The glorious first four to eight weeks of any exercise programme see newcomers soar like eagles, gaining muscle, losing fat and becoming faster with every passing day. Then everything slows down... and progress halts. However much effort you put into your workout, nothing seems to be working any more.
The training plateau is one of fitness’s dark secrets. It’s not mentioned by the beaming influencers or the health evangelists and, for many, it means despondency and an abrupt end to their exercise regime, as we pack up our trainers and think: what’s the point?
“Plateau gloom is definitely a thing,” says Zach Cummins, personal training manager at Gymbox Westfield. “People find themselves going to the gym and repeating the same workout and getting frustrated because they’re not making any progress.”
So why does this happen? Sadly, it’s a biological reality that all “fitness honeymoons” come to an end. In a nutshell, exercise works by putting your body under some kind of stress – running, lifting, cycling – and the improvements in fitness are your body making adaptations to the new demands placed on it. Once the demands are accommodated, you will no longer see easy improvements.
Andy Turner is a sports scientist and head coach at ATP Performance. “In the first four to six weeks, a lot of the improvement is the neuromuscular pathways forming. You are using a higher percentage of your muscle fibres,” he says.
“Someone untrained starting to work out will be learning how to manage their muscles and will see immediate results. You are not yet growing stronger so much as learning to maximise the strength that’s always been there.
“But after this phase, results will slow down because you are looking for physical adaptations – bigger muscles, more powerful heart and lungs – and these will be slower to take effect and show up in your performance.”
It’s not just about the body: the mind has a part to play. Late-40-something celebrity trainer Matt Roberts is used to dealing with plateaus among his high-net-worth clients, “People – especially those in their 40s or 50s – are asking: ‘What’s the point? Why am I doing this?’”
The sense of a plateau, Roberts says, could be simply a problem of perspective. “If you get a short-term win, that’s great, enjoy it – but you might go backwards for a few weeks.”
Variety is key, says Roberts. “The human mind is an amazing thing: we get very used to things very quickly. The reason elite athletes are elite athletes is because they do boring stuff repeatedly and they don’t plateau as much because they don’t get bored. It’s about tricking the mind a bit, testing the body in a different way. Firing up different mental synapses.”
Roberts often asks clients suffering a lapse in motivation to plug back into their long-term goals and imagine the consequences of giving up completely. The grey Tuesday morning workout makes a lot more sense when you picture yourself mobile, healthy and athletic deep into your later years.
If you need some extra help to reach the next level, read on.
5 workout plateaus and how to overcome them
By Brett Sizeland, founder of outdoor fitness company Strength&
Plateau problem 1: Overtraining
You experience fatigue, declining performance and burnout because you are doing too much. Training for too long, too frequently or too hard results in diminishing returns and this is often exacerbated by a lack of proper rest and recovery. Attempting to grind through this will only make matters worse.
Overcome it: Take a step back from both the frequency and the intensity of whatever you are doing. Try a full 24-hour total break and then drop all of your loads by 50 per cent.
The two variables to play with are how much time you spend training and how intense each session is, so turning the intensity down (the weight you lift, the speed at which you run) by 50 per cent will create the right circumstances for recovery.
Plateau problem 2. Undertraining
If you’re not training hard enough, you will also quickly hit a training plateau. When you repeat the workouts, especially if they’re not challenging enough, your body will no longer need to adapt and get stronger or fitter to complete them.
Overcome it: Switch up your routine. For example, try halving your rest periods, or adding a kilogram to every weight you lift. Always look to achieve progressive overload (a little more each time). In addition, try some self-reflection – in other words, focus consciously on bringing more work to your next session. Intense training has to be learned through focus and practice.
Plateau problem 3. Technical issues – you just can’t get it right
This is a classic if you are struggling with a particular lift, run or other athletic endeavour.
Overcome it: Seek detailed advice from a strength and conditioning coach. A technical improvement – for example by engaging your core, or changing your arm swing if you’re a runner – can mean immediate results. Sometimes the way you are performing a movement will be holding you back. Typically, runners will find that having made progress without help for a while, they are then stuck at a certain pace. Once they have been given some coaching on correct running form, their times drop suddenly.
Plateau problem 4. Your mind set
Psychology plays a huge role in our training. Sometimes increased stress, workloads or even emotional strain can lead to a training plateau.
Overcome it: Undertake a lifestyle and emotional audit. Sometimes it’s not what happens in the training room that is holding you back. Make a list of the stressors in your life and look at strategies for mitigating their effect. Where there is some element of control, you can make changes. The list allows you to see where work, relationships and responsibilities may be taking a toll.
Plateau problem 5. Your sleep and nutrition are wrong
Your plateau may be created by factors beyond the gym or track. Both food and sleep are vital in making progress.
Overcome it: Increase your chances of a good night’s sleep by taking all possible measures: darken your bedroom, replace your phone with an alarm clock and go to bed at regular times. Measure your food intake. Simply keeping a food diary can often help you cut habits that aren’t helping you achieve your goals.