Avoiding the Dreaded Plateau

Tuesday, March 02, 2010 | 0 comments »

By Team Beachbody

At some point in any exercise program it’s unavoidable, the dreaded plateau. All the progress you’ve been making suddenly stops. You aren’t getting stronger, faster, firmer, and your up-‘til-this-point rapid weight loss (or gain) has stagnated. So far as you can see nothing has changed. You’re eating the same, sleeping the same, and exercising just the same way you were when things were going great. Which of course begs the question or, more appropriately, the frustrated cry of, "what in the world has gone wrong?"

The simple answer is … nothing. This is how your body is supposed to work. It resists change because it’s a survival mechanism. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it. Better yet, it doesn’t mean that you have to stand for it. Here is a brief rundown of what is happening and what you can do to change it.

It’s part of the body’s natural process to hit a plateau because it’s always trying to regulate itself. Your body is a creature of habit. To maximize any exercise routine, you need to break habits from time to time. Most athletes train in 4 to 6 week blocks where they work on one energy system: capillarity, endurance, power, etc. Within these few weeks you usually see an adaptive phase, where the body learns how to do the new set of exercises. This is followed by a growth phase, when the body is responding to these exercises and is changing. When graphed it looks like a ski slope because you’re making rapid changes. Once your body gets good (or efficient) at these exercises, they don’t cause as much trauma and you begin to get less effect out of the same program. The “ski slope” begins to level off and starts to resemble a plateau. If this program is continued the line will go completely flat, or even start to dip the other way because of overuse.

Let's use Power 90® as an example:

Power 90® is broken up into 4 phases. While you only change your actual workout once throughout the period, each phase has an adaptive phase and an overload phase that looks a bit like this:

Phase I: Adaptive phase. Your body gets used to the movements and schedule.Phase II: Growth phase. You are now used to the exercises and can push much harder. Resistance (weight) is added to the Sculpt workouts and you get better at the cardio movements as you start to master it.Phase III: Another adaptive phase when you get used to the change in workouts.Phase IV: Another growth phase. Resistance should be added continually throughout Power 90®.

Most sound fitness programs follow some similar type of plan. However, this alone does not keep plateaus from occurring. They can and will affect everyone that engages in any exercise program, from couch potato to Olympian. In fact, the more finely tuned your body is the harder it is to avoid plateaus, mainly because there is less margin of error to play with. But even though they are a natural part of the process, it does not mean that we have to give in to them. At some point along your fitness path you are likely to encounter a plateau. Here are 5 tips to help you snap out of it.
  1. Back off for a week. This doesn’t mean to not exercise, it just means that if you ease up a bit, you’ll likely recover and get stronger. Often times your body is overtrained, exhausted, and just in need of a break. If you are finding it suddenly difficult to get through a workout that was easy the week before, then this is most likely the case. You want to cut down on your intensity and focus on technique and flexibility. It’s a perfect time for some yoga or a program like Ho’ Ala ke Kino. Another option would be to lower your workout weight or go backwards for week, like to Phase I/II or Start it Up. Gauge this so that you finish workouts feeling refreshed rather than knackered. When your energy level returns, launch back into your workouts harder than you were before.
  2. Turn the screw a notch. The antithesis of the above. Sometimes you need to go the other direction and find a way to ramp things up. The easiest way to do this is by adding resistance. Change bands or add weight so that you start failing at around 8 reps on all of the exercises. This will mean you need to constantly change resistance during each workout. Strive to take this new weight back to 15 reps on all exercises. This added intensity will force your body to adapt and turn that improvement line skyward again.
  3. Streamline your diet. It’s time to stop slacking off. If you’ve been giving yourself little rewards for a job well done (a good idea in general), then it’s time to stop. Get serious. Pretend you’re a fitness guru, like Tony or Debbie, and cut out the junk in your diet. And, of course, remember to make sure that you are getting enough protein. Broken down muscle tissue needs protein to re-build.
  4. Add some morning cardio. 20 minutes or more of easy to moderate level cardio in the morning on an empty stomach can have your metabolism steamrollin’ once again. You can actually train your body to more efficiently use stored fat as fuel and this is one of the easiest ways to do it.
  5. Cut out 500 calories per day. If everything else seems fine and you’re at wit’s end, then try this. Make sure that you’re cutting out either junk or food across the board (proteins, fats, and carbs) because when restricting calories you need to be very careful about getting all of your nutrients (make sure to take your vitamins). But 500 calories per day works out to 3,500 per week, and that’s a pound without any other changes at all! Keep in mind that this will only work if you are eating properly. If you’re already on an ultra low-calorie diet then this is not an option. Those who are stuck on very low-cal diets are more likely to see results by adding calories and following steps one through four, because they need to bring their metabolisms back towards normal.