Have you suddenly started struggling to progress in your workouts? You may have hit a fitness plateau - but there are easy ways to break through.
We’ve all set fitness resolutions in the past, whether it’s running a marathon in a certain time or squatting a set weight. With those goals comes a training plan that often quickly brings results – you might start quickly lifting more each week, or shaving seconds off your PB every time you run. But then things start to feel hard. Progress halts and, before you know it, you can’t seem to improve at all.
No, you haven’t hit your upper limit of fitness. Instead, it’s likely that you’ve hit a plateau. “A training plateau is when, despite putting in consistent effort and following the same workout regimen, individuals no longer see improvements in their performance,” says Dan O’Neill, head of training at London wellness facilities Until.
“If you notice that you have lost strength, muscle growth, motivation, or progression within your workouts over several weeks, you may be experiencing a training plateau.”
“Training plateaus normally occur because your body has adapted to the type of training you are doing, and is no longer progressing or developing at a rate of improvement,” explains O'Neill.
Exercise is a stimulus that our body has to adapt to. When we regularly jog, the lungs and heart increase their capacity to enable us to run easier. When we squat with a barbell on our back, we become strong enough to do that with ease.
However, eventually, you’ll be too fit and strong for that same stimulus to trigger these adaptations, explains O’Neill. “As you gain strength the programme needs to continually develop to ensure there is progress – if you keep doing the same thing, you'll often get the same result,” he says.
That isn’t the only reason your gains might be slowing. What you do in your training session is only the first step to progressing – recovering is the second, and without enough of it, your body won’t be adapting. “Overtraining, which is excessively exercising over a period of time and not allowing enough time for the body to recover, is a key reason for a plateau,” explains O’Neill.
Alongside enough rest days, you need to be nailing your sleep, nutrition and stress levels to ensure that your body is ready to take on the challenges in the gym.
It’s important to remember that your newbie gains won’t last forever. Many people are able to progress at a fast rate at the beginning of their fitness journey, with some research suggesting inexperienced lifters can gain up to 3.2kg of muscle in their first three months of lifting. But progress tends to slow around six months to a year, with only around 200g of muscle being put down every month if you’re training right and recovering well, according to a paper from McMaster University.
Outside of your beginner window, chasing extreme results quickly is often unsustainable and, often, dangerous – but there’s a difference between slow and steady gains and a plateau in progress.
“Having a set plan and routine in place which gradually places incremental demands on your body is the key to developing in the way you envisage. This is known as a progressive overload, and your body can’t improve without this stimulus,” says O’Neill.
Progressive overloading means constantly intensifying the exercise stimulus to encourage adaptations “in your neuromuscular system, muscle growth, bone mass and connective tissue. Depending on your goals and exercise, your tolerance to lactic acid, lactate threshold, aerobic power and further cardiovascular functions will improve.”
But we know what you’re thinking – you can’t progress, that’s the problem. However, progressive overload isn’t just about whacking extra 5kg plates onto the bar every week. As well as lifting more, it can look like:
Research also shows that changing up your technique can have a big impact on plateaus. A study published in Frontiers in Physiology found that focusing on eccentric exercise – which is the lowering phase of a movement like bending down into a squat – considerably improved the strength, power and muscle mass of experienced strength trainers more than traditional training.
Unilateral exercise, where you train one side at a time as in split squats and alternating shoulder presses, can also benefit you if muscular imbalances are causing your plateau. A 2022 study, from the International Journal of Strength and Conditioning, reported that unilateral exercises improved one-rep max strength and isometric strength more than bilateral exercises, which train both sides at once.
Remember that what you do after your workout is hugely important for progress. “It’s incredibly important to constantly work on basic recovery principles like sleep, hydration and nutrition, which can allow for more energy to perform the training programme and lead to better physiological adaptation afterwards,” says physiotherapist and O’Neill’s colleague at Until, Liam Rodgers.
As our muscles repair when we sleep, getting a proper night’s sleep is crucial - that means no scrolling on your phone until the early hours. In a 2019 study, swimmers who extended their sleep to 10 hours a night not only improved accuracy and reaction time but also power and efficiency, which could help you break through your training limits.
Check in with your protein intake too. Registered nutritionist Dan Clarke says this should ideally be around 1.6-2.2 grams per kilogram of body weight for active people, and slacking on the macronutrient can reduce your ability to rebuild and come back stronger.
More regular training feels like an obvious solution to a lack of progress, but maintaining recovery days is important, especially if you’re focusing on overloading in every single workout. Not only does research find that there isn’t a big effect of increasing training frequency on strength, but exercising on under-recovered muscles probably explains why you can’t lift as heavy.
In the long run, not enough rest can also lead to overtraining syndrome which “is considered an accumulation of training load that leads to performance decrements” according to the Sports Health journal.
There’s no perfect number of workouts, but if you’re feeling sore, tired and hungry alongside your stalling progress, you might want to dial back your workout frequency and focus on training and recovering hard.
Words: Chloe Gray
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