The workout plateau is the bane of almost everyone who works out. Despite continuing to hit it hard, you’re no longer seeing results. It hardly seems fair and on the surface might not feel like it makes sense—after all, you’re still exercising and eating right—but there are physiological reasons why a workout plateau occurs.
A few of these include lack-of-overload principle, taxing the nervous system, and overtraining. Eventually, your muscles, body, and joint connections adapt and get bored with your activity.
“Most people who work out will hit a plateau,” says exercise physiologist Tom Seabourne, Ph.D., author of Personal Trainer Guide and a Guinness World Record-holding ultra-endurance athlete. When it comes to getting past one he says, let your goals be your guide.
“If you want to get stronger, you have to do things that will get you stronger, like running hills or lifting heavier weight,” he says. “If you want to be faster, add sprint intervals.”
According to Seabourne, it takes as little as four to six weeks for your body to adapt to a workout, which is why you need to provide it with new challenges to tackle and skills to learn.
These seven real-world strategies will help you sail past a frustrating workout plateau and get the results you want.
How to Overcome a Workout Plateau
1. Keep a Log. Consistently
Studies have shown that self-monitoring, by keeping some type of food and exercise diary on most days of the week, is a tried-and-true method for losing weight.
- For cardio, note the mode, duration, distance, and intensity.
- For strength training, record the exercise, weight, reps, sets, and rest periods.
- The American College of Sports Medicine even suggests listing how you feel right after a workout to uncover subtle obstacles that might impact your workout, including how you slept the previous night, specific aches and pains, timing of a previous meal, and stress.
- Consistency is critical. Review your log weekly for inconsistencies, to see how you’re progressing, or even what may be holding you back.
2. Stock Your Fridge, Not Your Cabinets
Your refrigerator should be more crowded than your pantry if you’re eating a clean diet of whole foods versus packaged, processed fare. There’s an old diet adage that says abs are made in the kitchen, but the point goes way beyond abs. Fueling your body with the nutrition it needs will help you get better results when you’re exercising, and keep your body ready for the effort it takes to break through a workout plateau. Load up on fresh veggies, lean proteins, and whole grains.
3. Perfect Your Form
Something as simple as widening or narrowing your grip during a bench press or a lat pulldown can alter the muscles you’re recruiting and provide new stimulus, says Seabourne. Have a personal trainer monitor you.
4. Try New Techniques
- Supersets are back-to-back resistance exercises that are time savers and calorie burners. Drop sets are when you do multiple sets in a row without rest and decrease the weight each time. Both can fatigue a muscle group very efficiently.
- Circuit training, in which you do one set of each move in order, often interspersing some form of cardio in between sets—jumping rope or burpees, for example—can torch more calories than regular weight training. It also saves time by combining cardio and strength.
- Intervals and HIIT training are also good options if you’re just bored with your workout or can’t find enough time to be consistent.
5. Add “Good” Stress
Seabourne explains that the key to strength training is progressive overload, which will help you bust through your workout plateau.
“If you only lift 12 pounds, you’ll only be able to lift 12 pounds,” he says.
You have to gradually stress the body to make it stronger. Some of the variables you can play with besides the pounds and exercises you’re doing include reps, sets, and rest periods. Not seeing your weight-lifting personal record increase as expected? Add speed work, hills, form drills, and core training.
6. Use Periodization
Athletes typically do something called “periodization” to avoid injury and ensure they peak in time for competition. An overview of this type of training, published in the Journal of Human Kinetics, indicates periodization trumps “traditional” training when it comes to long-term strength training results. While it can be complicated, the broad definition of periodization is systematically varying your workouts, usually with specific goals in mind.
7. Recover. Recover. Recover.
Recovery is one of the keys to seeing great results. If you’ve been pushing yourself hard, but you’re not seeing results and are feeling more fatigued than usual, you might be overtraining. In that case, taking a week off to allow your body to fully recover will help you escape the plateau.
In addition, what you do post-workout in terms of eating, rest, and even myofascial release (like massage or using a foam roller) affects how your body responds to exercise. Refueling properly after big workouts, getting plenty of sleep, and releasing tight muscles, can all improve athletic performance and help you break through any exercise plateau.