How to Break Through a Workout Plateau
by Evelyn Valdez·
Feeling stuck is the worst - especially when you're on a fitness or weight loss journey to attain a certain goal in a short amount of time. Not being able to see or make progress is frustrating and takes away your motivation to continue your training program. Although they're often called weight-loss plateaus, they happen to anyone training vigorously to obtain results, be it for - building muscle or fat loss.
Hitting that dreaded wall is the ultimate demotivator. You stop seeing results/improvements for a few weeks which leads to feeling as if your workouts are a waste and they become a chore that you end up hating which leads to quitting. We're here to tell you... Don't let that happen! You might not be able to avoid weight loss plateaus altogether, but there are ways to break through them! Knowing the right actions to take when plateaus happen will help you reach your next level of body composition and strength.
So keep on reading to learn everything about workout plateaus and how to deal with them so you can continue making progress!
WHAT IS A WEIGHT LOSS PLATEAU?
It's simply a period in which you are no longer making progress, which is why they're commonly known as workout plateaus. Progress could be muscle gain, weight loss, increase in strength, and overall performance. When you're just starting out with a new workout program like weight lifting, you'll notice that you get stronger and lose fat relatively quickly. But after a few months or so, once you're in the intermediate phase of weightlifting, the progress slows down. This is normal. The higher body fat percentage you have the easier it is to make progress and actually see results. That will eventually slow down, it can take around a month or so to increase in strength or see any visible progress.
So be aware, slow progress does not equal a workout plateau. If you're able to still do as many reps or sets before and lift the same weights, or are able to see and feel the results then you're making progress.
Here are signs that you've hit a plateau:
- Loss in overall strength and performance: Usually the decrease in performance is significant. You are no longer able to match the lifts you did before, nor increase the reps, sets, or weight.
- Lack of motivation + increased irritability: Your body feels tired and no longer has the same motivation to hit the weights as before. Typically when you start a new training program, you're pumped and excited for the first few weeks. If you notice a decline in your mood and notice that you’re feeling more irritable while training then your body is most likely overstressed.
- Decrease in appetite: The decrease in performance often happens because your body is tired and overworked. Well, even our muscle receptors get tired and no longer are as responsive to accepting calories. Your body is tired so it's working less efficiently which in turn leads to a sluggish metabolism.
What causes it?
The most common reason you might have hit a weight loss plateau is because your body has adapted to your exercise routine. Think of progressive overload - a common weightlifting tool used by those strength training. Progressive overload is the key to muscle growth. It works by using heavier weights or increasing the workout volume, this forces your muscles to work harder over time. If you're not practicing progressive overload or pushing your body to work a little harder each time, then the progress is going to slow down or stop completely.
On the other hand, overtraining can also lead to a plateau. Not getting adequate rest will always lead to frustrations and eventually a plateau. Many beginners and even intermediate lifters feel guilty for taking a full rest day, but it's necessary in order for your muscles to recover and grow. That's why rest days are an essential part of any good workout routine.
The last thing that can cause a weight loss plateau is poor nutrition. It doesn't matter if you want to lose body weight or gain muscle - you need to be eating enough (nutrient-dense foods)! Your body needs calories, protein, healthy carbohydrates and fats in order to get the energy it needs to crush your workouts and to recover.
So the bottom line is, not having a properly set up training program with adequate recovery time, and bad nutrition can all lead to hitting a fitness rut.
WAYS TO BREAK THROUGH ANY PLATEAU
If you've hit a complete wall, then the best way to break through it is by identifying what is causing it. Are you training hard enough? Or are you just doing the same routine week after week? How's your nutrition? Are you getting enough sleep and rest days? These are all questions you need to ask yourself...
Once you know the cause then you know exactly which of these tips you need to follow. But if you still don't know what's causing it, try a few of these tips and see if you notice any changes.
Increase training intensity
The body adjusting to a workout routine is one of the main causes of plateaus. This issue tends to happen to beginners and some intermediate weightlifters. Starting a new strength training program is difficult at first, but as time goes by the body adjusts to the new movements. The best way to tell if you've adjusted to your routine is by listening to your body - are you breezing through your workout with no issue? Not sweating as much as before? If you track your heart rate, check the stats and compare your recent workout stats to the ones when you first started. If you noticed any of those differences then it's time to increase the intensity.
Increasing the intensity of your workout doesn't mean you have to make huge changes. All it takes is a small change. Like switching from using only machines to using free weights, and from free weights to barbell exercises. You're still doing the same exercises, but the equipment you use makes a difference in the intensity. Barbell exercises are much harder than dumbbell exercises, so although you're doing the same exercise, the intensity is slightly increased.
Usually, when you've hit a plateau it can be hard to increase the weight or push through and do 5 more reps. But what you can do is change the strategy! Play around with the number of reps and sets you do. Like if you normally do three sets of 10-12 reps then change it up! Increase it to four sets of 10-12 reps, even doing an extra set with a lighter weight will make a small difference and help you continue to progress.
Another strategy you can try is to perform the exercise with the heaviest weight you can do, but decrease the reps. So instead of the usual low weight and high reps, do this instead: Perform 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps using a heavier weight than you're used to. The weight you choose depends on your current fitness level. The right weight should be tough to lift, but you should be able to do it with proper form throughout the exercises. You might struggle the last 1-2 reps, but don't worry, that's the sweet spot. You're working less, but you're lifting only heavy weights which makes your muscles work harder.
The key is to make a small change in your workout like using different (more difficult) equipment or try a new rep/sets strategy - lighter weight, more reps or heavy weight, fewer reps. It all boils down to doing enough volume with enough intensity to increase full-body strength.
When it comes to cardio, keep the same progressive overload principle in mind. You want to push yourself a little bit harder. This can be sprinting for an extra minute, aiming to cut down on your mile time, or even making your HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout a little longer. The point is, aim to work a little harder than you did in your last training session.
Add variety to your fitness routine
If you're having trouble increasing the intensity then variety is the next thing to try! Variety in a fitness routine is just as important as increasing the intensity. So don't be afraid to change things up!
If your workout routine has been the same for over a month then try something new. Incorporate new types of workouts into your routine. If your main focus is on weight lifting try to incorporate a cardio-focused day once a week. Try a HIIT workout, running, cycling - Find a cardio workout you enjoy and do it. It can be incorporated into your routine as an 'active rest day'. So on the days you're not lifting, do some cardio. If your main focus is on cardio, take a step back and implement resistance training in your routine. Hitting the weights actually benefits your weight loss efforts because as muscle mass increases, so does your metabolic rate. And a boost in your resting metabolic rate will help you burn calories even after you're working – a huge win-win!
Another way to change things up is by taking a break from exercises you've been constantly doing. Try new, more challenging variations or exercises that target the same muscle groups. Look for inspiration online for new exercises! For example, often people correlate building the glutes with squats so they focus on that one exercise. But that's not the only exercise that helps build glutes, there are more difficult variations and different exercises that can build them and other muscle groups as well, like, deadlifts (there are so many variations), Bulgarian split squats, goblet squats, etc. So look around for exercises that intimidate you and give them a try!
However, be careful with how often you change your workout routine. Changing things too often can also lead to poor results! To find your sweet spot, check out our article on >> How Often You Should Change Your Workout Routine to Maximize Results.
Adjust your diet
You can't outrun a bad diet! Or in the case of weight training, you can't lift your way out of a bad diet 😂
Food is what fuels our bodies, but it's important to fuel yourself with the right foods. A healthy well-balanced diet that provides your body with all the proper nutrients and vitamins is key for muscle growth and sustainable energy. Every workout routine needs a healthy eating meal plan that is based on what your goals are - weight loss, building muscle, and maintaining. So if you're not already tracking your macronutrients, then do that first!!! Use a macro calculator to figure out exactly how much you need to eat for your goals. A macro calculator accounts for important information like activity level, goals, body fat percentage, and more to give you as accurate results as possible. After, you'll know exactly the number of calories and macros (protein, carbs, fats) you need to eat to get the results you want.
If you are already tracking, are you hitting your macros? You have to make sure that you're consistently eating the right amount of calories, protein, and carbs to help fuel your body for workouts and to refuel your muscles for them to repair and grow. Not eating enough consistently can put a halt to your training. Even if your goal is to lose weight, you need to make sure you're eating enough. If you notice you're lacking a lot of protein, use a protein supplement to help! You can incorporate a protein powder into your daily diet to increase your protein intake, and add in your favorite fruits and veggies to increase your nutrient intake.
And don't forget to recalculate your macros to make progress! After losing a decent amount of weight, there's a lot less of you so your body burns significantly fewer calories each day. Make it a habit to recalculate your macros every few weeks to see if you need to adjust the calorie intake. Neglecting to do so can lead you to unknowingly overeat which can lead to weight gain.
So, if you're having trouble making progress, think about your nutrition and the changes you need to make in order to make the progress you want.
Focus on things outside of the gym and kitchen
Your workout plateau might not even have to do with your workout or meal plan... It might have to do with outside factors, like not getting good sleep. Not getting enough sleep and high-stress levels can have a huge impact on your results. First, your body works hard to recover during the deep sleep phase. This means that if you're not sleeping enough or if your sleep is constantly interrupted then chances are your body is not getting the time it needs to recover. Good sleep regulates your hormone levels, including cortisol (the stress hormone) and ghrelin (helps control appetite), cleans out waste from your cells, and helps your body effectively respond to insulin so that your cells can easily use glucose for energy.
The second important thing to manage outside of working out and eating healthy is managing your stress levels. Believe it or not, stress can impact your results and could very be a reason for your weight loss stall - in fact, we wrote an article all about how stress can derail your weight loss efforts! High cortisol levels are unavoidable, but having them constantly high can lead to many unpleasant effects, including fatigue, irritability, and insulin resistance. The worst part is, it can even slow down your metabolism, increase your cravings, and increase your risk of gaining abdominal fat.
So, take your stress and rest very seriously! Make sure to set a good nighttime routine that helps you get better sleep at night, and practice self-care to maintain your stress levels on the lower side. This will not only help reduce your risk of overeating and keep you aligned with your goals, but it will also improve your overall health.
Plan for a recovery week (or few days)
If none of the above tips do the trick then it might be a case of overtraining... And the solution to that is rest. In case you didn't know, rest is when muscle growth happens. Exercise breaks down the muscle tissue, and once you properly refuel and rest then that's when the magic happens!
So if you've been working out consistently for 6-8 weeks, and your body is clearly tired, you're feeling more irritable than usual, not getting enough sleep, then it's time to take a few days off from working out. A few days of rest isn't going to make all your progress disappear, in fact, it'll help you start making progress again once you go back! Taking a break will help ensure proper recovery and muscle repair, give your joints a break, and it'll have you feeling refreshed and motivated to start working out again! Plus, you don't have to completely stop all physical activity. Take a rest week, but incorporate low-impact movements like walking outdoors, yoga, and more.
Bottom line is, plateaus are going to happen so don't be hard on yourself. Just remember, you're going to have great training days followed by bad ones. On the good days make an effort to push yourself a little harder, or try something new. On bad days, scale it back and focus more on technique or even take a rest day to help you recenter yourself so the next day you're more focused and ready to crush it. Keep adapting and updating your fitness plan while making sure you're eating enough of the right foods, getting enough sleep, and managing your stress levels.
Hopefully, this information helps you identify what the cause is so you know exactly what changes you need to make to bust through your plateau and continue crushing it 💪
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