15 Ways To Break Through a Fitness Plateau
A “fitness plateau” is a point many people reach in their exercise journey: when you're putting in the work but are at a stand-still with your progress. Whether your body has adapted to your workout routine or you’re stuck in a rut, the key to not plateauing is to create a strong foundation for recovery/ nourishment, and then constantly keep your body guessing when it comes to movement. This list is not exhaustive, but will give you some powerful tools to get you progressing again- whether your goals are to put on muscle or lose fat.
Your body is actually growing during times of rest, and so making sure you have given your body adequate time to repair will ensure you keep progressing. Only you can truly tailor what degree of rest your body needs- and the foundation for a rested body are definitely SLEEP. Ensuring your body is getting enough deep sleep is paramount to making progress in the gym; this is the predominant time your body recovers from the exercise induced hormesis, and if your sleep is not dialled in you can be sure that your workouts are suffering. A tell-tale sign of how well your body is rested is if you have the energy to workout without caffeine. If you are reaching for false-energy to get a good workout it, it’s probably time to clean up your sleep hygiene (click HERE to learn how). If your sleep is on point but you genuinely train hard: consider taking an entire week off the gym. I know that seems horrifying, but it is a profound way to break through a plateau if you’re type A and always go-go-go.
This one is very related to rest (as the food you nourish your body with is effectively what your body uses to repair you body during periods of rest). Find out what works for you when it comes to fuelling your body, and don’t be afraid of experimenting. The quality of the food you eat, the quantity, and also the feeding window. Intermittent fasting is a brilliant way to give your body adequate rest (from digestion), induces autophagy (cellular repair), promotes insulin sensitivity, and naturally boosts HGH and testosterone. Also breaking free from old-paradigms like the need to feed directly after a workout; click HERE to learn more about how waiting a couple of hours post-workout to eat may actually be more beneficial for your goals.
Also know that there is not one way to eat. We live in a very dogmatic world when it comes to diet, everyone claims to have found "the" answer. Use yourself as a guinea pig, and find out what works for you. Food ultimately fits into one of three categories: it makes your feel better, it makes you feel the same, or it makes you feel worse. Don't over complicate things, find out what makes you feel good, and eat it. If you're unsure, eliminate the food for 2 weeks, and then re-introduce it... you'll know.
3. Mind-body connection
A) What are you thinking about/ focusing on when you train? And B) when you are performing an exercise, do you know what muscles are being targeted? Just going through the motions is completely different than really connecting with your intention, and really activating a mind-body connection throughout the movement will transform your workout. FOCUS! Needless to say if you’re thinking about what you’re going to cook for dinner you are definitely not performing the movement optimally. As you progress on your fitness journey, learn about your human anatomy/ physiology and focus on the mind-body connection to ensure you are better activating the muscles being worked. If you are chest-pressing: feel the insertion points in your back as you activate your arms and chest and transfer the weight up, anchor your shoulder, feel the chest muscles as the weight moves up and comes back down.
4. Mobility/ activation
This is very much related to the mind-body connection, in that mobilizing the body to a fuller range of motion, and activating the muscle groups being worked (before using them) will ensure you know exactly what you’re targeting, and help you hold that mind-body connection as you train.There are many ways to activate the muscle groups, googling “activation *insert muscle group* will give you ample examples- but one great way if to use resistance bands. Also consider reading Becoming A Supple Leopard for a deep dive into mobility/ activation, and consider following @vinhfloresle and @docjenfit for constant inspiration.
Another way to really focus on activating the right muscle group (and also a great way to address imbalances in the body) is to train individual sides of the body isolated from one another. We often have a "stronger side" and so by isolating your right shoulder from the left, or your left hamstring from the right- you are better able to focus on the individual muscles, without compensating with your stronger side. Work your weaker side first, and use that weight (+ reps/ sets/ tempo) to set the bar for your weaker side (pun always intended). This exercise is awesome to increase your body awareness and find whole-body-balance.
5. Go heavy
This is for those that usually go light: switch it up. Don’t be afraid to go heavy, and reduce your reps. Throw in a couple of heavier weighted sessions a weak to keep your body guessing, and adapting. Lifting heavy things will fast-track your progress whether your goal is to put on muscle or lose weight (both men and women!)
6. Go light(er)
This one is for the peeps who are heavy hitters and are always lifting heavy: switch it up. It can be incredibly powerful not only for your fitness goals, but also for the ego. If you’re always training heavy and progress has stalled, you can be sure that your body has adapted to your routine. If you don’t wan’t to dedicate an entire session to lighter weight, consider ending your workout with a set of 25 reps to failure (known as a “back off” set) which has been proven by a Japanese study to potentate muscle growth induced by low reps.
Here’s an example of a “Japanese drop-set”:
Exercise A – 4-5 sets, 4-6 reps
Exercise B (same exercise as exercise A) – 1 set, 25 reps
7. Go body-weight
Body weight exercise is probably the most underrated tool you have to break through a fitness plateau. People often jump to the weights without having mastered their own body, and if you think body-weight training is below you- try performing 100 body-weight squats with perfect form... and then let’s talk. It’s not about completely shelving the weights, but adding in 20, 30, 40, or 50 reps of the same movement you’re about to do weighted before hand will prime your body for the movement to come, activate the area, and get you in the head-space to really execute mind-body connection. Also, try adding in the body weighted movement after you finish the weighted movement. Similar to a “japanese drop set” you would finish your squat session, and perform air squats to failure.
Are you only ever in the gym? Switch it up. Studies prove beyond a doubt that training in all different modalities mutually benefit one another. Infamous strength coach Charles Poliquin speaks of this often. Yoga will benefit your gym training, and the bicycle will help your running stride. A great way to know what activity you should do is to do what you hate. If you hate running, odds are you’re pretty shit at it; we gravitate towards activities we love because we’re naturally better at them. If you hate calisthenics/ gymnastic based training, you are definitely not the best at it. For the majority of your training: pursue what you love, but by balancing it out with activities you “hate” you will be working on aspects of your holistic fitness regimen that are falling by the wayside. Engaging in them occasionally will not only increase your ability but also benefit your more preferred method of training, and prevent injury from over-use!
Are a great way to really feel the burn. This is a technique where you perform the exercise, and then drop (reduce) the weight and continue with more reps (without rest) to failure, and you can continue on dropping the weight until you’re basically performing the exercise with a minuscule amount of weight (and quivering). I love incorporating drop-sets on a day when I’m feeling “off” (tired, jet lagged, unmotivated) because its a sure-fire way to absolutely destroy yourself without really having to think about it. Leave your ego at the door for this one, because you will be shaking and struggling to push very little weight by the end.. but do it for the #gains! It's also incredible for the nervous system.So for example, if your hamstring curling at 65 for 4 sets of 10, on your last set you would hit 10 reps, then drop the weight to 55 and with no rest continue with as many reps as you can, drop the weight to 40 and continue with no rest as many reps as you can… and so on.
Instead of training individual exercises isolated from one another, try combining multiple exercises into an intentional circuit. You can combine multiple exercises that all target one predominant muscle group (like a back circuit that combines cable rows, lat pulldown, and face-pulls) or a push/pull superset (like chest press- push, into bent over rows- pull). Play around with your rest periods between supersets, and consider very little rest to boost your cardiovascular health.
11. Switch up the tempo
How intentional is your tempo (the rate at which you perform movement)? Explosive movement on the way up, and a slow eccentric movement will really maximize your weight session. For example, a slow and controlled movement down into the squat position, and and explosive (quick, controlled) movement back up to standing. Adding in a pause (or even a pulse) at the point of most tension before coming back up will add an other layer of difficulty.
12. 1/2 then full range of motion
We often rush through the first 1/4- 1/2 of the range of motion of any exercise, using momentum to get us into the full expression of a movement. Try first completing only half the range of motion, returning to start, then full expression, and back to start (that would be one rep). So for example if your shoulder-pressing with dumbbells, you would press up 1/2 the way, go back to start, press the whole way, and then back to start.
13. Switch up the positioning/ grip
If you're always squatting with your legs/ feet in the same position, you’re missing out. There are so many ways to tweak your positioning that will completely change the muscles required to perform the exercise. Widen legs (sumo squat) for example; drive your toes wider or more narrow; slightly elevate your heels or toes; if you always go overhand try underhand, or criss-cross. You can also try starting your movement with the concentric range (called dead stops) - learn more HERE.
14. Fast twitch/ Slow twitch
I’m currently loving combining exercises that work the slow twitch muscle fibres (using heavier, slower motions) with fast-twitch fibres (the muscles recruited when you’re moving fast). This is cross-training in a sense, because it’s not focusing on one myopic goal. Be sure that during that session, both your movements will be compromised (you won’t go as heavy or be as fast) but your body will quickly adapt and both muscle groups will benefit as a result. An example would be to pair a relatively-heavy deadlift followed by a stair-sprint. It’s offing exhausting.
15. Life Is A Jungle Gym
It’s not only about what you do during that hour of the day you’re in the gym, in fact- it’s mostly not about that one hour. Of course rest and nutrition are key factors outside of the gym- but so is your movement during the rest of the day. Take the stairs, park the car further away from your destination to get a walk in, or better yet use your bicycle. Can you get in a stretch before bed, or first thing in the morning? Go for a hike. Get a foam roller for your house, and make time to use it regularly. If you’re desk bound at work, make the time to move your legs and spine throughout the day. Have a dance party while you cook dinner.. find ways to never stop moving!
Good luck blasting through that plateau! Any other suggestions? Comment below!