April 11, 2014
How to Avoid a Plateau

Plateaus are annoying. You have committed to exercising and eating well. In the beginning your strength was increasing quickly, your endurance was getting much better, and the weight was falling off. However, as you kept going, your results seemed to come a bit slower. Have you noticed this? In this chat, we will talk about two separate plateaus, strength plateaus and weight plateaus, and how to avoid them.

A strength plateau is when you keep exercising and lifting weights, but you just can't get any stronger. Typically, this is seen at two points in one's lifting experience: when they just start, and after they have been lifting for months. When you first start exercising, your body is out of shape, and your muscles don't know how to work efficiently. They are weak and lack that "tone" you long for. When you start exercising, your strength increases pretty quickly. In the first 4 weeks you will get a lot stronger. These strength gains are due to your neurological plasticity, and not because your muscles are getting bigger. Muscle is expensive tissue. It takes a lot to grow, develop, and maintain muscle mass. Instead of having to add muscle every time you need to make a strength adaptation, your brain just figures out how to make your muscles work more efficiently. When you flex a muscle, it squeezes due to firing signals from your brain. In muscles that are out of shape the brain sends fewer signals to them. If these muscles were to do a pushup, the brain would send this signal: fire............... fire............... fire................ But well conditioned muscles receive more signals from the brain in the same amount of time. With training, your brain learns to send this signal: This ability of your brain to change it's firing pattern helps you to change your strength without needing to build expensive muscle. However, if you want to build muscle, you have to keep lifting. This neurological adaptation tops out after about 4 weeks. This initial plateau is exactly at that point: you have made great neurological adaptations, but they have stopped and now your body has to make different changes. When you hit that point, just keep lifting.

The second strength plateau is after you have been lifting for awhile but your strength gains just aren't coming as fast as they used to. There are a number of reasons for this, but mainly it is from not varying your workout. If all you ever do is 3 sets of 15 reps, then your body will adapt to that and will refuse to change past that point. In order to create continuous improvements, you must vary your workouts through different training phases. One simple way to do this is to change it up every month. For an entire month, do 3 sets of 15 on every lift. On month two, increase your weight and do a 4x10 on everything you do. Month 3 could be a 5x8, and on month 4 you could take it back up to the 3x15 plan. This will help your body adapt to one stimulus before changing it up and forcing it to adapt to a different stimulus.

Eventually, you will come close to your genetic ceiling, and no matter what you do, your results will really slow down. But you can still make incredible changes and incredible gains by varying your routine.

On the weight front, this is a little different topic. Outliers aside (there are some hormonal situations which we will ignore, as they are rare), a plateau in weight is really just the obedience of our bodies to a caloric balance. If you are not losing weight, then the calories exiting your body are the same number that are entering your body. There is no way around this. If you find yourself stuck at a particular weight, get back to tracking your meals, being consistent with your exercise, and minding your sleep and stress. If your weight is not moving, it is most likely one or more of these things needs to be modified.

Keep after it!

Written by Clark Masterson

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