We’ve all been there at some point, for the last few weeks training just hasn’t felt right, you’ve been consistent, eaten well and tried to push your body each session, however things just aren’t improving in the way you’d like. You’ve hit the dreaded plateau and you don’t know how to get out of it! There are many reasons why people plateau, and often it is not simply that we have reached our full genetic potential. Here we will outline some common areas to focus on to help you break through plateaus and take your training, physique and performance to the next step.
First up we want to assess our training volume, whether this is lifting weights in the gym or miles on the road, at some point our training volume will (assuming we are increasing it incrementally each week) reach a point where we cannot recover quickly enough. The temptation for most people when they hit a plateau is to try and push harder in their training and not do what is often required and take some time away!
By simply resting for a week or two the body can recover and adapt fully to the training stress and then we can simply pick up where we left off, but realistically with training volumes a few weeks previous to our last training session. This is a governing principle of periodisation and all progressive training programs will reach this point and should be factored into a program.
If at this point terms like ‘training progression’ don’t really mean that much, or are something that you have not followed then this is probably the second reason why you have plateaued. The most important way to make progress is to firstly find a training structure that fits in with your goals. Secondly, sticking to that training structure and to increase each week the amount of training we are doing – this could be miles or intensity in running/cycling/rowing or it could by increasing reps, sets and load in weight training… there are hundreds of ways to increase training volume each week. Use those tools to break through plateaus in one dimension of training with manipulation of other training variable.
One of the biggest issues I see personally with peoples training is that although they are doing the above; following an appropriate training structure and trying to progress training volume, is that they often do not increase volume with small enough increments to allow the body to recover, adapt and progress.
When we first start training we can get away with bigger jumps in our training volume, for example we might increase our bench press by 5kg a side and that not feel too heavy. However, at a tipping point we might need to consider micro-loading. It may seem a bit unnecessary, but adding 0.25kg per side each week will often trigger unexpected results. Both physically and psychologically you can handle that increase in load, so use that to your advantage, 0.5kg a week may not seem a lot, but in ten weeks that’s 5kg, and assuming we did 10 reps with that weight that’s an increase in training load of 50kg (5×10), enough to stimulate some muscle growth for sure and is something I have personally used to great effect to add 25kg to my ‘poverty’ bench press in as little as 6 months!
So, you’ve tried all of the above and things are still not happening, where to next? Well we still have loads of options. Let’s start with nutrition. Does your nutrition align with your goals? Are you eating enough quality protein to support your recovery? Are you fuelling your training correctly? The impact of focusing on specific nutritional requirements for a given goal is often understated. Not only do we need to eat right, we also, in all probability, need to progress our nutrition in a similar way to our training, adding in food as our training volume increases supporting that recovery and adaptation we crave… if you’re eating in the same way as you did 10 weeks ago and your training initially had progressed but has now plateaued, what do you think the problem might be?!
At some point though we will want to consider adding in supplementation, particularly if we require large amounts of specific macronutrients to fuel our performance, recovery and muscle growth that can be difficult to get form food alone. This is where quality protein (such as Pure Whey Protein™ or PeptoPro®) can come into play to help meet protein demands, casein to fuel recovery overnight and even things like carbohydrate powders (Vitargo®, Dextrose, Waxy Maize Starch, Highly Branched Cluster Dextrin etc.) can help take on board added carbohydrate to fuel performance and recovery… sugars can serve a very important purpose for this reason!
There are also several supplements such as Creatine, Beta Alanine and Carnitine, which are available as individual supplements and often combined with caffeine in pre-workouts that can help support your performance and break through training plateaus if you are not already using them!
Sleep & Stress
There are of course many other factors that can impact on progress, things like poor quality sleep and day to day stress well can all impact severely on our training and recovery if we do not take the appropriate steps to make sure these are kept in order!
Take home message
This may seem a lot of ‘data’ to figure out what’s going on, but the best tool in all of this is a training log book. Do not simply log just your training, note things like sleep quality, how many meals you’ve eaten that day are there any things going on physically or mentally that are potentially impacting you or have you done anything different that day that has impacted on performance both positively or negatively. Yes this is a little bit time consuming in the short term, but using this data to figure out why you’re hitting plateaus and what you tried to overcome them will save you a whole lot of stagnation and unwanted stress in the future!