How to Break through Plateaus
New Year’s can be one of the most invigorating times of the year. As long as you don’t overdo it on New Year’s Eve, January 1st has the potential to be the clean slate we’ve all been waiting for. It’s time to set some goals, get moving, and reach for the stars.
Far too many of us have kicked off the New Year by throwing ourselves into a diet and exercise program, only to burn out and lose our motivation all too quickly. Suddenly, those exciting results seem to have slowed down – and with them, our motivation. The problem? Plateaus. A plateau, simply put, is “a state of little or no change after a time of activity or progress.” Not exactly what we had in mind when we starting setting those New Year’s fitness goals.
Here’s the great thing about plateaus: With the right game plan, they can be overcome. Plateaus aren’t brick walls – they’re really just hurdles. And here are some simple steps to make sure you can glide right over them.
Plateaus are a normal part of any health journey. Your body adapts to training and learns to meet the challenges you’ve provided in your workouts. That requires you to work harder, or differently, to accomplish the results you’ve experienced in the past.
Plateaus happen. Your job is to be ready for them. The better you understand the way your body works, the better you can bust through the plateau, and achieve the ultimate level of fitness you crave.
Why Do We Plateau?
So, why do we face the frustration of plateaus? What’s going on anyway?
The human body is constantly fighting to adapt. The harder you workout, the harder your body works to change. Let’s say, just for an easy example, that you’ve been walking one mile every day. At first, it’s hard to make it a mile. You get breathless. Your legs are sore. After a month or so, you’re fine. You may be a bit tired, but not exhausted. You’re not as sore as you once were.
Over those four weeks of daily walking, your body has undergone a gradual transformation. It has successfully adapted to the daily routine. Each day, your muscle fiber responded to the motion, your blood vessels strengthened, your oxygen uptake increased, and even your bone density improved. What’s even more amazing is that your neural pathways have adjusted to the daily walk, too. Everything about you — cells, bones, blood vessels, neurons, lungs, muscles —has changed to adapt to your healthy habit.
Your body is doing what it’s supposed to do. This process is known as homeostasis. Basically, your body is trying to find stability or equilibrium. When a daily walk becomes the norm, your body adapts to the new normal. This new normal, homeostasis, is a healthier you. If you keep at it, doing the same thing day after day, you’ll stay healthy, but you won’t keep progressing like you were previously. Your body has achieved equilibrium. In other words, you’ve hit the plateau.
Plateaus are a natural response of the body. You don’t need to blame yourself for the slowdown. Instead, you can use your knowledge of the human body to overcome its tendency to settle down and get comfortable. Here are some solid methods, backed by science, which will help you kick through the plateau phase, and gain major progress. As you fight through it, stay positive. A plateau isn’t the end of a healthy body; it’s the beginning of a healthier one.
Introduce Variety and Increase Intensity
The core idea to breaking through the plateau is a simple one: Variety and intensity. Since muscles adapt, they need constant variety in order to change. To build bigger muscles, you use heavier weights (intensity). To keep losing weight, you change up your exercise routine (variety). If you keep doing the same thing, you’ll get the same result. Eventually the “same result” is the plateau of no result at all. Start doing something different, and you’ll start getting results.
Here are three ways that you can introduce variety and intensity into your fitness program. If you’re in a plateau funk, scramble the repetition with a fresh approach.
- Interval training. Interval training is the pro’s secret to fitness success. The idea of interval training is simple. During a workout, particularly aerobic workouts, you ramp up the intensity of your workout in a short aggressive burst. Doing this several times during the course of a workout, in intervals, will improve your results. For example, during your one-mile walk, you can speed walk for thirty seconds, slow down to your normal pace for a minute or so, speed walk for another thirty seconds, and so on. The beauty of interval training is that it gives you improved results without taking additional time. Plus, it helps you stay mentally focused on your workout. Most importantly, interval training is a great way to get better health results, and break through a plateau.
- Turn your schedule upside down. One way to break the plateau is to shake up your schedule. Circadian rhythms — the time of day you do certain things — and workout plateaus are close friends. You can shock the plateau away by changing the time, frequency, or regularity of your workout. If you’re accustomed to a Monday-Wednesday-Friday routine, try a Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday schedule instead. If you’re a right-after-work exerciser, go for a morning routine and watch the plateau disappear.
- Try a new workout. Since your body has hit equilibrium, it’s up to you to introduce disequilibrium, to throw your body into a new phase of adaptation, training, and improvement. You need new, you need different, you need variety. Maybe you can join the yoga class you’ve always wanted, start training for the 5K, pick up a new sport, explore TRX Training, try Pilates, or learn kickboxing. Change doesn’t need to be huge; it just needs to be change.
And variety in your workouts isn’t just about breaking through plateaus. Variety also keeps the mind fresh, opening up new neural pathways and creating a natural mental buzz. Plus, variety improves motivation. Giving your body something different to do heightens the anticipation and excitement of your routine. Exercising can be fun again.
Some Final Advice
- Look at the big picture. It’s easy to get hung up on the little things — looking at life in terms of calories consumed, ounces gained, and minutes spent on our workout. Rather than this micro view, adopt a macro perspective. Rather than freak out over a down week, look over your shoulder at the landscape behind you. You’ve made some progress, huh? Be encouraged.
- Keep consistent. Change is great, but neglect isn’t. Maintain your workouts, and you’ll develop the consistency that leads to results for the long haul.
- Have fun. If working out becomes the bogeyman of your life, you know something has gone wrong. Try to introduce fun into the equation, whether it’s by rewarding yourself with some healthy treats, getting some rest, recruiting an exercise buddy, or joining a new class. Keep your workout appealing and you’ll keep overcoming those plateaus, all year long.