Overcoming and Avoiding Training Plateaus

In any exercise routine, the majority of individuals are bound to hit a plateau at one time or another. A plateau is when you stop seeing results – and the more progress you make, the more common they can become. Reaching a plateau can be discouraging, frustrating, and may even contribute to injuries. So, how can you avoid plateauing? Keep reading!

An easy way to think of a plateau is to imagine that it is the body’s way of telling us that it’s time to switch some things up.  The human body is extremely effective at responding and adjusting to external stimuli - in this case the stimuli is exercise. There are a few indicators to look out for that might mean you have hit a plateau; you’ve stopped losing weight, are no longer seeing improvements in muscle growth and/or strength, are experiencing chronic pain, no longer feel motivated to continue with your routine, or have even seen a reversal of results despite consistent exercising. If any of these indicators sound familiar, you may have reached a plateau.  So what next? There are a few factors you can focus on when working on overcoming a plateau:

1) Nutrition

Take a good look at what you are eating on a daily basis, and be honest with yourself. If you are eating too much, not enough, the same things every single day, or not the most nutritious foods, this may be a part of the cause of your plateau.  Reassess your nutrition by keeping a food diary for one week, and look at where you can make improvements.

2) Sleep

Sleep is vital to overall health, especially the body’s ability to recover. If you are not getting enough sleep, your body may be having a hard time recovering from your workouts, therefore hindering progress.  Aim for at least 7-8 hours per night, and more if you can. “Catching up” on the weekends doesn’t count!

3) Stress

Stress is a huge factor to health, so it makes sense that when stress levels are high, the body may not be able to function as well as it should.  External factors such as relationships, work, money, and lack of sleep can all accumulate to impose huge loads of stress on the body. High levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, has been shown to interfere with learning and memory, lower immune function, lower bone density, cause weight gain, increase blood pressure and cholesterol, increase risk for heart disease, and contribute to the inability to lose body fat.  Do the best you can to get those stress levels down- focus on the areas that you can control (such as elective engagements and activities, sleep, and good nutrition..) instead of areas that you don’t have as much control over (work or family responsibilities).

4) Training Frequency

If you usually stick to a very consistent training schedule, switching up training frequency can help you push through a plateau.  If you train 3 days per week, aim for 4. If you train 6 days per week, cut back to 5. You can also play around with the placement of your rest days.  For example; if you always train Monday-Friday, try training one day on the weekend and giving yourself a break during the week.

5) Exercise Selection & Variation

If you are following any kind of workout plan, you most likely have a set list of exercises that you perform during each workout.  However, a good plan should incorporate a variety of exercises to prevent a plateau. If you always do triceps cable pushdowns, try an overhead triceps extension instead.  If you always do cardio, try lifting weights. Or if you always bench press with a barbell, try bench pressing with dumbbells. These very small changes are great for overcoming plateaus because they keep the body guessing.  Changing exercise selections can be done in a variety of ways - you can switch out some exercises every 4-6 weeks or switch workouts every-other week. You can really get creative here and find what works best for you.

6) Exercise Order

Similar to exercise selection, exercise order can be changed.  The consistent point here is to keep the body guessing, and prevent it from becoming used to any set workout or exercise.   When your body gets too used to a routine, you will stop seeing progress and plateau. Changing exercise order can be done within a workout, or within a workout period (which days of the week you perform each workout).

7) Training Load: Resistance

With resistance training, you should always be pushing to increase weights.  Using the same weight to train one muscle will stop being effective once your body is used to that weight.  A good rule of thumb is if by the last 2-3 reps you aren’t pushing really hard to finish, the weight is probably too light.  

8) Training Volume: Reps & Sets

Training volume and training load go hand-in-hand.  We can work with reps and sets to create different overall training volumes.  An example of manipulating volume would be this; say you are squatting a heavy weight for 5 reps. This is pretty low volume.  In order to increase the volume, you could do that set of 5 reps 4 or 5 times, rather than 3.

9) Rest Intervals

Manipulating rest variables is an easy way to help overcome a plateau. You can use a  watch, or your cell phone timer, and time your rests instead of just continuing to the next rep when you feel like it.  If you are lifting for maximal strength, make sure your rest intervals are long enough to allow your body to recover so you can maintain the resistance.  If you are lifting for endurance, rest periods should be shorter. Finally, always listen to your body. If you are ever feeling light-headed, nauseous, or shaky, you may be pushing yourself too hard and need to increase your rests. Safety should always be the top priority.  

The one consistent point throughout all of these variables is that our bodies are efficient at adjusting and getting used to particular factors, such as exercise. This is why effective training should always focus on progress - doing the same workout over and over is not going to effectively or sustainably help you to achieve your goals.  In your workouts, focus on challenging yourself; do a few more reps, take a shorter rest, add in a new exercise, increase resistance, and monitor your stress and nutrition. Keeping all of these factors in mind will help ensure that you achieve your goals and overcome any plateau!

Sarah Kert