My Top Tips For Breaking A Fitness Plateau
If you're over the age of 25, you've probably experienced some sort of fitness plateau in your life. What does this mean? This is the point in which what you once did or currently doing for fitness just isn't working anymore. There are many many reasons why your fitness may have stalled. Luckily, there are ways to bounce back once you've figured out why you're stuck.
And guess what...
Age Is Not Why You Plateaued
I hear quite often, "I am getting older, I won't respond the same way I once did". Although this is partially true, it's not a reason to accept the state that you're in. Here is why:
Fitness is on a continuum. And I am using the general word "fitness" but you can insert whatever your goal is.. strength, running, yoga, you get my point.
You are NEVER going to be in a "maintaining" state. There is no such thing in fitness. You are always either moving to the right or you're moving to the left. Even on the scale, what you may weigh on the scale in the morning will look different at night. You can never remain xxx pounds and maintain it even in a short 24 hours.
This means, if you're not moving right on the spectrum, then you are moving left. You will have cycles and seasons that both happen, but the plateau happens when you feel you're not moving forward at all. No matter how hard you try, you're only moving backward.
As you can see, there are no limits or scales on this contiunum. So it does not mean that once you hit a certain age, you only moving backward. This is because goals change, lifestyles change, and your body changes. Just ike with everything else, you adapt therefore your expectation needs to adapt too.
Here's an example:
Example 1: Amanda at 18 vs Amanda at 28 (10 years older)
When I was 18, my goal was to run fast 5Ks. To accomplish this, I ran a lot of fast 2-3 mile runs on the treadmill. I was moving right, because I was getting faster.
At age 18, I could not lift weights even half my bodyweight. I didn't do yoga therefore my hips were really tight and always sore. I wasn't strong. But I was fast. So on the continuum, I was still moving right.
Now at 28 years old, my goals have changed to becoming stronger, running fast half marathons (quadruple the mileage) and doing yoga for my mental health. Since growing and adapting within that 10 year span, I have grown much slower at my 5K's, but have successfully completed five half marathons, can deadlift more than I weigh, and can do headstands and backbends in yoga. I am still moving right on the spectrum, even though I am now slower at running 5K's.
Age doesn't define your fitness level. You define your fitness level. You decide your goals, your effort level to achieving your goals, and how hard you work during those efforts.
So now that we got that out of the way, I will not accept age as a factor of plateauing.
Why You Might Have Plateaued + How To Come Back
If you have plateaued, you most likely fall into one of the catefogies below. Read through the descriptions and what it will take to move the needle to the right again.
YOU HAVE DONE THE SAME WORKOUTS FOR YEARS, WITHOUT CHANGING ANY VARIABLES
This person has done the same workout videos, used the same 10lb dumbbells and ran the same 3 mile route..... for years. In my personal training career, I have come across this many many times with middle age females who were somewhat hesitant to change. "This has always worked for me", "I only work with the 10's", "Stop running? I could never, I'll pack on weight".
This person is all about routine and loves it, until they realize that their routine isn't doing much for them. It's not made them stronger, faster, lose weight or feel better. It's only "comfortable".
Just as a chameleon adapts to their environment, you do too. By placing the same stress on your body without a scheduled change, your body will adapt and adjust. If you aren't modifying your intensity, your body will grow and sooner or later, won't be working as hard. It's almost like your body expects the 3 mile run every other day, and you know exactly how 10lb bicep curls feel and can hold complete conversation doing them. This is not going to move the needle to the right on the continuum.
How to come back: Change your workout variables. Variables can mean many things like repetitions, sets, weight being used, dumbbells versus kettlebells, or tempo. Chose only one or two variables, and change the workout stimulus. Typically, I would see these middle aged women do 3 sets of 15 repetitions of 10lb dumbbell squats. I would change two variables, repetitions and weight used, to make this workout challenge their system again. Instead, I'd have her do 3 sets of 6 repetitions with a 20lb dumbbell. We cut the repetitions in half, doubled the weight, and focused on strength. I would change the running workout too. Instead of doing a 3 mile run twice a week, she would do one run consisting of sprints. She'd go to a RPE of 7 for one minute, and walk for two minutes, and repeat these 8 times. Since she was very conditioned to run for 3 miles at an RPE of 4, this workout tested her limits and her speed. She was running for less overall time, but the workout was tackling a variable she was neglecting: speed.
YOU HAVE RESTRICTED FOR YEARS AND CAN'T CUT MORE CALORIES
Me: "Tell me your "day in the life" in eating terms"
Client: " I wake up and do a fasted workout with just coffee and water. When I get home, I shower but normally try to wait until 11 to have my first meal. At 11, I nibble on carrots, a cheese stick, and a hard boiled egg. When I get home, I make a salad with chicken, hold the cheese and croutons, add the vegetables and no dressing because too many calories. I allow myself one square of dark chocolate and a glass of wine".
Me: "So, what about your other meals?"
This person is lucky if they consumed 1,000 calories. And this person has done the same thing for years. When I hear the client has skipped breakfast then chose a salad for dinner with comments on calories, I get concerned.
If this is you, you've probably dealt with plateaus by cutting even more calories. You're at a point where if you cut more calories, you'll fall asleep at your work desk.
This is not the life you want to live, nor are you hitting any physical goals.
Similar to the situation above, your metabolism adapts to its' circumstances. If you restrict calories for so long, your metabolism learns to live on a very low calorie diet. Eventually, you will stop losing weight and possibly begin gaining weight. By restricting calories, you're stressing your body which releases cortisol. Cortisol, the stress hormone, can be overproduced and cause weight gain/belly fat. This is a sign that your low calorie lifestyle is pushing you left on the continuum.
How to come back: You need to eat more calories and start reverse dieting. Reverse dieting is a concept where you eat more calories to rev up your metabolism and get your body in a spot of weight maintenance on a higher calorie diet. You will most likely put on a bit of weight, and if not strength training, fat too. However, for you to go through a successful cut, you must first allow your body to eat again. Reverse dieting needs to be tailored to you and your body, so be sure to work with a nutrition specialist on this. Please email email@example.com for more interest in reverse dieting and how this can work for you.
It will also be mentally difficult to allow yourself to eat more. Remember, that your body needs calories to live. You will feel better, perform better in the gym, and ultimately look better as you gain muscle.
YOU HAVE OVER-EXERCISED FOR YEARS AND "RUINED" YOUR METABOLISM
Over exercising can be pretty disguised, but one you realize you fall under that category it's probably done some damage. There are many signs of over exercising (also known as orthorexia). If you're constantly getting injured, your body is telling you it's' not recovering well enough. If your sleep is taking a toll, you might be producing too much cortisol stress hormone from exercising. If your hunger is ravenous constantly, your body is telling you it needs more energy to keep up with the work demands.The biggest sign of over exercising is loosing your menstrual cycle. This is the bodies' way of saying it now cannot produce a period because of the stress it is under. You will never progress in the gym if your hormones aren't balanced, you're too fatigued from lack of sleep, and you're always injured. You will absolutely plateau.
How to come back: It's simple, but not easy: dial back your frequency and your intensity. This might mean cutting strength training from 6 days a week to 3, or walking for cardio instead of running. This could mean your intention at the gym goes from "go hard or go home" to easier, resistance based exercises with longer rest between sets.
This might sound like with these changes, you will not progress. But think about it:
Less injuries= less time off from training= more results
Better sleep= more alert and energized= better workouts
Normal hunger ques and satiety= keeps proper calories goals and deficits= able to lose weight without being hungry
Normal menstrual cycles= normal hormones= less fat storage and cortisol spikes
Over exercising could be causing you to plateau. Don't get caught in this trap!
YOU HAVE TRAINED WITH THE SAME GOAL FOR YEARS, WITHOUT CHANGING YOUR TRAINING FOCUS
Typically, this person is chasing a physique goal and has never trained for anything other than aesthetics. If you find yourself plateauing after training the same hypertrophy, tempo, barbell and machine-based exercises.. this might be a sign you should shift your focus. When your body has hit that building muscle-burning fat- wall, it may be because it has adapted to the types of stress and load you've been doing for years.
How to come back: Follow these steps to change your goals with a purpose, rhyme and reason:
#1 Go through a movement assessment with another fitness professional. This could look like working with a trainer who takes you through the functional movement analysis (FMS) and addresses any imbalances you may have. Often times, those training aesthetics will ignore areas of weakness and work on their strengths. The FMS is designed to point out shoulder impengiments, hip imbalances, core weaknesses, and many others.
#2 Once you've found areas that are not quite "up to speed", shift your focus of your workouts to better these areas. This could mean, instead of deadlifting in a body-building style routine, you work on single leg, bodyweight glute bridges. You may notice that one side is extremely weaker than the other. Taking time to address this issue will result in a better, more mobile hip and stronger deadlift in the future. These minor tweaks and help make a BIG impact on your physique goals and get you out of the plateau.
#3 Let's say you don't have any discrepancies but still want to change your focus in the gym. Then, I would ask you to think about what is important to your day-to-day life. Do you play tennis? Are you a hiker? Do you have grandkids that have tons of energy? These lifestyle factors are great implications on how to train in the gym. If you love to play golf, why are you try to bench press your max weight? Maybe it's time to focus on a more powerful swing and implement cable chops, medicine ball twists, and core engaging exercises.
Changing your goal in the gym to something that is more applicable, and most important, different than what you're currently training, might be just what you need to move the needle to the right.
YOU CHANGE YOUR WORKOUT UP EVERY SESSION, NOTHING IS EVER THE SAME
I've trained many people who love "a different workout every session!" After all, we must keep our muscles confused right? This is fake news. If you're not following a program with proper progressions (this is all the change your muscles need), then you will never see impactful results. Once a week spin classes or a HIIT class every now and again won't change your physique. One single group fitness class won't move the needle at all. Your body needs to see repetition to see results. Think about practicing the movement until your body adapts and grows. This is why strength training is very beneficial; practicing 65lb barbell squats will result in you adding to 75, then 85, then 95... each time you add on weight, your body is a different body.
Here's how to come back: Start a program that lays out your next 12-16 weeks in detail. This might mean a program you hire a trainer to create. Don't be upset when your Monday workout is the same for the next 4 weeks.That's because your trainer wants you to get better at Monday's workout and grow. Typically, a "phase" of training will be consistent same workouts for 4-8 weeks before your body will plateau and you need a new phase. This consistency proves to work time and time again. Stay the course.
YOU'RE ON... THEN YOUR OFF (INCONSISTENT)
We've all been this person, but this is the worst habit to have when trying to see results. You will never move the needle if you have "one good week" then "one bad week". I tell my clients, if you workout 3x a week with me, majority of your week is still sedentary. You must workout on your own with homework, low intensity steady state cardio, or yoga to hit 80% of your week with movement.
How to come back: Start a program. A program is the best way to stay on track with your goals and not deviate from a plan. Once your plan is made with your trainer, schedule out time each day to devote to your workout, your meal prep, or your meditation. Whatever the day's task is needs to be just as important as your work commitments and family life. If you don't take care of yourself first, how can you give 100% to other areas of your life?
So, What Do You Do Now?
The next step for you to take is decide where you fall in these categories and make the required changes. This can be hard and uncomfortable to do on your own. But with support, it becomes much easier. IF you are unsure where to begin, I highly recommend reaching out to me or speak with a certified personal trainer (not an instagram influencer) on your personal journey and create a plan. I promise you, you did not ruin your metabolism nor should accept the "only moving backwards" fate. You can and will achieve your dreams but you must work smarter, not necessarily harder.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org for personal training, nutrition consultations and programming.