7 ways to break a plateau

June 30 2015

Your training hasn’t changed but you’re no longer getting stronger, fitter or leaner. Don’t worry, you’ve hit a plateau. We talk to experts on how to bust out of one.

Young woman with hands on hips Virtually everyone who trains will experience a plateau, but to most people its mechanics are surprisingly shrouded in mystery. You’ll know you’re in one when — after doing the same sets, maintaining the same intensity and sticking to the same diet — you’re no longer improving.

If you’re training on your own, you start to question yourself and your workout. If you have a personal trainer you start to question them and their programme.

There are many reasons why training plateaus can happen, which is why we’ve asked some top fitness experts, including Fitness First trainers who regularly help clients through them, to identify the main causes.

Many of the reasons for plateauing are inter-related, but each can also happen independently of the others.

1. Stick to the training programme

A leading exercise physiologist told us the number one reason most people plateau is their failure to stick to their exercise programme. Tony Boutagy, who’s on the editorial board of the peer-reviewed Journal of Fitness Research, says:

“That means that they’ll do whatever they feel like when they turn up to the gym. They’ll usually do something that they’re good at, but it will often change. The reps might change. The loading might change. The sets might change. The exercise choice might change. It means that the body never gets enough time to be exposed to a stimulus before it gets changed.”

The fix? If you want your training to have an impact, you must have a programme, you must stick to it and you must let your body adapt to it. Then you change the programme when your body has adapted.

2. Vary your training

Here’s the thing: even when you have a great training programme that works wonders at first, your body adapts to the new load after a few weeks (accepted wisdom is three to six) and the improvements slow or stop.

A Fitness First personal trainer, Suzi Natal, sees many new clients who are experiencing this kind of adaptation and are puzzled.

“Often they will come to me explaining that their usual routine has simply stopped working. They have been training for some time and are no longer seeing any results.

What they don’t realise is that the body is a complex and highly adaptive machine. The more you train it through specific exercises or movements, the more efficient it will become at completing these.

This is great for performance in a sport and for getting good form, but it will not always help you reach your training goals.”

A Fitness First Personal Training Manager, Mike Battaglia, says

“Changing your exercise programme and training variables will keep your mind excited and your body guessing. Whether you want to improve your maximal strength, move a few kilos or just tone up, changing the stimulus is a must.”

3. Periodise the training programme

While you can alter your programme when you’re plateauing, it pays to have it properly structured from the start. The magic word here is “periodisation.” It’s basically a plan that ensures progress is maintained via training cycles and phases and manipulation of exercise variables.

Cam Lau, another Fitness First PT says:

“A trainer can also look at your programme and help you periodise the training over blocks of 4-6 weeks, to track your strength gains and monitor your growth.”

4. Don’t get too comfortable

Young man doing sit-ups with medicine ball You might think you’re training hard, but it may not be enough, say the experts. You could just be going through the motions, with your biggest achievement being getting to the gym.

People often drop their intensity because they get too comfortable, or even bored, says Fitness First PT Mark Glanville.

“Exercise is a lot like sex, if you repeat the same routine week in, week out, for too long, it becomes boring and can drive you to lose interest and motivation.”

There is widespread agreement among fitness experts that a personal trainer is valuable because he or she will know how hard to push you.

“There’s very good research to show that people training with personal trainers get better results compared to when they train by themselves, because PTs make them work at higher intensities,” says an exercise physiologist.

5. Set realistic goals

Unrealistic goal setting, for Mike Battaglia, is the second biggest reason why people plateau.

“As time goes by and life gets in the way, the commitment of five times a week soon becomes two or three, making our original goals less achievable and, as a result, our training quantity plateaus. The same happens with our diet and nutrition plans as people make radical changes to their diet that cannot be sustained long term.”

Battaglia says you need to be brutally honest about how much work you can put in when setting your expectations.

6. Consume the right calories

Among those who train hard, burning more calories than they take in can be a real problem. “Their performance deteriorates. It doesn’t even just plateau. It goes backwards,” says exercise physiologist Tony Boutagy.

“That’s because you’re not only not supporting your metabolism but also the recuperation and adaptation that you need for a result.

Americans call this metabolic damage. The rest of the world just calls this ‘no energy availability.’ That simply means that you’re bringing in too few calories for what you need to recover from and adapt to training.

That is the major nutritional error people make when they begin to plateau, either for weight loss or for muscle gain.”

7. Get enough sleep & rest

A surprisingly common reason given for plateauing is not enough sleep.

“When you’re training regularly you need eight to nine hours of deep, restorative, uninterrupted sleep,”

says Boutagy.

“So if you work long hours, enjoy watching TV, have children that wake you up, etcetera, then you’re also going to hit a plateau.”

Mike Battaglia says:

“Your body will make its changes when it’s resting not when under the stress of exercise. If you’re tired or have aches and pains, it’s your body’s way of asking for a rest.”