Have you stopped making progress with your training, despite keeping up the intensity? Has your weight loss flatlined, or your muscles stopped growing? If so, then it sounds like you've reached your fitness plateau; which means it's time to shake things up. Here's how it's done.
It's a gut-wrenching feeling; keeping your fitness regime going for months only to realise that, after a good start, you've stopped making progress. If this is something that has sapped your confidence recently, or you're particularly worried about getting back into exercise at the start of the year, then don't panic you've merely been afflicted by a phenomenon that affects almost all of us at some point.
Personal trainer Gavin Walsh explains: "In simple terms it means you're no longer improving. This could be in terms of sports performance, fat loss or the amount of weight you're putting on the bar. You know it's happened to you when race times, weight lifted, muscle mass gained or fat lost are no longer going in the right direction."
In order to recognise when your progress in the gym is tailing off, it's essential that you know what 'success' looks like to you in terms of your fitness.
Trainer Scott Murray says: "Think of your training as a map leading from where you are to where you want to get to. The fitness plateau is those unplanned stops along the route. So you need to know where you currently are. If you don't know this, then how will you know if you have reached your peak or just a plateau?
"As a coach one of the things I look to establish is a client's starting point. How long does it take them to run, swim or cycle a certain distance? By getting this base line data, you can then start to work out where you want to get to and how you are going to travel that route."
Know the warning signs
As well as planning for the long term, it's also important that you learn to recognise when you've stopped improving. It could just be that creeping sensation that you are beginning to feel 'stale' or fed up. Murray explains: "It may be that you're finding it hard to engage with your workouts or feel bored by the phase of training you're in.
"Giving yourself adequate recovery times and eating well will hopefully help you to avoid stalling, but for me staleness and boredom are key indicators that your programme isn't working, and this could manifest itself as skipped sessions or merely feeling that you're going through the motions."
Vary your workouts
When progress grinds to a halt, it's time to shake things up and jolt your body into action. The best way to do this is to add more variety to your workouts. Murray says: "If you've truly hit a plateau then it is because your body has become accustomed to the training and is no longer stressed by the session. In order for your body to improve, you have to step out of your comfort zone and force it to adapt. By varying your workouts, you'll prevent your body from becoming accustomed to the same old routine."
Sort out your diet
All of the advice from our experts is meaningless if you don't eat well. Failing to do so or slipping back into bad habits will see your progress fall off a cliff.
Nutritionist Cara Lewis says: "Nutrition plays an important role in our ability to train, recover and perform. If you don't eat enough carbohydrate you may experience fatigue, loss of concentration and delayed recovery. To keep you off that plateau, regular meals containing carbs and a carb-based snack two to three hours pre-training are a must.
"Protein, meanwhile, is needed for building and repairing muscle. Hydration is also crucial to maintaining physical and mental performance." Dump the junk and eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables to keep moving forward with your training.
How to add bulk
If your fitness goal is to pack on muscle, then making sure you consume enough calories is one way to stop you from hitting a plateau. Walsh says: "It sounds obvious, but if we're talking bulk you've got to eat in bulk at the same time as training hard. Plus, as with all fitness programmes you should track your performance. Next time you do the same exercise, make sure you beat it. Take out the guess work, so if a plateau does come along you then know if it's time for a change."
Meanwhile, Murray has the following advice to help you kick-start your body and mind during a lull. "Train in the morning when you have more testosterone in your system; as this is what helps build muscle," he says. "Keep your workout to less than 60 minutes and work the larger muscles first to really flood your system with testosterone. Do the exercises at a slow to explosive pace and make sure you have 48 hours between sessions."
Stay lean and mean
If your quest to add layers of lean muscle to your frame has ended in frustration, then chances are you're focusing too much on the 'mirror muscles' (biceps, pectorals, abs) and need to start working on the neglected parts of your body.
Walsh says: "Performing three sets of 10 of the same exercises for the rest of your life is dull and boring! The hypertrophy range is 8-12 repetitions, so don't feel you have to bang out 10 every time. You should also train your legs. By doing so you will elevate levels of testosterone in the body, which will then help increase lean muscle mass everywhere."
You should also make sure you're getting enough protein. "If you're looking to maintain muscle mass then keep your protein intake between 1.7-2 grams per kilogram of bodyweight a day," says Murray.
Pounding the pavement or treadmill day after day only works for so long; sooner or later you'll realise that your endurance isn't improving. Time to add in some resistance training, says Murray: "Few sports are just endurance based so you should train to add endurance and strength. You will get more bang for your buck if you schedule in your resistance training after your endurance workout. If using resistance training to improve endurance then look at doing three sets of 30 repetitions, with a three-minute recovery between sets."
Kick-start weight loss
The initial stages of a weight-loss programme often lull a person into a false sense of success. At the beginning, the pounds fall off but then they cling on for dear life. The answer is simple sort your diet out and train harder.
Walsh says: "Most likely it's not your training that's the problem. Cut out starchy carbs (bread, pasta, white rice), processed foods, wheat, caffeine, refined sugar and alcohol. If you've done this and results have slowed down then bring in carb cycling to stabilise insulin levels and reduce fat storage. This is when you rotate carb consumption from normal, to moderate, to zero. Do this several times over a number of weeks and you'll see some big changes. In terms of exercise, give up the slow boring cardio. It burns calories at the time, but does little for the fat burning process afterwards. Train harder over a shorter period to switch on the afterburners."
Monitor your progress
How do you know when you've busted through your plateau and are back on your way towards peak physical condition? The key is to monitor your progress throughout, says Walsh.
"Most people never track the numbers. You have to record your progress and stop free-styling. Don't just jump on the scales each week without tracking how many inches you've lost. If you monitor your progress then you'll know when you've hit a plateau, and you'll also know when you've crashed through it," he says.
Murray adds: "The main thing to remember is to bring your head to the workout, focus on the job and be as technically sound as you can in your training."
Finally, don't forget that this advice is not a one-off to help you reach your pinnacle. It's an ongoing process, and adhering to it year-round will keep you off those plateaus for good.
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