YOU’VE PROBABLY HEARD of the dreaded weight-loss plateau that can occur when your weight-loss progress becomes stagnant even though your newly stellar eating habits haven’t changed. Well, a similar phenomenon can occur with exercise: Whether you’re trying to build muscle strength or definition or boost aerobic endurance or power, you can reach a point where you stop seeing progress or benefits, especially if you do the same workouts day after day.
“The body has an amazing capacity to adapt,” says Cedric X. Bryant, chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise. “But when it’s exposed to the same type of training stimulus time after time, you’ll see some loss in response to that stimulus because the body has become so accustomed to that challenge.” In that case, you’re no longer reaping the same benefits as you did previously.
Fitness plateaus have to do with the overload, adaptation and progression principles of exercise. When your body is challenged with an exercise workload, such as lifting heavier weights or running at a faster pace, beyond its current capacity, your musculoskeletal or cardiovascular “system is taxed to levels that are greater than what it’s accustomed to,” explains Fabio Comana, a faculty instructor for the National Academy of Sports Medicine. “Adaptation is the physiological outcome of that.” To experience continued fitness improvements once your body adapts, you’ll need to create progression of the load or intensity of your workouts; otherwise, your fitness benefits can stall.
The Perks of Periodization
To prevent a plateau from occurring or to jump-start your fitness benefits after one has, it’s smart to engage in what’s called periodized training, or periodization: This basically means changing your exercise regimen at regular intervals to keep your body properly challenged. Think of it as a way to shock your body fitter, something you can do with both strength training and cardiovascular workouts. “There’s an eight- to 12-week adaptation period where your body adapts to what you’re doing – after that, there’s a point of diminishing returns, and it’s time to change up what you’ve been doing,” says Pete McCall, an ACE-certified personal trainer and host of the “All About Fitness” podcast.
Besides varying the type of exercises you do – or switching up the intensity or duration of your workouts – you can mix the order in which you do a weightlifting workout, for example, or vary the number of repetitions or the rest intervals between sets. You could lift light weights for 15 to 20 reps one day then opt for four to six reps of heavy weights another day, McCall says. If you’re a runner, you could alternate easy runs on flat terrain with others that incorporate hills or speed work. With cardiovascular exercise, you could also alter steady state aerobic workouts with high-intensity interval training, which involves alternating bouts of brief, high-intensity exercise intervals with periods of lower-intensity intervals.
However you do it, “by altering the stress, your body has to adapt to new challenges,” Bryant explains. Indeed, a study in an April 2016 issue of Frontiers in Physiology found that when men who were experienced strength trainers increased the load during the eccentric – a muscle’s lengthening – part of various lifts (such as leg presses and knee extensions) during strength training workouts, they experienced greater increases in maximum force production, work capacity and muscle activation than those who followed traditional strength-training protocols. Similarly, a pair of studies in a 2014 issue of Experimental Physiology concluded that the intermittent nature of HIIT plays a role in maximizing muscle adaptations to brief bouts of high-intensity exercise that aren’t seen with steady state workouts.
Keep in mind that fitness plateaus also can happen if you get into a psychological rut, where you’re bored with your workouts or you develop a state of mental staleness in which you stop pushing yourself with your workouts, Bryant says. If you end up doing the workouts on autopilot, he explains, simply going through the motions rather than pushing yourself as hard as you should, you won’t reap the fitness benefits you want. “With the psychological variety of plateau, it can help to find a training partner, so you can push and motivate each other,” Bryant adds.
It’s also important to consider how the rest of your life could be affecting your workouts. If your body isn’t getting the nutrition (including the calories, protein and carbohydrates) it needs or enough quality sleep to support your training, your fitness results will suffer. “It’s just like an automobile – you can’t drive a high-performance vehicle if you don’t give it the fuel and maintenance that it needs,” Bryant says. After all, “sleep is when your body repairs itself – growth hormone and testosterone are produced, which help repair muscle tissue,” McCall explains. If you don’t get enough sleep, levels of the stress hormone cortisol will increase, which will put your body into an overstressed state that can compromise your workout results.
Similarly, being under excessive stress in other areas of your life could land you on a fitness plateau. “A mistake a lot of people make is separating their training from all other life stressors, such as relationship issues, what’s going on at work or moving,” Comana says. “You need to look at what else is going on in your life that could be affecting your ability to recover.” Both Comana and McCall recommend reducing the intensity or duration of your workouts when you’re under intense stress. “Look at your overall stress load: If you have high stress at work, choose low stress with exercise,” McCall suggests. “And increase the intensity to match lower stress periods of time.”
If a fitness plateau does occur, try not to let it stress you out; instead, try to figure out what it’s trying to tell you. “Plateaus can be frustrating,” Comana says, “but they give good feedback that you need to change things up a bit.” If you change the variables in your workouts – particularly the intensity, load or tempo – and you still don’t see improvements, that could be a sign that you’re overtraining, which means you’re not balancing your training with adequate recovery. “Don’t be afraid of taking a rest day,” McCall says. “Your body needs it. You can’t hammer your workouts all the time.” And if your results continue to be stagnant despite making several changes to your workout regimen over time, you should consider working with or consulting a personal trainer.