Hitting a fitness plateau can be one of the most discouraging situations for any gym-goer. It can also be one of the hardest challenges to pinpoint with so many contributing factors. Plateaus have taken many off of the path to reaching their goals, and while they are inevitable, they don’t have to be the end result. Here are 5 ways to beat the stage you’re in and take your training to the next level.
Up The Intensity
You’d be surprised what mixing up your program can do for your results. Too much routine is the enemy of change and growth, just like life, your body has to get out of its comfort zone, out of the familiar before it can improve. You can only loft so much weight or run so many miles before your body adjusts to the stress, and remember: the body only adapts to what it’s required to, nothing more.
Varying the intensity of each workout is a powerful way to push through plateaus. For example, you could do two high-intensity workouts, 2 average intensity workouts, and 1 low-intensity workout in a week. Incorporating moderate and low intensity can offer the body time to recover from high-intensity training while providing enough volume throughout the week to produce results.
The intensity in these instances is not about the amount of effort you exert during the workout but the percentage of your 1 rep max (1RM). A high-intensity workout is usually in the ballpark of 85-100% of the 1RM (strength training), 70-85% is moderate (hypertrophy training), and low intensity is generally 50-70% (endurance training).
Switch Your Workout
I say this with all due respect: if you’re not changing your workout periodically, you aren’t going to improve. Without variation to your routine that plateau you may be facing will become extremely difficult to overcome. Not to mention it will sideline results and make your gym experience boring.
Plateaus happen when the body reaches homeostasis. The theory of General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) explains the process of homeostasis perfectly.
The body goes into the alarm phase in which it reacts drastically to stress brought about by the introduction of exercise. This is where beginners usually see the most progress. Because the body has never faced such levels of resistance, the increases in strength and muscle mass are substantial due to muscular, skeletal, and neuromuscular adaptation.
The next portion is the resistance phase. During this period, the body gets used to the external stress of the workout, enhancing the various systems at work. It doesn’t happen quickly but rather continues for long durations of time. Improvements can be experienced for months before the body completely adapts to it.
To prevent adaptation from sinking in, variation is essential. By creating a specific goal, you can break your workout program into long-term, macro-cycles of 12 months and then break them down into smaller, short-term micro-cycles of 6, 3, and 1 month periods. Within each micro-cycle, switching up the exercises and workout structure will prevent adaptation and ensure continued growth for longer periods of time. Adjusting sets and reps, incorporating compound movements, adding more exercises are all great places to start in varying each phase of your fitness journey.
Fuel Up Properly By Adjusting Nutrition
Food is more than just 3 square meals a day, but a fuel source capable of drastically enhancing performance. The difference between an athlete performing at the highest level and a casual gym-goer can come down simply to how they fuel up. There is a much greater chance of poor performance or lack of progress if you’re eating enough food with quality carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, or minerals.
The ratio and amount of food ultimately depend on the type of training, how often you do it, and what your overall goal is in the long and short term.
Carbohydrates in most cases should make up a large portion of your diet, as glycogen (sugars are broken down from carbohydrates) is the body’s most accessible source of energy. On top of the stores of glycogen in muscle tissue, you’ll likely need more carbohydrates while exercising if you do an hour+ of intense aerobic exercise. You can meet the body’s needs by consuming:
- Five to 10 ounces (150 to 300 milliliters) of a sports drink every 15 to 20 minutes
- Around two or three handfuls of crackers
- One-half to two-thirds cup of granola
If your energy reserves are depleted, you may have to replenish them with carbohydrates even after an intense workout.
- People who exercise or train for more than 90 minutes should eat or drink more carbohydrates (the body’s preferred energy source), possibly with protein, at a max of two hours after training.
- For workouts lasting less than 60 minutes, water is generally all that’s necessary.
Protein is important for muscle growth and to repair body tissues. Protein can also be used by the body for energy, but only after carbohydrate stores have been used up. Resistance training along with an abundance of protein is the best combination for protein synthesis and increases in muscle mass.
Hydration is one of the most important, yet overlooked nutrients for athletes. Water and fluids are essential to keep the body hydrated and at the right temperature. Your body can lose several liters of sweat in an hour of vigorous exercise.
Clear urine is a good sign that you have fully rehydrated. Some ideas for keeping enough fluids in the body include:
- Make sure you drink plenty of fluids with every meal, whether or not you will be exercising.
- Drink about 16 ounces (2 cups) or 480 milliliters of water 2 hours before a workout. It’s of the utmost importance to begin each workout with enough water in your body.
- Continue to sip water during and after you exercise, about 1/2 to 1 cup (120 to 240 milliliters) of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes.
- Be sure to drink even when you no longer feel thirsty.
Always remember; how you train is important in fitness, but how you recover is just as important.
And one of the only ways to recover properly is with a good night’s rest.
The body is always active to some degree, which means it is in a constant state of repair and maintenance. Hormonal balance, muscle tissue repair, toxin depletion, digestion; the body works non-stop to keep everything operational, all of which can only happen with quality sleep.
Breaking out of your training plateau will hinder how well you sleep and how much of it you get. Research is revealing that sleep is closely linked to performance in various forms of fitness.
In a cross-sectional study, researchers found positive associations between quality sleep and muscle strength within participants. They found that men who got less sleep (<6 hours of sleep) had poorer muscle strength than those who got 7-8 hours.
A lack of sleep does 2 things:
- Reduces the activity of protein synthesis pathways
- Increases degradation pathways
This alters the balance of anabolic and catabolic hormones creating a trend away from muscle building and protein synthesis. Both of these lead to a loss of mass, all the while preventing muscle recovery for damaged tissue after exercise.
As far as taking your results to the next level, it’s in your best interest to get as much quality rest as possible. Here are a few sleep tips to improve your fitness results:
- Try sleeping and waking up at set times: if getting adequate sleep is an issue, get in the habit of waking up and going to bed at consistent times. After a while, the body will get into the rhythm of a set schedule, even without the alarm.
- Switch up the sleeping environment: you’d be surprised by how many things in your bedroom can hinder your sleep; it could be how you arrange your furniture, the temperature, external lights, noise, television, clutter, etc. Try to arrange your bedroom in a way that is as clean, quiet, and relaxing as possible for improved sleep.
- Try not to eat too late in the evening: research has shown that eating late at night may have a less than ideal effect on sleep quality and the release of melatonin.
By incorporating these tips into your daily routine you’ll be surprised by how much not only your fitness results improve, but your overall health as well.