In any fitness journey, plateaus are bound to happen. A plateau is when you stop seeing results – and the more progress you make, the more common they can become. I like to think of a plateau as the body’s way of telling us that it’s time to switch some things up, do some fine-tuning, and challenge ourselves. They can be so frustrating and discouraging, but don’t worry – there are some really effective strategies you can use to overcome plateaus as they come. There are a few factors you can focus on when working on overcoming a plateau:
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, or not the ideal macros for your workout and goals, this may be a part of the cause of your plateau. Re-assess your nutrition (use a tracker!!) and figure out where you may be straying.
Sleep is vital to overall health, and specifically to exercise, ability to recover. If you aren’t 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! Lack of sleep also increases overall stress on the body, which we will talk about next.
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, increase weight gain, increase blood pressure and cholesterol, increase risk for heart disease, etc. Try the best you can to get those stress levels down- look into your life as a whole to identify possible factors, and work to overcome them. Sleep is probably one of the easiest factor to overcome, so get in those Z’s!
4. Training Frequency
If you stick to a very consistent training schedule, switching up training frequency can help to 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.
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 push-downs, try an overhead triceps extension for a few weeks. 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- thus preventing plateaus. Changing exercise selections can be done in a variety of ways- you could switch out some exercises every 4-6 weeks, switch between two sets of workouts every-other week, etc. You can really get creative here and find what works best for you. Another example is conditioning; if you’re like me and hate cardio, try throwing in some kind of HIIT or cardio session once per week, or if you love long runs, try switching one up to a HIIT session.
6. Exercise Order
Similar to exercise selection, exercise order can be changed as well. The consistent point here is to keep the body guessing, and preventing it from becoming used to any set workout or exercise – this is when we 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- 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 heavy 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 are a really great and easy way to help overcome a plateau. Get an easy-to-use watch, or just use your I-phone timer, and time your rests instead of just continuing to the next rep when you feel rested. I recently did a week of timed 30-second rest periods and it was killer – but exactly what I needed to challenge myself overcome this particular plateau. However, when manipulating rest intervals, keep the of training you are doing in mind. If you are lifting for maximal strength, make sure your rest intervals are long enough to allow your body to recover enough to be able to maintain the resistance. Additionally, listen to your body. If you are every feeling light-headed, nauseous, or shaky, you may be pushing yourself hard and need to increase your rests. Safety should always be a top priority.
The consistent point throughout all of these variables is that our bodies are very effective at adjusting and getting used to a particular factor, 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, monitor your stress and nutrition. Keeping all of these factors in mind will help ensure that you achieve your goals and overcome any plateau!