What to Do When Your Workout Isn't Working

Tips for anyone working hard but not making progress

Man and woman doing yoga stretch in a gym
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"I’ve been doing my exercise routine for months and while I initially made a bit of progress, now I don’t seem to be getting any fitter or losing any body fat. I exercise five days a week for an hour at a time. What’s going on?"


While it’s clearly frustrating to work hard and have no obvious results to show for it, there are a few tweaks you can make to your workout routine, and your outlook, that will give your routine a good kick-start.

In general, if you do the same workout and eat the same diet, day after day and week after week, you shouldn’t be surprised when you eventually plateau and end up in maintenance mode.  If you continue to do more of the same, you’ll tend to get more of the same.

To get past the strength training plateaus, you need to continually change your exercise routine, your intensity, and the type of exercise you do in order to keep challenging your fitness. To break out of a fitness rut, you may need more mental stimulation and ideas to add more fun to your routine.

Track Your Progress

It’s helpful to track your progress any time you hope to see progress toward a goal. If you hope to lose body fat, you won't want to rely on checking your weight on a scale. Weight is a deceptive measurement of body composition.  Stepping on the scale won't  show if you are gaining muscle, losing fat or simply seeing fluctuations in water weight and hydration levels.

  A much better measurement of progress in any exercise program is to test your fitness, test your strength and test your endurance over time. If you want to know what’s happening with your body fat, you can simply look in the mirror. But, if you want to get scientific, have your body composition analyzed to  learn your levels of body fat and muscle mass.

You can also test your fitness on a regular basis to see if you are, in fact, improving an just not noticing your fitness gains. Making fitness gains can be slow and subtle, so we may not recognize just how much progress we are making. Test your fitness from time to time to get an objective measurement of how well you are doing.

Another often overlooked measurement of progress in your workout routine is to notice how you feel. Do you feel healthier? Do you sleep better? Do you have more energy? Are daily chores and tasks easier for you to accomplish? Answering these questions gives you more clarity and insight to the many benefits of a fitness program—beyond body shape. Most of us never stop to consider how regular exercise actually contributes to a healthier, happier life. So take a few minutes to reflect on how your exercise habit contributes to your overall well-being, and you may find that in and of itself is enough justification to keep up with regular activity. 

Add Intervals

If you want to make continual progress, you can start with a few small tweaks to your routine to give it a jumpstart. The first variable to modify is your intensity level. If you don’t use at least one day each week to focus on high-intensity interval training, go ahead and devote one session to intervals.

The boost in intensity will shake up your body, stress your cardiovascular system and increase your calorie burn. The best way to add intervals is to warm up thoroughly (about ten minutes or until you break a sweat), and then perform 30 second all-out efforts with a two to three minute recovery period between the effort. Perform between 5 and 10 repeats, cool down and stretch. You can do the intervals on the treadmill, a stationary bike, an elliptical, a rowing machine, or if outdoors, you can simple run, do a hill or stair workout, bike, or paddle.

Add Strength Training

If weight lifting is not part of your exercise routine, you’ll definitely want to add it.

Performing resistance exercise is the faster way to build muscle and change your body shape. Starting or modifying your strength training routine can appear complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. Start by following the weight lifting fundamentals and performing compound exercises that use multiple muscles.

Switch It All Up

Other ways to mix it up is to add an extra long cardio session, and decrease your calorie intake for a day or two.  If you always do cardio, switch over to weights and bodyweight workouts for a week. Add cross training by taking up a new sport such as rock climbing or kick-boxing, and give your workout a complete make-over.


In some cases, you’ll fail to make progress in your workouts because you are actually overtraining. Doing too much exercise can wreak havoc on the body and the psyche and actually decrease performance. In some cases, resting more and cutting back on workouts will actually boost your fitness. Check the symptoms of overtraining and see if this applies to you.

A Final Thought About Fitness Plateaus

Keep in mind that hitting a ‘plateau’ is not always a bad thing. But consider that a plateau is actually a maintenance phase and that is really the ideal way to live. It means your body has found a balance, is adapting to your lifestyle, and is functioning properly by maintaining homeostasis.

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