Overcoming Training Plateaus

James Nightingale

Head of Exercise Science at Inspire Health Services

Anyone starting an exercise or health program usually sees positive results quite quickly - whether that be more energy, weight loss, improved strength or possibly just enjoying their lifestyle more! After a time however, whether that be a few weeks, years or months, eventually progress slows and results plateau.

Athletes racing on a track - sports performance

This is an issue for maintaining a healthy lifestyle and exercise routine, as a key part of maintaining training consistency (which is a MUST to continue to see the benefits of it), is relative progress.

Why progression is key

How people feel is heavily based on where they are at today, as compared to where they were at a past point in time - yesterday, last week, last year, ten years ago.

If they feel they are currently "behind" where they were in the past, this is a very quick killer of motivation, consistency and eventually health as the good habits die out and fade back into the rush of life.

I work within an allied health clinic which sees over thirty thousand sessions through the door for exercise alone each year, working in a team of exercise scientists and physiologists, strength and rehab coaches, physiotherapists and dietitians. I have also run programs across three different sporting codes from the grassroots to the professional level of sport. The reason I say this is that across this time I have seen the above in action every day, both in my own client base and with colleagues, family and friends also (not to mention my own training!).

Why do we plateau?

The single biggest factor that leads to a plateau of results is the lack of a progressive, structured and periodised plan based on your individual needs, considering your body, work situation, home environment and individual goals.

weight lifter at a gym training for sports performance

A fantastic example of this is those who purely use classes as their primary form of exercise. This works wonders for the short term, as the stimulus is something new and the body adapts. However, due to the constraints of a class environment, it is too difficult to progress over time (duration is stuck, frequency is somewhat fixed (anymore than 3-4/wk will potentially lead to injury or soreness), intensity is hard to progress as the body adapts and what was once hard is now normal). Eventually, even though you haven't changed anything, what once felt so good is now not doing as much, if anything to push you forward, which is an issue over the long term as identified above - motivation eventually drops, followed by consistency.

woman stretching at a gym for health

Another example is bodyweight training - it works wonders for a time as your body is exposed to new and different movement patterns, strength and stability demands, however after a while you adapt to your own bodyweight. Without progressing in another area (ie you can't make yourself weigh anymore!) results slow down and training plateaus.

Classes, bodyweight circuits, running, whatever is enjoyable for your personal fitness goals and taste, are all fantastic tools which can be used very effectively, but without an overall holistic plan fitting each component into the right place, and ideally some type of goal and person specific semi-regular testing, results plateauing is inevitable.

How to overcome a plateau

Three easy things that may be simple to look at with your own current program to identify sources (or potentially future sources) of plateau are the following:

  1. Variation. When was the last time you changed the routine? What area was this in – more/less workouts, higher/lower intensity, longer/shorter duration of sessions, increased/decreased number of exercises, sets, reps, rest periods, tempo, intervals vs long distance etc.

  2. Consistency. How stable has your routine been? The body takes time to adapt. If you ALWAYS change the stress each week, it will never get the chance to properly adapt, meaning you see less results.

  3. Intent. How excited are you about what you are doing? Do you have a goal that pulls you towards it, or do you have to push yourself? Do you even have a goal?? To get the most out of anything you really do need to attack it with enjoyment and excitement more often than not!

sports training endurance runner

Investing the time, money and effort into your own personal coach is one way to minimise the risk of this problem occuring, which really is saving a lot more time, money or effort later on if you let things slip and have to work twice as hard to get them back!

Finding a quality coach is key, I'd advise not to try and be this for yourself - the external perspective can be invaluable. The knowledge required to keep all areas progressing over a long period of time is specialised and a product of both extensive theoretical education (ie university) and professional experience.

If you are going to take anything away from this article, remember the key problem - motivation and consistency come from progress over a period of time, and as soon as this stalls, it is human psychology to stall with it before long! Take action if this sounds like you, and invest in your future health now before the price of change outweighs the price of staying the same : )

James works as an exercise scientist in West End, Brisbane. He has worked in both elite and junior sports, helping clients to achieve health and fitness goals they originally never thought possible. I personally train with James and would recommend him to anyone wanting to learn about exercise science whilst improving performance. You can learn more about James by following @jn_inspirehealth on instagram or contacting him on 0435 572 750 or james.nightingale@inspirehealthservices.com.au.