We’ve all been there.. We get settled in a routine and have finally been seeing great results, then BAM, we hit a wall and we can’t seem to break through it. This rut that many of us get stuck in is called a plateau. Our bodies have gotten used to the stressors that we have been placing on it (exercise) and have found a way to maintain our current level. So where do we go from here? We find new stressors! This basically means that we have to find another way of doing things.
Think of your workout journey as a road trip. Is it fun to drive down the highway for hours at a time, or would you rather take the scenic back roads and explore and experience all the new places that you are driving through? I know I prefer the scenic route. When we are on the highway, it is easy to pop your car into cruise control and kick back. Well, essentially, our bodies work the same way. It gets bored quickly. If you stick with the same routine, your body will find cruise control and you will be stuck in that rut. However, if you keep things interesting by changing your scenery, aka mixing up your work outs, then your body will not be able to get used to the same routine and will therefore be forced into continuing to adapt. This is where we see growth.
Whether you are trying to gain lean mass, lose fat, or increase your cardio capacity, this concept applies. We’ll start with typical weight training plateaus. Many recreational lifters find themselves falling back on the first plan that bulked them up. The problem is that in order to continue growing, you need to continue changing. There are many easy concepts you can use to vary your workouts, aside from changing your rep ranges like many periodization programs call for. The first concept is called dropsets. Dropsets are performed on your last set of an exercise, where you drop about 25% of the weight and then perform reps to failure. This is a quick and easy way to add a little extra volume to your workout, not to mention getting a nice pump. A variation of this is called a rest-pause set. Again, this is applied on the last set of an exercise. After you complete the desired number of reps on your last set, you rest for 15 seconds, then continue the exercise to failure. Pre-exhaust is another fun concept to try. This is a good one on a higher rep day. Lets use chest day as an example. Instead of starting with your heaviest lifts, like the bench press, you start backwards. Cable flyes is a good first choice. From there you could move on to incline dumbbell flyes superset with pushups. Then you transition back into those heavier lifts such as barbell bench presses. These are just a few of the many plateau busters you can use to put a little variety into your routine and force your body to continue adapting.
Weight training isn’t the only place we find ourselves stuck in plateaus with. Cardio also presents an issue. Runners often get stuck in ruts where they can’t seem to stretch out the length of their runs, or get their times down for a specific distance. This is most often the result of a lack of variety in their running routine. I can almost guarantee that all they do is run and attempt to increase the distance each time. While this will be effective for a while, your body will get used to it. You need to change the rate at which you run. Intervals are a great way to mix things up. Jog for 100 yards then sprint for 100 yards. If you have trouble judging distance, use time instead. Jog for 30 seconds then sprint for 30 seconds. Practice shorter distances at a faster pace (run 2 miles instead of 5 but try to run faster than you normally do). Then try to add a couple extra miles but go a little slower on your next training day.
The bottom line is that our bodies are incredible. The human body was made to adapt, and it does so very efficiently. This can work for us, or against us. We can either introduce new and exciting stressors to our bodies and have them adapt into the physiques of our dreams, or we can continue the same monotonous routine over and over and allow our bodies to get used to them and adapt in a way that maintains our current state. Variety is key! It not only keeps things fun, it keeps us moving forward.