BACK

Common Fitness Plateaus And How To Overcome Them

December 3, 2020

The path to your fitness goals is not always an easy smooth sail. After all. if it was that easy, everyone would be fit. Sometimes you put in the effort, but the results don't seem to match. You try to switch up your routine, but the results just aren't the same as before. When this happens, it is probably because you have hit a fitness plateau. A plateau isn't the end of the world, it just means it is time to reevaluate and optimize your training & nutrition.

But how do you know you're at a plateau for sure? And what exactly should you do when you hit a plateau? There are different kinds of plateaus depending on your fitness goals, but most likely it will fall into one of these 3 categories. Weight loss, weight gain, and strength gain. Each of these fitness goals have their own sets of solutions. We will go in depth into each kind of plateau, talk about the common causes of the plateau, and how you can come overcome them.

Let us get started.

Weight Loss Plateau

The biggest reason you are hitting a weight loss plateau is simply because you are not creating a caloric deficit anymore. A caloric deficit means that you are consuming more calories than you are expending. If you see weight loss results in the beginning, but the results start to stall after a couple of weeks, this means you are no longer creating a caloric deficit which means you will not continue to lose weight.

How do you fix it?

1. Eat Less Train More

You can either increase your energy output or decrease your calorie consumption or do a combination of both.


The 1st strategy is to increase your energy out put. To increase your output, you can do the following: train more frequently, increase training intensity, do more cardio, or even choosing the stairs over the elevator, etc.

The 2nd strategy is to decrease your calorie consumption. To decrease your calorie consumption is pretty straightforward. Eat less. You may be eating too much, but you will never know unless you monitor your diet. Find out how many calories you are eating, by using freely accessible tools such as MyFitnessPal or LoseIt. Once you know how many calories you are eating, you can start making adjustments to your diet.


The 3rd approach is a combination of both. Exercise more and eat less. This is usually we the option we recommend because by using both strategies, you decrease the chances of using either strategy to the extreme. For example, some people have drastically decreased the amount of food they eat in order to lose weight, only to have their weight bounce back higher than what it was previously, which leads us to our next point, metabolic adaptation.

2. Avoid Metabolic Adaptation

Metabolic adaptation happens when you eat a very low amount of calories below your maintenance over a long period of time. Your body adapts to the low amount of food intake by slowing down your metabolism. A slower metabolism means your body is burning less calories, which means you can't eat as much. And the less you eat, the slower your metabolism becomes resulting in a downward spiral until you inevitably give up on your weight loss efforts.


The best way to undo this downward spiral is to 1) Start doing more resistance training to build lean muscle mass and slowly increase your metabolism 2) Incorporate a re-feed day


What is a re-feed?

A re-feed is a temporary increase in calories. When you eat very little for a long time, your body goes into starvation mode and your metabolism slows down to adapt. If you suddenly increase your calorie intake, this will trick your body into temporarily speeding up your metabolism because it thinks you are no longer in starvation mode.

Having a re-feed day helps to temporarily undo the metabolic adaptation, but it doesn't end there. With the extra calories you just ate, you need to start doing resistance training with the goal of getting stronger and building muscle. This is because one of the biggest determinants of metabolism is how much lean muscle mass you have. The more lean muscle mass, the higher your metabolism. In order to build lean muscle, you must train with the goal of getting stronger over time. Build muscle, get stronger, avoid metabolic adaptation, stay consistent and you will start to make progress towards your weight loss goals.



Weight Gain Plateau

On the other end of the spectrum, some people struggle to put on weight despite long term efforts and their weight stays around the same no matter what they try. This is a weight gain plateau. The best way to overcome a weight gain plateau is to simply eat more.

People who struggle to gain weight often acquire mindsets that make it especially hard to gain weight. Here are 2 common mindsets you need to get rid of in order to lose weight


1. I must eat 6-8 clean meals a day like a professional bodybuilder

If you've spent any amount of time researching how to gain weight or get bigger, you probably came across a video of a bodybuilder saying that you need to eat chicken broccoli and a lot of rice to get big. While this concept is rooted in the "hard work & discipline" mindset of bodybuilding, it is not the only way to gain weight. 


In fact, for many who consider themselves "hard gainers" the chicken breast + broccoli + rice diet is very ineffective to gain weight because the food sources are too clean. Many hard gainers also get stuck in the mindset that they can only gain weight with natural whole foods (brown rice, oatmeal, whole wheat pasta, quinoa etc...), and avoid foods like cereal, mass gainers etc...


Incorporating cereals, mass gainers, or other processed carbohydrates in your diet may be the key to helping you gain weight. Remember, as a hard gainers/ectomorph, your struggle is gaining weight not losing weight. It is okay to add a bowl of cereal or a mass gainer shake into your daily diet. 


If you were able to gain weight with 4000 calories of chicken broccoli and rice, it would have happened already, but the reality is, most hard gainers don't have the appetite to stomach so much "clean" food.


If you are really taking your weight gain seriously, its time to add some "calorie dense" foods into your diet.


2. Calorie Dense Foods vs. Non Calorie Dense Foods


Cereals are processed carbohydrates but they are calorie dense compared to rice. An easy way to visualize this is to think about how rice is cooked. To cook rice, you must add water. After cooking the dry rice it absorbs all the water and expands 2-3 times the original size. Whereas cereal is ready to eat and doesn't expand in size when you add milk to it. 


This is why its so hard for ectomorphs to gain weight just by eating a lot of rice. Because while rice is a "clean" carb source, it is not very calorie dense, meaning when you eat rice, you are also in taking a lot extra water. The extra water makes you feel full which will make it harder for you to eat more rice. 


Here's an extreme example that illustrates this point. A serving of mass gainer is around 250 grams of carbohydrates and you can easily drink it in less than 5 minutes. To consume 250g carbs from rice, you would need to eat around 5 bowls of rice, which is more than what many people eat in a day. 


Long story short, if you are a hard gainer, don't just eat more. Eat more calorie dense foods into your diet, stay consistent, and you will start to gain weight.

Strength Gain Plateau

 You have been hitting the gym hard, but you are not getting any stronger. You are training consistently, but your bench press has been stuck at the same weight for the past 3 months. You remember when you started working out, you could add 10lbs to the bar every week, and the thought makes you very discouraged. This is the sign of a strength gain plateau.

In order to overcome strength gain plateaus, you need to bring your attention to the following two things:

1. Exercise Technique

You've heard power lifters and weight lifters say this, technique is everything; and they are not wrong. If you are not performing an exercise with the proper technique, you will not gain strength in the long run, and you increase your risk of injury. Once injured, your technique may deteriorate even further causing your strength to decrease and ultimately losing all motivation to train. 


There are many nuances to exercise technique and it is impossible to cover them in a single blog. Our recommendation is to hire a reputable personal trainer as he/she will be able to quickly identify faults in your exercise technique and help you correct them. 


Another important aspect to overcoming strength plateau's is managing intensity. 

2. Managing intensity - Progressive overload 

What is intensity?

Intensity is a measurement of how physically demanding a workout is. Its affected by many factors such as weight, reps, sets, speed, explosiveness, rest time to name a few. 


An easy way to visualize intensity is to think about a simple workout like push ups. Increasing any one of the factors listed above would increase the intensity of the workout.


For example, if you put on a 10 lb, you are increasing the "weight" therefore increasing intensity. 


If you do 4 sets 8 of push-ups instead of 3 sets of 8, you are doing more sets which increases the intensity. 


If you do clapping push ups instead of normal push ups, you are adding explosiveness which increases the intensity.


As you train, you should be finding ways to increase your training intensity. If you always train at the same intensity, your strength will increase up to a certain point, and stall.


Whether its increasing your reps, sets, adding challenging variations to your exercises, or decreasing your rest time, you should be actively making your workout more intense every time. This is called progressive overload. If you do not apply progressive overload to your workout, you will hit a strength gain plateau very early on.


Once you've been training consistently with progressive overload for 1-2 years, you may find that you are unable to increase your training intensity as frequently as you use to. When you reach this point, you've officially exhausted your "newbie gains" and now you need to train smarter in order to continue progressing. The way to do this is by applying "periodization" principles to your training. There are 2 main types of periodization.

Linear Periodization

Linear periodization is style of training where the training intensity gradually increases over time. If you draw a graph where the y-axis is intensity, and the x-axis is time, the result would be a 45 degree upward sloping line.


Linear progression works very well for beginners. This is why people who just start to gym tend to see fast results, because it is very easy to add weight to the bar every workout since the weights you are lifting are not heavy to begin with. Once you are not a beginner, we recommend using the next strategy, undulating periodization, if you want to continue seeing results.

Undulating periodization 

Undulating periodization is when your training intensity varies from one training session to the next. To make it simple to understand, imagine your only exercise is squats and you train three times a week.


Below is an oversimplified version of training periodizations


2 weeks of undulating periodization would look something like this: 


1st Monday: 3x8 100 lbs (deload)2nd Monday: 3x8 110 lbs (deload)

1st Wednesday: 3x8 130 lbs2nd Wednesday: 3x8 140 lbs

1st Friday: 3x8 115 lbs 2nd Friday: 3x8 125 lbs


Whereas 2 weeks of linear periodzation would look like this:


1st Monday: 3x8 115 lbs2nd Monday: 3x8 130 lbs

1st Wednesday: 3x8 120 lbs2nd Wednesday: 3x8 135 lbs

1st Friday: 3x8 125 lbs2nd Friday: 3x8 140 lbs


With undulating periodization you have periods of increased intensity, but followed with periods of reduced intensity or "deload"; versus linear periodization where the intensity keeps going up and you never get a chance to deload.


The advantage of undulating periodization is that the periods of lower training intensity gives you more time to rest and recover. Your progress might be slower, but by periodically adding deloads to your workouts, you decrease your chances of over training yourself and running into a plateau.


A common argument against undulating periodization is that one can say "I can use linear periodization, and deload when i feel over-trained." This is called "auto regulation" and it is a valid strategy, however it is more suitable for advanced lifters. For most beginners and intermediate lifters, it is better to plan your deloads with a systematic rather than going by feel.


Below is an undulating periodization that we use for many of our clients to progress strength in their Big 6 Lifts:


#1 3x12 @ 65% of your 1 Rep Max

#2 4x9 @ 70% of your 1 Rep Max

#3 5x7 @ 75% of your 1 Rep Max


Add 10lbs to 1 Rep Max after successful completion of #3

Sub-maximal training

Sub-maximal training is the idea of training under your maximum capacity, rarely going over 85% of your 1 Rep Max. If you Bench Press 100 lbs, the majority of your bench press training would be between 60-85 lbs. This ensures that your exercise technique is always perfect because the weights you are using are well within your ability to handle. 


When it comes to advanced lifters, technique is everything. One small mistake in their technique could mean a serious injury. If you train maximally all the time, it is very difficult to maintain integrity in your exercise technique. For example, if one day you have a bad nights sleep, and you come to the gym the next day squatting 95% of your 1 Rep Max, your sleep deprivation could reduce your focus and cause an injury that would put you out of the gym for 6 months. It's just not worth it. 


Focus on exercise technique, apply progressive overload, use undulating periodization, and train submaximally.


Sometimes its better to train smarter, not harder. 

Conclusion 

As you can see, you will run into many plateaus on your fitness journey. In the beginning, motivation can help you quite a bit, but in the long term, you will need to learn to use different strategies to overcome different challenges.


Plateaus are a natural part of life and fitness is no exception. Every plateau you learn to overcome will add new tools to your toolbox that will take you even further along your fitness journey. Stay disciplined, trust the process, and enjoy the journey. After all, fitness is a lifestyle, and you should be in it for the long run. 




Written by

Ken Lu

Ken has a Bachelor's Degree of Psychology from the University of British Columbia, specializing in Sport Psychology. As well as being a Certified Personal Trainer, Ken is also a Movement & Mobility Specialist, and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He has trained for and won the 2018 NPAA BC Men's Physique Championship.