How to Break Through a Training Plateau
By Tania Tetrault Vrga
It can be tough to admit it but we all feel stuck on occasion.
Whether it’s learning a new sport, training at the gym, or with weight loss, it’s normal for progress to slow or even stall completely. That dreaded plateau can feel hopeless. We tend imagine that we’re doing something wrong, or that all our efforts are for naught, or even worse, we blame the program. Here’s why it’s almost never your fault, or your program’s fault, and what to do to break through the plateau.
Progress rarely looks a straight line.
Due to how the body adapts to training, it’s absolutely normal for thing to stop progressing, or even feel worse, before they get better. Progress rarely looks like a straight line. More often, it’s a squiggly line with loops and ups and downs, and a few flat bits where nothing seems to happen. That’s a plateau. Most plateaus are actually just part of the adaptation process, or the result of impatience or lack of experience on the part of the person experiencing it, but there are times when a plateau really is a plateau. Hint: it’s more than just a bad workout or a week without losing weight.
In the gym, we’re often tempted to say we’ve plateaued when we have a single bad workout.
A workout where we can’t even lift a fraction of what we did last week, or where our mile pace is a full minute slower than our best feels horrible, but it’s probably not a plateau. Failing to lose a pound in a week while on a weight loss journey can feel like the end of the world. So let’s get clear about definitions first. A plateau is more than just a bad workout or two, it’s more than a week without losing weight. Once you see a month or two go buy without progress, you can start calling it a plateau.
Here are a few reasons we might mistake a bad week for a plateau.
Misidentifying a plateau is common mistake, here’s why. The first reason is that we compare our current rate of results to when we first started. When we first start a new exercise program, or a new nutrition plan, we see results quickly, because we are exposing our body to a new stimulus. This forces the body to adapt to the stress in an effort to be better prepared for the next time it will face a similar challenge. As we get used to this same stimulus, it becomes easier for our body to adapt. In essence, the stimulus is no longer enough to elicit adaptation, and progress slows down.
It’s absolutely normal to make less progress as we become more experienced in the gym.
It’s not uncommon for someone who is brand new at lifting weight might be able to increase the weight lifted by 10 to 20 pounds at every single workout for the first few months, whereas an experienced powerlifter 10 years into the game would be grateful for a 2 pound increase after a year of carefully planned training. That’s just how training works. Part of it is that in the beginning we are not only making physical adaptions, but also neurological adaptations, meaning our body is still learning the movement or the lift. Once it becomes second nature, neurological adaptions are few and far between, and we need to make the tiniest tweaks to optimize physical conditioning and strength to get new adaptions.
Patience and tracking are essential for breaking through the plateau.
A carefully constructed exercise program will actually plan out your progress over a longer period of time, at least a year, ideally, it will be a lifelong endeavour. This requires tracking your workouts as a priority at first, and eventually, you’ll need to pay a lot closer attention to nutrition, stress, and sleep. Let’s face it, if you aren’t tracking, you’re simply not in a position to claim you’ve hit a plateau.
So the first step to breaking through a plateau is to start tracking, and once you have some data, you’ll be able to determine whether your so-called plateau is actually a plateau, and not just a bad day of training. In addition to patience, you’ll need to take a hard, long look at other factors in your life.
Don’t ignore other factors: sleep, hydration, nutrition, stress.
Ask yourself the following questions.
- Am I sleeping enough? You don’t get fitter in the gym by training, you get fitter by recovering from your training. If you aren’t sleeping enough, you’re skipping a critical step in the process.
- Am I hydrated enough? Even minor dehydration can have a significant impact on your performance in the gym, and your ability handle food cravings. It’s doesn’t have to be fancy, stick with water and tea, and if you need electrolytes a pinch of sea salt, some lemon juice, and powdered magnesium does wonders, and beats gatorade any day of the week.
- Am I eating enough? In the same way that too much food and not enough activity can hurt our fitness, too much stress and not enough food can backfire. Busting through that plateau might be as simple as finding your sweet spot.
- Am I training too. much? An inappropriate level of stimulus is critical. Too much training or too much stress means not recovering completely. between workouts, which means underperforming, leading to a real plateau.
Once you’ve asked yourself these questions, you can start making a plan. If you need help, ask your coach. There are always ways to modify and adapt your training to get you through the plateau and to your goals.
We know that walking into a new gym can be intimidating and that starting a new fitness plan can be daunting. But we are here to help. Everyone starts with a private consult. Schedule an appointment today to discuss how we can help you achieve your full potential!