How to Overcome Fitness Plateaus

Break through a weight loss plateau with these six easy steps.

Have you ever hit a body plateau? You workout regularly, you eat properly, and yet your body just won’t change. Maybe you cut a few more calories and add another day to your walking routine, but to no avail. So if your body isn’t changing, the question becomes: are you? Are you willing to change your workout routine in order to get the change you desire?

The human body is a fascinating machine. When we begin an exercise program we see changes galore.

The exercise beginner usually sees his or her weight go down, body getting leaner and muscles showing up that have never been seen before. But somewhere along the way our body goes into adaptation mode. That is, it gets used to what we are doing and no longer responds.

This adaptation happens because our bodies accept the stress placed on them and respond accordingly. In this case, the “stress” isn’t the bad kind of stress, it is the physical kind of stress we call exercise. If you do muscle work, your body adds muscle to adapt. If you’re doing cardio work, your heart (also a muscle) gets stronger and adapts. However, once it makes the necessary changes to adapt, your current routine no longer works. This is where we have to look at something called The Overload Principle.

The Overload Principle

The principle of overload states that a greater than normal stress or load on the body is required for training adaptation to take place.

Eventually, the body will adapt and then more stress or load must be introduced in order for more change to take place.

Let’s look at the simple example of your biceps. You’ve never lifted weights before. You go to the gym and pick up eight-pound dumbbells and perform 10 bicep curls. You feel your arms shaking and are barely able to finish the last rep, but you did it.

That’s putting stress on your biceps.Your biceps respond by breaking down under the stress, but then they build back a little stronger for the next load that might come. So after a few weeks of using the eight-pound dumbbells, your biceps are now “adapted” and will no longer need to get better. Make sense? In order for you to avoid a plateau in your arms, you will need to pick up a pair of 10-pound dumbbells.

This principle applies to our cardiovascular system the same way. The first time you go for a run, it’s hard! Your heart is not used to this kind of beating—literally—so it changes, becomes stronger and adapts. Pretty soon that same pace doesn’t make you so winded and you can actually enjoy the run a little more. But of course in order to avoid a plateau, you will need to run harder to put the heart under stress again.

So what’s the bottom line for breaking through that plateau? The American Heart Association gives us some solid advice by recommending F.I.T.T: 

  • Frequency
  • Intensity
  • Time
  • Type

In other words, change something about the FREQUENCY in which you exercise, the INTENSITY of your exercise, the TIME you spend exercising or the TYPE of exercise you are performing. Solid advice!

But let’s get more specific. Let’s look at a variety of changes you can make in order to make a difference. The good news? There's more than one answer. Here are a just few.

How To Break Through Your Plateau

1. Increase The Amount of Weight

If you’ve been using the same size of free weights or setting the machines to the same weight for a long time, its time for a change. Even a few pounds can make a big difference. Make it hard again.

2. Change The Number of Repetitions

Maybe for one reason or the other, you are unable to make your weights heavier. If that’s the case, then it’s time for more repetitions.

Instead of 8-12 reps, go for 20. 

3. Change the Number of Sets

Take a look at your current plan. If you go to a class or make your own circuits around the gym, do you perform a set of squats, then move to the next exercise? Or do you sit at the chest press machine for a set and then move down the row? It might be time to go for a second or third or (gasp) even fourth set!

Remember, it's all about muscle load. Alternatively, if you make the change to heavier weights, it might be good to drop back to one set of heavy weights and build your way up to the second and third sets as your body adapts.

4. Change the Speed of Your Exercise

This can go for weight lifting and cardio alike! In terms of weight lifting, slow way down and see what happens. Slow lifting is a very effective tool for building muscle! In terms of cardio training, speed up! Interval training is where it’s at. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is hands down the best way to break through a weight loss plateau!

5. Superset

Supersets happen when you move from one exercise to another without any rest in between. One of the most effective ways to change your body is to keep these sets within the same muscle group. For example, perform a set of bench presses, then move right to push-ups without resting. Or do a set of lunges before moving right on to a set of split jumps. Stick to the same muscle groups and perform two or three moves in a row without resting. You will feel it the next day!

6. Change the Exercise

We all know people who do the same workout, day and day out, but never make an ounce of change. If you’re stuck in a rut, branch out and make a change! If you’ve never tried a spin class (indoor cycling) it might be time. If you’re a cardio queen but never lift a weight, it’s time to start strength training! Remember, the body is adapted so change is the ultimate goal.

So what’s it going to be? More of the same? Or change for the better? Take a chance and see what happens.

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