So you’ve been training consistently for a while and seen good results, but now it seems like that progress has stalled. This is called a plateau. They are perfectly normal and a sign that you may be progressing from a novice to an intermediate trainee. What matters now is how you go about breaking the plateau. What follows is a list of the most common reasons why people hit their first training plateau. Ask yourself these questions, and answer them honestly. I can say with massive certainty that literally >90% of the time when people say they have plateaued, at least one of these reasons is at play.
Are you eating and sleeping enough?
Believe it or not, our bodies do almost no growing while we are training. Our time in the gym is simply the stimulus that tells our body it needs to change. The actual adaptations (whether they be muscle growth, strength gain, better fitness) actually occurs when we are resting in the hours and days following a tough gym session. The keys to this growth are food and sleep. If you’re not doing the best you can in these two categories, you’re shortchanging your results, massively.
If you’re unsure of how much food you need to eat, consult a calorie calculator (be conservative with the activity level you select for yourself, most of us are more sedentary than we think). Obviously a lot of this needs to be protein, and carbohydrates (the kind that won’t set you off on a sugar binge). Fruits and vegetables are also highly important for general health.
As for sleep, make sure you are getting a minimum of 7 hours. To be clear, 7 hours is crap and will still leave a lot of people feeling sluggish. Eight is decent. Nine is ideal. There are lots of nice tips and ‘hacks’ out there. Really it comes to building the habit of going to damn bed on time.
2. Is your training consistent?
Our bodies are inherently lazy; they want us to do as little work as possible to conserve as much energy as possible. This means that if we don’t train often, we will at best stay the same, and worst begin to lose the adaptations we had previously worked for. If you are missing training sessions often, you need to assess why. Consistently doing just 2 days per week will always be better than inconsistently attempting 3.
Additionally, don’t be tempted to ‘programme hop’. The kind of training programme you are on is rarely the difference in making progress or plateauing. Most of the popular strength programmes out their will work to some degree. What matters most is that you have a plan, and that you stick to it, week in and week out. The more you keep changing exercises, set and rep schemes, etc., the less clear your message is to your body about what you want it to adapt to.
3. Are you rushing the process?
Everyone always seems to overlook the ‘progressive’ part of ‘progressive overload’. Adding weight to your squat every single session only works for the first few months, maybe the first year if you’re really lucky. If you want to keep making progress beyond that, you need to accept that it’s going to have to occur in smaller chunks, and over a longer span of time.
Therefore if you find yourself ‘plateauing’ just a few weeks into training, it may be because you’ve expected too much progress too soon. Remember, progress doesn’t always have to mean adding weight. Adding reps or sets are also ways of making the exercise more challenging. Weight should only be added when your body is capable and technique is not compromised.
Remember: training is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. The person who can progress over the longest time with fewest injuries will be the best.