10 Ways to Break Through a Training Plateau
We’ve all been there. You make huge gains in your fitness, and then it all seems to mysteriously end. No matter what you do, you’re better off trying to find a magical unicorn than continuing to train in vain.
Its enough to make anyone nUtS! I had this happen to me this year on my bike, and the plateau breakthrough came from a very unlikely source: the gym.
At the time I had stalled out, I was having trouble getting faster on my bike. I had tapped out my speed, and was desperately looking for a way to increase it. Until I met with Jason Agrella at the studio a few times, and he said I needed more glute strength.
Um, what? How could this be?? I hammer my glutes into oblivion 3-4 times a week, or so I thought. He made a few minor adjustments to my weekly training program, and it made a HUGE difference.
See, the problem with being a strength coach is that you can easily put together a program to help someone else get stronger. Try to do it for yourself, and well, good luck. I figured if Tiger can have a swing coach, I could have a trainer.
So, long story short, after about four weeks, I blew out one of the most elusive PR’s (personal records) that a San Francisco Bay Area cyclists can chase: getting faster going up Old La Honda Rd. My previous PR set in July 2010 was 21:36, and I hadn’t broken 22 mins since, until I upped my strength work.
In May of this year, my first trip up, I hit just about the 24 minute mark. In June, I hit 21:16 after some serious “fun” in the studio. Developing a stronger trunk, more stability in my hips/spine allowed me to lay down more power.
The magic exercises were single leg deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts, Turkish Get Ups and lat pulls. Essentially, if it made it difficult to sneeze, laugh or cough the next day, I did it.
Now, this isn’t to say that I discovered some magical strength training unicorn bathing in a rainbow drinking from a pot of gold (for some reason I’m thinking about Lucky Charms, “they’re magically delicious!”) that mysteriously transformed me into a monsterous muscular beast on my bike (although that’s the way the bar story would go). What I did was simply find a “fitness firmware update” to get of the box to try and skin the cat from a different angle.
As they say in the infomercials “individual results may very,” so this may not be the optimal strategy to apply to the masses even though that’s what I did. With that being said, I’ve put together a list of 10 things you can do to break through your next training plateau.
But, as with all epic stories, let’s begin with what plateaus are and why we get them in the first place. Your literary patience will be rewarded!
What are plateaus, and why do we hit them?
It would be a hell of a lot easier to get out of a plateau if we didn’t have to get into them in the first place. The long and the short of it is our bodies are magnificently incredible at adapting to the stressors we place on them. They are also really good at doing whatever is necessary to keep us safe. Lucky for us, both of these are essential components of hitting a plateau.
“All the body wants is equilibrium. It wants to feel like it is safe and sound in its little box. Once your body catches up with the stress, the stress no longer has an effect on the body. The results just simply stopped being produced. You plateau. Eventually, your body will adapt to the stress and no longer produce the results (How to Overcome Training Plateaus).”
Do something long enough, and your body will adapt to the stimulus and you will hit a point where you no longer make any gains and stall out. This is where you take a stance of doing one of two things: shock and awe your way to the next level, or back off the gas pedal and rest. More on that later.
Plateaus are inevitable, once you hit one it then becomes a matter of what you do to get to the next level.
“There is a basic law of adaptation, and that is the law of diminishing returns,” says David Swain, PhD, a professor of exercise physiology at Old Dominion University, in Virginia in the article Cycling Training Plans: How to get Off of Plateaus, Bicycling Magazine. “The closer you get to some inherent genetic maximum ability, the more and more work it takes to make smaller and smaller increments of improvement.”
This is where training gets fun once you begin to hit higher levels of fitness. It really is a double edge sword: get stronger, faster, more fit, etc and the harder you have to work for fewer and fewer results.
How do we get out of them?
Like I mentioned, one of two things typically happens. You blast yourself back to the stone age and train to the point where you can barely think your name let alone say it. Sometimes, this will kick start the system to get it back online. And sometimes it doesn’t, and the system needs to be shut down to reboot better than it was prior to the reset. If you’ve ever gotten sick, taken a week off and felt stronger once you’ve come back this is why.
With that being said, here are some of the strategies I’ve seen work for people to break through a training plateau. Are they sure fire methods guaranteed to work? No because “individual results may vary.” But, the chance are at least one or two of them will help you the next time your training stalls.
1) Sleep More
Any time I’ve plateau’d this is the first place I look, and it is usually the reason as to why. I tend to keep the pedal pegged to the floor board with my training week so this is very often one of the areas where I just plain fail. Throw on top of this owning a business and being the dad of the world’s cutest 1-year-old, and this one is always tricky.
2) Try something new
Very often a change of pace/scenery is all you need to kick start the engine. If you train inside, go outside. If you always run, try cycling (just make sure you do your glute and mobility work!), hiking, paddle boarding or anything else that is completely different from what you currently do.
In the gym, change up rep counts, exercises, intensity, the days you train, the times you train, etc. This can go a long way to injecting new life into an old program.
3) Train outside
I’m talking go to a park, run around, do some pushups, try some pullups if you are able to, do lunges, take a TRX with you, grab your rubber tubing and get outside and play. Any time I was bored as a kid, my father would always tell me if was bored, I should “go outside and play.” He was right 100% of the time, and I always came back in feeling better.
Plus being outside definitely reintroduces the play element to exercise, and sometimes that’s all it takes!
4) Take time off
If mixing up your program, location, venue doesn’t help kick start your engine, then its time to rest and let the body recover and rebuild. Most hardcore fitness fiends are absolutely terrible at this. Personally I feel like I’m getting weaker and losing strength/fitness if I take time off, until I take the time off and finish my first post break session. I always feel stronger, faster, mentally clear and just plain better.
5) Get a training partner
Having an “accountabilabuddy” does wonders for your training program. The right will always keep you accountable, on target and more dedicated. Ideally your fitness levels would be comparable, but this isn’t isn’t a critical component to this. Usually having the same mindset and approach to training is enough.
6) Hire a strength coach
This is where a person like me comes in handy. We can analyze what you are currently doing, cross that with your fitness goals, assess your current level of fitness and then formulate the right strategy to keep you moving ahead. This isn’t always the most cost conscience way to go, but it is definitely one of the more effective ones.
If you go this route, I’d recommend looking for a coach with NASM, NSCA, CSCS, CHEK, FMS or RKC credentials.
7) Read, Listen and Watch
Along the same lines as switching up your routine, coming across new training methods from a book, seminar on DVD/webinar or podcast can go a long way to reigniting your training program. And I’m not talking the mass produced home workout DVD’s. I’m talking DVD’s from reputable strength coaches who actually give you solid information that is actually rooted in science and exercise progression.
I like to go with anything from Mike Robertson, Bret Contreras, Eric Cressey, Ben Bruno, Tony Gentilcore, TheFitcast.com Podcast, Charlie Weingroff, Dean Sommerset, Nia Shanks and Mike Boyle when I need an infusion of new training information.
“The New Rules of Lifting” book series is also very very good in terms of a training resource. Pop any of the above mentioned into your RSS feeder/app of choice, and you will have a constant influx of new information.
8) Start keeping a training log
Training journals are a great way to track where you are, where you’ve been and hopefully where you want to go. Do this and you will always know what you’ve done giving you the ability to trace how you got to where you are.
Some key pieces of data to record include time of day, exercises done, sleep quality, stress level, amount of sleep in hours, frequency of eating and hydration levels. This will give you the most accurate snap shot of why your body is doing what it is.
9) Put an event on your calendar
Nothing will motivate someone like an event to get ready for. It doesn’t necessarily need to be athletic in nature. It could be a wedding, reunion (side note: about 10 years ago, someone came to me and said “I want to lose 15lbs.” I thought not a problem, we’ve got this in about 6-8 weeks. And then the person said “I’ve got a wedding in 10 days and I need to get into my brides maid dress.”
You will NEVER hit a fitness goal when you let your lack of planning become your trainer’s emergency. VAULT THAT ONE PEOPLE!), family event, etc.
I’m usually more focused/targeted when I’m training for something, and I know I’m not the only one!
10) See a nutritionist
I can’t stress this one enough. All of the planning, ass busting in a workout or sleep won’t do you a damn bit a good if you don’t fuel the engine properly. Garbage in, garbage out is what I’m getting at.
A nutritionist can help you dial in exactly what minerals/vitamins, etc you are/aren’t getting and make sure you get the right foods at the right time. This is probably the most often butchered component of fitness, and it is always a good idea to get some outside help with this one. Especially if you have a high caloric expenditure recreational pursuit.
THE COMMON SENSE FINE PRINT!
NEVER attempt any new exercises mentioned in the Fitness411 blog without a thorough evaluation from a physician, personal trainer, strength coach, athletic trainer, physical therapist or sports chiropractor. To do so, is to willingly choose to do them at YOUR own risk.