6 Ways to Avoid a Plateau

Sunday, September 12, 2010 | 0 comments »

By Steve Edwards

Not a lot can dampen our enthusiasm as much as seeing our progress come to a halt. P90X is a hard program. And when we're working hard, we want to see results. But everyone who trains will hit an exercise plateau at some point, even those using something as meticulously crafted as P90X. Today we'll take a look at what to do when plateaus happen.

What is a plateau?

When we trainers, well, train people, we measure everything we do with graphs. The vertical plane usually measures improvement, while the horizontal plane measures time. We design programs with the aim of keeping the vertical line moving upward. When results taper off, the vertical line flattens. Our desired result is a line that looks like a steep slope. What we want to avoid is a line that looks like a plateau, or worse, one that goes back down.

P90X is already designed to keep you from hitting a plateau. The training blocks and the diet plan phases are both constructed for this exact purpose. Regardless, everyone hits a plateau eventually. By arming yourself with the knowledge of what causes a plateau, as well as possible solutions, you can minimize your time on the flat line.

Why do plateaus happen?

It's part of the body's natural process to hit a plateau because it's always trying to regulate itself. So basically, your body is always trying to plateau. We call this regulated state homeostasis. Your body's a creature of habit, but it doesn't care whether those habits are bad or good. The more you do something to enact change, the more your body adapts and tries to limit that change. This is a survival instinct—less stress is placed on your body. However, when you're unhealthy, your body is willing to call unhealthiness homeostasis. So the aim of an exercise program is to keep your body stressed.

We think of stress as bad, but we need it to be healthy. Stress causes our bodies to react. These reactions include releasing hormones that keep your body strong. This helps you fight the natural aging process. The key with stress is managing it. You want to stress yourself, but only enough so you can still recover from the process. When we're overstressed, it's a symptom we refer to in the fitness world as overtrained.

What is overtraining?

There's an old adage in the fitness world that goes something like this—it's credited to two fringe characters who referred to themselves as The Barbarian Brothers:
"There is no such thing as overtraining. There is only undereating, undersleeping, and failure of will."
From this statement, we could call overtraining underrecovering, and this would be accurate. But since athletes tend to be of the "more must be better" variety, overtraining is the term that stuck. No matter how you spin it, if we don't balance training, resting, and eating, we will stop making progress, no matter how hard we push ourselves.

Why we train in phases

Our programs are designed with phases to help you avoid overtraining. If you've been reading all the P90X newsletters, this section may be redundant, but it's important, so I'll briefly explain it again. For more detailed information, read "Customizing P90X for Specific Goals: Part I" in the Related Articles section below.

To get the most out of an exercise program, you need to break habits from time to time. This is why most training programs are broken up into phases or blocks that generally look something like this:
  • Foundation phase: Building base fitness; the time this takes varies per individual.
  • Adaptive phase: Learning to master the movements or cadence of a new workout program; takes between 1 and 12 weeks, depending on a program's intricacies and your fitness level.
  • Growth or Mastery phase: Once you've reached the growth or mastery phase, your body has a limited time to make accelerated performance gains; generally takes 1 to 4 weeks.
  • Recovery phase: When results level off, your body needs to recover from the stresses of hard training; generally takes 1 to 4 weeks.
Most athletes train in 3- to 6-week blocks, wherein they work on one energy system at a time. Each block is broken down into the phases listed above. At the end of each block, your body begins to plateau, which is a sign you should begin a recovery phase—a period of lower-level exercise designed to help your body peak its fitness level, either for an event or a new block of training.

The fitter you are, the quicker you adapt to new routines. This is why the structure of P90X is so different from Power 90®.
  • Phase I: Foundation phase. Power 90 begins with the 1–2 workouts. P90X begins with a fit test, which is a test to make sure your foundation is adequate for you to start the program. If it's not, we recommend you do Power 90 or an equivalent to build your foundation.
  • Phase II: Adaptive phase. This is where the biggest changes in the programs occur. Power 90 doesn't change its structure because it may take an untrained individual up to 12 weeks to adapt to any exercise. At the P90X level, adaptations are much quicker and will usually happen in a couple of weeks.
  • Phase III: Growth or Mastery phase. Once the body adapts to exercise, there's a short window wherein very rapid improvement occurs.
  • Phase IV: Recovery phase. Exercise intensity is reduced to allow microtrauma to heal. If timed correctly, fitness improves during this phase, until the body is recharged and ready to begin its next block of training. The recovery phase, which can also be called a transition phase, is a major part of P90X. In Power 90, due to the variable adaptive phase, there is no recovery phase built in.
Most sound fitness programs follow a similar plan. This alone does not keep plateaus from occurring. They affect everyone, from couch potato to Olympian, who engages in any exercise program. In fact, the more finely tuned your body is, the harder it is to avoid plateaus, mainly because there's less margin of error when your body is finely tuned.

What to do when plateaus happen

You're usually not sure why you've hit a plateau; otherwise, you wouldn't have hit it. Luckily, there are only a few possibilities.
  1. You've been training too hard.
  2. You haven't been training hard enough.
  3. You're not recovering (includes both eating and sleeping too little).
  4. You're eating too much.
Basically, you're in a plateau because you're doing too much or too little of something. If you're not working hard enough, you probably know that. If your diet is bad, you probably know that too. In fact, if this were the case, you probably didn't see results in the first place, so you're likely not plateauing—you just haven't gotten any results at all. For those "too-much" or "too-little" scenarios, here are the solutions most likely to work:
  1. Start off. First, you need to ask yourself if you did your program all the way through. With P90X especially, results don't always come hard and fast. The structure of P90X is designed to create a peak period near the end of the 12-week program. Because the program is so intense, it's likely you'll experience small peaks and valleys of improvement/decline over the first couple of months. You're not plateauing. It's adaptation to a new program. In fact, chances are you'd get better results early on with an easier program. This is because you'd quickly master that program. What you would lack is the high-end fitness you reach at the end of P90X that your body prepares for during the initial blocks. Those who revamp P90X to improve their results in the first 12 weeks are not allowing the program to do its job.
  2. Back off. This is the most common scenario; you can't stop bringin' it. Backing off doesn't mean you shouldn't exercise—it just means that if you ease up a bit, you'll likely recover and get stronger. The time frames of the P90X blocks are not set in stone. If you're finding it suddenly difficult to get through a workout that was easy the week before, you're probably working out too intensely. You should ease up your intensity and focus on technique and flexibility. When I suspect this is the case, I usually suggest you go straight into a recovery period until you feel normal. When you're this tired, gauge your workouts so you finish them feeling refreshed rather than knackered. When your energy level returns, you can launch back into your original program even harder than before.
  3. Turn it up a notch. Or you can try the antithesis of #2, because a plateau may also happen if you're bored and/or listless. The best way to increase intensity is by adding resistance. Change bands or add weight so you start failing at a targeted number of reps (depending on your goals) on all of the exercises, which changes the focus of the energy system you're using. This added intensity will force your body to adapt and turn that improvement curve skyward again. You'll know if this was the right tactic because you'll either respond by feeling energized or you'll hardly be able to finish the workout. If it's the latter, try step #1 or #6.
  4. Streamline your diet. Most diets could use a little improvement. If you've been giving yourself little rewards for a job well done (a good idea in general), then try some withholding. Eat very cleanly and strictly for a week and see what happens. If you feel better, you've found the culprit. If your plateau continues, move to either step #1 or #5.
  5. Add some morning cardio. Twenty to 40 minutes or more of easy to moderate cardio in the morning on an empty stomach can help get your metabolism steamrolling again. You can train your body to use stored fat more efficiently as fuel, and this is one of the easiest ways to do it. This is a good tactic to try if you're having trouble streamlining your diet and have an abundance of extra energy.
  6. Add or subtract calories. Dynamic caloric requirements are a reality of a program as hard as P90X. As you become fitter, your body composition changes, so your calorie requirements change. Adding calories is one of the main ways our customers get themselves off plateaus. Adding 500 calories per day works out to 3,500 per week, which equates to a pound. But this doesn't mean you'll gain or lose a pound. You may simply need the extra energy to keep fueling your now-much-fitter body. Keep in mind that this will only work if you're eating proper nutrients. If not, try step #4 first, and then try altering the number of calories you're eating. The best way to add or subtract calories is to zigzag them up or down. Instead of simply adding/subtracting the calories all at once, do it every other day while continuing to follow your current eating pattern. This will not only help your body adjust easier, but you'll begin to feel how the different amounts of energy you're consuming affect your performance. Five hundred is not a magic number. If 300 (or 600) feels better, then go with that. Your body will usually tell you what it needs, if you can learn how to read its signals.