Most people who are training with weights, running, cycling or doing intense workouts experience the common issue of a training plateau.
The same applies to weight loss programs. Suddenly you appear to run into a brick wall and cannot make any progress no matter how hard you try.
A plateau is defined as a stage in an exercise or weight program where additional progress cannot be made, such as increase in endurance or strength, performance times or loss of weight.
As you get closer to the plateau it gets harder and harder to make any gains. This is quite different to finding your magic pace which is more about running for enjoyment rather than serious training.
This often happens about 2-3 months into an exercise program. Your body has inbuilt defense mechanisms designed to protect you from overexertion or lowering your calorie intake when dieting.
It is mostly a mental thing but has a physical aspect as well. People who are restricting their calories can experience an apparent lowering of their metabolic rate, so that they need fewer calories and their weight loss rate falls and stops.
This has been shown to be a myth in physical terms, but people who are dieting can feel tired and are less inclined to exercise.
The same applies to exercise. When you start stressing your body, pushing it to the limit during a workout or an interval training session your body resists the change both mentally and physically to try to protect you from the extra stress that has been imposed. Your body has inbuilt mechanisms to maintain an equilibrium.
Now you know what causes training and weight loss plateaus, the way to overcome is to make fundamental changes to your regime to introduce more variety into your program.
Many plateaus occur because you always do the same thing in the same way and with the same goal. Trying different work out machines, and the length and frequency of the sessions works for a while, but a more fundamental re-set is required.
In simple terms, you have to keep your body guessing at what the performance gains you are trying to achieve.
► For weight training look at changing the combination of reps, sets, intensity, tempo, volume, rest, frequency, duration and exercise selection. Changing several of these will keep your body guessing and will prevent any adaptation to your program.
► For running adding a set of interval training sessions can do wonders.
► For diet programs changing when you eat, portion sizes, the amount of exercise you are doing and introducing short term fasting can help you to break through the weight loss plateau.
► For example, for weight training, if you normally do 2 sets of 10 repeats on a bench press, eventually your body, and your mental concept of the effort required, is going to get use to that. You can increase the weight to add variety, but far better is to lower the weight, do more reps at a higher intensity for some of your sessions. This variety will allow you to break through and increase your strength and endurance.
► For a running program introducing sets of 'wind sprints' - short sprints at high speed, have been renowned as a way to increase aerobic capacity and to increase performance in long distance events. Interval training involves alternating short intense activity sessions with low intensity rest periods to provide active recovery.
In its simplest form, interval training might mean walking for two minutes, running for the next two, and alternating this same pattern for the rest of the session or part of it. It could also involve 100 m sprints across an oval followed by a slow 400 am jog around the track.
The benefits of interval training are that it uses both the aerobic and anaerobic energy-producing systems in the body.
It can build strength and endurance even for the longer distance runs.
► Change Your Exercise Routine when Dieting - Many people on diets have fixed and routine exercise programs that use form day to day, week to week. If you hit a plateau it is time to mix it up. Instead of doing 30 minutes every time, add 10-15 more minutes to your workout every second session. Try doing 30 minutes of aerobics exercises and follow up with 15 minutes of strength training on the same day. Cross-raining really works. Try changing the time you workout and its duration. Introduce some high intensity sessions, or start doing two sessions a day.
► Change your Eating Habits - Many people who are counting calories and monitoring the foods they eat take the easy way out and eat the same meals. One way to break through the plateau is to add variety in terms of what you eat and when. If you are eating 3 meals a day switch to 5 or 6 smaller meals every other day. Try adding a more protein and less carbs to your meals. You should be monitoring your calorie intake and if your weight loss plateaus you will have to eat fewer calories. Instead of reducing your standard meals, change the meals you eat as this will be less of a shock to the system and easier to adapt to.
► Mix up your Calorie Sources - Instead of trying to eat the same number of calories each day, try alternating big and small meal days. So try consuming 2,000 calories one day and then 1,500 calories the next. Just make sure your weekly total matches your target for weight loss.
Keeping Good Records is the Key - Often the plateau you see may be caused by you allowing slip-ups in your regime such as added snacks or large portion sizes. The same thing may apply to your exercise program. When to look closely you may find that you are missing more sessions or reducing the intensity. So it pays to double check your monitoring of calories eaten and burnt through exercise.
If you are looking to increase strength and endurance or muscle mass the following tips could be helpful.
► Rest and Rejuvenate – If you're working very hard the reason why your progress may fail may be because you are simply not having enough rest. Introducing more variety into your program or simply taking a few days off may help rejuvenate your program and let your muscles and body repair. You don't have to stop completely but enjoy active rest – go for walks or jogs, do some yoga, work with weights.
► Exercise Surrounding Muscles – If you bench press progress slows, it could be that your secondary muscles that help lift the weights are weak (such as the shoulders and triceps). Reduce your reps and sets on the bench and use other exercises on your shoulders and triceps to build strength.
Can't break your best time in the 10 km or 5 mile event, or the half/full marathon? Then it is time to change your training program. Many runners train over the same distance, on the same route, at a constant speed, monitoring their time for each session. But you need to mix it up to break through your runner's plateau. The following tips may help.
The response required is very similar to that for running - Rest, variety and changing your program.
► Leave the tracking watch or iphone apps, off for a few days, and simply reconnect with the joys of bike riding.
► Pick a different scenic route without any concern about how hard or easy it might be.
► Ride freely without caring about the pace and enjoy the views, the open air, the sunshine and the general joys of riding for a couple of days.
► For example, if you can cycle at an average pace of 20 mph for 30 minutes example, increase your cycling speed to 22 mph for 30 minutes during your next riding session. Keep doing the pace surges until they become comfortable and then add five minutes at a time, gradually at the faster pace.
► Then start a new routine by increasing the target speed to 24 mph. Do it initially for 30 minutes and then increase the length of time gradually over a week. Finding a 'challenging and fun environment' in which to do these workout. Don't forget to include rest and recovery days.