of the spotter. This way you are able to train yourself at higher weights, beyond your capacity. The idea here is that higher the weight you lift, more will be the growth of your muscles. To bring a lagging muscle up to speed perform forced repetitions on the exercise targeting the lagging muscle group

Negative Repetitions: This is an extension of the Forced repetition approach. Here after you have reached failure for a particular exercise, you just perform the negative portion of the lift. As an example if you are doing bench press, you only perform the process of bringing the bar down from the rack, afterwards you use spotter to lift the bar back on to the rack. Since your muscles are much stronger during the negative portion of the lift, you continue to engage your muscles in the negative phase, while your muscles are tired to perform positive phase.

Slow Repetitions: Performing an exercise slowly significantly increases the difficulty of the exercise. This is because you can no longer use the momentum to help you and your muscles are under stress for a longer time. This makes the workout more traumatic to the muscles, hence providing more growth. The other benefit of slow repetitions is that you can concentrate more on you lift and develop a feel of what muscles are getting engaged, thus providing better mind muscle connection. The risk of injury is also low.

Explosive Training: In explosive training you perform your lifts as fast as possible. Here you make a maximal use of your fast twitch type II fiber and increase their density. Since it is the type-II fiber, which mostly causes an increase in the muscle volume, this strategy will result in a fast muscle growth. However you have to be very careful while doing explosive training, as you increase your chance of injury while performing explosive exercises.

To summarize, in this article we have explained you the true reason for why all of us have lagging muscle groups and provided you 9 strategies that you can use to bring these lagging muscles up to mark. The process of specifically targeting lagging muscle groups involves a lot of trial and error, you might have to try a few of these strategies to figure out what works best for you. However if you stick with them you will eventually figure it out.