4 Simple Ways to Bust Through Plateaus

Reaching a plateau doesn’t have to be the end of the world. It simply means that it’s time to make some adjustments to your current plan.

by Ryan Halvorson


You’ve finally managed to consistently integrate a regular exercise program into your busy life. You’re also hitting your nutrition plan out of the park. Your body has progressed in the right direction. But then something happens. You step on the scale or do a body fat test eager to see how much weight and how many inches you’ve lost over the past week. Confused, you step off the scale and then back on for a retest. It becomes painfully apparent that the progress you’d been so proud of for the past month or so has waned–or worse, leveled. You fight your every urge not to swear at the scale and chuck it out the window (honestly, I wouldn’t be upset if you did--the scale is the worst indicator of progress and the greatest initiator of frustration).

“I’ve been killing it in every sense of the word,” you say to yourself. “How come I’ve stalled? It doesn’t make any sense.”

Does this story sound familiar?

You’re not alone. I’d wager a guess that every single person who has ever exercised–or tried anything, really–hits a plateau at some point or another. It’s inevitable. I don’t want to get into the nitty-gritty of why plateaus happen; it’s not really that important. What is important is that there are many tactics you can incorporate into your nutrition or training program to help kick your body back into gear. Read on to learn four ways you can overcome a training plateau.

Update your workout.

Any good program worth its salt is based on consistency. You can’t ever learn how to play Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture without practicing it. The same goes for building muscle mass, for example. If you want to sculpt strong shoulders you need to repeatedly perform exercises that target that area. But if you continue to challenge your body the same way or perform the same exercises month after month, you will plateau. To avoid this simply change how you challenge your body. Here are five ways to do that:

  • Add resistance (weight) and decrease repetitions
  • Decrease resistance and increase repetitions
  • Slow the pace of your workout
  • Speed up the pace of your workout, i.e., cut your workout time by 1/4, but maintain the same volume
  • Reverse the order of your exercises

It’s that simple. Slight changes in how you facilitate your workout will require extra energy and effort from your body, which can push you through a plateau.

Update your food.

I’m a creature of habit. I find things I like and I stick to them. This is mostly out of convenience because coming up with new recipes or food plans, for example, requires extra effort. But, like a workout program, nutrition plans also need a shake-up from time to time. Experts believe that the body will get used to the nutrients you consume making it more difficult to see progress. If you’ve eaten basically the same thing for a while, it’s time for a change. For example, try an increase or decrease carbohydrate or protein or vegetable intake for a week.

One big warning here is that you always want to make sure that your hunger, cravings and energy remain balanced. Updating your diet shouldn’t make you feel like you want to eat everything in sight. If that’s the case, try a different macronutrient adjustment.

Also analyze whether you’ve had an increases or decreases in intake. If you were used to eating a lot of calories, but then cut down due to body change goals, your intake might have crept up again without you noticing. Another possibility is that you’ve cut your intake so much that your body doesn’t have the energy required to make progress. The greatest challenge with diets is finding the one that works for you. Unfortunately this requires a bit of investigative, trial-and-error work.

DON’T change your workout.

P90X and other similar programs have popularized the concept of “muscle confusion”–or workouts that constantly vary in order to keep the body guessing. However, they’ve also done a disservice to exercisers by making them think that every workout must be different or it will be ineffective.

The problem with hopping from program to program is that the body never gets an opportunity to adapt, which is a necessary component of change. It needs to face repetitive stress in order to progress. Think of it like building a house. Pouring a little bit of foundation then framing out some windows then laying a few shingles for a roof is a highly inefficient way to build a house. Building a better body works the same way. You need to complete roughly the same workouts for a period of time for them to be effective. It’s that whole “jack-of-all-trades-but-a-master-of-none” philosophy. So if you’re an exercise hopper and can’t seem to make progress, do the exact opposite and stick to the same workout program for at least 3 weeks and see if you notice a change. Note that your daily workouts should vary through the week, but keep your Monday workouts the same, Tuesday workouts the same, and so on.

Take a break.

Gasp! I know. You’ve worked hard to become more consistent with your workouts and now I’m telling you to take a break? The reason for this is that you’ve placed your body under significant stress for a period of time, which doesn’t really allow it to fully recover. Recovery is is the time when the body changes, so if you’ve been hitting it hard most days of the week, you might not be giving it enough time to get stronger. I like to take four or five days off between workouts once every 6 weeks or so. But I make a strict pact with myself that I’ll get right back to it once my hiatus is over. I also make sure to adjust my food intake during that time; I’m not exercising intensely I don’t need to eat as much. I’m also not completely inactive–I walk or bike regularly in a leisurely fashion (I’m not trying to get any sort of muscle burn or break a sweat). Chances are you’ll come back stronger and with more energy than before your break.

Bottom line: Don’t give up.

Reaching plateaus can be frustrating, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t continue to make progress or that your current workout and nutrition plan aren’t working. Instead it’s just your body telling you that it’s time for a bit of change. And that change doesn’t have to be huge, as we’ve discussed in this article. Minor updates to your current exercise and food protocols can have a significant impact on your body change goals.

One of the most challenging aspect of body change is that it takes time. Plateaus happen. Progress is rarely linear. Don’t let bumps in the road deter you from your goals. You’ve come this far, after all. It’d be a shame to give up now.

In what ways do you overcome plateaus? Post your answer on Bird Rock Fit’s Facebook page, or send me an email and I’ll post your idea for you.


Photo credit: Greatist