What does it mean to reach a plateau?
If you open up a dictionary or perhaps more appropriately for modern times a dictionary app, you will find two primary definitions:
1. a large flat area of land higher than other areas of land that surround it
2. a period when something does not increase or advance any further
While hiking up Mount Everest you might be relieved to reach a plateau as it stands in the first definition. However when it comes to reaching the peak of your physical fitness, encountering a plateau, the point where progress no longer continues to exist, can be morally devastating.
We have all been there before -- frequented visits to the gym staled by the absence of results. The numbers on the scale no longer decrease, strength no longer increases, and endurance fails to improve. An overwhelming feeling of hopelessness settles in as we mentally prepare ourselves for complacency. You might find yourself saying, I guess this is as good as it gets.
Not only do I personally experience this in my own workouts but I also often hear complaints from clients and friends alike who struggle to see continued results after weeks and weeks of working out.
In the world of fitness, hitting a plateau is just an indication that your body has made the necessary adaptations to meet the demands imposed by your workouts. Stated otherwise, bodybuilding competitor and NYC personal trainer Travis Lamboy explains, "plateaus can occur after about a month or two when your body has learned what you bring to the table." The 'learning' that Travis refers to is the physical change that occurs within your body in order to execute the exercises. These changes are what we recognize as results, whether it is increased endurance, weight loss, or improved strength.
For example, let's say you have been on a lengthy workout hiatus. Suddenly a newly developed struggle to button up your favorite pair of jeans serves as a reminder that you can't eat a box of Oreos, not work out, and not gain weight. Your motivation to exercise has been rekindled so you dust off your gym membership card and start a new routine.
During the first few weeks your body is going to develop additional muscle and shed excess fat in order to support the sudden increase in activity. These physical changes are the bodies' response to the new stimulus of activity beyond sitting on the sofa, watching TV, and eating Oreos. The gratification of these initial results is what motivates most people.
The problem is, once your body no longer finds your current workout routine challenging, the results stop coming. A plateau is reached. "Our bodies are lazy and only want to work as hard as they have to," says Travis. In order to see additional improvements you need to stimulate the muscles in a different way.
If you are a runner it could mean running more mileage or, running the same mileage at a faster pace. It could also mean making the change from a slow steady long distance run to doing several short quick sprints. Depending on how long you have been running for, it might even be necessary to supplement some of your running routines with a weight workout.
The same principle applies to strength increases, weight loss, and muscle gains. After weeks of doing the same exercises and repetition schemes, the results stop coming. For those attempting to get bigger and stronger, you cannot do three sets of 10 reps on bench press at 185 pounds the rest of your life, and expect for the chest to magically grow. Likewise, jogging three miles on the treadmill at a 9-minute mile pace can only produce results for so long. Eventually the body adapts.
To minimize the occurrence of a plateau Travis recommends changing your exercise routine every three to four few weeks. "Reevaluate your workout regiment and change your approach to something more challenging. Something you're not used to doing or, that one exercise you hate the most."
Change is difficult and so are new challenges. The discomfort and pain felt while attempting something new and uneasy requires a bit of mental resolve. I can't count the number of times I've had clients give me an evil glare when I add more weight to a lift, or ask them to execute an exercise progression that is more difficult than what they think they can do.
In order to provoke a new response the changes do not have to be drastic. For example, if you are working on increasing your squat strength and have been doing 225 pounds for three sets of 10 reps (the most common rep scheme), try doing four sets of eight with 235 pounds. This small adjustment will increase both the load and the volume placed on your body. "You are making the body work harder" says Travis, "and working the body harder is going to help bring the external results that we all look for."
Once you have accomplished your fitness goal it is okay to continue the same routine in an attempt to maintain the results. Until then, be sure to periodically challenge yourself with different types of muscle stimulation -- changing rep schemes, increasing the weight, running faster, or running longer.
If you have already achieved a high level of fitness, you might consider switching to an entirely new type of workout. Alternate between swimming, biking, or running in order to tap into muscle groups and energy systems that you miss by only participating in one of these activities.
Maintaining optimal health and fitness is a life-long journey. Changing your routine can help prevent you from hitting both a fitness and mental plateau. Adding variety to your workouts will provide mental stimulation and keep the workouts fun. More importantly, in regards to fitness plateaus, the varying physical stimulation will produce tangible results as the body is forced to adapt.