The Dreaded Fitness Plateau and What To Do About It!

Many of us exercise on a regular basis and we soon become comfortable with the same exercise routine. You know, the one that comes so naturally that you don’t even have to think about what you’re doing. But is your standard routine leading to a fitness plateau? Once the body becomes used to running a few kilometres each day, is it basically the same as doing no exercise?

One of best things about the human body is its resilience and its ability to adapt to physical demands like exercise training. Our bones, tendons, muscles, heart and even lungs, will adapt to whatever stress is exposed to it. This means if you undertake exercise that’s physically challenging, your body will adapt to this stress to ensure the same activity feels slightly easier in the future (although this may not always seem the case).

Adaptation is both a gift and a curse because if you’ve ever been bedridden due to a major illness, or missed a few weeks of training, you’ll be familiar with the loss of fitness associated with reduced exposure to exercise.

The thing is, if we keep on with the same exercise regime, we’ll maintain the current gains in fitness, but further gains will diminish and we’ll eventually reach the dreaded fitness plateau. These adaptive responses are called the “training effect” and to keep adding muscle, you’ll have to eventually increase the weights you’re lifting.

The training effect can only occur when adequate stimulus (exercise stress) is applied to the body and sufficient recovery is allowed and muscle is a perfect example of this. Small micro-tears in the muscle are experienced when you lift a heavier weight than you normally would and immediately after training, your body gets to work to heal the “damage” and rebuilds the muscle so it’s strong enough to more easily cope with those demands in the future.

Progressively increasing load and adding variation are two important progression strategies to help ensure fitness gains are realised. Progressive overload refers to frequent yet small increases in stress. If stress is increased too rapidly or with insufficient rest, you can risk overtraining and injury. So, what’s the solution to preventing a fitness plateau?

Increase your intensity
When setting out on a walk a few months ago, you may have noticed your breathing was rapid but you could carry on a conversation (moderate intensity) or very rapid breathing where talking was more difficult (vigorous intensity). But now, you can walk the same route without a noticeable change in your breathing (light intensity). These are important cues to show that you’re now fitter. If the time it takes you to do the same route remains the same, you’re no longer applying the same stress (moderate or vigorous intensity exercise).

Intensity is important. To move beyond a plateau, you will need to walk or jog faster or introduce regular short bouts of higher intensity work (e.g run for thirty seconds or so every few minutes) so you’re exercising at a moderate to vigorous intensity.

Train for longer
Your endurance performance can be influenced by the amount of time you spend completing your desired activity. You might decide that one of your cycling or running sessions each week becomes a slightly longer one. Increasing all of your endurance workouts during the week is not recommended, as you might overdo it and injure yourself. It’s suggested to increase your running distance by no more than 10% and certainly no more than 30% per week to move beyond a plateau without increasing the risk of injury.

Exercise more often
Increasing how often you train each week can help to move beyond a fitness plateau. For example, increasing the total amount of weight lifted each week (total weekly volume) in the gym should translate to increased strength and muscle size.

Change the order of your exercises
Most of us are limited for time and cram both aerobic and resistance exercise into the same session, but this may cause an interference effect, resulting in fewer gains in muscle strength or size. One strategy to reduce this effect is to separate most of your aerobic (running, cycling, rowing, swimming) exercise from your resistance training sessions by at least six hours. Alternatively, you can limit combined aerobic and resistance exercise sessions to three or less per week.

Preventing a fitness plateau can be tricky, but listen carefully and your body will give you clues along the way. Be mindful that sleep, good nutrition, flexibility, and recovery days are just as important for progressing your fitness as the most challenging session you do in the gym or on the road this week.