6 Reasons You’re Hitting a Fitness Plateau

Here's how to push through when your gains are lacking.

Photo: GettyImages

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I think all of us can relate to asking ourselves this question at one point or another: Have I hit a plateau?

Whether it’s a lack of physical progress or a stagnant feeling in the weight room, many variables need to be taken into account before you land on a plateau. In the simplest terms, a plateau is a state of little to no change after a time of activity with progress. But remember, progress is so subjective and can look different for everyone. If your goal is performance in the gym or in sport, markers of progress might be easier to get precise about.

If you’re questioning your progress, this could be a plateau in your training, but could also be caused by something outside of the gym. Here are some possible culprits to consider.

1. You’re Not Taking Rest Days

I’ve worked with so many clients over the years who are stuck on this thought that more is always better. Well, you heard it here (and I’m sure everywhere else) — it’s not. Taking one, or even better, two full rest days per week is the absolute best thing you can do for aesthetic changes and performance in the gym.

Muscles need time to recover, so if you don’t rest properly, your muscles will not have a chance to grow. More lean mass is equivalent to a stronger metabolism and a greater number of calories burned at rest. I cringe when I hear girls at the gym bragging that they work out seven days a week (#norestdays).

This type of behavior is not going to get you to your end goal any faster. If you think you’ve hit a plateau, take a hard look at your recovery work throughout the week — and make sure you’re really recovering. The activity you do on a rest day should be no more exertion than that of a walk.

2. You’re Not Sleeping Enough 

Again, no surprise here. Sleep is the key to a strong metabolism and crushing it in the gym. If you’re sleeping less than six hours per night, your lack of progress likely has nothing to do with what you’re doing in the gym. I talk to clients who say it’s impossible to get more sleep; they’re shift workers, new moms, night owls, or executives.

The thing is, there is always something that can be done to clean up someone’s sleep routine. Even 15-30 minutes of extra shut-eye per night will have a profound impact on progress. Finding a way to wind down that doesn’t include screens, making sure you’re in a cool, dark room, getting in bed even when you’re not tired and training your body to rest — all of these small things can have a huge impact on your “plateau.” Examine your sleep each night, both the quantity and the quality.

3. You’re Eating More Than You Think 

The plateau you’re feeling in the gym may be related to surplus calories you’re not thinking about during the day. I have a client who has had great success with sticking to sustainable habits with her nutrition. She utilized a free macro tracking app to make sure she stays within her goals. At one point, after months of fantastic results, she felt as if she had hit a plateau.

After some coercion, she finally divulged to me that she had been having small bites of things throughout the day: food she was cooking, snacks her daughter had, and bites of her husband’s meal that she wasn’t accounting for in her day. Now, if this was a one-time thing, no big deal. But she was doing this frequently enough throughout the week it was having a BIG impact on her total calories consumed. At first, she didn’t even want to tell me she was doing this and was absolutely blindsided by how much of an impact this behavior was having on her overall success. Eating consciously and sticking to the healthy habits you build goes a long way.

4. You’re Stressing More Than Usual

Do you have things going on in either your work life or personal life that are taking a toll on you? Stress is an absolute progress killer in the gym. It can lead to depression, chronic disease, and affect our immune systems. It also has a profound impact on our hormones, specifically cortisol. Higher levels of cortisol stimulate our appetite and create a fight or flight response throughout our nervous system. Cortisol can also cause insane cravings, focused on highly palatable foods (think: high fat and high sugar). If that isn’t enough, it can also affect our recovery and ability to perform in the gym. Keeping stress in check is vital to so many systems in our body.

Before blaming the classes you’re taking or the sets and reps you’re doing in the gym, try examining these external factors.

5. You’re Lacking Variety in Your Training 

If all the variables above are pretty dialed in, it might be your workouts that are causing your plateau.

Is there enough variety in what you’re doing? Are you running every day? Did you see really amazing results at first, only to have this fizzle out? Are you performing the same upper-body and lower-body routines day in and day out? Constantly varied movement will yield the best possible results, and more often than not will keep a plateau at bay.

This is why functional fitness gyms have become so popular in the last several years. Yes, it is possible to be really fit and still feel sore — in fact, I would say that is the ultimate goal. Feeling sore is a direct result of the stress you put on your muscles, and without that stress there will be no growth or change. Are your workouts making you sore, and are you changing the movements you do every week? If not, this could very well be the culprit of your plateau.

6. You’re Bored

Are your workouts feeling stagnant? Are you bringing the same intensity to them as when you first started? Getting burnt out or not feeling engaged enough could be cause for a plateau. Maybe you need to try a new class or find a different community to keep you motivated. It might require some reflection to decipher if this is what is truly happening.