Remember those magical “beginner gains” you experienced for the first few months when you started lifting?
You’d set a personal best on the Bench Press or Squat then come back next week to do either more weight or more reps. Often, you’d manage to do both. Your numbers were skyrocketing at an incredible (and quite simply, unsustainable) rate.
If you’re anything like me, those days are now long gone. As they say, all good things must come to an end. Once you reach intermediate status as a lifter, progress is much harder to come by. Whereas before you could add 5 pounds to your Bench Press every week, now you’d sacrifice a family member to the Iron Gods to gain that much in a month.
It’s not that progressive overloading ceases to work. It’s just that the rate of progress slows down considerably. What doesn’t help is that standard weight plates force you to go up by, at minimum, five pounds—and that’s only if you’re lucky enough to lift somewhere that provides 2.5-pound plates. If your gym only has plates down to 5 pounds, then you’re locked in to an increase of at least 10 pounds (remember, if you put a 5-pound plate on one side of the barbell, you’re forced to put another on the opposite side).
This creates a problem. Your body may be ready to make a small jump today (perhaps by 1-3 pounds), but since you’re forced to increase resistance by 5 pounds at minimum, you can’t blast past your previous best. Failing to improve your poundages soon gets frustrating, especially when you look back at how quickly you piled on the plates only a few months ago as a novice.
Fortunately, a highly underrated piece of equipment exists that can help you bust through plateaus and keep the strength gains coming. What’s this training tool I’m talking about?
What are Micro Plates?
Micro plates, also called “fractional plates,” are small, lightweight plates that fit on any standard Olympic barbell. They typically come in weight increments of 0.5 to 1 lb (0.25-0.5 kg), although plates weighing as little as 0.25 lb (0.125 kg) can also be purchased.
What Do Micro Plates Do?
So, what are the benefits of micro plates?
They allow you to slowly increase your training weights at a safe and constant rate. This makes them ideal for intermediate trainees. Using a pair of micro plates allows you to increase weight on the bar every workout, just like you did as a newbie. This time, however, instead of a 5- or 10-pound jump, you’re going up by as little as one or two pounds per workout.
I know, I know. It’s easy to scoff at a paltry 2-pound increase when you were adding up to five times that much to the bar every week as a beginner. But do the math here. If you somehow were able to increase bar load by 5 pounds each week, you’d Bench Press 500-plus pounds after two years of training. Obviously, that won’t happen.
Anyone who can’t come to grips with reality should take heed of what Eminem said in Without Me: “You’re too old, let go, it’s over.”
I’m pretty sure Eminem wasn’t referring to novice strength gains with that line, but nevertheless, you can’t escape the fact that from a training age perspective, you’re too old for steady 5- or 10-pound improvements week after week.
The newbie stage—when you’ll make your fastest gains—is in the rearview mirror. You can reminisce about those good ol’ days as a novice when you took your Squat from an empty bar to three plates by using linear progression, but understand that ever since crossing the line to intermediate status, that free ride of quick and easy gains has come to a screeching halt. You will never experience progress at such fast rates again. Ever. So let go, it’s over.
In fact, those of us who have been lifting weights for a number of years know that progress can be painfully slow. Squats stuck? Bench Press not moving for several months? Yup, welcome to the boring life of the intermediate lifter.
This is where micro plates come in handy. They can help you bust through tough plateaus by making linear progressive overloading once again physically possible, even if it’s just a 2-pound improvement from one week to the next.
Another big benefit of using micro plates is the mental confidence you get from small incremental gains. Five- and 10-pound increases can be intimidating when you venture into uncharted territory with weights you’ve never lifted before.
How to Use Micro Plates
If your previous best on the Trap Bar Deadlift is 500 pounds, and you felt like that took all you had, 510 will seem daunting. I’ve seen this exact scenario play out in front of my eyes countless times. A guy who pulled a grindy 500 (or whatever his max is) last week then attempts 505 or 510, which doesn’t seem too far off on paper. But his body is not yet ready for it. So, the bar won’t even budge off the floor. Not only did he fail that PR attempt, his nervous system is now shot, so he while not perform at peak level for the rest of his training session. It only takes a couple of miserable workouts to find yourself in a training rut where lifts stall and your motivation wanes.
Now, what would happen if you chased small and sustainable improvements over big, ambitious personal records?
Consider the difference between 500 and 502. It’s only 2 pounds. Or put another way, 0.4% more. You need to become just 0.4% stronger to hit a new personal record by using a pair of 1-pound micro plates. Think that’s doable within a couple of weeks through smart strength programming? Absolutely.
I can’t stress enough the importance of small incremental load increases for serious lifters who have been in the Iron Game for a few years or longer.
In addition to witnessing continuous strength gains on a weekly basis, it’s common for my athletes to hit two- or three-rep PR’s on the same exercise during a single training session using this approach. Ponder that for a minute. How much more enjoyable would your training be if you hit multiple personal bests on a constant basis, no matter how minor they seem on the surface? You can go several weeks or sometimes months without plateauing by micro-loading your way up to bigger weights.
How might this look in action?
Let’s say you hit a new five-rep max on the Bench Press with 225 pounds last week. Jumping up to 230 today may be too much. It’s better to start with a load you know you’ll crush rather than shoot for the moon and have the weight crush you. You can always increase resistance for your next set if you feel you’ve got more in the tank. So, in this case, you’d go with 226 or 227. Next week, 228. And so on.
Don’t underestimate the psychological effect of such a mini-jump. As you mentally prepare for the lift, you’ll be thinking: “Well, it’s only 1 (or 2) pounds more than last time, so I’ve got this.” Compare that train of thought to “damn, that looks heavy” when approaching the bar. One exudes confidence, the other projects failure. Which is more conducive to hitting a new max?
Also consider that If you trap bar deadlifted 400 pounds today and were able to add 2 pounds to the bar per week, you’d pull 500 pounds within a year. OK, that’s not likely to happen, since progress is never this linear. But let’s cut our imaginary rate of progress in half. A meager improvement of 1-pound per week—which most lifters would deem way too slow and, thus, practically worthless—would mean going from 500 to 550 pounds in a year. That’s anything but worthless.
However you slice it, that’s very good progress. Slow progress is better than no progress, and micro plates literally help you get stronger pound by pound. Instead of walking in the gym thinking you’re bound to a plateau, you can enter with a growth mindset that you’ll improve today. This is what makes micro plates so valuable, both mentally and physically, to any lifter or athlete who’s advanced beyond the newbie stage.
Micro plates are extremely affordable compared to their heavier counterparts, and their small size makes them easy to store in just about any weight room. I recommend picking some up for yourself or your athletes if you’re serious about making continued gains and setting more PRs.
Photo Credit: Ader Sporting Goods