Overcoming Exercise Plateaus

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by Devin Sarno, NSCA-CPT

Have you been consistent with all of your workouts, but all of the sudden stopped seeing progress? This could be caused by a number of different things. Particularly if you are a beginner, you will likely see some significant progress and adaptations almost regardless of what kind of exercise you are doing. This is because your body isn’t used to the stress you are putting on it, so it will naturally make the most significant adaptations shortly after beginning. However, once you hit a certain point of regular exercise, these adaptations may very likely come to a halt.

But this doesn’t only happen to beginners. Why else might somebody plateau? It could be that you are doing the same thing every day, or even every week; same exercises, sets, reps, and weight. Eventually, doing the same thing over and over will keep you in the same exact position. You could even potentially be hitting a wall because of overtraining. If you are constantly putting your body through high stress, high intensity exercise without allowing yourself to have adequate amounts of rest, your muscles will not be able to recover optimally and you will likely experience a lot of fatigue, low energy, and maybe even injuries or other aches and pains. Maybe, on the flipside, you may not be challenging yourself enough to cause any desired adaptations. Your fallback also could be related to your diet or a lack of sleep as well. Regardless of why you are hitting your plateau, how do you plan on working through it?

Busting through your plateau will be unique to its cause. In the case of a lack of variety, don’t make it tougher than it needs to be; just switch it up! There are a ton of variables that you can change within your exercise routine. First and foremost, you can alter your volume. How many sets and reps are you doing? Maybe you need to be doing more sets with fewer reps, or vice versa. Maybe you need to increase or decrease the volume for both sets and reps together. Beyond that, are you adding any weight from week to week? It is tough to expect your adaptations to continue if you stop increasing the amount of weight you use. Throw some more weight on! If you are scared to do so, just make sure you have a spotter available to help you out. But if you are going this route, do NOT sacrifice technique to try to throw more weight up. You also might benefit from simply changing up the exercises you do. If you always back squat and only back squat, try throwing some front squats into your program to change up the stimulus a little bit. Lastly, you can also alter your rest times. You could potentially not be giving yourself enough time to rest between sets, or in some cases too much time. Tweak your rest, and the stimulus will again be altered.

Are you experiencing a lack of energy and a high amount of fatigue? If this is the case, then you may be overtraining. Don’t be afraid to dial it back a little bit! Continuing down the same path when you are in a state of extreme fatigue and constantly utilizing high intensity, high stress training will absolutely be more of a detriment to your progress than taking a day, or even a week off. While our bodies are meant to move, they also need adequate rest and recovery time. Sometimes doing a de-load week, or taking an entire week off might be the answer to this particular issue. If your muscles are constantly breaking down without proper recovery time, they don’t have the chance to rebuild and help you progress the way you should. So think about taking the foot of the gas a bit if you find you are feeling this way.

On the other end of the spectrum, you might not be pushing yourself enough. Progress does not come easy. If you are comfortable throughout your entire workout, then chances are you are not pushing yourself hard enough. In this case, I would look back to adjusting some of those exercise variables. Increase the amount of weight you use, decrease your time spent resting during your workout, or increase the amount of volume (sets and reps) that you are doing. Applying at least one of these adjustments to your workout routine will definitely force you to work harder; and you may even want to consider combining more than one of these changes. Muscular change and adaptations happen as a result of stress being applied. If the stress is not significant enough, or maybe at a certain point no longer even feels like stress, you also will not experience any significant adaptations that you may be seeking.

In some cases, your plateau may not necessarily be caused by your exercise programs. Your nutrition could possibly be holding you back. Try tracking your food intake for a week and see if their might be some holes, or if you might be lacking or overconsuming certain macronutrients. As important as the actual exercise is, food and nutrients are going to be the fuel behind your gains. If you are doing everything right in the gym, take a step back and see if there are nutrition modifications you might need to make. Another factor unrelated to what you’re doing in the gym is sleep. If you aren’t getting enough sleep, you may experience similar effects to if you are overtraining because your muscles are not able to recover properly. It may also effect other hormones, like those related to hunger, and your diet can be sabotaged as well.

There are a number of reasons that you might be hitting a plateau, but once you identify that reason then you can make the necessary changes to break right through it! In my experience, most plateaus are caused by a lack of variety in your training; but there are plenty of other causes as well. Regardless of the cause, don’t let it stop you from trying. Do NOT just throw in the towel and stop what you are doing because you’ve stopped progressing. There has to be an underlying cause to your plateau; so stay motivated and even if you need the help of an outside source (trainer, training partner, friend), find your reason and make a change!