This scenario describes what so many people fear: the dreaded “plateau.” The moment when your body begins to adapt to the lifestyle that started the gradual process towards reaching your goals in the first place. The hard work that had once been enough to achieve the desired results is no longer working.
What is happening within your body that makes it so much harder to see continued progress and the number on the scale move?
The human body is always trying to be more efficient, to adapt to our current stresses and lifestyle, and to maintain perfect homeostasis. This means that the more the body experiences a particular stimulus, the less benefit the body reaps over time as it adapts, grows stronger, and gets more proficient at responding to the perceived stress. This is actually a great thing as your body is responding in the way that God designed! Your body is becoming more capable of performing under increased stress/loads, which is making you even more resilient. But what can you do to break free of stalling progress?
What is Progressive Overload?
This is where progressive overload comes into play and performs a vital role in ensuring that you don’t get stuck in a major rut when pursuing your goals. For example, jogging half a mile a day will soon get easier and easier over time as your body and metabolism adapts to that particular stimuli. Therefore, jogging the same distance every day will begin to stop achieving the benefits of increased endurance, improved cardiovascular health, caloric expenditure, weight loss, etc.
To continue reaping these benefits and progressing, you will need to change the stimuli so that the body does not recognize it. For example, you may manipulate one or two exercise variables by increasing your jogging distance, intensity, or weekly frequency to force your body to adapt and get stronger. You will have to go above and beyond your regular routine as this will ensure a higher caloric burn and revved metabolic speed.
Plateaus are also common in strength training. If you have been lifting the same amount of weight in the same amount of sets for quite some time without any sort of change, your body will eventually build enough lean muscle tissue to support that same workload without fatiguing or breaking down as rapidly. This is a great thing! You are getting stronger, building a faster metabolism, and encouraging optimal cellular activity. However, you cannot stop there if you wish to continue progressing.
Again, you need to change the stimuli by increasing the amount of weight, the amount of sets or repetitions, or the tempo at which you are moving through the exercise. Alternately, you can try switching up your workout routine: performing your exercises in a different order or completely replacing an exercise with another that requires more skill and muscle utilization to perform. These types of changes ensure that your muscles are taxed a bit more than normal meaning they have to work harder to rebuild and repair, thus increasing caloric burn and your metabolic rate.
Another aspect of breaking through a plateau could be your nutrition. Being in a slight caloric deficit could initially result in pounds lost on the scale, but as your metabolism slowly adapts to fewer consumed calories, a little higher caloric deficit might be required to encourage more weight loss.
Yet again, a different or more intense stimuli is needed to “jump start” your results. You might consider adding a few days of high intensity interval training or “HIIT” to the end of your strength training sessions. HIIT intervals are short bursts of high intensity aerobic activity (such as sprinting) followed by a longer period of low intensity aerobic activity (such as walking). You could also simply monitor your daily movement through an activity tracker to ensure that you are increasing your movement outside of your scheduled exercise routine.
All of these examples would lead to increased caloric expenditure and metabolic conditioning to ensure your body is being sufficiently challenged and burning a higher number of calories per day.
Just a Little Tweak…
So there’s no need to be afraid of the dreaded “plateau!” Even the tiniest of tweaks could be more than enough to get you progressing again!
Take a look at your current routine, daily nutritional habits, and lifestyle to determine where you can make some adjustments. Add a bit of intensity to your current workout routine. Monitor your caloric intake to ensure you are in an optimal caloric deficit. Track your daily steps to increase your overall movement.
Challenge yourself! Set new SMART goals to keep yourself on track, and once again begin to see progress towards your goals. You will soon discover that the dreaded plateau is not actually something to be feared, but a sign that your body is ready for MORE!
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Jesse Wirges works at Christian Care Ministry and is a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and WellCoaches of America Certified Health and Wellness Coach. She obtained her bachelor’s degrees in Biblical Theology and Exercise Science from Grace University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She has worked in both a typical gym as well as clinical settings with geriatric, post-surgical rehabilitation, youth, and general population patients. She is very passionate about holistic health and strives to help individuals navigate nutrition and exercise by promoting God-honoring, balanced lifestyles. She has a passion for the mountains and pursues several outdoor activities in her free time including hiking, rock climbing, kayaking, skiing, snowshoeing, and backpacking.