Chugging down protein shakes, regularly lifting weights and still not getting stronger? Eating a healthy, balanced diet, tirelessly running on the treadmill and still not getting fitter?
Welcome to the infamous training plateau!
What is a training plateau?
When applied to an exercise programme, a plateau is a specific period of time where physical progress stalls, this can manifest itself in both strength and cardiovascular training. It’s the body’s natural response to exercise.
The human body is a master at adaptation, capable of quickly adjusting to meet the demands of any workout and doing everything it possibly can to maintain homeostasis. The physical exertion or physical stress of exercise triggers a cascade of physiological responses at the cellular level, affecting all of the body’s internal systems. Research suggests that some of these adaptations take 4 to 6 weeks, while others may take 4 to 6 months.
When we begin training, we experience significant physical improvements within a relatively short period of time. We are able to lift heavier, run faster, gain muscle, lose weight. Whatever your goal, success seems to come easily. We follow a specific training plan, workout several times a week, same movements, same intensity, same duration. Then all of a sudden, it doesn’t seem to work anymore. Progress starts to wane and eventually improvements flatten out. We don’t get stronger or faster, we gain a few pounds, and our enthusiasm for training dwindles.
Congratulations! Good news is your training plan has worked. When your fitness gains level out, it is simply your body saying that your existing training routine is no longer challenging enough to stimulate further physical changes. You raised the bar and your body met the expectations. Bad news, if you wish to continue improving physically, you need to switch up your routine and up the ante!
Six tried and tested tips, guaranteed to push you through the plateau.
#1 Switch up your routine
One of the biggest reasons you may be in a workout plateau is because you’re performing the same workout routine day in, day out. This has a knock on affect not only on your physical results but also your sanity, as training just gets boring, you lose all motivation to go to the gym and working out quickly becomes a chore.
A plateau is the ideal time to try something new. Is there a Zumba class at your gym you’ve been meaning to try out, but haven’t got round to it? Have you always wanted to try rock climbing, but never had the guts to do it? Find a class, group activity or program that interests you to shake up your routine. This could be something as simple heading over to the local pool and doing a few lengths, or if you’re after a change of scenery heading to the hills for a hike.
#2 Embrace rest days
Most people think you have to be working out to grow muscle. Wrong. Actual muscle growth happens when you rest and re-fuel your body. It’s catabolism (breaking down of muscle) which is happening when you’re training, and anabolism (the growth of new tissue) which happens after.
I know that when you start seeing results in the gym, it is very easy to fall into the trap of going every single day. However, overtraining and not allowing your body to rest can lead to muscle fatigue and exhaustion. Thereby resting your muscles is just as important as working them.
Some people find it beneficial to plan a recovery week, where you stay active but by means other than working out in the gym. This allows your joints and ligaments to take a well deserved break, and your central nervous system to relax. Many people find that after a rest period, they return to training feeling refreshed and energised.
#3 Don’t skimp on sleep
If a whole week off doesn’t sound right for you, make sure you are getting enough sleep. Sleep is absolutely essential for optimal health and fitness, yet its one thing that so many of us regularly skip out on.
Ideally we should all be getting 8 hours sleep per night, with a lack of sleep actually being linked to weight gain. This is due to the levels of leptin, an appetite- regulating hormone, falling as a result of sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep can also lead to increased stress levels, which not only slows muscle recovery but also causes your performance in the gym to suffer.
#4 Kick up the intensity
Slow and steady doesn’t always win the race. If you kick the intensity of your workout up a couple of notches, you’ll not only see better results, but you won’t have to spend as much time in the gym either.
High-intensity interval training (HIIT) is a great way to ramp up the intensity level of your workouts. HIIT workouts alternate between intense bursts of activity followed by less intense activity or a rest period. Research has shown that short, high intensity workouts burn the most calories. Incorporating XPO Trainer/ prowler sprints, sled pulls, battles ropes or plyometric box jumps into your training are a great way to achieve this. Alternatively intensity can also be raised by increasing the weight, speed or resistance of exercises, switching up your rep range or alternating the order of exercises.
#5 Step off the treadmill
Many people find the very thought of running on a treadmill laborious, so why put yourself through it? Step off the treadmill and try something new. This works well for those who may not be fit enough to increase intensity too much. Merely changing activities, even if the intensity is the same, will work the body in a different way and yield significant results.
Why not spice up your cardio workout and have a go on The Tornado Airbike, Jacobs Ladder or The Concept2 SkiErg. With the range of cardiovascular equipment available at GymGear, anyone can push through a plateau.
#6 Check out your lifestyle
You may be hitting the gym five times a week and pushing yourself to the limit. But if it’s coupled with a few too many pints at the weekend, or a fast food takeout every other night, then you may just be sabotaging your own hard work.
If your body is not fuelled properly, then how can you expect it to perform at its best? You wouldn’t go fill up your diesel car with petrol and expect it to function, so why do the same with your body? Our bodies crave nutrients and there are so many quick and easy ways to eat healthily whilst staying within a budget.
It is also important to make sure that your diet is in line with your particular fitness goals. Ensuring your getting enough protein, fruits, vegetables, and good quality carbohydrates (whole grains) while steering clear of too many simple carbs and sugars.
That being said, I must also stress the importance of balance! Every now and again you need that glazed donut, life would be pretty damn boring without it.
Keep on keepin’ on!
Don’t get frustrated by a lack of progress, and never ever give up! Just a few tweaks here and there will keep the body challenged, and that hard work will continue to pay off. With some patience and a solid game plan, that fitness plateau will be old news.