Just Say No to Plateaus!
Plateaus suck. I don’t mean the geological formation, those are actually pretty cool – I am talking about hitting a plateau in progress at the gym! Everyone hits a plateau at some point on the way to reaching their goals – and it is always frustrating. The good news is that I am here to give you some tips on blasting your way past your plateaus to get back on track with making progress again!
Let’s start with the basics in case you aren’t following what I’m talking about. What is a “plateau” in the exercise world? Basically we are talking about a point where your progress stalls out. You are making steady gains (or losses if you’re losing fat) but then things level out and your progress stops. A graph would look just like that cool geological formation I mentioned in the second sentence… hence the name! Brilliant right?
There are quite a few different factors that can cause you to hit a plateau in your progress, but the solutions to getting back on track are pretty simple.
How to Bust Through a Plateau
Check your diet!
In my experience the number one reason for hitting a plateau in progress, whether it is gaining muscle or losing fat, is a failure somewhere in the diet. If you read my last blog post (“It’s all about the diet”) you already know about this – so you probably already figured this part out. It is common to get into a rut when trying to follow a mass gaining or fat burning diet plan. You sometimes get into “auto pilot” mode, and you may not be paying close attention to what you are doing. If you’ve noticed your strength is starting to plateau – make sure you are eating enough of the right kinds of food. Double check that you haven’t accidentally started leaving out a component of a meal – I give that example because this happened to me. I had a period of time where I had somehow started leaving out the “fats” component of my pre-workout meal! Those missing calories made a difference, and adding them back helped out tremendously. If you are trying to lose bodyfat you need to make sure you are adjusting your diet as your body mass decreases. A diet that made your drop 2lbs per week when you weighed 250lbs is probably not going to work for weight loss when you weigh 200lbs. Also check to make sure you haven’t accidentally added in more calories by adding a “harmless” snack during the day. Get your diet in order, and you’ll notice progress!
Give yourself some rest!
If you have checked your diet and everything looks to be in order, and you are still struggling – it could be that you have been “hitting it hard” for too long without a break. How long it takes to “hit the wall” depends on quite a few factors: your age, your nutrition, the type of program you are following, how long (in years) you have been training, how much rest you get, and many other factors. I have found for myself, following a high intensity weight training program while following a good diet, I need to give myself a “rest”, “cruise”, or “deload” period approximately every 2 months. If I go longer I find that I am unable to continue to make progress on exercises and my gains stall out. When that starts to happen I will take 1-2 weeks where I will do minimal to no weight training, get more sleep, and take some time to just recover. This gives both a physical and a mental break from pushing myself at the gym. If you are worried that you will become a scrawny weakling from skipping a week at the gym – you are wrong! I find that I usually come back about where I left off on most exercises, and actually stronger on some than when I left off! The only way you will come back as a scrawny weakling is if you were one to begin with!
Change it up!
Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This DEFINITELY applies in the gym, and I see it all the time. If you are doing an exercise and you aren’t able to make progress on your weights or reps with that exercise – why keep doing the exercise? I use a simple rule in my workouts – if I fail progression on an exercise 2 times in a row, that exercise is removed from my workout. There is no reason to keep banging away on dumbell curls with 45lbs for 15 reps workout after workout when you could switch to any of the dozens of other biceps exercises out there and get back to making progress every workout! The exception here of course would be if you are training to increase strength in a specific lift – like bench press, squat, or deadlift – for a competition. In that case you wouldn’t be able to ditch the exercise – but you can definitely switch to a different method of training! Switch from high reps to low reps… switch from 3 sets of 10 to 5×5 or German Volume Training or DC Training… there are many options out there to choose from. I personally hate change, but I had to make a change from a DC based program to a half DC and half 5×5 program to get around an injury and still be able to make progress. I generally recommend combining the “change it up” step with the “take a break” step… so you would take a week off from the gym and come back starting out your new program. That way you are starting out fresh and you are more likely to make the progress you are looking for.
What NOT to do.
This is the easy part – the smartass answer is “anything that isn’t listed up above!” I think I will get a little bit more in depth though – just because there are a few common mistakes that people make when they hit a plateau, and these mistakes usually just make things worse instead of better.
Don’t Add More Exercises
So you’ve hit a plateau on your bench press progress… if you haven’t read this blog post, what would you normally do? You would probably add in another chest exercise because OBVIOUSLY you aren’t working your pecs hard enough to make your bench press numbers go up, right? WRONG! When we were less informed, this is exactly what my training partner and I would do. At one point we had a triceps routine that was a superset of 5 or 6 different exercises that we would run through multiple times to failure because we just weren’t getting stronger! What we should have done instead is just give ourselves a little break… then we would have seen our gains come back! The exception to the “don’t add more exercises” advice is with cardio if you are trying to drop body fat. Adding more cardio into your program will probably actually help with losing body fat.
Don’t Change It Up Too Often
This is a very common pitfall that actually CAUSES more plateaus than it cures. The reason it is so common is that people hear about the miracle of “muscle confusion” and try to incorporate it into their programs. This usually leads to someone doing completely different exercises every workout and never really keeping track of if they are making any kind of progress on the exercises they use. You need consistency to make progress, when you get stuck you need to pick something different and be consistent with the new thing. This holds true for exercise and diet – if you change your diet plan every month there is no real way to know if what you are doing is working before you try something new and get used to that. Stick with what you are doing until you either stop making progress, or get tired of doing it that way – then switch and stick to your new thing.
Don’t Ignore the Signs
If you try to ignore the signs of an impending plateau you will end up just making the situation worse. If you have hit the wall and you keep pushing things, you’ll just keep digging the hole deeper instead of progressing forward. Once you start to see that you are hitting a plateau, do something about it! Don’t make the mistake a lot of people make and assume that you’ll suddenly get past it without taking any kind of action, it just doesn’t happen.
How to Avoid Plateaus in the First Place
Track Your Progress
Keeping track of your progress in a log book will help you quickly recognize when you are starting to reach a plateau. I don’t know about you guys, but I can barely remember what I ate for breakfast so I have no idea if I got 8 reps or 9 reps on my biceps curls 2 weeks ago to know if I’ve made progress or not. Actually the bit about breakfast isn’t true. I know exactly what I had for breakfast – 50g of whey protein with a scoop of Pump Igniter in it – because it is the same every day… but that isn’t really important right now. Luckily I keep a log book, so I can immediately see if I am doing better or not. Without a log book it is very difficult to track your progress and ensure that you really are improving each time you hit the gym. If you start to notice that you are not progressing well – be proactive and make a change or take a break.
Listen to Your Body
This is where experience becomes very important. As a new gym goer it is easy to get yourself into a nasty situation because you don’t recognize the signs your body is giving you to let you know that it is time to back off or make a change. I know that when my friend Jay and I used to train together we never purposely took time off from the gym. We just kept going and pushing ourselves regardless of if we were making progress or not – week in and week out we just kept hammering away until something interrupted the schedule for a few days and somehow we’d feel stronger. We never really put the concept together. Your body will tell you when it is time to back off or when it is time time to make a change. For me when I start waking up every morning feeling like someone ran me over with a truck in my sleep – I know we are getting close to “cruise phase” time. It usually closely correlates with starting to fail progressions on the weights on certain exercises – usually for me I start failing out on pressing movements first in case anyone is curious. Once you learn to understand what your body is saying, you can avoid plateaus by taking breaks or making changes to your program before the you hit the wall.
Bust Those Plateaus!
Plateaus are easy to get past if you know what you are doing and pay attention. Just keep these tips in mind, and your body will thank you!