Updated: Sep 1, 2022
If you’ve ever started (and stuck to) a new fitness routine, you know the excitement of seeing rapid improvements in your abilities. It’s a rush to realize you are able to lift more weight, run further/faster, or feel your pants getting looser! Most of us, though, will inevitably experience a fitness plateau.
Your progress starts to stall. You’re putting in the same amount of time and nothing is changing. Your feelings of excitement switch to frustration and your workouts become a grind.
So what is the best way to break through a fitness plateau? The answer is PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD. Before we dive into progressive overload, let’s talk about why you’re hitting a plateau and how you were able to get results so far.
Why am I hitting a plateau?
When you set out to start your new training plan (say… 30-minute workouts, 5 days/week), you applied a new stimulus to your body—a SIGNIFICANT stimulus. You went from no exercise, to consistent exercise. That’s a HUGE change—a change that will most definitely impact your fitness.
Let's say you stuck to this routine for three months. Unless you’ve made changes to your plan, there’s a good chance you’ve hit a plateau. That’s because your body has adapted to the workload you’ve been maintaining. Your body is telling you, “This is what you get for the time/effort you’re putting in.” If you want your fitness to change, then you have to change your routine.
How should I change my routine?
That depends on what your goals are and what kind of fitness you want to improve.
Let’s say your goal is to lose weight and keep it off long term. Let's also say that you read my article on “How do I speed up my metabolism?” and decided to stick to a resistance training program three days/week. You noticed improvements in your strength and muscle gain but two months in you hit a plateau. How can you break out of it and move to the next level?
There are a number of ways you can tweak your routine that will elicit change in your fitness. Here are some ideas: increase sets of each exercise, increase reps, increase the weight lifted, decrease rest, increase total number of exercises, change the exercises themselves, increase workout frequency, etc.
The change you make will dictate the change your body will make: increasing weight lifted will improve your strength, increasing reps will improve your endurance, etc. Unless you are very experienced, I recommend you only pick one variable to focus on changing and keep all the other variables the same. Whichever variable you choose to progress, you’ll want to do it slowly to allow your body to adapt before you progress it again, and again, and again. This process is called progressive overload.
Progressive overload is when you continually push your body harder in order to continually see improvement in your fitness. It’s important to do this gradually. How gradually? It can vary from one individual to the next, but in general, there are a few factors that you must consider. If you have all the prerequisites under control, you can attempt to progress yourself about every 2-4 weeks.
Prerequisites to Progressive Overload
Track your workouts: Tracking allows you to intelligently progress yourself while minimizing risk of injury. You can’t progress a workout accurately if you don’t know how you performed in previous workouts. Make your notes as detailed as you can so you have as much objective information to use as possible. If you want to progress your runs, those details could be: distance, time, average speed, RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion), and days to full recovery.
Frequency: Your body can’t adapt to a new stimulus if you don’t do it very often. It’s like playing an instrument: if you practice once/week, you’ll learn a little bit, but you probably won’t be as good as you were hoping to be. Not only that, but you’ll also have to spend a considerable amount of time at the beginning of each workout reteaching your body how to do the exercise(s) properly.
In my 8+ years of experience working with clients, I’ve found that two workouts/week is a MINIMUM for most people to be satisfied with their results. Three workouts/week is a HUGE step up over two/week.
Remember though, your frequency doesn’t have to stay set in stone forever— frequency is a variable we can progressively overload! Try starting with three workouts/week and add a fourth and fifth over the next three months to accelerate your progress.
Consistency: Missing workouts leads to infrequent workouts. As we just discussed, infrequent workouts prevent your body from adapting to a new stimulus. Inconsistency can also lead to premature progressions because you’ll think that you should be ready to progress when you aren’t.
Recovery: If your body isn’t recovering well from your workouts then there’s no reason to progress yourself. Slow recovery is telling you one of two things: either your body is still trying to adapt to the stimulus, or you aren’t treating your body well enough outside your workouts to recover properly. Either way, you’re asking for an injury by progressing yourself any further. Give yourself more time to adapt to the stimulus (i.e., do the same workout for a couple more weeks) and/or work on improving your recovery tactics.
Good recovery means you feel energized and able to match your performance doing the same workout again two or three days later and you don’t experience muscle soreness that impacts how you walk, bend, squat, or move.
If you want to break through a fitness plateau, you need to understand and apply progressive overload. In order to actually implement progressive overload in your training, you need to make sure you are tracking your workouts, doing the workouts frequently, staying consistent, and recovering well.
Don’t just say you’re going to do these things—come up with a plan for how and when you will do them. Detailed planning is the solution to poor tracking, frequency, consistency, and recovery.
This can all feel overwhelming. Take it one step at a time! Staying committed to working hard and learning through the ups and downs is what will eventually bring you success. If you think you need/want some help, consider hiring a personal trainer or fitness coach.
A good trainer/coach will be able to help you with each of these things. They should be tracking your workouts, prescribing frequent workouts, providing accountability, and teaching you good recovery tactics.
Contact me if you would like to learn how I can help you with each of these key components of a successful fitness plan.