Plateau: How to break out of it with a few simple tweaks
Photo CreditWhether your goal is fat loss or muscle gain, as a beginner everything seems to work great for you. You will be losing weight at a constant rate. The size of your muscle increases. The poundage in every exercise is steadily increasing. You feel stronger after every workout session. Your goals seem achievable in a relatively shorter duration than you expected.
But then, after a couple of months nothing seems to work. Your progress comes to a screeching halt.
You start to wonder why you aren’t getting the results like earlier. You haven’t changed anything- your workouts are regular and you follow your diet religiously.
This is when you realize, you have hit the dreaded plateau, which every veteran in the gym was talking about.
What is a plateau?
It’s the time when your progress becomes stagnant and even after doing everything right- exercise regularly, adequate nutrition and proper rest and recovery, the numbers don’t move.
Even after a week or two, when you see no changes in the results, you may start to wonder if something is wrong with your routine.
From losing weight/gaining strength every week to absolutely no progress for a couple of weeks or even a month, makes you feel discouraged and disheartened or even doubt yourself.
Reasons you hit a plateau- The initial increase in strength you felt at the beginner level was not the actual improvement of your strength. You were merely getting better at the movement and your body was learning how to use your existing strength.
After this initial phase, the poundage that was constantly increasing by 5 lbs per week stops and it becomes difficult for you to add more weights at the same rate. From the intermediate level, the strength gain is truly because of hypertrophy (increase in muscle size) and its pace will be much slower than the beginner level.
This is due to the adaptive nature of the human body. As you probably know the increase in the muscles and the strength is a direct response to the stress put on that muscle by the exercise. After a certain period of time, the body gets accustomed to the stress and the stress put on by the same level of exercise intensity is not a stress anymore.
Same goes for fat loss as well. It’s easier to reduce the fat initially but the more you lose fat the more difficult it will get to continue the fat loss process at the same rate. If you follow the same calorie deficit diet for a long time, your metabolism decreases and your body goes into energy conservation mode, which means your body will expend less energy and tend to store more fat. This is called metabolic adaptation.
Signs of the plateau- The first question you have to ask yourself is that if you have really hit a plateau or you just feel like it, as the progress is not happening at the same rate as before.
Are you compliant with your exercise and nutrition plan? After a few weeks of strict adherence of the plan, most people start slacking away. As the results slow down the motivation and excitement of seeing great results also comes down.
You stop pushing yourself as hard.
Cutting out on an exercise here and there.
Skipping the last reps and stopped challenging yourself.
Cheat meals have become more frequent.
Not getting adequate sleep needed for recovery and growth.
Most of the times what seems like a plateau is actually you derailing from your goals.
To overcome this, start diligently tracking your exercise and meal plan. For the next few weeks keep a record of all the workout and meals and see if your progress is back on track.
So you have actually hit a plateau!
If you do everything perfectly and still see no improvement then that’s a plateau.
Don’t be scared of the plateau. It’s actually a good sign. It shows that you have mastered all the basics of exercise and nutrition like perfecting your form and technique and learning how to eat clean.
Now, it’s time for you to leave your beginner status and move towards the advanced level (gym rat, health freak)
Now along with your body you have to start using your head to see some real progress.
Journey beyond the plateau
Now we get down to serious business. To move forward in your journey from this point on, you have got to figure out a good strategy otherwise even if you get out of a plateau without knowing how you did it, you are preparing yourself for the next plateau which you will be hitting soon.
Here are a few strategies that work
Take a break- The first thing you should do is take a step back and reflect on the progress you have made so far. A week off from the gym will give you the time needed to recharge your batteries.
Resting doesn’t mean sitting on the couch all day eating junk. Go for a walk, do meditation or get involved in some fun activities. It’s called active resting.
Tweak (not Tweet) your diet- If you are on a fat loss diet; cutting your calories too much and feeling hungry all the time, then the diet will not give you a sustained result. You don’t have to count or weigh every calorie. Adjust the ratio of macronutrients. Add more fibrous carbs (veggies) and healthy fat. Increase the amount of protein. Follow two low calories day by a high calories day. Play around with the food combinations and see what works for you the best.
Your only focus is the weighing scale- If your goal is fat loss and you are only focusing on the numbers of the weighing scale then you are not looking at the bigger picture.
The weight on the scale fluctuates a lot depending on a number of factors like when and how much you eat or how much water you drank before weighing. Reduction in weight is not the only indication of fat loss.
You are overtraining (no rest and recovery)- When you see no results for a couple of weeks you might think the current workout routine is not enough and try to add more sets or more variations of different exercise. You might think increasing your workout time will also be a good idea. More is not always better. Workout creates microtrauma to muscle tissues which are then rebuilt to stronger muscle tissues during the resting phase. If you don’t allow proper rest, the recovery of the damaged cells will not be optimal and instead of progressing you might even digress.
Shock your muscles- Shocking the muscle is not the same as confusing the muscle by changing the order of the exercise or doing some new variations. Your muscles don’t have a brain to get confused.
Muscles only recognize the movement it is built for (flexion and extension). It doesn’t matter what variations you are doing, it will only respond to the stress experienced by that particular movement.
So to shock the muscle out of the plateau, you have to increase the intensity of the exercise by different methods.
Some of the effective methods are
Increase the poundage or reps- If your rep range is between 10 to 15 you can increase the poundage to create a greater microtrauma. If you are below the rep range of 8, then it’s better to try to increase a rep or two for a greater impact.
Reduce the time of each set- Maintaining the proper range of motion; if you can reduce the time to complete a particular set then you are increasing the intensity. Like if it takes approx. 20 sec for you to complete a set of squats then try to reduce the time to 16-17 sec.
You are having a lot of stress- Hormones play a significant role in how your body will respond to the workout and nutrition. If you are under a lot of pressure frequently then your body will be releasing a lot of stress hormones (Cortisol).
Your immune system will suffer greatly, you will feel tired all the time, your metabolism will decrease causing you to gain more fat, especially around your abdominal area. Your motivational level will also decrease.
All in all, you will feel like crap and that’s a perfect recipe to hit or even stay in a plateau.
Try to tackle the issue causing you stress. Have a more positive outlook towards life. Do meditation or yoga or some sort of deep relaxing activity.