We’ve all been there. Whether we’re trying to lose weight, add muscle, or even develop a new skill, we hit that point in our progress where everything seems to stall. Do any of these sound familiar?
- “I’ve been losing a little bit of weight each week for months, and yet I’ve been stuck the past two weeks despite sticking to my regular routine.”
- “I’ve been increasing my bench press weight for each of the past 8 weeks, but this week I lifted less than before!”
- “I’ve been running faster and faster miles for a year now, but I can’t seem to break past the seven minute mark.”
Fitness plateaus. Are they real? What happens when you get stuck on one and how can you break through? It can happen at any fitness level, so let’s take a closer look.
What is a plateau? A plateau occurs when you stall out on progress, despite continuing to do “all of the right things.” This usually including eating right, exercising properly, getting adequate rest/recovery, etc. Our bodies go from losing weight consistently to getting stuck at a certain number. Or we go from building muscle and getting stronger, to having a week or two where we can’t seem to lift anything heavier. We call this point in our training “the plateau.” Everyone has them, but we don’t like being stuck on them. Progress makes everyone happier. When we work hard for something and don’t see progress, it’s normal to be unhappy.
Are plateaus real? As a trainer, it’s common for me to hear from people who say they’re stuck in a plateau. They talk about how they’ve been eating right, exercising, and getting enough rest and they can’t seem to make progress! They throw their hands in the air, freak out, get discouraged, and give up or quickly move onto the next plan that they hope will work. When somebody comes to me saying they’ve plateaued, my first response is always: “Have you REALLY plateaued?”
In a strong majority of the cases, plateaus are really just issues of concentration in disguise. Before you think you’re stuck (or in a plateau) consider the following:
Track your meals for the next few days. Oftentimes we think we’re doing great, until we realize that after a few weeks of eating the right things we’ve started slacking. “Oh I’ve been good, just this one time,” and “sure why not” become more common as we start to fall back into old habits. This one issue is probably responsible for more than half of the “plateau: cases out there. For women, a big issue is not eating enough calories. If you are trying to bulk up, are you eating enough calories to promote muscle growth
The fix: Rededicate yourself for two weeks, track your meals, and see if progress picks back up!
How are your workouts? If you are weeks or months into a workout plan, I bet the initial luster has worn off. Have you been skipping that last rep, cutting out an exercise here or there, getting bored and wanting to go home? I know when I hit a plateau at the gym, it’s generally because I haven’t been pushing myself as hard as I had been previously.
The fix: Track your workouts regularly for two weeks and see if these changes get you back on track.
Are you getting enough sleep/recovery? This is one that most people skip out on. They are exercising, eating right, but for whatever reason they’ve been slacking on their sleep. We all know sleep is important; lack of sleep leads to increased levels of stress, less time for our bodies to rebuild muscle, to recover from strenuous activity, and more. I know that if I didn’t get a good night’s sleep, then my performance in the gym the next day will suffer. Also, how about time off or recovery weeks? Are you giving your body ample time to recover from a hard 8-10 week cycle of training? As hard as time off is from a mental standpoint, your body loves the time off (assuming you’ve been working hard, of course).
The fix: Listen to your body and give it the time it needs to recover.
Overall, can you honestly say you’re completely focused on quality sleep, nutrition, and exercise? In many cases we think we’re stuck and in need of some sort of drastic change or adjustment to kick-start progress again.
Now, there are definitely instances where we are stuck or stalled, and that’s when things need to change. However, before we cover the dreaded plateau, there are a few important things to review.
To start, progress cannot continue indefinitely.
- If you are learning to squat and you start with just the bar, adding 5 lbs a week (which is how you should learn to squat!), you will eventually reach a point where your body cannot build the strength/muscle fast enough to continually add 5 lbs a week. If it DID work that way, in three years everybody would be squatting 1000 pounds.
- You will run into the same issues with weight loss. For example, it’s easier for you to lose 3 pounds a week when you are at 300 lbs than it is to lose 3 pounds a week when you are 150 pounds. There is simply more of you to “lose” when you’re bigger and thus progress will be easier. If you could lose 2-3 pounds a week every week forever, at some point you’d disappear, and we don’t want that. Weight loss might slow to 1 pound every other week.
Your progress at a consistent pace will definitely slow-down, which can often feel like a plateau. If you’ve been training for more than a few months, you might need to slightly adjust your expectations. Maybe this week you can only add 1 or 2 pounds to the bar. Maybe your muscle-building will crawl to 1 pound gained a month.
It happens to all of us. So, how do we stay dedicated, focused, and motivated through the dip or plateau? How do we progress during the plateau when we feel like our hard work is a waste of time? What do we do when we feel like we are just spinning our wheels? We focus on small wins, and always find a way to get a little bit better each day. In order for us to crawl out of a dip or off a plateau, we need to find a way to make a small win every day.
Made it to my workout today = WIN
Ate a great post-workout meal today = WIN
Added foam rolling to my daily routine = WIN
Added a yoga class to my routine = WIN
You get the idea. Getting better each day by doing something that you know is good. The longer we’ve been training, the older we get, and/or the more advanced we get in our training, the more likely we’ll be to hit plateaus and the more necessary it will be to grind out small victories, prepare for dips, and power through them. Stay focused, stay on track, learn to listen to your body and Do Not Quit!
Ken Grall a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength & Conditioning Association, as well as a Youth Fitness Specialist (YFS) through the International Youth Conditioning Association. Learn more on the Meet Our Writers page.