6 tips to avoid an exercise plateau
You’ve been following your exercise routine for some time now, but you just aren’t seeing the same results as you did when you began training. Whether your aim is to lose weight, build muscle, or become fitter, what worked for you before just isn’t having the same effect.
Congratulations, you’ve hit an exercise plateau! While the plateau is frustrating, it really is a rite of passage for anyone who is serious about fitness because it means your body has learned to adapt to training. What used to challenge you is now a breeze, you could spend the rest of your training life doing the same thing, but it wouldn’t provide you with any value once you’ve hit a certain level, hence why you aren’t seeing the same progress.
The great news is, it’s easy to get yourself out of the dip and once you’ve overcome it you will be even stronger and fitter than before. But don’t just take our word for it, find out what the fitness experts recommend. After years of training, they know the secret to overcoming a fitness plateau to achieve consistent results, aswell as helping their clients to do the same.
Are you motivated?
There is a psychological side to the plateau, have you really been executing your training plan and diet consistently, or is lack of motivation decreasing your efforts? Sam Murphy is one of the consulting experts at Amaven, he is an experienced strength and conditioning coach who has worked with a range of athletes and various elite level sports men and women. He believes that people’s lifestyles can often lead them into a plateau.
“People make too many changes too quickly, i.e. they feel their progress slowing, find monotony in their diet or training so change the entire training program, make drastic changes to their diet, and increase their training volume or frequency. When in reality, small changes to any of these areas on a more regular basis allow for more consistency in their improvements. I think Bruce Lee said “Long term consistency beats short term intensity every time.”
“[Another reason is] inconsistency- this often comes from a lack of life management, for example missing a meal because you had an extra 10 minutes in bed, skipping your warm up because you had a longer than normal conversation with someone at work, skipping your cool down because you want to get home to watch something on TV, staying up late to see the end of a film you have already seen etc.”
Are you over training?
Pushing your body too hard can negatively affect your progress, if you are consistently training the same muscles every day you are not giving your body enough time to rebuild itself and become stronger.
As the Head of Future Fit Training School of PT, Paul Swainson has trained a variety of elite level athletes, including a Thai boxing champions in the run up to the World Title. He recalls how hard this particular athlete wanted to train.
“As we neared the date of the fight, he wanted to be pushed so hard during training sessions that, in his own words, he couldn’t keep his eyes open…. Coaching at this crucial stage was more about reigning him in so he didn’t push too hard and risk injury or burn out, by educating him about the optimal levels of stress he needed to place his body under to achieve a positive adaptation.”
Mix up your exercise routine
Karrina Howe is a certified personal trainer, qualified nutritional coach and Olympic weight lifting coach. She recommends changing your workout every so often to achieve maximum results.
“To ensure your body isn't getting used to the same routine, switch up what you are doing in the gym. If you enjoy interval training, push up the sprints from 30 seconds to 40. That 10 seconds will make a HUGE difference. A great interval programme I love to include for my clients is ‘Every Minute on The Minute programme (EMOM).’ An example of this would be on the first minute complete 5 burpees, on the second minute complete 10 kettlebell swings and on the third minute complete 15 press ups. Do this for a total of 5 rounds (15 minutes). The next week you can swap the exercises to squats, sit ups and rowing for calories. This is an easy and effective way to constantly change your weekly programme, keep your body guessing and burn calories. If you're strength training as well (and you should be) then change your rep range from 3 reps to 5 reps. Add in one more set. Change the rest period from 2 minutes to 1:30 minutes. There are so many variables to play with in the gym, experiment and build the chiselled machine you desire - that way, you won't need to spend hours in the gym and can instead spend more time showing off your toned body."
Sam Murphy said, “Every 3 weeks we manipulate something in our program, changes in training volume, repetition ranges, one or two exercise, speed of movements or recovery time. As any one of these changes causes other subsequent changes I have to keep track of everything. I.e. Decreasing the speed of movements will likely cause a decrease in loads lifted, with an increased perception of effort, due to the time each movement takes it can have a knock on effect to the total training time, contributing to an increase in training volume. This highlights my first and most important point of making SMALL changes often.”
"You are probably well aware of the advice, just train harder! But, what if you are exercising on a structured exercise programme that is promoting incremental weight increases for all your exercises and eventually no matter what you do, you cannot get any stronger!? Eventually you hit that dreaded plateau and no longer see any more strength increases. Even if you change the types of exercises you are doing you will still hit a plateau. Generally, the advice is change up the exercises. But what works is varying the programme type to induce super compensation so that when you return to your preferred programme type you overcome that plateau." Dan Smullen, Personal Trainer at Icon Health Club offered.
Lisa Wilkinson is an International Fitness Presenter and ambassador for Bio-Synergy. As an experienced fitness expert, Lisa ensures that she always keeps her workouts varied to avoid a plateau.
"Even if you're an already active person it's advisable to keep mixing it up, rotating the areas of the body you are working on and adding new and more challenging exercises. Don’t be afraid to try something new and different. Keep your body and mind guessing by attempting something you've never tried before. Whether it's a new class, a different running route, up the intensity of your cardio routines or try a different piece of gym equipment, daring to venture into new territory will be beneficial. And pushing yourself a little bit harder can make a big difference to pushing past the plateau."
As we mentioned earlier on, a plateau might be psychological rather than physical. Sometimes, we think we are doing exactly the same thing as before and not seeing small inconsistencies that affect our results.
Sam continued, “Make progress notes and learn from them, if you can keep track of how you felt after each workout, how hard each set was, what you ate each day and how much sleep you had you are better armed to know how your body is changing or responds to certain stimulus’s.”
Paul said, “Look outside of your training. Perhaps your exercise plan isn’t the problem – your nutrition, recovery and stress levels can all impact on results, so assess these factors to make sure you’re optimising your chances of success.”
There are plenty of apps and devices out there that make it easy to track your progress like MyFitnessPal, FitBit, Garmin etc. If you’re using an Amaven exercise plan, or training someone who is, you can easily track workouts through the personalised Fitness Record and monitor change.
If you’re already completing a high number of reps and training at a heavy volume, then it may be difficult to keep adding sets and increasing the weight. One way to overcome the plateau, and to save yourself from spending four hours in the gym every day, is to focus on eccentric reps. A rep consists of two components: a concentric, or positive, component, and an eccentric, or negative, component. The concentric movement is when the muscle contracts and the eccentric movement refers to the part where the muscle lengthens, for example a pull up would be concentric on the way up and eccentric on the way down.
Research suggests that eccentric reps causes more muscle damage than concentric, meaning more stress causes greater repair and improved strength. You can lift more weight during the lengthening movement compared to the contradiction, further increasing the stress on the muscle. Finally, similar to high intensity interval training, eccentric reps also increase your excessive post oxygen consumption and increase the amount of energy you expand after your workout is complete, which will accelerate fat loss, this article by Iron Man magazine explains it further.
To place more emphasis on the eccentric movement, reduce the length of time it takes to complete the eccentric movement, but speed up the concentric movement, e.g. 1-2 seconds up, 3-6 seconds down. One downside to eccentric reps is that you may need a training partner to help you during certain exercises, such as bench presses.
It’s easy to assume that you need to keep adding more weight to keep progressing, by the trick is to keep your body guessing. Josh Anderson is a Personal Trainer and founder of DIY Active, a site that regularly features bodyweight movements.
“One of the best ways to overcome this is with bodyweight exercises at home and employ your competitive nature. For instance, pick a few bodyweight exercises (squats, pushups, pull-ups, dips, burpees…etc.) and perform them like you normally would for 3 sets but perform them in a timed fashion. This will allow you to really push yourself and perform as many reps as you can in that time and make sure to record these numbers. The next time you perform the workout try to beat that number of reps each and every time!”
The more creative you are, the more you will be able to challenging yourself. If one legged squats are too easy for you, try pistol squats balancing on a bench. If you can do full push-ups with ease, try one handed.
The take home
As you can see, an exercise plateau does not mean the end of your training career, it is simply part of an ongoing fitness journey. Follow these tips and power through the plateau to come back stronger and more powerful than before.