Training Plateaus – How They Happen and How To Break Them

training plateaus - what causes them and how to break themThere’s certain things in life that are inevitable.  You know, like the old saying says… Death, taxes, and hitting training plateaus.  Ok, so the last one is a little bit niche, but if you are in the iron game long enough and are trying to get better long enough, which is why you’re here, then you’re eventually going to hit that stalling point where you just can’t seem to run faster, get leaner, or put another plate on the bar no matter how hard you push.

When you start training you begin a process that we in the business call the adaptation curve.  What that basically means is that on Day Zero your performance is at a certain level.  After a bout (or series of bouts) of training, you actually see a decrease in performance because you’re under stress but haven’t adapted yet.  Over time, adaptation happens and you become fitter and stronger, so your performance increases beyond your start point.  Eventually this performance levels out at a new point and can either plateau or decrease again.

First of all, understand that plateaus are normal when it comes to training.  The body is seeking to keep you alive by being a wonderfully adaptable organism, which is why training works in the first place.  After a while, though, the body figures some stuff out.  The same stimulus, even if it’s slightly heavier, doesn’t do the job because the body has adapted or just reached the end of its rope.  Let’s look into a couple of reasons as to why this is.

Over time, as I alluded to above, the body desensitizes to stimulus.  You know how if you get into an uncomfortable place (like the back of a Volkswagen) or smell something particularly pungent it takes all of your attention for a while but after a bit you don’t really notice it anymore?  Your body has become “used to it” and your brain doesn’t focus on it anymore.  Through a variety of mechanisms (receptor site down-regulation, hormonal adaptation, etc) the body basically does a similar thing with your training.  After a while it adapts to that type and mechanism of training and really doesn’t seek to improve all that much.

That’s one reason that plateaus happen.  The other, and more frequent, reason for plateaus is because your drain got too small for your faucet.

Wait, what?

In order for your body to adapt and make progress, it needs to have the necessary resources (material, energy, hormonal environment, etc) to heal up from the (good) damage you’re causing and be able to put that extra into growth.  Imagine that your available capacity for this is a bathtub.  Everything that puts stress on you ranging from your training to your family to your job to your environment is going to be coming out of the faucet and into your capacity tub.  The more stress, the bigger or faster the faucet.

On the other hand, you have all of your recovery abilities working for you as the drain.  These include your nutrition status, hormone profile, sleep schedule, genetics, and so on.  All of these combine to manage that stress and help you recover.

As long as your drain is able to keep up with your stress, you’re good.  Things get dicey, though, when either the stress increases from your training or your recovery goes down from your environment and decisions.  Let’s say, for example, that you started out training by squatting 135 for eight reps.  Fast forward a couple of years and now you’re doing 315 for eight.  That’s a ton more stress, so even if everything else is the same, your faucet is pouring faster.  Now, in that time your fitness has obviously improved (bigger drain), but there eventually gets to be a point where the faucet will overtake the drain.  That’s why most people plateau.

There are all kinds of ways to break a plateau and kickstart progress again.  The first step is always trying to analyze what’s going on and seeing if there’s an obvious answer for the pause in adaptation.  If there is, then we’ll work on that.  That being said, here’s the three most common plateau-busting techniques we use at Relentless that you can implement in your own training.

1.  Switch up your programming.

The body gets stuck in a rut, as I said above, and there’s only so long you can keep smashing away at the same exercise, set, or rep scheme before you stall out.  If that wasn’t the case then everyone would start out benching the bar and after a few years be repping a grand.  Obviously, that’s not the case.

So the quickest way to make some progress when you’re plateaued is to switch up your exercises to something similar but different, change the rep scheme, or make some other adjustment to give your body a novel stimulus.  This will give your body a fresh start and force it to adapt and compensate.

Note that this doesn’t mean that you should blow up your program with totally new things or that you should be switching the whole thing up every time you come into the gym, like a lot of popular programs seem to advocate.  You really only make long-term progress by giving your body the time it needs to adapt to exercises, particularly as a beginning-intermediate trainer.  With the constant switching of variables you never really adapt and you also don’t really know what’s working and what isn’t.

Also, you’re better off sticking with similar exercises or making changes in the set and rep scheme of the exercises you’re already doing then totally swapping all things around.  You’re more likely to coax some more progress out of track you’re already going down and not backsliding as much as you would by making radical changes.

2.  Take a deload.

Sometimes we all just want to get away.

Sometimes the easiest way to reduce the stress level on the body is to temporarily shut off the faucet and let the drain do its work.  Taking a deload (a planned reduction in training) gives the body time and resources to heal up from the damage you’re causing and come back stronger.

A deload can be one session or several, depending on the severity of stress you’ve been under and how you structure your training.  I’ve had great success in my own training programs by taking a full week to deload every twelve weeks of training or so.  As I’ve advanced in adulthood and have more responsibilities (travel, family, etc) I find that life provides quite a few opportunities for me to deload when I’m on the road or have family visiting, etc, so I don’t schedule them quite as strictly as I used to.

A note on deloading:  Make sure it actually is a break.  One of the common traps, and a mistake I used to make with myself and clients, is to swap out your heavy lifting for a week of kicking your ass with conditioning, bodyweight, etc.  This will work a bit as it does provide some mental relief, but by adding in a brand new training stimulus, especially a hard one, all you’re doing is adding more (if different) stress.  That greatly reduces the restorative powers of a deload.  You’re better off sticking with a similar program, just lighter and with less volume, or even taking some days off.

3.  Increase your recovery capacity.

Rather than focusing on the faucet, another approach is to increase the size of your drain and allow you to handle the extra workload that’s making you plateau.  There are a variety of options here but they’ll all center around increasing your recovery ability.

Three methods of increasing your recovery capacity that we like at Relentless are increasing (or improving) nutrition, increasing (or improving) sleep, and performing recovery or “feeder” workouts.

If you eat more or better, you’ll recover better.  This obviously can cause some weight and size increase, which may or may not be appropriate for your goals.

If you sleep more or better, you’ll recover and heal better.  Sleep more, take naps, reduce the light in your room, fix that old fucked-up mattress, lay off the caffeine, just do whatever you need to do to get better Z’s.

Feeder workouts are a different animal than your normal training sessions.  These are LIGHT workouts designed to bring fresh blood to your muscles, clear out waste materials, and have a restorative effect.  They are NOT moderate-to-hard workouts, which are just going to beat you down even more.  The goal is not to improve to harder recovery workouts, the goal is to finish the workout feeling way better than when you started.

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