"Two weeks ago, I was benching 175 for five sets of 5 repetitions, but this week the best I've done is 175 for three sets of three! What's the deal? Am I hitting a.... PLATEAU?"
The word "plateau" has come to be a particularly nefarious term in strength training circles, but the reality of the matter is that most of us, at any given moment, are "plateaued". Unless you are relatively new to training, every exercise and every aspect of fitness is not going to improve linearly in direct proportion to training volume, frequency, and intensity.
Not that you want to get complacent, but it's definately not worth getting your boxer briefs in a wad everytime your bench, squat, or snatch numbers don't improve in a given training session or mesocycle. Remember that improvements can come without a immediate and/or noticeable rise in training numbers, and that numbers need to be supported with a rich context to have any real significance.
Here's an example of what I mean - it's not a strength example, but it illustrates my point:
Michael Jordan's NBA career with the Chicago Bulls started in 1984.
The 1986-1987 season was the highest scoring season of his career with 3041 points.
The 1988-89 season was his best rebounding season, totaling 652 rebounds and averaging 8/game.
His highest scoring game was in 1990, when he scored 69 points against the Cleveland.
None of Michael Jordan's NBA championships came in any of those years.
How did MJ look at his basketball career after 1990? Did he think "Damn, I can't improve on those numbers - I must be slipping!", or would he gauge his game in other ways? Somehow, I doubt he would view the years of his championship teams (1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, and 1998) as plateaus...
So, what are the "intangibles" for people in the weight room? What are the things that most people are failing to notice in their own strength game that might point to progress when it appears there is none?
*Training Numbers Over The Long Term
The use of training log is indispensible if you train yourself and, if you have one, it's easy to see long term progress. If you were to examine your training poundages from a year ago, or five, or ten how would they compare? How does the average training poundage differ?
*Maintaining Numbers Despite Increased Training Frequency or Infrequent Training
Again, having a training log is important here - examining previous mesocycles to see if you have had adequate training or rest can reveal training performances that, at first glance, look unimpressive, but upon closer inspection, are really quite impressive.
*Improved Strength In Other Exercises
We all look for improvement in our core lifts, but the little tributaries and streams that feed them can be telling as well. Ab, grip, and glute strength are difficult to measure using compound lifts and if your training is largely focused on them (as they should be), components could be improving (or weakening) without you noticing.
Improvements in technique (form, activation, range of motion, tension, etc.) can be very tough to see to the untrained eye and will not be readily apparent in most hardcopied training logs. If you keep video records, these will be easier to notice.
Training "density" is an area that more and more people are taking notice of and Charles Staley's Escalating Density Training certainly has a hand in that. If your training log doesn't note rest intervals or, at least, total training time, it might be worth adding.