9 Ways to Bust Through a Fitness Plateau
Has your progress toward strength and physique goals stalled? Learn why it’s not necessarily a bad thing and how to get back on track.
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Everything was going so great with your workout program — and then, one day, it suddenly stopped working. What happened to those obvious results, personal records and goals you were crushing?
Welcome to the plateau zone. It may feel frustrating, but don’t automatically think of it as a bad thing. “It’s a victory in my opinion and should be looked at as an accomplishment,” says Cory George, NESTA-certified trainer and F45 athlete in Los Angeles. “At this point, you’ve been disciplined, consistent and experienced the change of your hard work, and now you’re ready for the next chapter.”
Yet pushing yourself off that plateau can be a challenge, even more so if you’re going this alone — sans a trainer. What’s the fix? Try these nine strategies.
1. Get on a program.
“Make sure your exercise program is just that — a program,” says Finley Funsten, personal trainer, ISAA-certified strength and conditioning specialist, and general manager and owner of MADabolic in Charlotte, North Carolina, adding that there should be structure and purpose in place. Doing random exercises with no rhyme or reason, after all, produces random results. Can’t figure out how to get on a program? You may need to call in professional help because a qualified trainer can help you get back on track, she adds.
2. Make simple switches.
Change isn’t always easy to accept, especially if you’ve gotten used to working out a certain way, George says. And if you have the don’t-fix-it-unless-it’s-broken mentality, change can be even tougher. Yet at some point, your workouts will get easier, and you will need to switch something in your fitness program. Fortunately, the change doesn’t have to be drastic. It could be something as simple as introducing new workouts, tempos and reps, he adds.
3. Follow a protocol around progressive overload.
This might sound intimidating, but it literally just means placing more demand on your body over time. “Once you’ve mastered something within your training or it feels easy, elevate the intensity,” Funsten says. For instance, you might pick up heavier weight, increase your range of motion, improve your technique, increase the number of reps past failure, run more miles, run the same miles in less time and so on as you get over a pleateau. “Progression can take on many forms, depending on the form of fitness; just make sure the demand continues to evolve and heighten as you progress to stave off adaptation,” she adds.
4. Move your workouts to a different location.
“Focus on switching up the environment where you train,” George says. Different environments, after all, lend themselves to different training stimuli, which could help push you off the plateau. For example, running on trails elicits a different response in your body than running on pavement.
5. Practice repetition.
Variety is indeed the spice of life, but it may not always help you progress in your fitness. “Rather than trying to cram as many possible forms of fitness into your week as possible, repetition in your training routine is much more conducive to ongoing progress,” Funsten says. If you strength train on Mondays, run on Tuesdays, do yoga on Thursdays and cycle on Friday, you’ll have a harder time making any kind of meaningful progress over time. Instead, identify a repetitive routine that promotes whatever goal you’re trying to achieve, she adds. For instance, if you’re trying to build strength, identify a repetitive routine that promotes three to four strength-training sessions and then add a complementary form of fitness one to two times.
6. Perfect fundamental movement patterns.
If you’ve stopped seeing results in your strength training, don’t just embrace the idea of repetition but perfect it. “Repeating and perfecting fundamental movement patterns like squats, deadlifts, presses, pushes, pulls and carries, and increasing output and weight over time, is far superior to progress than trying to add as much variety as possible into these workouts,” Funsten says.
7. Change your workout schedule.
Are you always working out at a certain time of day? Try a different time of day to see how your body — and mind — responds, George says.
8. Factor rest into your workout schedule.
Taking rest days often requires more discipline than working out if you suffer from workout FOMO or subscribe to the dangerous mentality of no days off, Funsten says. Yet recovery is equally as important as the workouts themselves because it plays an integral role in building strength and stamina. “Particularly in relation to strength training, exercise breaks down body tissue,” she says. Many people incorrectly assume that muscle growth, PRs and weight loss (or whatever your goal) occur during exercise, she adds. “Yet muscles actually grow when they’re not expending intense bouts of exercise.” Because training-related changes happen when you’re not exercising, Funsten recommends factoring two days of rest into your training routine every week for optimal recovery and results.
9. Eat enough to support your workouts.
“Calorie literally translates to ‘unit of energy,’ so if you’re running on 1,200 calories worth of fumes and not making progress in the gym, it’s likely because you’re under-fueled,” says Funsten. adding that 1,200 calories are the daily energy requirements for a 3-year old. Yet if you’re looking to see improvements in performance, consider taking in as many calories as you expend or doing a structured surplus, in which you take in more calories than you expend, to increase lean muscle tissue. First, though, you’ll need to identify your total daily energy expenditure, which a qualified nutritional professional can help with.