How To Overcome A Plateau

If your progress in the gym has stalled, you’re probably experiencing a plateau.

You’ve been steadily plugging away at your gym sessions, enjoying watching the weight you can lift increase and then suddenly, it stops. Your sessions still feel hard, but you just can’t seem to increase your strength. This can be frustrating, but with the right approach you can quickly get back on track.

What is a plateau and why does it happen?

A workout or training plateau is when you reach a point where you are no longer progressing. While you were previously making progress towards your goal, now it may feel like you are getting nowhere.

To understand why plateaus occur you first need to know how your body builds muscle. When you lift heavy weights, you are creating tiny tears in your muscles. To consistently increase your strength, you need to progressively overload your muscles and fuel your body with adequate nutrition and recovery to allow these microtears to be repaired [1].

A plateau is a sign that your body has adjusted to your workouts and the stimulus needs to be changed to allow you to make further progress [2]. As your body has become more efficient at performing the exercise routine, you will need to regularly make alterations. Most plateaus occur because your body has adjusted to your workout, but it can also be because you aren’t getting the rest and nutrition you need.

Signs you’ve hit a plateau

Some of the common symptoms of hitting a plateau include:

  • You’re doing the same workout, but it feels as hard or harder.
  • After making steady progress, you find you are not able to increase the sets or reps.
  • You have been doing the same workout and weights with no progress after six to eight weeks.

It’s important to note that a week or two of stalled progress is not a sign of a plateau. When you are new to strength training, it’s common to see plenty of initial progress. This is rewarding, but it’s also not sustainable. At some point your body will reach a stage where your progress decreases from leaps to incremental steps and this is completely normal [3]. A true plateau occurs over a longer period of time, such as six to eight weeks. This helps to rule out other reasons which will play a role in your progress, such as the occasional bad night of sleep, a stressful period at work or a lapse in your nutrition.

What to do when you hit a plateau

If you’ve plateaued, the solution will depend on what has caused it. Look for any ongoing changes in your lifestyle, sleeping, eating, work stresses and training regime. For example, maybe you’ve been skipping meals because work has been particularly busy, or you’ve had some late nights out with friends.

If your body had just adjusted to your training regime, you’re going to need to challenge yourself in new ways. Look at the types of exercises you are doing, the weight, reps and sets. Do you have a well-rounded program which trains all the major muscle groups? Are you progressively raising the weights and varying the sets and reps, or have you been doing the same thing? When your body adjusts to the stimulus of your workout, the best way to unlock continued progress is to change your program.

The best programs for overcoming a plateau

Different strength training programs will provide the body with various stimulus. A good Personal Trainer will provide you with a structured and science-backed program which is designed to constantly challenge your body in different ways. This will allow you to consistently stay one step ahead of your body as it grows and adapts.

At Plexus, our programs use periodisation to unlock continued progress for our clients. Put simply, this is an organised, long-term plan to optimise performance [4]. We use many different styles or methods of periodisation, with each designed to serve a very particular purpose. This allows our clients to get the most out of each and every session.

Our programs are all unique to the individual client and their goals and reviewed every four to five weeks. They include varying stimulus and each session is also tailored and adjusted wherever necessary throughout those periods.

As part of our strategies to help our clients avoid a plateau, we often use a mix of linear periodisation and undulating periodisation.

What is linear periodisation?

Linear periodisation is an approach we commonly use in programs for beginners due to its simplicity and effectiveness [5]. A linear periodisation program gradually increases intensity (how hard you need to work) while decreasing volume (how many times you do the exercise) over time [6].

For example, during week one of a 12-week linear periodisation program the client would be completing three sets of eight reps of a weight about 65% of the heaviest they could lift. Over the 12 weeks, they will increase the intensity but lower the sets and reps.

By changing the weight, sets and reps in this way you are shifting the type of challenge your body faces, pushing it to continually adapt. The initial phases will prompt your body to build muscle and increase metabolism [7]. As you move into the later phases, the stimulus shifts, placing a greater demand on your Central Nervous System (CNS). The CNS coordinates how all your muscles work together and training it allows you to maximise the use of your strength [8].

What is undulating periodisation?

As you progress, we will often introduce undulating periodisation into your program. Undulating periodisation relies on a greater amount of change in the stimulus than linear periodisation and sees you change the sets, reps and weight loads more often. It fluctuates between high volume with low intensity and low volume with high intensity.

We tend to utilise the principles of both linear and undulating periodisation in our programs. For example, we may undulate some exercises, while others remain as linear.

So what is the best approach?

There is no single exercise program or strategy which will provide superior results for absolutely everyone. The most important element in a successful training program is that it is carefully planned and regularly reviewed. By working with an experienced and qualified Personal Trainer, you will receive a program tailored to your unique situation, goals and needs. This will allow you to get the most out of each and every gym session.

To talk to an experienced Personal Trainer, book a consultation.

References

[1] https://www.healthline.com/health/how-long-does-it-take-to-build-muscle#TOC_TITLE_HDR_1

[2] https://www.lark.com/blog/seven-ways-to-break-a-fitness-plateau/

[3] https://www.verywellfit.com/six-tips-to-break-through-strength-training-plateaus-3120744

[4] https://www.fitnesseducation.edu.au/blog/personal-training/what-is-periodisation-in-sport/

[5] https://mathiasmethod.com/linear-weight-training-program-for-beginners/#:~:text=Linear%20Periodization%20is%20a%20programming,of%20its%20simplicity%20and%20effectiveness.

[6] https://www.muscleandfitness.com/workouts/workout-tips/linear-periodization-ultimate-muscle-building-plan/

[7] https://www.healthline.com/health/muscular-hypertrophy#:~:text=Hypertrophy%20is%20an%20increase%20and,common%20way%20to%20increase%20hypertrophy.

[8] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/07/170710091652.htm