This depends entirely on what type of plateau you're in... if you're even in a real plateau!
I would venture to guess that most people have reached a plateau in their fitness progress before.
Maybe that includes you!
When the number on your scale won't change, when it feels impossible to lift more weight, when you are already eating super low calories, when your pants are still way too tight for comfort...
These are all signs of reaching a progress plateau.
However, these are also signs of a plateau look-a-like, an imposter if you will, that sneaks into our minds and steals our joy.
It's the human-wide condition known as...
Impatience is a disease that will spread rapidly throughout your daily life, and it's awfully contagious too.
No, the title of this post isn't clickbait - we'll get to talking about the 3 types of real plateaus in a minute. But first, let's explore impatience a bit more.
The mindset driven by impatience runs rampant through the fitness industry because of a few reasons. Notably, we are often sold on incredible before and after photos which seem borderline miraculous. We seem to ignore and forget the "Results not typical" small print, and we assume these transformations are sustainable.
That being said, you can absolutely achieve amazing results within a fathomable time frame. But this takes strategy, and work, and sacrifice, and...
Go figure, what a crazy concept! That brings us to the other main precursor to impatience, and that is the fact that we are all too familiar with our bodies. We see our naked selves every single day, expecting to see some drastic change in appearance overnight. If you are indeed making progress, it will be in small, consistent increments which will be undetectable on a day to day basis. Impatience comes about when we stand before the mirror and place ourselves under a brutal investigation, only to be disappointed that there are no perceivable differences since 24 or 12 or 2 hours ago.
"A hot-tempered person stirs up conflict, but the one who is patient calms a quarrel."
- Proverbs 15:18
Don't stir up any quarrels within yourself. Be patient with your body, give it some time to cooperate and catch-up.
Perhaps after all of this, you have concluded that you are not making progress, and it's not simply a matter of impatience.
You've been stuck for months, despite tracking your calories, hitting your target calories consistently, working out consistently, sleeping 8 hours per night, taking time to be quiet, pray, and breathe throughout the day...
(If you can't check off every single one of those examples above, I would start there before self-diagnosing a true plateau.)
Then congratulations, you may in fact be in a plateau!
Let's figure out what type of plateau you are in, and what to do about it.
This post was inspired by Tom Venuto's "Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle," which was one of my very first fitness books. He categorizes 3 types of progress plateaus by their time of onset. Here's my take on 3 types of plateaus and how to break through them!
1. Early-Stage Plateau
Time Frame: Within the first 6 months of beginning exercising
Symptoms: no longer making the same progress toward losing weight or lifting heavier weights as you did in the first few weeks of training
Break Through Technique: Work harder
I'm sure this isn't what you want to hear if this applies to you. If you are trying to lose body fat or build muscle, think about how easy and unintentional it was to reach your current body shape and size. That ease and lack of effort can falsely lead us into thinking that getting into better shape should also be a breeze.
The truth is that the road toward leanness, incredible strength, etc. is not an easy one. It's full of strategy, work, and sacrifice.
No matter how hard you work or how much you sacrifice, running full speed in the wrong direction will do nothing, so put together a great strategy, or ask a Coach to do it for you.
After starting with a great strategy, your progress will require good, old-fashioned sweat equity. It's hard to phrase it any other way - it just takes work! You will need to work hard, often, and consistently to make your results come to life. I say this next part with care, but there's also a decent chance that you're simply not working hard enough during your workouts. Are you trying weights that really challenge you? Do you ever try the next size up just to see if you can do it? Are you keeping your focus on the workout and not on your phone or the people around you? These are all aspects of working out which can dramatically affect your intensity.
Beyond these first two variables, you may need to make sacrifices along the way. As implied above, the work you put into your training/nutrition will require your time, energy, and focus. You may benefit from waking up earlier, watching less TV, grocery shopping more, or multi-tasking when possible. Fitness should not be your central focus in life, but if you want to make it a priority, you will have to adjust your other priorities too.
2. Mid-Stage Plateau
Time Frame: Varies, but around 6 months - 1 year of training.
Symptoms: Progress is much slower than calculations would suggest, unsure of what training/nutrition variables to adjust, calories are already at the low end (for a deficit) or at the high end (for a surplus)
Break Through Technique: Change your training/nutrition methodologies temporarily
This is the type of plateau that many intermediate exercisers will experience multiple times through the course of time. Let's talk about the ways we can alter your training and nutrition methods to help stimulate progress.
From the training side of things, the possibilities here are nearly endless. If you have been training in a very similar fashion for months on end (and are no longer seeing results), take a look at all of the variables of your program and choose a few to switch up. To name a few variables, you can change your rep ranges, number of sets, length of rest intervals, types of equipment used, workout split, tempo, intensity, unilateral/bilateral exercises, exercise order, and number of exercises per muscle group.
I hesitate to use the term workout "routine" because it implies a sense of complacency and a lack of progression. This is the section I most often see clients and others struggling to understand and apply. Do not underestimate the value of changing things up every few weeks or months. Even something as simple as changing our dumbbells for a barbell, switching from back squats to front squats, or doing overhead presses before bench presses can make a world of difference.
If your goal is to lose body fat or build muscle, a temporary change in your nutrition strategy can make an enormous impact both physically and psychologically. The exact method you employ will depend on your specific situation, but you can generally label these methods as re-feeds and diet breaks.
A re-feed is a day in which you bring your calories back to maintenance level for one or two days a week, for a few weeks. Whether you are trying to lose or gain weight, this strategy can encourage your body to regroup (i.e. try to reach homeostasis), and spur on continued progress. Remember, this is about reaching maintenance, not going crazy with calories and overcompensating in the other direction.
A diet break is exactly what it sounds like - a temporary break from your diet in which you spend a few weeks back at maintenance calories. Again, this works well whether you are trying to lose or gain weight, but a diet break is appropriate after months of strict dieting. If you have not been consistently hitting your calories goals, a diet break will only serve to stall your progress. Oftentimes, bodybuilders will use a diet break starting the day after their final competition in order to restore their bodies and minds back toward homeostasis.
3. Late-Stage Plateau
Time Frame: Typically after years of consistent training, but can happen any time
Symptoms: Regular weights/exercises feel unusually difficult, muscles are constantly sore, no longer mentally engaged in workouts because of fatigue
Break Through Technique: Rest
While hard work and consistent work are staples in any good fitness program, there comes a point in which simply working harder and working more is no longer helpful. It can even be detrimental toward your fitness and your health. This is referred to as overtraining.
Overtraining is not nearly as common as it is often purported, it poses a serious issue to those in its midst. As stated in the time frame above, this is typically a condition experienced by those who have been training for years and years, with few/infrequent breaks in intensity. The risk of overtraining runs high for professional strength and physique athletes in particular, who will work out for hours at a time and often multiple times per day.
The other common scenario for overtraining is a bit surprising, but quite relatable for many of us. Overtraining is a reality for many who are just starting out their fitness journey, and who are so headstrong and strong-willed that they attempt to workout 7 days per week, eat far too few/many calories, place a disproportionate emphasis on cardio, forego full nights of sleep, etc.
Neither of these circumstances is healthy, helpful, or sustainable. The best way to get out of this trap (or to avoid it altogether) is to regularly include rest in your fitness regiment. On a small level, adjust your intensity levels throughout your workout over the course of your training blocks. On a bigger level, it's not a bad idea to take a full week off of all training every few months. I used to struggle with taking a full week off from the gym, but now it's a welcomed break that let's me focus on other things, and get excited for the next set of workouts. To make it a smoother transition, I tend to adjust my food intake to match this downgrade in activity.
One week off every few months will not negatively, permanently, or irreversibly impact your progress. The big picture is about more than just your fitness, and even more than just your health. Fitness and health are simply tools to better attack everyday life as you serve God and love those around you. It's important to keep this focus as you navigate these issues of plateaus.
Are you in a plateau? After reading this, are you able to identify what type of plateau you are in? More importantly, are you able to identify what your next action step need to be? Let me know below!