It doesn’t matter who you are or how dedicated you’ve been. At some point, your progress may come to a sudden halt and you will feel like you’re stuck. A fact of fitness is that the things we often prioritize; getting bigger, or stronger, or leaner, or lighter, etc, are not what the body will always prioritize. Even though you may have been on the “perfect” diet and training program, there will come a time when it simply stops working. Much of this is normal. There are physiological reasons why the body needs to reset itself and in a sense tread water and stop moving in the direction we want it to go. The problem comes when you can’t get your progress restarted. Aside from the obvious reasons, (like workout inconsistency and eating too many of the wrong things) if you’re having problems breaking through that plateau, here are some possible reasons why.
You Need To Make A Workout Change: This is a common issue. Our bodies adapt to what we are doing so we need to periodically give it something new. This doesn’t necessarily mean a complete overhaul. It can be as subtle as changing some exercises, or rep ranges, or rest periods, or some key training techniques. The changes you make should still be in line with your long-term goals, you may just need to focus on a different aspect of reaching those goals for awhile. The change serves the purpose of giving your body something different to adapt to, and giving yourself some time off from what you we’re currently doing so that hopefully you can return to it at a later date with success.
You Need to Make A Diet Change: The way you were eating brought you to your current point. It may take you a bit further, but sooner or later to keep progressing (especially in terms of getting leaner) you will need to make some modifications. It may be adjusting your caloric intake up or down (depending on whether you are trying to gain or lose) or it may require adjusting the nutrient amounts within your current diet. Maybe you’re not getting enough protein to support growth beyond your current point. Maybe you’re not getting enough calories to keep your metabolism active enough for your body to keep losing. Maybe your carb or fat intake is not ideal for the next 5-7 pounds you wish to lose. Maybe you’ve been training longer and harder than usual and your energy and/or recovery is suffering because you’re lacking nutrients. Your plateau is a indicator that your diet may be in need of some type of adjustment to get it your body the next level.
You Need To Take Some Time Off: Whether in your diet or your training, you can’t just push forward indefinitely without a break. You are not a machine. Occasionally you will need to take a break and a plateau is often an indicator of this. This is different than a program or diet change. You might just need to take a week or more off and then, after a break-in period, get right back on the program that had been giving you success. The break is a way to physically and mentally rest and reset. It serves to recharge you and allows your endocrine system and central nervous system to recover and normalize. It gives your body a chance to avoid an even bigger plateau via being chronically taxed which can led to prolonged fatigue and faster metabolic adaptations. A week or two of low enthusiasm training, poor recovery, and stalled or lessening results is a good indicator that a brief rest might be required.
You’re Changing Your Program Too Often: This is a lot more common than people think. While you do want to keep your body adapting with variety, you have to give it the chance to actually change and improve and get the results from the work you did. If it’s being pulled in too many conflicting directions then it won’t be able to get the best results possible in any area. If you’re trying to build strength, throwing in high rep work too often just to switch things up might limit your strength gains. If you’re trying to get leaner with decreased calories and increased cardio, having too many high calorie re-feeds and low rep, long rest strength test PR days won’t give you the best results with either. If you’re trying to gain muscle mass, 4 days a week of distance running to train for a 5K will not help you with that. Yes, it’s OK to cross train. But understand that there will be times when you need to focus on one or two things more than others, and that you cannot successful focus on conflicting aspects of fitness. You can’t get max strong and max lean at the same time for example. Trying to do everything at once will insure that you won’t be your best at anything. Determine the main direction you want to go for the immediate future and focus on doing the things to make that happen. When you need to focus on other areas, then you make the adjustments needed to re-prioritize. (Note – If you’re a Crossfit athlete this concept, while still true, won’t always apply. As a Crossfit athlete you will be required to be as good as possible in a variety of different disciplines simultaneously. You will be training for different things at all times. Ideally, if you want to be your best at handstands, rope climbs, pull ups, and running for example, you could diet to reduce your bodyweight. But reducing your bodyweight might not help you improve your deadlift, squat, or other lifting maxes. So you may have to decide what you need to improve the most and dedicate specific time and conditions to make that happen. As an athlete, your goal is performance first and fitness is a complimentary condition of that).
You’ve Lost Your Drive: Drive is that internal reason and desire that pushes you forward. It is defined by your “why”. It is connected to your belief that you will be successful, that you’re goals are valuable, and that you are important! Without it, you may do the same sets and reps, eat the same meals and calories, but the results won’t be as good. That’s because without a direction and focus on where you want to be you may unknowingly be going through the motions. You’re doing just enough to keep yourself in the same spot, but not enough to push yourself forward. I’ve seen it many time. It’s the person who never misses a workout, but always looks the same month after month, year after year. Because they don’t really have a goal or a passionate reason that drives them, they simply don’t require of themselves that little bit extra that will cause their body to change. You must find and nourish your reasons for wanting to be fit and reach that next level. You must see yourself and your goals as important and believe the effort you put forth will lead to success. You must strive to enjoy each step of your journey and be proud of the distance you’ve traveled. You must always embrace the special possibilities of fitness and all that it can be for you!
Hitting a plateau sooner or later happens to everyone. If you understand that it’s simply a normal part of fitness, then it just becomes an indicator that you need to make some kind of change in your approach. Use it as an opportunity to re-evalute your program, re-examine your goals, and reset your drive. By being aware of and listening to what your body is telling you, that dreaded plateau can become an opportunity to evolve your fitness program to the next level and take your progress and physique beyond where they’ve ever been.
Photo: Terry Goodlad Model: Kiana Phi