Saturday, July 4, 2015

How to break a plateau

How to break through a plateau
Get back to progress.

If you follow the same workout program for too long, you will start to see diminishing results (fewer gains in muscle size and strength) over time as your body adapts to the stimulus placed on it. This is called homeostasis.

You want to grow as fast as possible, right? A gym program is only as good as the strength and size gains that it brings you. 

There might be nothing wrong with your program, but if you’re doing the same thing over and over, your body will have adapted to it and stop growing to meet the same old physical demands.

Signs that you've hit a plateau

  1. No increase in physical performance for two weeks or longer
  2. You aren’t losing fat or building muscle anymore: Your body weight isn't changing
  3. Your gym regime seems more like a daily routine instead a challenge
  4. The work seems easy but you still reach failure and can’t push past your previous bench marks

List of signs of an exercise plateau
Change it up.

1. No increase in physical performance for two weeks or more

You aren’t increasing your reps and weights anymore. You're stuck at the same place that you were two weeks ago. 

It needs to be for two weeks in a row for you to be concerned, because all of us suffer from drops in performance for a day or two, every now and then. If your physical performance is not improving, your body won't either.

2. You aren’t losing fat or building extra muscle: Your body weight isn't changing

This is a classic plateau symptom. Your body has adapted to your exercise routine and has become comfortable. It does not feel the need to change because it feels safe with its physical expectations and output.

3. Your gym regime seems more like a daily routine, instead a challenge for your body to overcome

This is a psychological symptom of a plateau. If your workout no longer challenges you, and if you don't need that much determination to finish your workout, it might be good time for change. 

I personally change my workout plan whenever I feel like it is getting boring to avoid hitting a plateau. This will also encourage that lack of motivation, since you aren't feeling or seeing any physical changes as a result of your hard work anymore.

4. The work seems easy but you still reach failure and can’t push past your previous bench marks

This is a classic, common sign that you've hit a plateau. If you don't feel like your workout is taking a lot out of you, even though your body won't let you go any further, you've most probably hit a plateau. 

If the maximum volume, time, reps or weight that you can do stays the same; you've hit a plateau. If your maximum output decreases, you might have over trained.

Keep things fresh.
Change is awesome.

Although over training and plateau’s can interlink, they are not the same thing. 

It is possible to over train without hitting a plateau - and it is possible to hit a plateau without over training.

A plateau leads to a lack of physical progress. Over training leads to reversed progress (you get weaker instead of stronger), joint pain or injury, and exercise-induced depression.

Signs of over training 

If you’ve overtrained then you need to remedy that instead of trying to break a plateau. Click here to heal from over training.

1. Insomnia or oversleeping
2. Lack of motivation
3. Extreme appetite changes (no appetite or extremely high appetite)
4. Moodiness, frustration, depression or emotional outbursts
5. Diminished physical performance
6. Muscle spasms and twitches
7. Low immune system
8. Constant, unquenchable thirst

Note that it is extremely unlikely to get any of these symptoms from a plateau (except for the emotional response for people who tie their self-worth to their exercise performance or physical progress).

List of over training symptoms
Don't push your body too far.

1. Sleep: you suffer from insomnia or oversleeping

Ironically, struggling to get good sleep, sleeping too much or the constant desire for more sleep is all caused by over training. All three symptoms can arise from too much physical stress being placed on your body. 

For people who struggle to sleep, your body is under so much stress on the central nervous system that it can't calm down to recover properly. Read more about your central nervous system, how over training affects it and how to help it recover here. 

Sleeping for too long is common among others who are over-trained because your body needs more time to recover, but the stimulus placed on it is so high that it never catches up on needed recovery.

This will also explain lethargy, fatigue and the desire to sleep all the time. This is how to fall asleep ASAP.

Sleep problems are rarely caused by a plateau, though.

2. Lack of motivation (could also be present in a plateau, but not as much)

While a plateau can also sap out your motivation to further your goals, over training attacks your motivation more aggressively. 

Some people don't lose their motivation when they've hit a plateau. They just fall into the monogamous routine of doing the same thing over and over again - even when they don't see new results anymore. 

Over training is the most common culprit among athletes who begin to wonder why they are putting so much effort into their sports or exercise efforts in the first place. 

Many of them start to hate the sport that they do or dread the idea of practicing or exercising. Over training can cause depression, whereas hitting a plateau does not have as a big an impact on your emotional state.

Listen to your body.
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3. Diet: lack of appetite or constant cravings for high calorie/fast food

This is a very common sign of over training that isn't usually present in people who have hit a plateau. 

Since their bodies are bombarded with physical stress and they are frantically trying to recover, they might not be able to regulate their hunger (ghrelin) and satisfaction (leptin) hormones properly.

Again, different people will experience this in different ways. Some people will lose their appetite completely because their bodies are starting to break down from too much physical stress. 

Others crave high calorie and high fat foods because their bodies try to get as much energy from food as possible to compensate for drastic energy depletion. 

If you feel like this might refer to you, you need to recover from over training.

4. Moodiness

This is commonly seen in athletes who have over trained. Since the physical stress starts to crush the body from the inside out, the emotional state suffers as well. 

The brain does not have enough time to recover during sleep, since the body is taking as many resources as possible to recover physically. 

Also, mood-regulating hormones fall out of balance along with the rest of the body's normal mechanisms.

5. Halted or diminishing physical performance

When you train more than what your body can recover from, your physical performance will not increase but slowly start to decrease. 

The longer you stay in this overtrained state, the faster the rate at which physical performance declines. The longer you over train, the longer it will take to recover.

Moderation is better than over compensation.
Too much of anything is unhealthy.

6. Muscle spasms and twitches

This is due to the central nervous system being over stressed. It starts to fall apart. Getting this from hitting a plateau is almost impossible.

7. Lowered immune system: Falling ill more easily and more frequently

Your immune system also takes a big hit when your body suffers from over training. If you are getting sick more often, you might have over trained and your body probably needs a good long break.

8. Constant, unquenchable thirst

This is another common symptom that is associated with over training. You might also feel nauseous often as well. In other cases, it also becomes harder to follow your normal daily routine (waking up, working, spending time with friends and family, bed time, etc.)

If you have over trained (nearing or at the point of over exertion), a few rest days might be all that you need. Here are great ways to make your rest day the best recovery day that you've ever had.

It is okay to take rest when you need it.
Rest is good for you.

Now that we've distinguished the difference between over training and hitting a plateau, read on if you think that you have hit a plateau.

How to break a plateau

There are 8 ways to break a plateau. These methods can turn your workout routine back into the body-enhancing agent that it is meant to be.

1. Take a rest week
2. Change your diet
3. Use creatine
4. Change your exercise routine
5. Get more sleep
6. Increase sunlight exposure
7. Invite a friend to your workout
8. Mix in some music

List of methods to break a plateau
Do this and prosper.

1. Take a rest week

A rest week might be all that your body needs. 

Your body adapts between workouts the best that it can for the time being, but there is also a long-term recovery that the body can use to maximize your progress. 

It is recommended to take a rest week off every 10 weeks that you spend hitting the iron so that your body can repair itself on a deeper level. 

Lack of long rest might be causing your plateau as the need for deep recovery starts to accumulate.

Avoiding this kind of long rest for too long and you risk eventual over training.

Benefits of a rest week

Have you ever noticed that your muscles look bigger when you've skipped a few days of exercise?

A rest week will allow your body to re-align muscle fibers, strengthen bones and joints and stock up on inter-muscular nutrients without the stress of quickly recovering as best it can before the next workout. 

Many people have larger muscle growth rates in their rest weeks than on normal training weeks! I am one of these people. 

People often return to the gym with increased strength, stamina and motivation. I recommend that you spend two days during this week at the gym - only stretching and relaxing in the sauna, which will help to maximize your body’s recovery.

It is hard to avoid the gym, road or studio when you've finally built up the dedication to make exercise a daily habit. Trust me when I say that the results (and mental benefits) are worth it. You will return with more motivation than ever.

Try it out at least once and see how you feel when you return. 

In the meantime, use this opportunity to clean your house, spend some extra time with the family or do something fun. 

A nice, relaxed walk can do wonders for you, both mentally and physically, during a rest week. The goal is not to stop moving completely. It is to allow the body to go into a deep state of recovery.

Not sure what do to with your extra time on rest days? Turn an awful rest week into an awesome recovery week

Amazing things happen when you give your body what it needs.
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2. Change your diet

You’ll be surprised how often too much or too little of something is the cause of that annoying plateau. 

Are you consuming enough calories to sustain muscle growth or energy output? Are your macro nutrients (protein, carbohydrate, fat, fruit and vegetables) in the right proportion and size according to your current physical needs? 

There are many ways to customize your diet.

1. Try a simple/fast-acting carbohydrate food straight after your workouts to replenish glycogen stores in your muscles quickly

Your body might need more energy to advance to the next level. Use MyFitnessPal to monitor whether you eat enough calories.

2. Increase protein and water intake (throughout your daily meal plan)

You need water to recover. Avoid beverages that cause dehydration. You can't build new cells or repair them without protein.

3. Increase the total daily calories you consume

If maximum muscle growth is your primary goal, try a diet high in calories for maximum muscle gain.

4. Switch out your protein sources (too much whey, too little fish?)

Try taking protein supplements according to the way the protein enters your body so that your body always has the protein that it needs to recover.

5. Add micro-nutrients like vitamins, minerals or oils

Are you eating enough fruit and vegetables to get important nutrients that your body uses for recovery? Do you need more minerals or electrolytes? You lose precious nutrients every time that you sweat.

6. Check your supplements: Are they really perfect or is it time for a change-up?

I've seen many cases where simply changing supplements increased muscle growth. Here are the supplement basics that everybody should know.

7. What else can you add or subtract to help your body get its growth back?

Is all the sugar in your diet slowing you down? Perhaps you eat too much junk food or too little carbohydrates for sufficient energy production.

Try a few of the points above until you find what works for you. I battled with a shoulder joint injury until I supplemented with fish oil daily.

List of ways to change your diet to improve exercise
Try different things to find what works.

3. Go on a creatine cycle or use a pre-workout

A good pre-workout or creatine cycle will give your body a boost to blast past that wall it can’t climb over. 

Start with a half dose for 2 weeks. Advance a full dose for 2 weeks. Go back to a half dose for the following 2 weeks. Keeping the same reps and weight numbers you did on the full dose when you do the second half dose. 

Sometimes our bodies just need a good push in the right direction to get them growing again.

Find the form of creatine that works best for you. Don't use creatine for too long without giving your body a break. You should always cycle creatine.

4. Change your exercise program

This is the most common way to overcome a plateau. I've listed it at the fourth best way to overcome a plateau (instead of the first) because you should automatically change your program at least every 2 months.

How long have you been following the program that you are currently on? Go back to the other points if you've hit a plateau and you've changed your program within the last 2 months. 

It’s time to change things up if you use the same exercise plan that you did 2 or more months ago (regardless of whether you hit a plateau or not).

Change the whole program completely (like from a standard 5-day split to a Push-Pull-Legs (PPL) program or vice versa) or change a few small things within the program if you want to keep at it a little longer. 

If you are ready for a real challenge (advanced weight lifters only), try the GARRY workout program. You can also check out our research on what the best workout split for muscle growth is.

There are many things you can change in your existing program to bring back your body’s awesome adaption mechanism.

List of ways to keep exercise fresh for physical improvement
Change equals growth.

1. Rep range

Many people cycle between a week of higher reps and a week of lower reps to keep the body in its prime adaption phase. Try using heavier weights with fewer reps or lighter weights with more reps.

Changing your rep range can have a great counter-plateau effect. High reps can also build muscle mass.

2. Rep times

Increase your TUT (total time under tension) with each rep. 

If your reps are usually under a second, take a full second to lift the weight, another second to hold it there and two seconds to lower the weight back to your resting position. 

The burn you feel in your muscles after doing this will definitely be an indication of greater stimulus being put on the muscle.

3. Number of sets

Change the number of sets to a higher or lower number. 

Would your muscles benefit from a few more sets per exercise? Are you doing too many sets for them to recover sufficiently before the next exercise session? 

4. Change the exercises

Switch rows with pull-ups. Replace cable presses with bench presses. Do hack squats instead of knee extensions.

This will help you to bust out of that plateau instantly.

5. Change your grip

Reverse the grip on all of your exercises to work the muscles from an angle that they are not used to. This will force them to adapt to a new form of stimuli.

I was shocked at the positive change that this simple hack brought to my own training regime when a friend recommended it to me.

6. Change your set format

Swap the standard 8, 8, 8 set for a pyramid style (15, 12, 10, 8, 6); drop set (6, 10, 12, 15, 20) or super-set (bench press and dips in the same set) to keep forcing your muscles to grow.

7. Intensity

Decrease the amount of time that you rest in between sets. 

Now muscles will need to get stronger and bigger to be able to cope with less recovery time they have before being recruited to work again. 

You can also increase your rest time, so that you have more strength with each set.

8. Exercise order

Change the order of exercises you do, so that different fibers in the muscles are recruited at different exercises. 

The bench press might be exhausting your triceps before you hit the dips. 

Now your triceps can do more on the dips and your chest will need to step it up to complete the bench press afterwards.

9. Rest between exercise sessions

You might rest too little in-between sessions that use the same muscles. They therefore aren’t at their full potential next time round. You might rest for too long. In this case, they are over-rested and have started shrinking back to normal before they are stimulated again.

Do something different. Change is good for you.
Keep it fresh.

You don't have to implement all of these changes at once. Choose the ones that you are going to change and take it from there. 

The next time you feel a plateau coming on; you can change a few of the other elements. 

Sometimes, all it takes is one good change instead of many. 

If you really want to change everything up at once, go ahead. That's also okay.

5. Get more sleep

You might feel fine, but an extra hour or two of shut eye might be all that your body needs to recover to the max for its next workout session.

Most muscle growth happens when you sleep. It is important that we get enough of it and have the right nutrients in our bodies when we sleep so that our muscles can do what we want them to – grow!

6. Get some sunshine

Expose your skin to the natural rays of the sun. This will increase your testosterone levels naturally through the vitamin D that our skin makes during contact with sunlight.

No wonder why our energy levels are lower and we're just plain lazy during winter!

There are few things as good for you as sleep, laughter and natural sunlight.
Sun and sleep help with performance.

7. Add a friend to your workout session

Some healthy competition between you and a bud will increase your muscular output. This might sound crazy, but who cares if you're getting stronger?

8. Mix some music into your workout

Imagine beating your personal best just because the right track was playing!

My personal, top 3 methods to blast past a plateau

Everybody hits a plateau (although some plan ahead and make changes before they plateau). My personal, favorite ways to speed up muscle growth are:

1. Taking a rest week

I like the idea of getting a good, deep recovery every few weeks. I personally feel like it sets my last cycle’s gains well into my new cycle’s starting point. 

After a week of rest, my new size and strength gains become the new ‘starting stats' for me to improve on before my next rest week. 

I take a rest week every 8 weeks.

2. Going on a creatine cycle

I feel like creatine can be the jumper cables to a body that wants to start slow down. 

It is natural for our bodies to save energy whenever they can. They will only grow when it feels like it has to in order to survive. 

A helping hand from mister C never hurts.

3. Change of program

I generally do a rest week and then a creatine cycle once I've maxed out. 

I then create a total change in my exercise program (different exercises, reps, split and everything). 

I love the soreness in my muscles when starting a new program because I feel like the muscle is being forced to grow even bigger. 

If my muscles aren't suffering, why would they grow?


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