Plateaus: Are They Real & How to Break Them!
I can’t believe it. I don’t know what’s going on. I’ve been using this program forever and gotten phenomenal results. But it’s just…stopped! What the hell? My diet is on point, I’m busting my ass in the gym five days a week – and nothing’s happening! This last five (ten, fifteen) pounds isn’t budging and I’m about to give up!
Have you ever found yourself stuck in a rut with your training? Where it seems like no matter how hard you try, you just can’t seem to make anywhere near as much progress as you made when you initially started dieting and training? The number on the scale just won’t go down anymore, the weights you’re lifting don’t go up as quickly as they used to, that last bit of pudge around the midsection is hanging on with a death grip? Don’t worry. This is normal, and happens to virtually everyone at some point or another. You’ve reached a plateau. A plateau is defined as a “state of little or no change, following a period of activity or progress”. Basically speaking, a plateau is where you just can’t seem to make any improvements with your training, no matter how hard you push yourself. The human body has a wonderful knack of adapting to stressful situations (called General Adaptation Syndrome), and as it sees exercise as a form of stress, it quickly adapts and builds up a resistance. Even when making diet changes and trying to lose weight, we can hit a plateau if we continue doing the same thing for too long. Consistency does underlie your results, but once what you’re doing with dieting and training stops working, it’s time to switch up the game! If you’re struggling with various plateaus, fear not, because here are a few handy tips to help you smash through them and continue progressing.
Are you really in a plateau? – It’s worth evaluating a few factors before you start arbitrarily adjusting your diet and training routine. First and foremost, look at aspects of recovery – nutrition and rest. Can you truly say your nutrition has been on-point? Once “hitting the stride” with nutrition, slip-ups have a tendency to sneak their way back into your life, this time under the guise of “Oh, I’ve been doing well for [time]…” Diligently documenting your intake and being sure that you’re not falling off the nutritional bandwagon is definitely worthwhile. What about your rest? Are you getting enough quality sleep at night? We’ve talked about stress previously, and unfortunately all too many individuals fail to get enough Zzz’s most nights, and this can have a tremendously negative stress effect on the body – including stalling the metabolism and preventing adequate recovery from workouts. Speaking of workouts, have you REALLY been sticking with the program? Skipping reps, missing a day here or there, not sticking with the prescribed intensity for your workouts… any of these can have a negative effect on your results.
Alter your training intensity – Yeah, we know you’ve been using that “program my uncle used when he was a competitive bodybuilder” or “mom’s super juicy glutes workout” for quite some time now, and you’ve gotten some great results. But, you’ve stagnated and been spinning your wheels – time to switch it up. As mentioned, the body is able to quickly adapt to stressful situations, and regardless of whether you’re training to build muscle or lose weight, your workouts will be one of your body’s primary sources of stress. If you follow the same routine week in and week out, with each passing week, you’ll find yourself struggling more and more to make progress. Whereas you were once getting bigger and stronger with each passing training session, you may now find yourself getting weaker and not growing. Altering your training intensity entails tweaking some controllable variables within your workout – sets, reps, and rest time should be the first thing you look at. The same ol’ 3 sets of 10 with 90 seconds of rest between isn’t going to cut it forever. You can try any of the following:
- Decrease your rest time between sets (if you plan to continue lifting between 8-12+ repetitions this is an okay strategy)
- Alter your rep schemes (I generally increase repetitions by 15-25% for a short period of time – if you’re doing 4 sets of 8, try 4 sets of 10 with the same weight)
- Increase weight (this should be a given)
- Add a set on the end of your routine (in the same vein as the old-school “12, 10, 8, 6, Burn” workouts, performing a “deload” or “burnout” style of set can help level up your training intensity)
- Want to run further/faster? Mix in a day of sprints instead of low-intensity runs
Adjust your training routine – Time and again, prospective clients with some background in fitness come to me with “Well I’ve been doing this style of training for this long and I’m not really seeing any progress” If you’ve been following the same training routine for a number of months (or even weeks, for some training varieties), your body will adapt to your training and you will struggle to make any real progress at all. A great way of shocking your body into new growth is to simply adjust your training program and try following something different. For example, if you’ve been following a typical “Bro Split” program of “Back and Bis” “Chest and Tris” “Shoulders and Arms” and “Leg Day”, try a form of circuit training for a few weeks, in which you move from one exercise to the next in rapid succession, or move towards a “Total Body” style of training. HINT: Nine times out of ten, I start weight loss clients on a total body regime, minimum three days a week. This is due to a crazy-high calorie burn (very effective), wide variety of exercises (more learning, more confidence in the gym), time efficiency, and feeling of accomplishment that comes with having your whole body incorporated into a workout, rather than one body part.
Change your diet – Whether you’re looking to lose fat, build muscle, or both, your diet has a huge determinant in how you look, as well as the number on the scale. With weight loss, when you begin any new diet, you will find that the weight falls off of you for the first couple of weeks, and as time goes by, you lose less and less. Linear progress is impossible to sustain, especially if you’ve already achieved some baseline level of “good” diet habits. This is because the body is now used to consuming less calories, less fat, and less junk. The first few weeks, changes are simple and easy to come by – in the beginning, you can downgrade from eating fast food five times a week, to eating fast food three times a week, and more than likely attain a positive result. As you continue to progress, these types of changes simply won’t cut it. After making initial “quality” changes to diet, it’s worth moving to some system of optimizing food quantity. Yes, I mean calorie monitoring. This doesn’t necessarily mean using MyFitnessPal or some other tracker, though I encourage it, especially as you become more advanced and precise with your goals. Portion control regulation is another relatively easy-to-incorporate solution – many guides exist to help monitor portion control, but my favorite is from Precision Nutrition and can be found here. For those of us who feel like experimenting, reverse dieting, carb cycling and backloading, intermittent fasting, and other “next-level” diet maneuvers may help to reignite progress.
Take some time off or downshift – It may seem counterproductive to take a week off from the gym when you’re trying to build muscle or lose weight, but rest assured, it can actually be extremely useful. For those of us who are training consistently at a high level (weightlifters training above 80-85% multiple times per week, athletes training skill-sets with high frequency), a step back or in a different direction can be beneficial. If you’ve truly hit a plateau, take a week off from training to allow your muscles to heal themselves, and to allow the body a little break. By the time you go back in a week or so, your energy levels will be through the roof, you will feel stronger than ever, and you will quickly begin adding quality mass to your frame. Something else worth exploring, especially for those at more of an advanced level, is “switching gears” or “downshifting” training – if you’re a powerlifter constantly bent on pushing heavy weight, maybe you don’t need to take a full week off training, but could benefit from training in more of a “bodybuilding” style for a week or two. Maybe you’re a skill-based athlete, taking a step back to work more fundamental aspects of your training can be of benefit. If time off isn’t an option, “downshifting” or slightly deviating is definitely the way to go!
Outsource – Even top level athletes who are perfectly capable of pushing themselves through grueling training sessions can find benefit in letting someone else take the reigns every now and again. Training and nutrition have many variables, and if neither is totally optimized FOR YOU, a quality coach or trainer will be able to recognize this and help you make the necessary changes. If you want to gain an edge, reignite progress, or simply get started, it’s always well worth the investment to search for someone who knows more than you, has been (or has helped others) in a similar situation, and let them give you a push in the right direction. I personally retain a coach that maintains my programming and checks in with me at minimum of once a week to address how my training is progressing and to see what changes need to be made.
When you reach a plateau in your training, it’s not the end of the world. Sure, it can be discouraging when you stop seeing results, but that’s absolutely no reason to give up. If anything, this stage of the game should be viewed as an opportunity to re-evaluate your reasoning for wanting to achieve your goals, and a challenge to yourself not to give up, not to give in, and to push harder, work smarter, and continue earning the best body you possibly can! If it’s time for you to outsource, please consider reaching out to me via e-mail at Trevor@FitBunch.net, or shoot me a message on Facebook!