What is the dreaded plateau?
It’s part of the body’s natural process to hit a plateau because it’s always trying to regulate itself. Its regulated state is called homeostasis. Your body is a creature of habit, but it doesn’t care whether those habits are bad or good. The more you do something to enact change, the more it adapts and tries to limit that change. This can be a good thing because less stress is placed on the body. But it’s a bad thing if you’re unhealthy because that is the state your body is willing to call homeostasis. If your goals are to change your body, you’ll want to keep that adaptive stress high until you’re fit and healthy.Fitness trainers refer to the above-mentioned process as the adaptive phase of training, and any good fitness program is designed around it. The time it takes your body to adapt to something new varies by activity, your fitness level, and the effort you put into the endeavor. This process can take as little as 2 weeks to more than 12 weeks. In general, the fitter you are, the quicker your body adapts to a new workout routine.
To get the most out of an exercise program, you need to break habits from time to time. This is why most training programs are broken up into phases or blocks that generally look something like this:
Foundation phase: building base fitness—the time this takes varies per individual.
Adaptive phase: learning to master the movements or cadence of a new workout program—takes between 1 and 12 weeks.
Growth or Mastery phase: once mastered, your body has a limited time to make accelerated performance gains—generally 1 to 4 weeks.
Recovery phase: when results level off, your body needs to recover from the stresses of hard training—generally 1 to 4 weeks.Most athletes train in 4- to 6-week blocks; during this time, they work on one energy system at a time. Each block is broken down into the above-listed phases. As each phase is mastered, the body begins to plateau, which is a signal to begin a recovery phase and move into the next training block.
If you graph the desired results of your exercise program, the line should look like a ski slope (heading up or down depending on your goals) because you’re making rapid changes. Once your body gets good (or efficient) at these exercises, they don’t cause as much trauma, and you begin to get less effect out of the same program. The “ski slope” begins to level off and starts to resemble a plateau. If this program is continued as such, the line will go completely flat, or even start to dip the other way because of overuse.A good exercise program is designed to keep your graph looking like a ski slope by altering what you do regularly. Let’s use a comparison of Power 90 and P90X as an example of how two programs might look. Power 90 is an introductory program and P90X is an advanced program. They both follow similar patterns but the timing of each is different.
Phase II: Adaptive phase. This is where the biggest changes in the programs occur. Power 90 doesn’t change much because it may take an untrained individual up to 12 weeks to adapt. At the P90X level, adaptations are very quick and will happen in 1 to 2 weeks.
Phase III: Mastery or Growth phase. This is the most intense period of training. Once the body adapts to exercise, there is a short window wherein very rapid improvement occurs.
Phase IV: Recovery phase. Exercise intensity is reduced to allow microtrauma to heal. If timed correctly, fitness improves during this phase, until the body is recharged and ready to begin Phase II again. If done for too long, Phase I should be repeated. The recovery phase, which can also be called a transition phase, is a major part of P90X. Power 90, due to the variable adaptive phase, doesn’t have a recovery phase built in.
Plateau: occurs when Phase III is extended too long.
Most sound fitness programs follow a similar plan. This alone does not keep plateaus from occurring. They affect everyone who engages in any exercise program, from couch potato to Olympian. In fact, the more finely tuned your body is, the harder it is to avoid plateaus, mainly because there is less margin of error to play with. But even though they are a natural part of the process, it does not mean that you have to give in to them. At some point along your fitness path, you are going to encounter a plateau. Here are 5 tips to help you snap out of it:
- Slim Series: Cool It Off!, Tony Horton’s 10 Minute Trainer Yoga Flex, or some easy cardio, yoga, and/or stretching workout. Another option would be to lower your workout weight or pick easier workouts. Gauge this so that you finish workouts feeling refreshed rather than knackered. When your energy level returns, launch back into your original program, or a more difficult one, harder than you did before. Back off. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t exercise; it just means that if you ease up a bit, you’ll likely recover and get stronger. Oftentimes your body is over trained, exhausted, and just in need of a break. If you are finding it suddenly difficult to get through a workout that was easy the week before, this is most likely the case. You should cut down on your intensity and focus on technique and flexibility. It’s a perfect time for a recovery-specific workout like
- Turn it up a notch. The antithesis of backing off, because a plateau may also happen when you’re purely bored and/or listless. The easiest way to increase intensity is by adding resistance. Change bands or add weight so that you start failing at around 6 to 8 reps on all of the exercises, which changes the energy system you’re using. This added intensity will force your body to adapt and turn that improvement line skyward again. You’ll know if this was the right tactic in one of two workouts because you’ll either respond by feeling energized or you’ll hardly be able to finish the workout.
- sign up for a free account and check the message boards or join the club. Streamline your diet. Most of our diets could always use a little improvement. If you’ve been giving yourself little rewards for a job well done (a good idea in general), then it’s time to stop. Try a super-strict week wherein you do everything perfect. If you don’t have a great example—like the P90X diet—
- Add some morning cardio. Twenty minutes or more of easy- to moderate-level cardio in the morning on an empty stomach can help get your metabolism steamrolling again. You can train your body to more efficiently use stored fat as fuel, and this is one of the easiest ways to do it.
- Add or subtract 500 calories per day. If everything else seems fine and you’re at wits’ end, then try this. Your diet might just be miscalculated and you could be under- or overfeeding yourself. This is common, especially as you get fitter, because your body composition changes, which is why adding calories is one of the main ways our members kick themselves off of plateaus. Five hundred calories per day works out to 3,500 per week, which equates to a pound. Keep in mind that this will only work if you are eating proper nutrients. If not, try #3 first, and then try altering the number of calories you’re eating.