Our bodies are truly extraordinary organisms. They have an amazing ability to adapt quite quickly to any new stimulus.
However, thanks to this ability, if you don’t vary or change that same stimulus regularly your body will stop adapting, which is when you can reach that dreaded plateau.
This will stop your progress and can even reverse your gains if it goes on for prolonged periods of time. So, if you want to keep making progress, realise performance gains and keep seeing changes to your body you’ve got to start switching things up.
Progressive overload drives change
There are two key training principles that are applicable to managing and overcoming a training plateau – adaptation and progressive overload. Adaptation refers to the your body’s physiological response to training and the demands it places on your muscular, cardiovascular and endocrine systems, amongst others. When you do a new exercise, start a new programme or change the load (number of reps, sets, set structure or the weights used) your body will be forced to respond to this new stimulus or stimuli.
It typically takes anywhere from four to eight weeks for your body to fully adapt to a new training stimulus (in sports science parlance ‘accommodation sets in’), so you should aim to change something about your routine within that time period to continue ‘overloading’ your systems. This could include changing the frequency, intensity, duration and/or type of exercise used to avoid plateaus and continue challenging your body. Progressively increasing the weight, reps or sets you do as part of the same routine would also suffice until you reach a point where your body is no longer able to adapt.
Have you hit a plateau?
The most obvious sign that you’ve reached a plateau is an inability to make further progress towards your goals, be it weight loss, increased strength, improved fitness or enhanced sporting performance. Another key sign is a dip in your motivation levels. This is s psychological response to the stagnation of a programme or the lack of variety in what you’re doing.
The secret to avoiding a plateau is ensuring sufficient variety in your training to keep your body ‘guessing’, but not so much variety that you don’t give your body time to adapt properly in the first place. The best approach is to plan a cycle of training or programme in advance, with a specific goal or outcome in mind, and make small incremental increases or changes over that period of time.
However, if you reach a plateau don’t try and ‘blast’ through it by making huge changes to your exercise programme. A few days or a week of active recovery or reduced training volume and/or intensity (referred to as a training taper) will allow you to maintain your gains and will ensure your body has rested enough to start a new phase of training.
Top tips to break through plateaus:
- Track everything – what you’re eating, how you’re training, how much you’re lifting, how far you’re running. It makes referencing much easier to determine where you’ve gone wrong if you do plateau.
- Change your workouts every 4-8 weeks, and aim to increase at least one variable every 1-3 weeks (by no more than 10%).
- Change aspects such as your volume, intensity, frequency, type of exercise or routine, but not all at once.
Plateaus vs overtraining
People often mistake a plateau for overtraining. To tell the difference, consider the following:
- Is my training resulting in illness?
- Am I regressing or becoming detrained?
- Are there changes in various physiological markers like my resting heart rate and heightened feelings of perceived exertion during familiar routines?
By Pedro van Gaalen